The Upanishads Elucidated: The Light of Lights (Part 1)

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Editor’s note: Have you heard of Maitreyee’s swayamvar and her quest? Read all about it in this delightful story, second offering in the series ‘The Upanishads Elucidated‘ by Lopa Mukherjee. This series is written to help readers explore the deep wisdom, truth and beauty of the Upanishads through interesting tales and stories. We published the first story in the last issue (read HERE). We present this second story in two parts for the ease of virtual reading.


In a dark forest was an amphitheatre where even the sunlight did not penetrate. It had been abandoned for centuries. Perhaps it was made by the titans before man was born. The king of fireflies had stumbled upon it during a hunting expedition. He and his party of thirty had to synchronise their flickering lights to see the place in detail. But what they saw in the dim light was beyond all description.

The galleries were carved in marble, and the floor was as smooth as a eucalyptus tree’s trunk. After the party had scoured the entire theatre and had found it safe from wasps and lizards, they decided to annex it. The opening ceremony was announced with much pomp and the whole kingdom of fireflies was invited. It would be a swayamvar of princess Maitreyee. The other unmarried damsel fireflies were free to choose their partners too.

The Swayamvar

When the sun went down and night brooded over the forest, a river of flickering lights flew towards the amphitheatre, greens and yellows and an occasional red and blue. The young things were all decked up for the occasion. The ladies wore pollen perfumes, and the men polished their wings. One by one the performers took the centre stage and pulled off their tricks. They flickered in various rhythms, vanishing here, appearing there. The audience flashed their approval.

Some acrobats flew as combat pilots tracing glowing arcs in the sky. One drew a love sign so fast it remained suspended in the air, long enough for twenty-seven damsels to rush for his hand. Twelve of them formed a pyramid that circled round the stage making all giddy with delight. One brave firefly glowed red for 5 whole seconds. Although he was escorted out on a stretcher, little Blush-Me-Not claimed him for her groom.

There were a few accidents, such as one blew out fire, and got singed in the process; another aimed too high and lost fuel mid-air. But on the whole it was a great spectacle. Every young man had a chance to be a hero, every damsel had multiple choices, the parents were proud of their children. Except one.

Princess Maitreyee had clapped and had shouted “Bravo” a hundred times, but had not chosen. The queen had lost some of her glow and the king was glowing red hot with indignation. He would have to invite the non-suitors now, flies who shuffled too much and strutted less, those who lost nerve on stage, those who talked sense forgetting to honour nonsense… in short, bugs, not fireflies.

The king announced,

“Apparently my daughter is looking for a super-hero or a different kind of hero. But let us not end this show poorly. Only one who can surpass these knights of the darkness, step forward. Anyone underperforming will find himself without a head – not forever, just for a while.”

A hum went around the galleries and many wings fluttered in consternation.

Then someone said, “Hush, here he comes.” A deathly silence fell upon the crowd and they saw a light descend from above.

“I never heard of a glowing spider,” exclaimed the queen.

“Because it’s not a spider, but a piece of the moon,” answered the king. “For who else can be so bright for so long? Surely not a flickering fly, like us.”

But the queen had stood up and she observed, “I am afraid, my lord, you are wrong. Indeed it is a firefly, just like us.”

The newcomer had made the princess sit up too. Then when he started speaking, she was on her toes, craning her neck above the other heads. He said,

“You have chosen wisely, princess Maitreyee, for there is one brighter than all you have seen so far.”

The princess took a step forward descending one gallery. The sea of fireflies parted for her as she floated down regally. The king was beside himself with joy, “She has chosen, she has chosen, and I must say it’s better than I could have done.”

“Hush,” whispered his wife, “I don’t think she has chosen yet. She seems to be challenging the bright stranger.”

Who is brighter than the stars, the moon and the sun?

Indeed the princess had crossed her wings as she faced the newcomer on the stage. “Listen, O bringer of good news, I have travelled far and high. I have seen the stars that glow brighter and steadier than the best of glow worms.”

The newcomer interrupted her, “Oh, he shines brighter than the stars.”

Maitreyee was unimpressed, “I have seen the moon.”

To which he replied, “The full moon pales before him.”

Maitreyee stepped forward, “I have seen lightning – that streak of powerful blinding light that connects heaven and earth. Is he brighter than that, O lightning bug?”

“He is,” replied the other, “Brighter than the fire that rages in the lightning’s belly. Brighter than sacrificial fires, kitchen fires, burning torches. Why even the forest fire.”

Maitreyee was now so close to the other his glow illumined her face, “I have seen the sun. What have you to say to that?”

He laughed, “Have you seen the sun shimmering on the ocean as it crosses the horizon’s line?”

She nodded, “Yes. But the reflection is a weak light compared to the sun.”

“Yet doesn’t it set the water alight and create a pathway from where you stand at the bank till the far end of the world? How many suns is that?”

“A dazzling one in the sky, plus so many, almost as bright, on the water.”

“Good. Now add them all together.”

She squinted, as though all the suns were staring at her at once. He smiled at her discomfort, “Well, all those suns are just reflections of his light.”

“No,” she gasped clapping both her wings over her mouth.

“Yes,” he nodded mysteriously.

A journey to look for the brightest of the bright

After a few breaths that made her glow pink, she said, “Where can I find him?”

The king could stand it no further. He blurted out,

“Stop, O stranger, this is enough. I can’t see my daughter burn herself with such a match. The lightning, the fire, the sun can all burn us into cinders. And he who you describe is already making me sweat from wherever he is. Maitreyee, my dear, your suitor stands before you. Choose him and be done with it. He is the brightest of fireflies, I can vouch for it, and I have lived twice as long as you. Whoever you are, O adventurer, would you accept my daughter’s hand?”

“Stop, father,” cried Maitreyee,

“It’s my swayamvar, I get to choose. And I choose him who is brighter than the sun and moon and fire and lightning and stars. Stranger, can you guide me to him?”

The wise one replied, “I can, but it won’t be an easy journey.”

The king shouted, “Stop, stop!” in vain. The queen wailed piteously.

The princess paid them no heed. She said, “I will pierce through the sun if I need to. But now if I don’t find him, my life would be worth a handful of ashes anyway.”

“Alright, let us be off then to the place where the sun shines not, nor the moon, or stars, or lightnings. And what can one say about the fire? All these are reflections of his light, for he casts his effulgence on all.

न तत्र सूर्यो भाति न चन्द्रतारकं नेमा विद्युतो भान्ति कुतोऽयमग्निः।
तमेव भान्तमनुभाति सर्वं तस्य भासा सर्वमिदं विभाति ॥

na tatra sūryo bhāti na candratārakaṁ nemā vidyuto bhānti kuto’yamagniḥ |
tameva bhāntamanubhāti sarvaṁ tasya bhāsā sarvamidaṁ vibhāti ||

~ Kaṭhopaniṣad, 2.2.15

The queen rushed to stop her daughter, but she could hardly move. The damsels who had chosen that day had all arisen and were hovering in the air. “We are coming, we are coming,” they called out. The new bridegrooms also rose up in a throng, “You won’t be alone, we are coming too.” Maitreyee flew beside the stranger, and behind her was a glowing crowd of all ages, eager to find the source of all the lights.

Continued in PART 2

Read the previous story in this series.

~ Design: Beloo Mehra

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