Manmathan, or Kaama Deva as he was called, for his part attempted enthusiastically to entice Narada. He transformed the barren mountain upon which the sage sat into a grove of warm, fragrant air, the snow to musical fountains and the scrubs to floral vines. He even asked some of Indra’s most attractive Apsaras to dance and seduce Narada in any way possible. When the sage did not so much as open his eyes, Kaama resorted to his best bet- his potent floral arrows launched from his special sugarcane bow- which had momentarily affected even Siva! Kaama remembered well that the act had cost him his life then, as Siva had burnt him to ashes upon realizing that He had been duped, but this was a different day in a different age. Taking aim, Manmathan, the deva of Kaama, shot his arrow straight at Narada’s chest, where the sage’s heart was housed. And Narada did not even open his eyes.
Admitting to both his defeat and the greatness of Narada, Kaama fell at his feet and begged for the sage’s forgiveness. Narada at last opened his eyes and was surprised to find Manmathan prostrated before him. He showed gentle and benevolent amusement to the deva, while the latter recounted all that had happened, but really, the sage’s heart swelled with an inordinate amount of pride. As soon as Kaama left, Narada headed straight for Kailasa, the abode of Siva the Destroyer.
Siva seemed pleased to note Narada’s achievement. “You have humbled me, great Devarshi Narada, for no longer am I the lone tamer of Kaama! But speak not about this to Harideva,” were His words, accompanied by a mischievous smile, which the Devarshi missed. Narada took His leave, bemused and a little miffed. Why would Siva ask him to not share his momentous achievement with Vishnu, of Whom he was a sworn lifelong devotee? It made no sense to Narada, who concluded that Siva must surely be jealous of him and that only made him prouder of himself.
Narada disregarded Siva’s words and excitedly made haste towards Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu. There, he saw the Preserver of the Worlds asleep in His divine sleep, yoganidra. Before Narada could utter his customary “Narayana, Narayana!” however, Vishnu’s lips curled into a smile. In His deep, soothing voice, Vishnu said, “Welcome, Narada muni! What brings you to Me?”
Narada was brimming with excitement. He overlooked the fact that Vishnu was pulling his leg by asking him, for the Preserver knew all that went on in the Worlds. Narada narrated to him in great detail (and with a fair bit of exaggeration) all that happened upon the mountain. “Even the Great God, Mahadeva, acknowledges me as His superior!” said Narada. Vishnu merely smiled on. Narada, however, felt disappointed at the lack of a heartier response from Vishnu. This was not something he had expected. Siva feeling envious was understandable. But Vishnu?! He concluded that he was probably superior in some aspect to even Vishnu, for why else would the Preserver not openly laud his achievement? He felt even more pleased with himself now with that thought and with an elaborate bow, Narada took Vishnu’s leave. His parting “Narayana! Narayana!” was laced with a hint of mockery and the sage made for the one realm where he’d be given his due recognition and where everyone would surely come seeking his blessings now- the realm of mortals. Prithviloka.
Narada had the ability to traverse all planes of existence and in his wanderings, he had covered almost all places there were to cover. However, when he entered Prithiviloka from Vaikuntha this time, he saw around him a land that he had hitherto not visited- a city magnificent enough to match up to any capital of the mighty Arya kingdoms of renown. Greatly intrigued, Narada explored around, wishing to know where and in whose kingdom he was. He looked for places where people would congregate, that he might learn something from their conversations. From busy streets where marketplaces flourished, he gathered that this was the kingdom of a certain Sheelanidhi. From songs on the roads, he also learned that the king had a daughter and that her Swayamvara was imminent. Narada thought that one as well traveled as he should not let this opportunity of meeting the king of a land such as this go by. So he decided to pay the king a visit.
King Sheelanidhi welcomed the sage with great honor and adoration. He personally washed the sage’s feet and served him with refreshments. “It is my great honor to have Narada, wisest among the sages, lord over Kaama, visit my humble realm. I would consider it an even greater honor if the Devarshi would bless my daughter that she may find a suitable groom.”
His manner pleased Narada, who was surprised when the mortal addressed him as “lord over Kaama”. News indeed traveled fast! He most graciously accepted the request to bless the king’s daughter and she was summoned.
Srimati, King Sheelanidhi’s daughter, was the most beautiful woman Narada had ever laid his eyes upon. The sage could think of no woman comelier than her and he was possessed by a desperate desire to marry her. It took Narada every bit of his sagely resolve and concentration to appear unaffected by the flames of desire burning his innards away. To Sheelanidhi he said, “This girl is surely Sreedevi Herself, the consort of Harideva. Aptly have you named her Srimati. One as radiant as Hari shall be the one to wed her.” The king was jubilant upon hearing that and so was Srimati. Sheelanidhi requested Narada to come and grace the Swayamvara, which was but a few days away. Narada of course conceded, secretly intending to treat the request as an invitation to participate. He soon bade farewell to the king and Srimati and went about exploring the beautiful city further.
