Mahiravan’s headless body had not stopped twitching on the ground, the distant groans of Makaradhvaja — bound with his own indomitable tail — still echoed, and Sita was yet a prisoner in Lanka far above as the two jewels of the Raghu clan and the incarnation of Rudra stood in triumph in the subterranean city of Patalpuri. A return to the monkey army would surely be greeted with utmost adulation, but that victorious arrival would not be soon in coming. The sound of kartals and an endlessly repeated mantra came to the ears of Anjaneya: Narayan, Narayan! Lakshman’s right hand moved to draw an arrow from his quiver, but the foremost son of Dasharath remained calm.
“Pranam, Shri Ramachandra! Pranam, Lakshman! Pranam Mahavir Hanuman!”
“Pranam, Gurudev Narad!” Hanuman replied, stooping low to touch the feet of the sage.
“Shri Ram, something unusual has happened, with which only you may assist the gods!”
“Brother,” Lakshman began with a scowl, “Sita-Bhabhi has been waiting for too long! Hanuman has killed Akshay-Kumar and Mahiravan, I have slain Meghanad myself, and your arrows have brought Kumbhakaran to his death. Only Ravan himself remains as the final obstacle to your reunion with Sita — and yet you delay?”
“Calm yourself, brother,” the serene Ram answered.
“Shri Ram,” Narad continued, “there is nothing to fear in seeing to the gods’ concerns now. Time has stopped by the will of Brahmadev and Narayan because of this matter: it will be as if only a moment or two has passed since you left.”
“Speak then, sage — what do the gods wish of me?”
“With the help of Mahavir Hanuman, you have slain the Ravan of the deep earth, son of the Ravan over Lanka; but there is another Ravan, Ahiravan, who lies in an even deeper and darker place than this. Ravan has caused carnage upon the entire earth, and has threatened the realm of the gods on many occasions; Mahiravan’s reign of terror in Patalpuri has been a cause of great injustice; but Ahiravan threatens the very fabric of existence itself. If he is not stopped now, the Treta Yuga will cease, but no Dvapara Yuga nor Kali Yuga will follow it.”
The unshaken calm of Ramachandra, for the first time in his earthly life, was broken. “What must be done?”
“This is a battle that is too risky even for you to enter, Shri Ram. If you are lost in it, then the Three Worlds will be dissolved utterly … this cannot happen!”
“Then how can I help?”
“With your permission, Shri Ram, send your messenger Hanuman and your brother Lakshman with me. If they are unable to defeat Ahiravan, then all will be lost no matter what.”
Ram’s radiant brow furrowed, but he nodded his assent. “Very well. Hanuman and Lakshman, go with Narad and all of my blessings for victory.”
Hanuman knelt before Ram in tearful supplication. “Shri Ram, I will carry your name in every thought, your name upon my lips, and most importantly, your name in my heart, until I have the grace and fortune to see you with my eyes again.” Ram brought Hanuman to his feet and embraced him, holding back his own tears as he did so. Lakshman, though angry at the entire prospect of leaving Sita in her suffering for one more moment, received his brother’s blessings and embrace as well before his departure. Narad lead the way as Hanuman and Lakshman followed, the subterranean moon shedding a gibbous green glowing visage to their travel.
Hanuman knew from their time spent traversing the vastness of Patal-lok that they had gone many times the length of his jump to the kingdom of Lanka, and he longed for the seeming nearness of Surya’s light in comparison to this endless trek, punctuated only by Lakshman’s occasional scoffs and sighs and the endless Narayan, Narayan! of Narad. His thoughts wandered as far as his feet, eventually taking him to places that were more pleasant than the landscape around them. The pitiless moon continued to frown as the landscape became dotted with indications of buildings long crumbled, the dust from rubble having succumbed to even more fundamental particles due to its ancientness. A slow feeling of dread and worry crept over him, despite his mental repetition of the name of Shri Ram.
