Vikram slowly opened his eyes as beams of sunlight fell upon him. His head felt sore as he moved and his limbs did not seem to move at his will. Memories of what happened flashed in his mind and he realized he should have reached the forest temple to prevent the worst and now he is lying at a place beyond his recognition. With difficulty, he propped himself up and turned around. An unkempt tramp sat behind him crushing some leaves. The tramp looked at him sensing his movements.
"You've finally recovered!" The tramp exclaimed, momentarily stopping his work.
Vikram realised that the stranger had applied a leaf paste to the wound in his head and at places on his body which withstood injuries. He feebly smiled despite pain and folded his hands in gratitude.
"I cannot express my gratitude in words, noble sir. A thousand salutations to The God of Gods, Narayana who saved me from death. I.. "
"Now that's unfair, young man, I saved your life and you thank some non existent Narayana for it. Of course, unfairness is a trait of most of you believers." The tramp sighed and drank from his pouch.
Vikram realised the tramp did not believe in the Lord Narayana. "Sir, the God of Gods is the protector of all. I strongly feel it is by his grace that you passed the way and my life got saved."
The tramp stared indignantly. "Look young man, I move by my will and not by that of an imaginary entity that sleeps on a serpent in a sea of milk." The he started laughing in a fit. "Have people thought about a serpent which survives in a sea of milk? And does your Narayana drink milk the whole day? Seriously, are people so deluded?"
Vikram realised the tramp was even drunk. He felt annoyed beyond measure. But he had no heart to be harsh to his benefactor. " You are free to have your views. Do accept my humble gratitude for saving me. I see that you have toiled to heal my wounds. We are taught to treat the one who treats us, as God. "
"Now spare me of this, I am not God." The tramp again burst into laughter as he sipped his drink.
Vikram stared at him for a few moments and made a move to stand up. "I need to take leave now sir. Our discussion leads us nowhere and I am needed elsewhere."
A sharp pain shot in his leg and he landed back on the hard ground, groaning. The tramp hurried over to him and tended to his leg. "You seem to have sprained your leg. You can't go far with this."
"Oh God of all Gods!! Why did you have to save me if I could not go to save my people."
"There you go again! Call out to him who sleeps on a serpent in a sea of milk to save your people. He must be endowed with special sleeping powers I think. Let me see if my medicinal paste can relieve you of your pain." The tramp laughed.
Vikram realized that there was little he could do with a sprained leg. The pain was unbearable at times. He mutely watched his companion make the medicinal paste. When he was done, the tramp came up to him and knelt to tend to his leg. To forget the pain, Vikram continued the conversation. "Good sir,my people have always walked on the path of Dharma. The God of Gods will surely save them. But its my duty to stand by them in their hour of need. If I can't do that, my life ceases to have any meaning and I shall be doomed to hell."
The reply was again a loud guffaw. "You believers never cease to amuse me. So you are scared of this 'hell'. What are you afraid of? Boiling oil being poured into your throat?"
"This life itself is far too burdensome than hell if I fail in my duty. I am not afraid of any hell." Vikram retorted.
The tramp continued to apply the paste thoroughly. "So young man, there is this hillarious fable I heard from another deluded believer. It was about this good for nothing fellow called ajAmiLa, who in my view did not waste his life in worthless rituals. But his way of life is scorned by all the believers. So I guess the pressure got onto him in old age and so he ended up uttering Narayan before his death. Now comes the best part. The messengers of your Narayana came and saved his atma from the hell."
The tramp continued, "I see you are much better than ajAmiLa by the standards of believers. You believed you too would be saved from hell. Won't you?"
Vikram looked at him in despair. "Do you get any pleasure in mocking at the Glory of Lord?"
"No, I am just endowed with superior intelligence not to treat a fable as a scripture. Does your leg still hurt. I suggest you drink this drink. It will make the pain far more bearable. Now, dont look at me so indignantly. Its an intoxicating drink. But I am only giving you enough to relieve yourself."
Vikram could do anything in the world to reach Anagha as soon as possible. He wordlessly drank the potion.
"So, you did not answer my question. Won't your Narayana save you as he saved ajAmILa?" the tramp prodded him.
Vikram found the argument a good way to forget the pain, though it disgusted him to take the help of an non believer who mocked at the God of Gods.
"Well sir, The God of Gods might save me. Or he might not. But that is not what worries me. I can't forgive myself if I cannot reach my princess in time. If I fail, this life is a living hell which is a hundred times more horrible than the hell itself, for I cannot forgive myself."
"Now, this gets interesting young man. So you consider it more important to be right as your self deems than how your God deems? Let me support your leg with this strong twig. The pain shall start subsiding soon and you might be able to walk better."
Vikram nodded in gratitude. "How can any God forgive me when I can't forgive myself."
"Now lad, your self is greater than God?" The tramp asked with an amused expression.
"My dharma is greater than anything to me. Its my dharma to save the princess of Anagha right now. And I need to reach the forest temple at the northwest of the fort soon."
"Then there is something to make you happier. We are less than a yojana away from your temple. Can you stand up and try walking?" The tramp extended his hand to support Vikram.
Vikram smiled with relief, extending his hand. The medicine and the potion were showing effect. He could stand up and walk with lesser pain.
"I can walk with you for a while. I am headed to the Kingdom of Matsya. You can take more medicine or this nectar if it makes you feel better."
