— For Donald Trump and others.
I have a story for Donald Trump, but I know he will not read it. If he does read it, he will not understand it. If he does understand it, he will not care.
This story, non-fiction, happened in the 11th century at the end of the reign of Airlangga in the kingdom of Kediri. In 1045 the king abdicated. He chose to live in the forest for the rest of his days. He became the sage Gantayu.
There is no record of what was said before he left; there are no notes about what really motivated him
I just imagine that Airlangga felt that he had failed—or realized something.
His oldest child, the princess Sangramawijaya (in folk tales she is called Dewi Kilisuci), who he wanted to replace him, refused. Her two younger brothers were quite the opposite. They both wanted the throne. And so it was that the kingdom of Kediri was divided in two—and ended up at war. The kingdom that Airlangga had built ended.
I imagine that Airlangga realized: on the throne, he was divided. He both had power and did not. There is a statue that depicts him sitting on the back of a garuda bird, as Visnu. But even in this symbol, sitting erect on his sacred vehicle in the sky, he still could not—indeed was particularly unable to—know what would happen. Life moves among dust, mud, gravel and rubbish.
So Airlangga entered the forest. Before, like the Kediri sky illuminated by the sun, he had always been flattered by the illusion that there is a correlation between ‘power’ and ‘perception’. Now, in the middle of the forest, meditating in a cave, that illusion was gone. The former king melded with the dark foliage. He became one with and equal to the roots, twigs, leaves, birds, snakes and cockroaches. The forest did not hold him high. The forest embraced him. He did not take a distance from the forest in order to measure it precisely and clearly so as to devour and control it. There was no need. The forest—complete with its mysteries—had become one with him.
If he really was the incarnation of Visnu, then he surely would have known the story of two other Visnu incarnations.
The first is Krishna. Thirty six years after the Bharatayudha war when the Pandawas were victorious and the Kurawas annihilated, there was no long-lasting peace. Disasters came.
The Mausala Parwa section of the Mahabharata epic describes this tragic end: Krishna, the human incarnation of Visnu who rules at Dwaraka and is known as the wise and clever advisor to the Pandawas, sees signs of what was to come. “The women dream every night: A dark-faced woman with white teeth enters houses, shrieks, and runs throughout Dwaraka, snatching every good luck charm. The men have dreams of terrifying vultures which come through the walls and eat bodies.”
The nobles were drunk, murdering one another. The king’s sons, the princes and trusted commanders Samba and Setyaki, died. The king’s older brother, Baladewa, drowned in the ocean.
Krishna knew that this was the curse of Gandari, mother to the 100 Kurawas. Having lost all her sons in the war, she blamed Krishna. He had been respected by both sides, and could have prevented the Bharatayudha war, but did not. Krishna tried to defend himself, but he knew that he was not blameless. The end of the parwa tells of how he meditates in the forest and takes a supine yoga post. A hunter, thinking it is the body of a deer, throws his spear. It hits Krishna in the heel; he dies.
It is not this death that makes the story sad, but futility. Krishna has the throne in his hand, has obtained victory, and yet is killed like a hunted animal…
The second story is about Rama. We know the story: Rama, the king of Ayodya and an incarnation of Visnu, wins in battle. He succeeds in taking back his queen Sita after she has been held hostage in the palace of Rahwana, the king of Alengka.
But the story does not end well. After Sita has returned to the palace of Ayodya for a few weeks, Rama begins to have doubts: has his wife really remained faithful to him while under the power of that strong man, Rahwana? Rama asks his queen to undergo a trial by fire: the pyre is built, the wood set alight, and Sita must withstand it. If she is unhurt by the flames, it means she is untarnished.
In one of the Ramayana’s many versions, Sita disappears. She enters the earth. Her mother, the earth, embraces her.
I find the version that the Indonesian poet Sapardi Djoko Damono wrote more interesting. In his poem My Name is Sita, we find a woman’s actions that are more complex in meaning:
The woman who cannot be wished for
The woman beyond word
Is met from the forest dwelling
By Rama and their two sons
To be borne back to the palace.
But along the way
She sees rice fields under plow
And leaps from the sedan chair
Runs along the furrows
And lies on the plowed earth
Disappearing into the mother who birthed her
The earth, rice fields, plowed soil—these are sources of life that not even an incarnation of Visnu can touch. There, someone authentic can be free, power cease, and history speak. Airlangga heard this: You can hold tight to power, but power will not hold tight to you, nor help you.