A veil of mist settled over the cobbled streets of Rome. A solitary figure shuffled along hurriedly through the layman's quarter of the city. His trim appearance and rich garments made him appear as if he was from another world. He came to a halt outside a ramshackle dwelling, whose paint had long since flaked away. The building had obviously past it's time. The only sign of life was the dim light of a candle through a window.
He tapped on the door with his cane. He was careful not to knock too hard as he feared it would collapse at any moment. He could hear footsteps and the cracking of floor boards. The door opened stubbornly, revealing a short man, balding and with an oddly shaped nose. 'He seems as frail as the door,' thought the visitor. The man was covered in dust and from his eyes one could see that he had not slept for some time. 'Ah, my dear Michaelangelo!' said the visitor heartily, 'How's it with thee?'
'It is well, my dear friend. Please do come in. You appear to be in fine condition too!'
'Yes, yes! The gods are smiling upon me, for the moment at least.'
They entered a cramped room. There was so much dust in the air that it seemed as if the mist had drifted into the room too. In the corner was a small bed and a few clothes were scattered here and there. There was also a small stove and a few pots and pans. The room was a mess.
In the centre of the room stood a huge marble block. It's pristine shine created a heavenly appearance, such a far cry from the filth and disorder around it. Its glow lit up the room. 'It's magnificent!'
'Yes, it's come along nicely. Hopefully the Pope will like the Pieta and put it into St. Paul's chapel.'
'He'd be a fool not to! But it's a classic! But Michaelangelo you look so thin.'
'The sculpture grows fat, I grow thin. That is the natural order of things.'
The visitor looked at him in wonderment. 'True, but surely you could find a better place to live, maybe a separate room for your studio.'
'Why? I spend all my waking hours on my work. I have no time to spend in another room, nor any to clean it.'
'Yes, I can see by the mess that you are totally absorbed in your work. Of course, if you had somebody to tend to your needs....' Balducci winced, he had been trying to match Michaelangelo with a young Roman maiden for some time. But each time he mentioned the subject he met with a cold response, '.... then you would be able to concentrate on your work.'
Michaelangelo frowned, he had heard this many times, 'Listen Balducci,' he growled. 'I want no entanglements, and I have no money for a servant. Every florin I earn I send to Florence, to cover the endless debts of my father or to finance my brother's various business ventures.'
'As you wish, amigo. Let us not argue. I only wish you to be happy and to sculpture the best marbles in Italy.'
'For me they are one and the same.'
Today, Michaelangelo Buanarotti has become a household name. Yet his own life was distant from the fame and fortune that are associated with his sculptures today. It was a period when sculpture was 'out-of-fashion.' Hence, he earned little credit, and whatever money he did earn, his family would quickly suck it out of him. As a result he often had to work in poor conditions. One winter was so bad that he couldn't even afford wood for his fire!
What was the result of such hard work and dedication? The magnificent sculptures of the Pieta, David, and how can one forget, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!
The great always have to make such sacrifices and endure hardships. Only the truly brave and committed survive, the rest resign from their ambitions. It is these trials which sculpt a man's character, polish his virtue and make his life a masterpiece.
Two hundred years after Michaelangelo dazzled the world with his art, another genius was at work in India. His mission was to sculpture people's lives. Lord Swaminarayan had gathered his flock of swans. Now he needed to make them strong enough for the arduous flight ahead.
Once, the Lord was in a village called Kundal. He was casually talking with some saints. Then he said, 'Brahmanand Swami, sing a devotional song.'
Everyone fell silent in expectation. Instead, Brahmanand Swami began rummaging his hands in the dust. Maharaj was puzzled by this bizzare gesture, 'What are you doing?'
'Lord, if only someone who can see could please hand me my sitar.'
'It is right next to you. Why! Can't you see it? Have you become blind?'
'O gracious one. I am not blind. But many of the saints of my group have lost their vision. They can see only the light of day, but as darkness prevails it blankets their eyes. Forgive me Lord, I am not complaining. It has been 1-1/2 years since you forbade us to eat anything containing any of the six types of taste. Many saints have become weak due to lack of nutrition in our food. Some have even contracted night blindness.
Brahmanand Swami looked at the Lord. He had closed his eyes and appeared to be in deep thought. Then out of the corner of his right eye, a small tear drop appeared, it glistened like a diamond.
'Worry no more Brahmanand, the test is over. All those who have suffered shall recover.'
The blind saints themselves said nothing. For them their blindness was just another form of devotion.
The Lord set up such trials, 108 in all. Those who faced them were tested to the very core of their being.
Aristotle once commented, 'The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure, one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.'
