Pingala’s story is about the sudden bursting forth of spiritual illumination. Her story is told to king Yadu by abadhuta (roughly, “ascetic”), who regarded as her one of his gurus (“preceptors”). Pingala was a wealthy prostitute who lived in the city of Bidisha. She was surely attractive and accomplished in her profession, although the great abadhuta does not waste words on this aspect of her. Which sacred text would invite attention to the gross for its own sake? Pingala was greedy. One day she met the son of a very rich man, and invited him to visit her that night. She would receive only him that night, she told him.
When the evening came, she dressed herself most attractively and waited for him. Many came to seek her favours, but she turned everyone away. There was just one man in her mind. Night advanced and darkness thickened, but her man hadn’t still arrived. She was getting increasingly impatient, wondering why he wasn’t coming after making the deal with her. With great expectation she would rush to the doorsteps whenever she saw someone passing by, thinking it was her man, and would then return disappointed. This went on till she couldn’t stay inside any longer. She came to her doorstep and waited for him there.
It was past midnight and the pain of waiting was intense and her longing, unbearable.
And then it happened. Suddenly vairagya (roughly, “disinterestedness in worldly desires and pleasures”) arose in her and pervaded her consciousness. Her greed and her longing vanished as though they were swept off by a broom. She looked back on her life and lamented that she had wasted it in ignorance. She regretted all those years she had given in to the enjoyment of her gross body, and that obsessed with greed for wealth, she had sold herself to many, neglecting the dweller, Narayana himself, within.
Then she was filled with a profound sense of divine delight (ananda). She realized how blessed she was, and what a day that was that brought her liberation. She surrendered herself to Krishna and renouncing desires, decided to live the life of an ascetic, and dedicate every moment of her life to him. And as the dawn arrived, she entered the deep forest.
“Pingala is my guru, listen, O King!”, declared the abadhuta, as he concluded his narrative.
Pingala’s story is powerful and inspiring. In fact, all well-told stories dealing with the unconscious development of conscience are. Her story is short, which is appropriate in the specific context in which it occurs: the abadhuta was telling the king who all his twenty-four gurus (among them were not only humans, but also birds and beasts and even the water and the sky) were and what he learnt from each. Besides, the aim of the narrative is not to tell the Pingala’s story in its completeness, but to explicate, in the narrative mould, a powerful spiritual experience within the framework of a sacred text.
In the classical text Pingala did not retire to a forest. Spiritually awakened, she experienced profound composure, and went to sleep. Both the endings – the one in the classical text, and the other in Das’s – reflect different perspectives, and each is satisfying. From the point of the classical text, when one is spiritually awakened, one becomes indifferent to the physical surroundings; one does not relate to the same any more. These lose their earlier meaning and significance, so there is no need to abandon them – the world has no inherent content to it, and it is how one sees it. In contrast, from Das’s perspective, renunciation involves rejection of the existing living environment. The spiritually awakened person needs a supportive ambience in physical terms so that he (or she) continues to remain in that state. The world is not without content, and can be in conflict with or in harmony with one’s inner state, and the goals of life can be best pursued under conditions of such harmony.
Another way of looking at the ending would be to set aside the tatwic (roughly, “philosophical”) aspect and consider the narrative one. Then one might find Das’s ending more appealing. When Pingala entered the dense forest, she moved away from the familiar to the unfamiliar, to a region almost mysterious. This is quite dramatically and romantically executed in Das.
Probably the basic issue in the Pingala episode concerns the nature of her awakening. It was sudden and profoundly regenerative. What caused it? It was her karma, in Das’s version, and also in the original text. She had done something in some past existence of hers (the knowledge of which was obliterated by rebirth), and this was the result – this was how Pingala understood her experience of liberation. There seems to be no hint at all that it was caused by the grace (kripa) of God, and not by her karma, which might appear somewhat remarkable in view of the fact that Srimad Bhagavata is a work that celebrates the glory of Vishnu (Krishna). It would have been entirely in the spirit of it if grace had been brought into Pingala’s story.
Besides, whether or not some pure version of the theory of karma renders a theory of grace irrelevant and entirely dispensable, the fact remains that in the puranic literature, to which category Srimad Bhagavata belongs, the theory of karma and that of grace have both existed, and grace has been conceptualized as interacting with karma. Ahalya, Draupadi, among many others, provide excellent examples.
However, from the perspective of the time of the happening (as distinct from cosmic time), the perspective actually available to both Pingala (whatever she said about her past existence was nothing more than mere assumption) and the narrator, the event does appear to be an emergent – totally unpredictable in its uniqueness from its antecedents. Clearly, this is no resolution, but is the problem itself, needing explanation. Does grace really provide the explanation? It might only appear to be so, but would indeed amount to a mere restatement of the problem in another language, when one considers the logic of receiving grace. From the purans one comes to the conclusion that it is not predictable; there is no course of action that necessarily leads one to receive grace. In terms of Srimad Bhagavata itself, the demoness Putana received grace; did she do a thing for it? Did she ever want it even?