Narada could not stop thinking about the girl he had seen. There was none comparable to her, save Lakshmi Herself. And rightly had he said that only a man like Harideva should be chosen by her. But Narada desperately desired to be that man. The sage deliberated over the matter for quite a while. He reasoned that he mostly had the qualities that her ideal husband should have. Well, if Siva and Vishnu were envious of him, surely he was a supremely splendid individual, wasn’t he? There was just the matter of his face perhaps not being all that attractive. A man like Hari should have a face like Hari. And who better to borrow that face from than Hari Himself? And so Narada prayed to the One he had chosen to be devoted to all his life. He prayed to Vishnu to appear before him. Just before the Swayamvara, Vishnu came to him. “Speak, dear Narada, what you wish of Me. Name your desire for which you chose to propitiate Me in place of just coming and visiting Me in Vaikuntha as you usually do.” Narada in spite of his new-found hubris was overawed by the sight of Vishnu before him, ready to grant him his wish. A potent combination of reverence for Vishnu and desire for Srimati forced Narada to song. Using grandiose lyrics composed in Sanskrit high speech, Narada asked Vishnu for a face like Hari. “Tathaastu,” said Vishnu.
Srimati’s Swayamvara was attended by kings and princes from far and wide. Narada confidently walked into the hall, dressed simply in his usual ascetic manner carrying his veena. He looked condescendingly upon all gathered suitors. What chance did they stand against him, who had the qualities of the highest individual and the face of Shyama Sundara Harideva? Srimati was sure to choose him as her groom. He was so lost in the dreams of the life that he’d lead with Srimati that it never struck him that everyone there was pointing at him and laughing. At last, the Swayamvara was thrown open and as Srimati entered the hall, every pair of eyes was upon her. Scores of breaths were drawn but never released for her beauty was mesmerizing. Carrying a floral garland in her hand, she took a look at suitor after suitor and kept moving ahead, rejecting each one she looked at. Narada, who was the very last in line was beaming with pride. Of course she would reject them all, for they were mere mortals! He, on the other hand, was above them all. Learned in the scriptures, proficient in the arts, gifted with the ability to travel across all the planes of existence, supreme tapasvi, conqueror of Kaama and now beautiful as Hari! The only reason he wore his simple robes and carried his signatureveena was that Srimati be able to recognize him as Narada, for she had respectfully avoided seeing his face when he had paid her a visit, but would have definitely noticed that he carried a veena. She had still not chosen any of the contestants as her husband and as she was coming closer to reaching the end of the line, Narada was full to the brim with anticipation and excitement. And when she finally came to him, it was as though time slowed down manifold. He could see her lowered eyes rise to look at him, reflect his face to him, light up in mirth and look down again, her lips curl ever so gently in a smile that was mischievous and knowing and her being as she moved away from him to the one standing behind him. At that moment, it ceased to matter to him that there couldn’t have been anyone standing behind him, as he was the last one in the line. It even ceased to matter to him that she had actually rejected him. All that mattered to him was the reflection of the face that he had seen in Srimati’s eyes. It was not what he had expected to see. Not the face of Vishnu. Not even his own face. But the face of a monkey.
Narada’s being was consumed by anger and betrayal. Without having to turn back, he knew who could be the only One standing behind him. He also knew that Srimati would have placed her garland around His neck. He knew this because he had blessed her himself. A curse was upon his lips, directed at the source of his misery, to the One who had cheated him for personal gain. But before he could utter it, he heard the voice of that Being come from behind him.
Or was it coming from in front of him? It seemed to be everywhere. Narada closed his eyes and ears to lose sense of the world around him.
“Narada,” said the voice again. He opened his eyes. Before him was Vishnu, wearing the same garland on his neck that Srimati had been holding, confirming Narada’s deduction. Beside him was Srimati. Except that her aspect looked somewhat different. She looked less like a human and more like a Goddess now, and also much more familiar. Narada realized that it was, in fact, not Srimati he looked at but Sreedevi Lakshmi Herself. He looked around him and saw that they were all in Vaikuntha. Anantha Sesha’s vast expanse lay coiled upon the Ksheera Sagara, the Ocean of Milk and upon it rested Vishnu and Sree. It was only then that he realized. Of course! Yogamaya.
Vishnu smiled at Narada. “Your curse for Me, Devarshi Narada, is an interesting consequence of this entire sequence of events. I accept it gladly. Verily there will come a time when I shall need to seek the help of beings akin to what you saw yourself as. Vaanaras will guide me in finding Sree. But that time is far away yet.” Narada was embarrassed beyond measure. This was indeed the curse that he had been about to utter. Vishnu continued, “But tell me, dear Narada. How did the conqueror of Kaama feel about flinging away his oath of lifelong Brahmacharya and willingly becoming a victim of Kaama’s sting?” Narada was humbled. What could he say? Enlightenment and comprehension were upon him already. Just as he had finished bragging about his “conquering of Kaama” to Vishnu, the Preserver had invoked His power ofYogamaya- the Matrix of Illusion- to teach Narada a lesson in humility. Reality as the sage perceived had been manipulated and controlled by Vishnu Himself. There was no kingdom, no Sheelanidhi and no Srimati! It was Lakshmi, playing along in Her consort’s game and Narada had unwittingly but surely brought the joke of his simian face upon himself, by asking for a face like Hari in Sanksrit. Hari meant Vishnu, of course, but it also meant monkey in the high speech. And Vishnu had deliberately chosen to go with the second meaning, to initiate the chain of events that led to Narada’s rejection and humiliation at the Swayamvara- a reminder of the consequences of straying from one’s path to strengthening one’s Self and falling prey to hubris.