Early one morning, a group of farmers were walking to their fields. Along the path they saw some orange clothes. At first they thought nothing of it, but then there was a slight moan. One of the men lifted one of the orange sheets and to their surprise they found a sadhu lying there. He seemed semi-conscious yet he couldn't move. He was frozen!
Winter was unusually harsh at the time. Streams froze into solid ice and each night frost smothered the fields and the villages. One of the commands the Lord had issued was that the saints were not to spend the night in any village or town, sleep in a bed, bathe in hot water or to keep any extra clothing for warmth. Considering the climate, this was one of the most formidable tests for the saints. Many devotees pleaded with the Lord, but to no avail. How could they understand the actions of the Lord, they only saw the bodies of the saints, not the soul within. The saints, as usual, kept quiet.
....It so happened that due to this command this saint had spent the night outside the village. But as he had no extra clothing or shelter he simply froze. When the farmers found him he was in a deep state of hypothermia.
The farmers carried him to the house of a Swaminaryan devotee. The man wasn't home but they put the saint in a bed and wrapped him up in blankets. They lit stoves and placed them all around him. Slowly he began to thaw.
In the meantime the devotee was informed and he immediately rushed back to his house. When he got there, he saw the blankets and the stoves, but he cound't find the saint. Apparently, as soon as the saint regained consciousness he leapt out of the bed and staggered off towards the fields. The devotee became very concerned for the saint's health and set out to find him and bring him back.
After a while he came to the same spot where the saint had been lying earlier. He saw the saint huddled under a tree, he was shivering violently and his face and lips had turned blue. He was beginning to freeze again.
'Swamiji, why did you run away from my house?'
The saint could only manage a whisper, 'Please, do not take offence. But I couldn't stay. Maharaj has forbade us to sleep in a village, let alone in a bed. So you see, I had to leave.'
'You could have stayed until you recovered. Even now you are in a poor state.'
'The Lord's word is final. There can be no exceptions.'
'But if those farmers hadn't saved you, you would probably have died.'
'Maybe so, but you must understand, Maharaj is my life. I would rather die obeying his commands, than live against his wishes.'
His name was Paramhansanand.
Such was their commitment to their master, even if it meant life or death, his commands were their priority.
Once a group of saints led by Anandanand Swami came to Jamnagar. They camped by a lake outside the town. Many days had passed since they had received anything in their begging bowls, so some of the saints ate rotten vegetables discarded by the grocers who came to wash their produce each morning before going to the market. At one point they were so desperate that they resorted to eating moss which grew on the sides of the lake. It was certainly no picnic. The king came to hear of this and decided to see for himself. When he arrived he saw the saints scattered here and there, some were lying under trees, too weak to even move. 'Why are you all so weak?'
'We have no food. We eat this moss just to survive.'
'But why don't you buy food?'
'We keep no money with us. And our master has ordered us to only eat food which is obtained by begging. Unfortunately no one has given us anything for the past few weeks.'
'Very well, come to my palace tomorrow.'
The king was a kind hearted and religious man. It pained him to see saints suffer in such a way. The next day he had many delicious items prepared. When the saints arrived he generously filled their begging bowls. However, he became perplexed when he saw the saints mix the food into a ball and then dip it into water, and only after that they ate it.
'Wait. Don't do that! You won't be able to enjoy the food.'
'Our master has commanded us to eat only in this way. We eat to live, we don't live to eat. We desire no fancy tastes.'
The king admired their discipline in following their rules, which he personally felt were too stringent. He invited the saints to his palace daily. But after a few days the saints stopped coming. The king sent his horsemen to find out why. But the saints were nowhere to be found. Later the king learnt that another of their master's commands was that they were not to stay in any place where they were honoured and that they should only stay where they had to endure hardships.
Why did the Lord make such commands? He realised that his saints were his tools to cleanse society, yet before that, they had to be cleansed. Cleansed of their attachment to the world and to their own bodies. To realise themselves as atma. Such realisation would enable them to draw strength from their soul force. A force so powerful, it would empower them to overcome any hardship, to tolerate any pain. In Vachnamrut Gadhada Sec. I, No. 34 Maharaj says, 'One who implicitly follows the Lord's commands will enjoy the bliss of God.'
These saints suffered pain beyond imagination, but in their hearts they indulged in an abundance of peace, bliss and joy. They forgot themselves in their master, the trials and tribulations of the body no longer mattered to them. And no matter how great their own suffering they never discredited their master, nor did they ever question his word, never.
These trials were designed for a purpose, to make them rise above the pain and suffering, above their worldly relations, above the limits of one's imagination, upto the realm of the divine.
The trials strengthened their wings and helped them master the flight of a paramhansa.