The dream world he awoke in shone like a rainbow. The edges of his vision tinted with a ruby red and the rest of the world before him was a swirling eddy of the prismatic spectrum. Bharat felt as though he was positioned inside a clear cut gem and witnessing the inner workings of the sunlight refracting on its surface. The light was brilliant yet soft and did not sting his eyes but welcomed them like a warming fire, dancing and entrancing.
Deep in slumber Bharat had slipped into a dream. He was not much of a dreamer himself, his day’s work was more exhausting mentally than physically and he often found sleep to be an unconscious relief from the rigours of devotion.
His work, his duty, was as a priest at the local temple and in the homes of the faithful. Performing rituals and rites and the daily mantras of his faith. Funerals, weddings, blessings and festivals were his day to day. He was not the head of the temple, still fulfilling the role of assistant to the more venerable men of the faith though Bharat himself was advancing in years rapidly.
Each morning he would walk along the reddish, dry earth of the streets as the merchants and tradesmen were setting up their stalls, many of whom were becoming familiar and friendly faces. Sometimes he would slip through lesser known alleys to avoid the busy periods, but always greeting those he passed from merchants and their wives to the workers, traders and farmers who came to the services at the temple.
When called for he would travel to a wide clearing that was something of a local park. It held a plateau that overlooked to whole clearing. It had been flattened to create a platform on which a fire could be lit and seen by all in the area. It was part of a sacred ritual and Bharat would light the holy fire and begin a long and enduring supplication of meditation and chanting. Devout citizens would often join this ritual, whilst others would observe with due reverence.
A figure waited patiently ahead of him within the dazzling light. As Bharat watched it grew larger as though coming closer yet not moving at all. The limbs separated from the main body, ten in total. Seven arms, two of which were clasped in the figure’s lap in a meditative pose. The other five drifted at the figures sides as though creating or caught up in the shimmering heat haze that surrounded it. Its three legs were folded beneath it in a seating position on a red and gold embroidered cushion.
As the figure became more defined its black silhouette gave way to crimson skin and luxuriant clothing. The head, with a mane of jet black hair, split into two faces with glowing amber eyes and slivers of flame that lashed out from its mouth.
Bharat hastily prostrated himself before the figure, for he could not fail to recognise the patron deity of his temple, Agni.
The temple dome rose above the city buildings, a landmark for locals and travellers alike. Its steeple, carved in representation of the sacred fire, was seated at the top of the dome and reflected the strong sunlight with its golden surface giving it a radiant brilliance.
Outside the temple was a flat plaza leading to a wide stretch of stairs up which Bharat and any temple visitors would travel, gazing up in awe at its construction.
The outer chamber of the temple was the first area into which Bharat would walk. He would ring a large bell, hung on the ceiling, to announce his arrival before greeting the other priests and early devotees. The stone walls of this part of the temple were painted with murals depicting the stories of the pantheon of gods. Scenes of their greatest triumphs and of their protectorship of the world would inspire those worshippers that passed through. The priests would also use the murals to teach children the tales of heroism that promoted good moral conduct.
Ahead Bharat would step into a shallow pool of water at the entrance of the inner chamber. He would wash his feet, hands and face in the water, bending low and scooping up the clear and pure liquid to cleanse himself with. The water was kept warm by a large brazier placed in the centre of the shallow pool in which a coal fire blazed, lit earlier and attended to by another priest of the temple.
Beyond this lay the inner chamber and focal point of worship. Here the stood the statue of Agni, radiant in golden splendour. As befitted the temple environs Agni was seated in a contemplative posture, one face towards the gathered worshippers. Four arms reached forward to take the prayers of the faithful while the other three reached high to pass them on to the other gods. A viewing gallery surrounded the upper levels of the chamber and allowed devotional people to walk around the deity and admire him from all sides.
“You may rise and look upon me,” the god spoke. Tentatively Bharat complied. As he raised his head he saw that Agni had turned one of his faces towards him and was stunned by the resemblance to his own. Of course his skin was not red, nor as smooth and hansom, but the bone structure, the shape of the eyes and the curve of the lips were so similar as to be impossible. Bharat also felt a familiarity in the sound of the god’s voice.
“I speak to you, Bharat, using your own face that you may not be overawed by the face with which I converse with the immortals.” The god explained, Bharat was not surprised that the god knew his thoughts, if the god was not able to read minds, as he surely could, he would have known Bharat’s personality from the years of prayer and sacrificial offerings he had given.
“What is it you wish with me, oh great Agni?” Bharat inquired. The ‘oh great’ felt strange and over pious, but he had never spoken face to face with a deity before and had no clue as to the expected etiquette.
“I have a charge for you.”
“Anything you desire, great one.” Responded Bharat, his devotion had been built upon for years and he felt sure that there was nothing he wouldn’t sacrifice for Agni. To do so would be an incredible honour, to have his life take on a definitive meaning, to be one who aided the gods.
Bharat dedicated his time to discourse on matters of faith, guiding prayer services and assisting in the rituals for festivals and other seasonal events. His life had been spent in servitude to his faith, memorizing the history of the gods and learning the meanings and values those tales imparted on the people.