At last, the city of a strange kingdom came into view. If Lanka was wondrous for its golden towers and lush walled gardens, this place was frightening for its green-grey and black-spotted stone works, jutting at precarious angles and draped haphazardly with dull-dark scrubby kelp leaves. Where one would expect spherical shapes to cap palatial spaces as domes, instead spheroid forms emerged partially from flat and concave-angled planes along the bases of some buildings, while emerging randomly like bubbles on the surface of boiling water elsewhere, cancerously, on the superstructure of other constructions. The entire place had a stench like the worst parts of rotting fish, and not even Hanuman’s nose — which had resisted the smells from Surasa’s stomach when she swallowed him — could help being soured by its pervasiveness. This dwelling-place of Ahiravan, no doubt given him by his foster-mother Simhika, the giant woman with a thousand offspring whom Hanuman had also defeated, seemed to seethe and slither in the irregular light from the green glowing moon above.
In a space like an amphitheatre ahead, Hanuman could hear hundreds of voices chanting together, performing some sort of puja, in a language and words he did not recognize. Quieting his own mantra to a low whisper, Narad spoke in hushed tones to Lakshman and Maruti. “We must disrupt this ritual, or else Ahiravan will become invincible. Not even the ill influence of Shani, which is plaguing Ahiravan at present, can prevent such an outcome if this ritual is not stopped!”
“But how can we disrupt the ritual, Narad?” Lakshman was not convinced it was a good idea. “Wouldn’t it be sacrilege to do so?”
“Ahiravan is not even considered an asura; he is something beyond the capacity of the worst rakshasa. It is no sacrilege to disrupt the rituals of such beings.”
“How will we do it, then?” Lakshman, somewhat reassured, was still wary of the prospect.
“Hanuman will engage Ahiravan directly. Do whatever you must to impede him, whether it is fighting with words or fighting with weapons is not important. I will try and stop his devotees from chanting their mantras.”
“And what about me, Narad?”
“Lakshman … I wish I knew. I know that you must be here for this effort to succeed; but I do not know how you will lend us your aid.”
The three of them stood in silence for a moment, for the omniscience of Narad was well known, and to see it apparently failing was disheartening even to these divine heroes.
“So, we just go in blind and hopeful?”
“Lakshman, do not be so pessimistic. Keep the thought of Shri Ram in your heart, and chant his name to aid our efforts. All will be revealed in time.” Hanuman’s cheerfulness, on this occasion, seemed ill-placed, but it was at least infectious.
Behind the amphitheatre, on the far side of its expanse, was a great portal made of eleven cyclopean stones, arranged in an asymmetrical fashion around a black space so gloomy even the fullest light of the green moon could not have lessened it. Hundreds of figures — some kneeling, some standing, some bent in strange prayer-postures, some leaping and shrieking and furiously dancing — were scattered around the space before this opening. They seemed at first glance to be human, but a closer look at their heads revealed their robust forms to be something else, some subhuman race more primitive than any seen on earth even at the very dawn of the times before the Satya Yuga.
At the center was not an elevated square mahavedi with a blazing fire for sacrifice, but instead an elliptical silver pool of water with strange crimson and emerald serpent shapes writhing within it to the shrill notes of a whistling rhythm-less tune. There was no Brahmin officiating at this rite, but instead what only could have been Ahiravan, whose bulk stretched from the edges of the space in the black eleven-sided portal to the center of the amphitheatre, and into the air above it in phantasmagoric splendor. The primal shape of this creature, more monstrous than the most hideous offspring of naga and daitya, was somehow like the many-armed forms of some sea creatures, stooped as the monkey-like posture of an ape, with appendages like the wings of a great leathery vulture sprouting from what might have been its back. Where its head was, or its mouth, was almost impossible to distinguish, and yet what appeared to be eyes more numerous than those on the tail of a peacock, more venomous in their gaze than the eyes of a spider, stared unblinkingly in dozens of directions amidst the chanting of its worshippers.
