A face burning for love
Updated: Aug 17
Last week I wrote about my chance encounter with the story of Ryonen, who because of her beauty was only accepted as a disciple of Zen after intentionally disfiguring her face with a hot iron.
Curiously, I encountered two stories of facial disfigurement and spirituality in the space of a few days. The second was in the 1978 Bollywood film, Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram - "Beauty, Godliness, Truth"
The film depicts a beautiful woman, Rupa, who as a child suffered a severe burn that leaves half her face permanently scarred. As a consequence, she is shunned by her village and denied the all-important validation of a hand in marriage.
All this changes when Rajeev, a dashing engineer arrives to work on a nearby dam. He overhears her singing and falls madly in love, convinced that such a sound could only belong to a face equally as beautiful. He pursues her affection and she conceals her scar behind a veil. She is torn between her desire for his attention and her intuition that it would disappear the moment her face is revealed.
Stylistically, the film is as colourful as it is melodramatic, at times verging on the psychedelic. It contains a surprising amount of bare flesh for 1970s Bollywood, an expression of India's sexual revolution and a failed attempt to boost ticket sales. The director was taken to court for promoting obscenity, protesting that the countless posters with guns and swords "in a country that propagates non-violence!" was far more harmful. He was eventually vindicated thanks to a clause in the Penal Code stating that aesthetic expression should not be restrained because of "grandma inhibition."
When Rajeev persuades Rupa's father to allow him to marry her, despite her protestations a sumptuous wedding is planned. But when her veil is lifted he is disgusted, convinced he has been tricked into marrying an imposter. He storms out of the wedding and roams the countryside calling her name. She finds him by the waterfall where they first wooed, where she plays into his fantasy of being a different woman, again concealing her scar. She implores him to go home and love his wife, but he is adamant. Each night she meets him as his "mistress" and each day as his "wife" she is spurned.
The story takes countless twists and turns, and the themes are better enjoyed through the lens of myth or fairytale. When Rupa falls pregnant and Rajeev throws his 'unfaithful wife' out of the house, she is forced back to her father's home who dies of disappointment. Rupa swears to never meet Rajeev again as 'mistress.'
This heartbreak erupts into a storm of biblical proportions, and the dam Rajeev has erected breaks. The entire village is threatened and by facing oblivion, Rajeev realises his folly. He finally sees Rupa's true beauty shining through her form.
For the director, the message of the film was that love and faith sanctify a relationship. He opens the film with a shot of a stone by the side of a road, and people decorating the stone with flowers and praying. *"It then becomes their god. What turns a stone into a god? Our love, belief and worship. The message was not understood by all and the film flopped*."
It's easy to feel critical of Rajeev for most of the film, obsessed as he is with superficial beauty. But how many great romances would endure unscathed if faced with a severe disfigurement? Would your beloved be so beloved after an accident that left them unrecognisable?
Facing the truth
Personally, I've enjoyed using these stories as a base for my own self-enquiry. To take time to reflect on each of the following questions, on my own and in dialogue with others. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts if you care to share, by email or in the comments below.
First, take Rajeev's perspective. Think, or imagine someone you love or have loved, and see their face. To what extent do your feelings towards them seem intertwined with how they look? If you imagine this face radically changed, what feelings and thoughts do you notice? What changes, and what stays the same?
An equally rich enquiry is possible from the perspective of Ryonen, or Rupa. What is your relationship with your face? How beautiful do you consider yourself to be, and how beautiful do you experience yourself in the eyes of others?
Can you imagine yourself as so beautiful that others want to connect with you for this reason alone? Can you imagine yourself so beautiful that certain types immediately reject you?
How would your experience of life change if this were to radically change, if most people, (maybe even yourself) were to recoil at the sight of your face? If you are young, imagine your face wrinkled and old, and if you are old remember how it looked when youthful and young.
What would your relationship be like with people who were unaffected by your appearance?
I feel a reticence to really sink into several of these questions, but when I do, some deep-seated tension in my stomach starts to soften, and a deep rumble from the depths is heard. Perhaps the crumbling of an inner dam and deeper waters beginning to flow.
The lover inside all your other lovers
Others have likewise read deeper into the film; When Rupa's veil is lifted at the wedding, so is the veil between worlds. The transition to married life is a transition to loving someone through many changing forms. And so Rajeev sees a vision far more brutal than just her scar; a vision of death. Of course, no beauty can defend "against time's scythe", but unlike Ryonen, Rajeev is unwilling to face "the impermanence of all things."