Vikram started to walk supported now and then by his benefactor. "For all your scorn against God, I must say you have a noble heart sir."
"What did you think of we non believers? Monsters who kill others?" The tramp retorted in mock indignation.
"Beg your pardon, great soul. Yes the only non believer I heard of was Hiranyakashipu. He tirtured his son who was Devoted to Narayana and the Lord came down to save his devotee again. He emerged out of a pillar. So admit my bias."
"Thats a great news! So are there pillars in the palace of your princess?"
Vikram heard another chuckle. He stopped moving and turned decisively towards his companion.
"Look, Non believer, What you call as 'fables' are scriptures for people like me because of the way we interpret it. Prahlada stood against his adhaarmi father who was wreaking havoc with his tyranny. He was not deterred by the countless dangers he had to face. When the dance of Adharma reached its zenith, the Lord manifested to save Dharma. Here, he manifested from the pillar. But what is more important is that he manifested. If you want to stick to pillars and sea of milk, then very well. But we believers too are endowed with superior wisdom to absorb philosophy from the 'fable' as you call it. " Vikram spoke like the one possessed.
"Alright you win." The tramp sighed. "You take pride, I shall have fun." He muttered under his breathe, hiding a smile.
"I heard you Noble Sir." Vikram spoke, starting to move forward.
"Now, you better save your energies for what you have embarked on. Arguing with me might take ages and you won't find yourself going anywhere. You said your Dharma is important to you right?"
Vikram smiled in return. "Yes, it is. I was only explaining what gives the devotees hope when there is no hope. It is the faith that the God of Gods sees that Dharma prevails. We are proud to fight till the end while not worrying about the result. I firmly believe in the victory of Dharma. But my undeterred industry is what gives me the sense of fulfillment."
"So, son, doesn't it deter you that after all your efforts, you might fail in the attempt. Just remember, you are still weak and can't really fight as you think you will. You also might be outnumbered. I don't mean to discourage you. But in all wisdom, you might be walking to your death."
"If death offers me the fulfillment of having lived for Dharma, then so be it. If destiny decides to assign me, more years of standing by dharma, then I welcome that too. But in all my wisdom, I prefer not to worry myself with outcomes when I have a calling duty."
The tramp had a wide smile in reply. It was difficult to make out whether he was appreciative or still cynical.
"Are you amused or impressed?" Vikram asked openly.
"Frankly young lad, I am equally amused by the fantasy you've developed about your "God of Gods". But your commitment does impress me. This is not common among the lot of believers I happen to accost. Many of them stay wedded to baseless equations, wasting their time and resources on rituals which do not make any sense. I can state without hesitation that Dharma cannot flourish on the shoulders of such weaklings."
Vikram replied thoughtfully. "I do not know whom you have accosted in your past. Fraud and immaturity does exist among many. But you cannot dismiss the devotion of the pure-hearted. I was told by the learned that blessed are those lives which spread the Glory of the God of Gods with undeterred faith. They see the Lord of this universe in every aspect of this universe. They treat every creature as an embodiment of divinity and treat the extremes of life with equanimity. Each ritual they follow which you call as meaningless has a bearing on one's responsibility towards this universe.
"For all your knowledge, lad, how many are even aware of the responsibility they have towards this universe?" The tramp questioned.
"Noble sir, this awareness is present only among those who are fortunate to have had the care of the wise and the guidance of the learned. In an empire where Dharma flourishes, the learned seers demystify the way of the God of Gods and impart their knowledge to others and guide the rest in the path of Dharma. Thus, the society as a whole stands for Dharma. Adharma seeks to take advantage of weaknesses and upsets this balance and one loses his connect with this universe. But time and again, The God of Gods has descended to establish Dharma by supporting those who stand by it."
"There again, your undeterred faith is appreciable as much as it amuses me."
The tramp continued, "Son, I am endowed with a talent to recognize herbs that can heal wounds and cure diseases. My talent was recognized and nurtured by a guru who was adept in the field of medicine. I have always striven and achieved excellence and even today continue to excel myself. I connect myself to this universe by helping those in need with my knowledge of herbs. This fills my life with the sense of fulfillment. God or no God does not deter me from my path of dharma. I do not need a God to oversee me or come to my 'rescue'. I recognize my dharma and stand by it without involving any "God' or undue expectations from non existent entities. You know where I excel the believers? It is in the face of adversity. When circumstances turn hostile, I stay focussed on giving my best. Nothing can put my faith to test as my faith is about my effort and commitment and nothing else."
The duo reached a clearing from where the road was relatively smoother. The effect of the herbs also showed on Vikram as he increased his pace, now needed much less support.
They continued the journey after a short rest and Vikram was able to walk by himself as they neared the destination. He turned to the tramp with a grateful salutation.
"Accept my gratitude, learned one. I should take leave now. Today your Dharma has helped me stand by mine. Pray, please continue being connected to this universe in your own way. Noble sir. In all my humble knowledge, I can say that God of Gods does not mind. He does not mind your faith as long as you stand by Dharma."
The tramp shifted his bag to his right shoulder and smiled. "Farewell Son. I am indeed pleased that you are steadfast on the path of Dharma and don't put your commitment to test for thats all what matters. About the rest.." He winked and smiled "God does not mind. Does he?"