This story is about one particular husband and wife. Although it is from our ancient Puranas, in many ways the story sounds absolutely like twentieth-century American life!
The husband was from the Vaishya, or merchant, class. He was a very rich trader and he used to travel from village to village. One day, he was returning home all alone when he saw a most beautiful woman by the side of the road. He fell in love with her instantly and began meeting with her frequently. People came to know that he was mixing with this woman and they started speaking ill of him. It was too much for his poor wife.
She pleaded with him, “What are you doing? People are saying such evil things about you. Please do not bring shame upon our family! We have been happily married for so many years. We have such beautiful children. Please do not give it all up for this woman.”
Unfortunately, the husband refused to listen to his wife. He continued seeing the woman and even visited her house. For years and years the wife tolerated her husband’s misbehaviour. Finally, she threatened him, “If you will not give up your bad life, then I will do the same thing. I will find a boyfriend!”
The husband did not take his wife seriously. He felt it was acceptable for him to lead an undivine life, but he could not believe that his wife would do the same. He simply disregarded her threat.
The wife was furious. She was ready to kill her husband. Finally she decided that she would carry out her threat and lead an undivine life. She thought that this would make her husband realise how badly he had treated her and he would give up his girlfriend.
The wife found a boyfriend and began inviting him home. She wanted to teach her husband a lesson. Both husband and wife were now enjoying an undivine life. One day the husband came home only to discover his wife’s boyfriend in the house. The husband was infuriated! He struck the boyfriend and wounded him so severely that the boyfriend had to be taken to the doctor. The husband thought that was the end of the matter. After such a thrashing, he was sure the boyfriend would not dare to return.
Unfortunately, the wife started going to the boyfriend’s place. During the day the husband would be with his girlfriend, and at night he would come home only to find that his wife was somewhere else. What a story!
This went on for several years, and then the wife’s boyfriend lost interest in her. He found somebody to take her place. The wife was very sad and disturbed. “O God,” she cried bitterly, “for him I gave up my husband and this is what he has done to me! He has found somebody else!” Then she said to herself, “Ah, it is because I am too old. I am not as beautiful as I was before. That is why he does not want to see me. I cannot regain my lost beauty and I can never get back all the years that I have wasted leading such an undivine life. What am I going to do with my life? I know that I will die soon. Perhaps it is too late for me to become spiritual, but let me see. Let me try to pray and meditate for the brief time that I have left on earth.”
The wife left her home and began wandering at random from place to place, praying and meditating. One day she came upon a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, with a pond in front of it. There, people were reciting verses from the scriptures about Shiva.
She saw a man standing by the pond and she asked him, “What are those people saying?”
“They are praising Lord Shiva,” he replied. “These are verses from the scriptures about Lord Shiva’s greatness and kindness. Lord Shiva forgives each and every person on earth. There is nobody whom Lord Shiva does not forgive.”
“Will he forgive me?” she asked eagerly.
“You heard them chanting, did you not?” said the man.
“Yes, I heard them chanting.”
“That means you are already forgiven.”
“But I have not prayed to Lord Shiva.”
“It does not matter,” the man assured her. “Even if one hears Lord Shiva’s name, one is forgiven. You have been standing here for a long time and you have heard them chanting Lord Shiva’s name over and over, so Lord Shiva has definitely forgiven you.”
“How will I know that I have been forgiven?” the wife asked. “I am so bad! I have done so many wrong things in my life.”
The man explained, “You will see that you have been forgiven when you die. Your soul will go to Lord Shiva’s region, his loka.”
“I will not go to hell for the bad things I have done?”
“No, no, no! Now that you have heard Lord Shiva’s name, you will go directly to Heaven, I promise you.”
In the course of time the wife died and her soul did go to the highest Heaven, as the man had said. She was so happy in that realm.
After some time, she began to make enquiries about her boyfriend, who had also died. The denizens of Heaven said, “He was such a bad fellow! His soul has gone to hell and he is experiencing tremendous suffering.”
“Can you also tell me about my husband?” she asked.
“Your husband and your boyfriend are in the same category,” came the reply. “But since your husband started this wrong movement, his soul is suffering even more powerfully than the soul of your boyfriend. Your husband is the worst culprit, so we have sent him to a particular hell which is infinitely worse than all the others.”
The wife began begging the Heavenly beings, “Please, please, can you not do something to help my husband? After all, we were both equally wrong. It is only by the Grace of Lord Shiva that I am here. I just heard his name at a temple and I was forgiven. It does not seem fair that I should be enjoying Heaven, while my husband should be suffering so much. After all, we were happily married for such a long time. How can I bring my husband’s soul to Heaven? I am ready to pray and meditate. Please tell me what I should do.”
“Nobody will dare to go into that lowest hell,” said the Heavenly beings. “There is nothing we can do.”
“If I pray and meditate, will it make any difference?” asked the wife.
“Yes,” they said. “You can certainly pray and meditate. Who knows, one day Lord Shiva may forgive your husband as he forgave you.”
So the wife started praying and meditating most fervently. After some time, a messenger from Lord Shiva came and said, “Lord Shiva is very pleased with your sincerity. He knows what you want and he will grant you the boon. If you want to descend into the lowest hell to bring back your husband, he will send someone with you. One of the celestial musicians will accompany you. As you were exonerated by hearing Lord Shiva’s devotees chanting his sacred name so devotedly and soulfully, so will your husband be freed from his sins by hearing this musician sing the praises of Lord Shiva. Then you and your husband will be able to stay together in Heaven.”
The wife was overjoyed. She took the celestial musician with her to that worst possible hell. When they reached that unbearable place, the musician sang many songs in praise of Lord Shiva. Hearing them, the husband was absolved of his wrongdoings and he went with his wife to live in Heaven. Because of Lord Shiva’s compassion and forgiveness, these two were accepted into Heaven.
In India, people still believe that no matter what kind of life you lead, as long as you hear people devotedly praying to Lord Shiva or singing songs in praise of him, all your sins will be washed away.