Sometimes he was called upon to visit homes for funereal rites or a marriage or to provide succour to the sick and lame unable to attend the temple. Such visits were often friendly but rigid in function. The people of these homes knew he was there for a purpose and treated him as they might a skilled labourer. The visits would involve the relevant service and often counselling on matters of faith and morality.
At dusk, as the sun drifted below the grandeur of the temple dome, Bharat would make his way home through the emptying streets. He would, on occasion, catch a peddler or other stall owner before they closed shop and purchase something for an evening meal with his priestly salary. At home he would perform a few personal devotional rituals before resting a weary head on his bed.
“Bharat. I seek someone to become my avatar that they may undertake a great and perilous journey.”
“An avatar?” Bharat was astonished, the avatars were messengers of the gods who had come in times of strife in the guises of fish and birds and great monsters.
“Indeed, to accept an aspect of myself into your body. Your will, will become my will, your mind, will become my mind and your strength, will become my strength.”
Bharat trembled slightly. To be trusted with the power of a god! He yearned to ask ‘why him?’ Why should he of all people be the chosen one? Even if Agni had only wished to choose from the devout priests there were more suitable candidates than himself, a swami or the Brahmin. Desperately he suppressed the question, he did not want to lose this chance and he knew he should never question a god’s judgement.
“I would be given some of your power?”
“No,” came Agni’s response. “Be aware devout one, that it is your power that will be given to me. As an avatar your body will house an aspect of my being. It will be in control and will carry out its mandate.”
“I’m giving up my body!?” Bharat uttered.
“The choice is yours to make. I will find another if necessary.”
Bharat lived a comfortable life. His home, whilst modest, was nestled in a suburb of a great city that buzzed with the passing of locals and tradesmen for many miles around. A large multicultural element had begun to arrive in the city as the roads of the country had been improved and the national guards had begun to employ a more visual presence on them.
Central city dwellers were treated to a cornucopia of delights in the market places were exotic foodstuffs joined the usual dazzling array of spices and meat. The outskirts suffered under the enormous influx and had developed into a slum as people huddled as close as they could to civilisation regardless of their financial status.
Bharat himself lived in a single room apartment between these two extremes. The suburb that he called home was bustling with activity but still held enough space to allow moments of meditative quiet. He had a basin to wash in and a bed to sleep on. The buildings had grown tall and stood shoulder to shoulder, but retained the structural integrity that came with the solid building material.
Day in and day out Bharat’s life carried on in this manner. And, in a way, he was happy with it. Few times did his mind wander to the ideals of life, to what more there might be to it. There was, however, a feeling deep in his heart that nothing ever changed and though he was thankful that it never changed for the worse he could not help but feel he could see already the entire scope of his life in just one of these days.
The dream had an unusual permanence to it. It did not shift locations or develop in abstract fashions. It was as if Bharat had been plucked from his bed in the night and placed within a crystal room.
He felt fear at the prospect of losing his body. Would he die? Would he remain in this dream forever, alone? Was it worth it? That was the first thing to ascertain, this divine mandate, this mission on which he, no, the avatar was to be sent on. What was it?
“What is the avatar to do?” Bharat asked cautiously, aware of the self-serving nature of the question.
“There is danger abroad. If left unchecked it will grow to consume this world. The avatar is necessary as a hand that may reach beyond our influence, beyond our borders of power.”
“I will not say.”
“And…w-what of me? I-I mean what will become of me?”
“Should you refuse, nothing. You will wake as usual on the morrow. Should you accept the avatar, you will become a part of it. Your spirit will live on in that fashion, but your consciousness will not. When the avatar leaves the mortal world you will be left your body once more. However, should the avatar perish, then so too shall you.
“The avatar can die?”
“In the mortal sense, yes.”
“Is it likely to?”
“The danger is indeed great.”
Thoughts streaked through Bharat’s mind. Thoughts of what he could become, what he could achieve and the release from the everyday. But also thoughts of whether it would truly be him, whether he would want whatever the avatar wanted. And what of the everyday? It wasn’t bad. It shouldn’t be given up so easily. What of the people he saw everyday, the smiles and conversations. The raising hope of those he guided in prayer. And if he gave up his body what of life’s sensations, the smell of the spice markets, the taste of exotic fruits, the feeling of warm clothing on his body…
“I give you my body, oh great Agni.” He had made up his mind. How could he possibly say no to a deity, say no to the call?
“Then approach me and take my hand,” the god extended one of the free arms forward, palm upwards. Bharat approached and slowly, in an attempt to afford the moment the appropriate level of respect, placed his in the deity’s.
His vision swiftly clouded and the familiar warmth of a bed welcomed him, coddling him in unconsciousness. He did not truly wake after that. His mind was only vaguely aware of outside influences as though viewing life through the thickest of fogs.
A feeling of warmth encompassed him. It slid down around his senses to be replaced with the familiar kiss of cool morning air. A faint chittering reminiscent of the chatter of market days swelled up around him. Occasionally a single voice would rise above the rest and he felt as though he could make out the occasional word talking about travel and equipment, of supplies and direction. Soon the heat of the sun washed over his senses and a feeling of open spaces reminiscent of the countryside, far away from the hussle and bussle of city life.