Of Gurus, Queens, Madness and Veils
There is a story in “The Sikh Religion” by Max Arthur Macauliffe about a Raja from Haripur who came to Goindwal during the reign of Guru Amar Das. He brought his queens with him for the visit. History records a particular event that happened with one of the Raja’s queens. Let me share Macauliffe’s telling (with some slight changes in verb tense to make it easier on the eye):
“Sawan Mal (one of the Guru’s Sikhs) went in advance to the Guru to announce the Raja’s arrival. The Guru said, ‘Let His Highness come by all means when he has eaten from my kitchen.’ The Guru’s condition was accepted. He received the Raja in private audience on the top story of his house, next in order the Raja’s prime minister, and lastly the Raja’s queens. They were all gratified with a sight of the Guru.
One of the queens lately married would not remove her veil. The Guru quietly said to her, ‘Crazy lady, if you are not pleased with the Guru’s face, why have you come here?’ On this she at once become insane and, casting aside her clothes, ran naked into the forest. Efforts were made to stop her, but she succeeded in escaping and baffling pursuit.”
(The Sikh Religion by Max Arthur Macauliffe, Volume 2, Page 61-62).
For months, I have been meditating on her – this veiled queen. Quietly studying her in my own imagination, trying to understand her story.
Recently married. She must have been very young. To be chosen a queen – she must have been very beautiful. And therefore, perhaps, uncomfortable with the sexual desire that men might project onto her. Hence – the veil. She probably was one of the younger queens. God only knows what kind of politics took place among queens of a Raja. No doubt intrigues and competition for the Raja’s favor, for his affections and attention. And her being one of the more recent queens – she was likely coping with the jealousy of the others. Trying to make her way in a new world of husband, competitive wives and the brief, ephemeral chance to secure her own future.
As women, we are taught early on that what we appear to be is so much more important than what we actually are. There is a pressure to pretend. To hide. To veil something that is true and real because it may make us seem lesser in other people’s eyes. In this dynamic tension, so many women exist. Wondering to what extent do we reveal our true face – when the act of revealing that face can shatter the social connections and support around us?
When you are trained from birth that the security of being a woman is to live according to the social rules, it is a terrible lie to the soul. And one that is not so easy to break. Because the security of every human being comes from living the truth of the Spirit – no matter what the social rules say. Our souls have journeyed for 8.4 million lifetimes earning the precious gift of a human birth. Guru Nanak tells us, in the fourth Pauree of Japji Sahib, the value of human life.
Karmee aavai kapraa
Nadaree mokh du-aar
By the consequences
Of our positive past actions
We have been gifted
This robe of human form.
Grace leads us
To the gate of liberation
Found within it.
For men and women, both and equally, the breath given, the body given, the mind given are to serve the Soul. The Spirit has its own journey, to pay its karma and grow in awareness of its own Divine Light. It is only in the form of the human that this rare and precious opportunity exists.
The mind can be trained to support that journey of the Spirit fearlessly. Or it can be trained to poison and silence that Voice – out of fear –out of concern for the “future” – out of the need to fit in and not be rejected. 8.4 million lifetimes, taking the form of insects and birds and animals and everything else, for this one chance. And how the mind is trained determines the outcome.
There she was, sitting in private audience with Guru Amar Das, hiding behind her veil. The veil on her face. The veil draped across her own mind. And everything that veil represented: beauty, status, power, insecurity, and a deep mental image of what she was supposed to be.
The Guru, in his love and compassion, challenged her. It is one of the most difficult things to experience – when a Teacher, in his wisdom, confronts those mental habits and ideas which give us the most security, the most comfort. “Crazy lady – why are you wearing a veil? Look at me.”
What does it mean to look at the Guru’s face? It means to remember. To remember Love. Real Love. The Love of the Divine for the Soul. It means to remember wholstically, viscerally, intuitively – the 8.4 million lifetimes it took to earn a human birth. To remember the reason the soul came here. It means that the mental image of what you think your life should be comes into sharp and sudden contrast with the soul truth of who you really are. In that moment of contrast, the Guru gives you a chance to see how close you are to living from your own Spirit – or how far away.
All of us have to face this moment sooner or later. For many people, this moment happens on the last breath. As the breath fades, the veils of the mind fall away and suddenly the Light, Voice and Truth of the Spirit makes itself known. But in the presence of the Guru, with that touch of kindness, those veils can be lifted during life. It is shocking, jarring, unsettling, even crazy-making – but it gives us a chance to break through the delusions we are caught in. It gives us a chance to embrace the gift of the humany body, and to live life for real.