Narad, in greater fear than he’d ever experienced, began caterwauling “NARAYAN, NARAYAN!” as loudly as possible, barely audible to his companions over the chorus of chanting and shrieking of the crowd. He rushed to and fro, and in a moment of lucidity, began playing his vina more madly and passionately than even the most bhakti-filled lover full of the intoxication of the gods could manage. His sacred syllables began to wedge their way into the cacophony, and the worshippers gathered near him began losing their wording, replacing their barbaric utterances with tentative “Na-Ray-An”s in stuttered, staccato speech. The tentative grasp on reality which this instilled in some of them increased, until they slowly began to have their rapture broken. It was working!
However, this minor headway didn’t seem to be impeding, or even to be noticed, by the looming Ahiravan, his eldritch features undulating in time with the flitting serpentine symphony in the silver pool. This obliviousness was soon disturbed by the ferocious form of Hanuman, eleventh incarnation of Rudra, who had grown to colossal size. With his golden mace harder than adamantine steel in hand, he shouted “JAI SHRI RAM!” as he brought the full weight of his weapon to strike the uppermost part of Ahiravan’s unknowable body. There was a clear sound of matter impacting matter, a crunch, the noise of fluids gushing out of broken membranes, and yet Ahiravan was not in any way hurt. Its manifold pupils shifted to focus on Hanuman, the many eyes narrowing to slits that — if Ahiravan could feel anything akin to emotion — would have communicated anger and annoyance. Like the tendrils of a thousand jungle vines, or the tails of constricting snakes, or even still like the tentacles of a sea anemone grown far too large, Ahiravan’s shapeless limbs stretched toward Hanuman, wrapped around him with blinding speed, and drew him close. Not the space of the quickest breath in panic passed before Hanuman, entirely against any known laws of spatial relations, seemed to be swallowed by the creature, mace and all. Even his tail, which began growing faster and more vigorously than it did on his adventures in Lanka, was no match for Ahiravan, who slurped it up into what was its equivalent of a mouth as if it were its own tongue.
Lakshman and Narad were dumbfounded in their horror at Hanuman’s disappearance. The Lord of Wind’s son, defeated? The avatar of Shiva destroyed? Narad could not even speak his mantra as he sank to the ground in sadness. Lakshman, however, was not so desolated as he was enraged. The anger of all his years of wandering, of his fury at inaction and stalling in the cause of Sita, the wrath of a thousand armies of the fiercest demons erupted from within him like venom, and he rushed at Ahiravan with the force of a destroyer of worlds…
But, Hanuman was not dead, and he was no stranger to having been swallowed. He was in a space where rotting corpses of unrecognizable creatures long dead from the universe littered the floor and ceiling, and acrid liquids and gases spurt and squirted all around him. Whatever this stomach-chamber of Ahiravan was otherwise, it was spacious and sonorous, and even the slightest sound within it was echoed to many times its magnitude. If the creature had lungs and voice, it would have amplified prayer like nothing ever heard upon the earth thus far in this age of the world. The name of Ram would be heard even in the farthest reaches of Vaikuntha if spoken aloud here.
“In the name of Shri Ram, avatar of Vishnu, I call to Garuda, enemy of serpents and vehicle of the preserver Vasudeva! Bring the nectar of your favor to me in my poisonous difficulties below the earth, as you once did before in the ages past. JAI SHRI RAM!” Swift as lightning from a cloud, Garuda’s winged form appeared before Hanuman, armed with the chakra of Vishnu and carrying a bowl of amrita.
“In the name of Shri Ram, scion of the Raghu clan, I call upon Varaha, avatar of Vishnu and defeater of Hiranyaksha! Come to the depths of Patal-lok to recover me as you recovered the earth from the deepest ocean in the ages past. JAI SHRI RAM!” Boldly and with earthquake-like force, Varaha appeared as a boar-headed man in the presence of Hanuman, carrying a trident in his right hand and a shield in his left.
