There was once a perfume merchant who lived in the 3rd century BC called Upagupta. One day, he caught the eye of the beautiful courtesan Vasavadutta. Desiring his audience, she sent her servant to arrange a meeting with him. He declines her invitation to meet him, however, responding enigmatically that he will see her ‘when the right time comes’. Vasavadutta is not to be dissuaded and she continues to seek him, but he would say the same thing, that he will see her when the time comes.
Time goes by when he eventually encounters her, completely by chance, only this time she is far from her most attractive state. For reasons unknown to him, she has had her feet, hands, nose, and ears cut off as she lies waiting for death on the cremation ground. Upon seeing her he says that the right time has come, now that she appears to him in mutilated form. In the version by Rabindranath Tagore, Upagupta finds her on the remote outskirts of town, banished from society, completely deformed and covered in revolting pustules.
In these two versions of the tale, the message remains the same. We may arrive at a time in our lives when we will learn the lesson of being free from the various debasements of desire. Achieving this would require the position of detachment through a recognition that all the things we try to hold on to are fundamentally impermanent; looks, wealth, status. Vasavadutta’s mutilated form serves as Upagupta’s literal body of pedagogy, for reflecting on the futility of attachment:
When her body was covered with excellent clothes
and bedecked with variegated ornaments,
then it was better for those who have turned away
from rebirth, and are set on liberation,
not to see her.
But now that she has lost her pride,
her passion and her joy,
and has been wounded with sharp swords—
this is the time to see her form
in its true intrinsic nature.
Why am I sharing this disturbing story? Could there possibly be a feminist revision of such a misogynistic tale? I was in fact teaching it to my students last week when it hit upon me that stories, even as repugnant as these, resonate because some of their particulars about detachment can be useful. For me at least.
There is a person I used to date who, for reasons unknown to me, used to punish me persistently with his passive aggression. Even after cutting all contact, the hurt did not quite disappear. I would have dark days of rumination, wishing that he will be punished with life-long penurious misery and eventual homelessness, hoping that karma will find its way without my hand in it.
Even though I’ve known the story of Upagupta and Vasavadatta for a long time it was only recently when I grasped the ‘meaning’ buried within it. Seeing it through the lens of my own life, it was important to let go of this unhealthy attachment to the past and celebrate my escape from a toxic relationship. Even more important is arriving at a place of detachment, of being indifferent to this person’s fate, even when they find themselves in a profoundly degraded state. Detachment is the best alternative when compassion and kindness are not forthcoming. To get to that place of complete detachment will take a bit of time, however, and when the right time comes, I will be free.
Fuhrmann, Arnika. 2009. Nang Nak—Ghost Wife: Desire, Embodiment, and Buddhist Melancholia in a Contemporary Thai Ghost Film. Discourse Vol 31 No 3 pp. 220-247
Strong, John S. 1992. The Legend and Cult of Upagupta: Sanskrit Buddhism in North India and Southeast Asia