She looked into his eyes, and saw her own falseness in relation to her own soul. And not only did that young queen tear away the veil on her face, she tore away every shred of clothing on her body. Every symbol of the lie her mind hid behind. From a social point of view, it looked like she went crazy. Yet, from a spiritual point of view, it may have been the first moment in her life when she was real. Authentic. Acting from the depth of herself, the spirit of her, the Ultimate Reality of her.
Not from something false.
Social worlds are built upon the lies that women tell themselves. But once those lies are seen for what they are, such women no longer have a place in society. Whatever the queen saw in that moment with the Guru had such a deep impact, her psyche couldn’t integrate it. She couldn’t see it AND be it. It created too much of a contradiction.
So she disappeared into the forest. And no one could find her.
Social death. Or spiritual death. To awaken spiritually means to die socially. It’s a requirement. The Spirit has to be free to understand Itself – without catering to the expectations and demands of others. Too often, young women are objects of exploitation. It doesn’t matter what century we’re talking about, or what culture we’re from. The household and social world runs on the juice and life of women. The question is – does that house, that society serve her Spirit? Or does it deplete her energy for personal agendas, polticial games, social pressure, and economic gain?
Where can she go? That woman who has glimpsed something more than social rules. That woman who has seen the truth of her soul. Who can she live with? What country can she call home? What people? What husband? Where does she belong – who has seen the lies of the mind and cannot agree to live them any longer?
“The Raja having remained for some days with the Guru took formal leave of departure…
“A simpleton, who only clothed himself with a blanket, attached himself to the Guru. He was in the habit of saying, ‘Sach. Sach!’ (true, true) to everything that was said to him and was consequently named Sachansach. One day as he gathered firewood in the forest and was about to return with his load, the insane queen appeared before him. She was quite naked, her hair was dishevelled, and she altogether presented a weird and alarming appearance. She caught Sachansach, pinched him, bit him, wrestled with him, and reduced him to a sad plight. With great difficulty he escaped, and made his way home streaming with blood.
“The Sikhs on seeing his situation asked what happened. His only reply was that he had had enough of the Guru’s service, and that he would leave it and return to his home. When pressed for his reason, he at last related his interview with a witch in the forest. The Guru said, ‘Take my slipper, and if the witch come again, touch her with it and she shall be cured of her malady.’
Sachandsach obeyed the Guru’s order, and next day, on the queen’s aggressive approach, touched her with the Guru’s slipper, when she immdiately recovered her sanity. She then for the first time discovered that she was naked, and sought to flee abashed from Sachansach’s gaze. He promptly tore up his blanket and gave her half of it. She wrapped it round her, and thus clothed went and fell at the Guru’s feet. He readily pardoned her offence. The shrine of Bhai Sachansach is near the town of Shekhupur.”
(The Sikh Religion by Max Arthur Macauliffe, Volume 2, Page 62).
Does it look like a story of spiritual awakening? Not very pretty, is it? Naked in the forest. Dishevelled. Insane. Beating up on strange men who wander onto her path.
Social death. Or spiritual death. It isn’t a process that’s beautiful or easy. It’s a process where the psychological identity and the spiritual identity do battle.
We are taught, from birth, what we are supposed to be. Right or wrong. Good or bad. All of that socialization creates an image in our mind – an image of what we think we should be in the context of social rules.
The mind has to let go of all of that – all of those images, all of that training – and allow what’s true and real in the Spirit to speak. To create Its own image. To call forth its Own training. That’s why, as souls, we come to the Guru. To be challenged. To be tested. To call forward those experience that will contradict the image we have of ourselves. So we can let go of what’s false in our mind and learn to live for real.
During that time in the forest, our young queen went mad – spiritually mad. The image she had of herself was shattered. And all that was left was impulse – anger, fury, an animalistic fearlessness. She might have remained in that state except the Guru didn’t abandon her. With his question about her veil, he had pushed her into this experience of psychological/spiritual trauma. And with his slipper, somehow – the Siri Guru Granth Sahib talks about it – the power of the Guru’s feet - with one touch, it gave her an anchor. A way to begin creaing a new identity for herself. An identity that could be, at the same time, social AND spiritual.
As I picture her prostrating herself in front of the Guru, wrapped in half a blanket, there is no doubt the experience changed her profoundly. She did not return to the Guru the same woman as when she left. What she saw in herself, how she transformed – there are no notes historically to describe it. And far too many possibilities for my own imagination to draw it.
But when I am sure of is that when she bowed in front of the Guru, she begged for forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? Going crazy? Ripping her clothes off? Hiding for days in the forest?
Forgiveness for looking at him through her veils.
Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh.
All Love in the Divine,
Ek Ong Kaar Kaur