“In the name of Shri Ram, rightful king of Ayodhya, I call upon Narasimha, avatar of Vishnu and defeater of Hiranyakashipu! Come to the defense of this devotee of Vishnu as you defended Prahlada in ages past. JAI SHRI RAM!” With a roar that tore a hole through the three realms, Narasimha’s lion-headed visage appeared, armed with a sword and a trident in two of his four arms, to stand ready to defend Hanuman.
“In the name of Shri Ram, brother of Lakshman and Bharat and Shatrughna, I call upon Hayagriva, avatar of Vishnu and defeater of Madhu and Kaitabha! Come to the aid of this knower of the Vedas as you likewise recovered the sacred scriptures from the grasp of demons in the ages before the ages began! JAI SHRI RAM!” With a lotus in one hand and a conch shell in the other, the horse-headed form of Hayagriva manifested in the space within Ahiravan to aid Hanuman. But this was not the end of Hanuman’s prayers.
“In the name of Shri Ram and of Mata Sita, the sacred syllables of the Rama Nama, and in the power of Lord Narayan Ananta Govinda Jagannath Vishnu and Mahadev Bholenath Rudra Shiva Shankar, and in my own power as Pavanputra Anjaneya Maruti Sankatamochan Ramaduta Mahavir Hanuman, may I become more powerful than I am myself! May my eyes become as bright as Surya at noon on a summer’s day, and may my limbs have the strength of a thousand times a thousand battalions of the armies of Kishkindha! May we five warriors become one in our effort to defeat Ahiravan, and may we become one being under five faces, ten arms, and fifteen eyes! JAI SHRI RAM!” A sound like the folding of great sheets of copper in a furnace erupted from within the bowels of Ahiravan, and the five assembled beings merged into one ferocious and irresistible form, sublime in beauty and superlative in destructiveness. In a flailing of arms and the shouted battle-cry of JAI SHRI RAM! from five mouths, whatever there was of a gullet in Ahiravan was soon expanded, and severed, and penetrated, and displaced, and destroyed. And with gullet followed thorax, and with thorax followed abdomen, and with abdomen followed the remaining limbs and head, and finally the innumerable eyes of the beast, until nothing but a caustic green-black ooze was left of Ahiravan.
But what now gripped Panchamukha Hanuman was not the muck of the interior organs of Ahiravan, but the coils of a serpent greater than any the cosmos had ever seen. A thousand heads darted in every direction, swallowing one by one the throng of devotees who had once worshipped around Ahiravan. In the absence of their god-priest, their mantra had changed from whatever it was before to something like “Kush-thu-lu Phu-ta-gun.” Some of the worshippers had gained their senses and were chanting Narayan! with Narad, while others gazed upon the gigantic snake before them and screamed “Yig!” just before they were swallowed up by one of the snake’s heads. In the coils of this serpent, the five-faced Hanuman did not fear, and in fact it seemed strangely familiar to at least four-fifths of his consciousness as he was so surrounded. Lakshman, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Soon after, the few remaining cultists were gone, leaving no one but Panchamukha Hanuman, the serpent, and Narad. The space behind where Ahiravan formerly stood — if indeed such a creature could be said to stand at all — now belched from the darkness with a gaseous emission, a deep gurgling sound, and bright spots like the eyes of Ahiravan soon began flickering within it, until a gigantic slab slammed over the space from inside it like a great chamber door, locking away whatever was within. Soon, the shadows of crimson and emerald in the silver pool faded and disappeared, and the entire place began to lurch and sink as the welcome salt smell of ocean water drowned the location’s former aroma, and the surging brine waters began inundating it. The great serpent uncoiled itself from the gigantic form of Hanuman, and extended itself across the surface of the water toward the far horizon, like an ophidian causeway upon which Hanuman and Narad could stand. The two began to walk.
No matter how infinitely the serpent seemed to stretch in the direction of their arrival, they walked quietly, with the thousand heads of Shesha following them closely behind, as if reeling itself in like a gigantic ball of thread.
“Gurudev Narad,” Panchamukha Hanuman began, “what has happened?”