Rajeev's and Ryonen demonstrate that whether we totally accept or totally reject the impermanence of form, we're liable to do crazy things.
Rajeev becomes delusional, clinging to a fantasy he can only access at night, and by day working meticulously to barricade against the forces of nature, as symbolised by his work on the dam. When the inner and outer storm of his circumstances break he is helplessly immersed in the flow and flux of life.
It is interesting that those overly concerned with appearances are considered 'shallow' and it is when immersed in deep waters that Rajeev is transformed. He risks his life to save those of others, and now willing to confront death, his understanding of life can change.
Zen implores us to "die whilst still alive" and welcome what Rumi calls "the lover inside all your other lovers." By the end of the film, Rajeev realises his disfigured wife at home and his fantasy lover of the night are one and the same.
Fame and bites of roasted meat
So my favourite reading of the film is as an allegory for the Non-Dual path. If you're new to this I'll attempt a one-paragraph summary.
Initially, we are enchanted by the ever-changing forms and figures of this dream-like reality, and pursue happiness in their glimmering allure. But in time it is seen that nothing 'out there' provides enduring satisfaction. The new job, new house, new relationship. None of them brings lasting happiness, partly because in time either they change, we change, or both.
"There is more to want here than being famous, and bites of roasted meat," says Rumi, and so the spiritual quest begins. We might look in temples, in stupas or in shrines, trek from Calcutta to Tibet. We might enquire with gurus and sages, rabbis and priests, but the Non-Dual teaching simply smiles and points back. "That which you are seeking is right where you are."
Your very awareness, the capacity to see what you are seeing right now, hear what you are hearing, feel what you're feeling and think what you're thinking. The unchanging awareness of heat and cold, happiness and misery, old age and youth. This background awareness is the unchanging, untouched and unblemished host to all experience, and the essence of what you are. Consciousness.
Yet to abide only in this "unchanging" realm and ignore what changes is to also miss the point. Because the world and its forms are not only 'in awareness' but a movement 'of awareness.' Content and Context, Formless and Form, Changing and Changeless cannot be divided. So like Rajeev desperately seeking for Rupa at night, what is sought 'out there' is at home all along, and when this is realised, reality remains the same. Only a delusion falls away.
Love's confusing joy
This reading also plays with my question from last week when I asked what an integrated awakening might look like. Rumi touches on this, I think, when he says;
If you want what visible reality can give, you're an employee. If you want the unseen world, you're not living your truth. Both wishes are foolish. But you'll be forgiven for forgetting that what you really want is love's confusing joy.
Initially, Rajeev is stuck seeking perfection in form. He's an employee, one who does not own the fruits of their labour. Then he seeks only 'the unseen world' of nighttime visitations with a fantasy mistress. He is not living his truth, that of a pregnant wife at home. I like that unlike some teachings, Rumi doesn't wrap things up too neatly. What is really sought is perplexing, and can't be understood; Love's confusing joy.
At the end of the film,Rajeev saves Rupa from the flood that has covered the entire valley. The waters subside and they find themselves on top of the temple where he first heard her singing the title tune: Beauty. Godliness. Truth.
"I cheated on you didn't I?" says Rupa. "Your fairy princess turned out to be a scar with scars."
"No" he replies. "My Rupa is very beautiful. See her through my eyes. The lamp of her soul lights up her face. No one in the world is more beautiful than her. "
So that's the story. But what do you think? Does true love exist and can it be realised in this lifetime? Can couples on earth experience spiritual love, or only a paltry imitation, a shadow on Plato's cave? And how do you balance desires for spiritual liberation with desires for "being famous, and bites of roasted meat." I look forward to your comments and perspectives!
I have had enough about moonlight
Meanwhile, Ryonen lived as a nun for another 40 years. When she was about to pass from this world, she wrote one last poem:
Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scene of autumn. I have had enough about moonlight, Ask no more. Only listen to the voice of the pines and cedars when no wind stirs.
Barring tragedy, perhaps it is natural in youth to cling to appearances. The moon can only reflect light, and forms can only be revealed in awareness. So as our own bodies lose their form with age, perhaps it is natural for this clinging to ease.
Come explore with us
I'm going to assume since you've read this far you're rather interested in these topics, so it would be great to explore together! We've got several opportunities coming up, and I'll just mention briefly that I'm excited to confirm Sanjay Manchada is joining us to explain the intricacies of letting go. For me, Sanjay is something of a genius in navigating the paradoxical terrain of personal and universal identity. It's online, Wed 7th Sept. Check events page for all the details.