“Ahiravan was destroyed by you, Hanuman. But, your shakti in this form is so great that it nearly destroyed the entire universe. Were it not for Lakshman, you would have destroyed the entire universe.”
“But where is Brata Lakshman, Gurudev?”
“We are walking upon him now.” Hanuman had never known that Lakshman was the incarnation of the Shesha-naag before that time.
“And Ahiravan? What of him?”
“He is defeated for the moment, but one day he may come back again.”
“Perhaps when the stars and planets favor his doing so once more. He will rise from his tomb in the form of Mayiliravan, the avenging and proud peacock, and the only one to be able to defeat him will be Lord Vishnu himself, in his final incarnation as Kalki. No being will survive this battle at the end of the Kali Yuga. But, that will not be the end.”
“What do you mean, Gurudev?”
“After a space of time, the remnants of the world will be gathered together once again in Shesha, who is the container that surrounds all from age to age. Vishnu will emerge from his sleep between the ages, and Brahma will come forth and create the universe anew again. The five-faced great god who emerges from the lotus as the new Brahma will be you, Hanuman, in your next birth.”
“So, what has been the purpose of this errand?”
“Narayan, Narayan! Sometimes you are so naïve, Hanuman! The purpose of this mission has been the same as the purpose of life in general — not to win battles or to seek victory, but to gain knowledge and to serve the gods with devotion. You have served Shri Ram and Lord Vishnu well in accomplishing this new five-faced form; but you have also gained the knowledge of this experience of being five-faced. You may use that five-faced power for protection and even destruction, but you have only learned this to prepare for the time when your five-faced form as Brahman will be used for creation and nurturing of the universe.”
“I see now, great sage! But what of all the people back there who were devoured by Shesha?”
“They will be reborn in time, as foul minds and men of evil intention, trying to revive the worship of Ahiravan in the Kali Yuga. You must do what you can to prevent this whenever they emerge again.”
“But, you were able to liberate some of them from their enthrallment to the demon — what of them?”
“They will be reborn as good souls, men who will fight in the cause of justice and piety in the future.”
“But must all of them have been destroyed?”
“Yes, for their words and the mantras of Ahiravan should never be heard on the earth again, if it can be helped!”
“Have we succeeded?”
Now, the hissing of a thousand serpent tongues like a rush of wind was emitted behind Hanuman and Narad. “No. In the ages to come, a madman from the West will write these accursed names in a Veda of his own.”
“But in the meantime,” Narad concluded, “all is safe. Return to Shri Ram in victory, Hanuman, and say nothing of all this. It is still a long walk, and by the time we arrive, your five-faced form will have diminished and the shakti of the other gods will have departed from you. Lakshman will resume his form when we reach the far shore, and time will begin to move forward as usual, before we all enjoy the sight of Shri Ramachandra once again! Narayan, Narayan!”
It came to pass as Narad said. Hanuman returned to the devoted service of Ram, Lakshman’s wish to see Sita freed from her bondage at last occurred, and the death of Ravan as king of Lanka ended the terrors upon the earth from the asuras for the rest of the ages.
But Narad, ever curious and learned, tried to recall the mantras of the worshippers of Ahiravan only once. He remembered them, and promptly lost his senses for the space of a thousand years, in which he could not even pronounce the name of Lord Narayan correctly, wandering lost in insanity.
Even now, there are forces at work in the world which do not want this story to be known, for fear that it would not promote devotion to Shri Ram and Shri Panchamukha Hanuman, but instead that nefarious forces would instead pervert it to serve the worship of Ahiravan.
There is a sound of kartals at the door now. I must check to see who it is ….
[P Sufenas Virius Lupus, author of The Phillupic Hymns, is one of the founders of the Ekklesía Antínoou, a queer Greco-Roman-Egyptian syncretic group dedicated to the God Antinous. A guest blogger on The Wild Hunt, and a regular columnist at Patheos, Lupus is currently editing a number of anthologies (he’s seeking submissions!) and has recently published The Syncretisms of Antinous (The Red Lotus Library).]