All traditions of the world glorify love as a reflection of the Absolute. The ability to express, feel or to be the recipient of unsullied, selfless love is likened to God himself. A distinction is made however, between love and attachment. In essence, love is defined as a refined emotion that is untouched by selfishness and the desire for self-gratification. Love hence becomes a relationship of the spirit. Attachment on the other hand, is an emotion that finds its basis in the need for self-gratification and is therefore riddled with delusions. Attachment unlike love, entrenches man further in the carnal. No matter how deep an attachment, it always seems to end in misery. Purūravā, a noble king of the lunar dynasty, is a classic exemplar of how attachment results in the undoing of man.
Purāravā was born to Budha, the son of the moon, and Ilā, a king who had been magically transformed into a lady by the power of lord Śiva. Ilā or Sudyumna as he was known in his male persona, ascended to heaven, leaving behind his kingdom to Purūravā’s care. Purāravā proved to be an exemplary king. He was just, wise, valorous, generous, compassionate and righteous. He pleased his subjects with his exceptional rule and pleased the Gods with sacrifices. He gained such popularity, word of his greatness reached the ears of the apsara (celestial damsel), Ūrvaśī, and she became smitten with him. As fate would have it, Ūrvaśī was cursed by Brahmā to descend upon earth, and she chose Purūravā to be her earthly husband. She however laid down three conditions and said that transgressing them would mean the end of their marital union. Her first stipulation was that Purūravā must care for and protect two sheep kids that she considered dear as sons. Her second condition was that she would subsist on a diet of nothing but clarified butter. The third was that Purūravā and Ūrvaśī were not to see each other nude, unless when engaged in coitus.
Smitten with the celestial beauty, the king agreed to her conditions and married her. Many years rolled by with Purūravā attached solely to Ūrvaśī. His kingdom and dedication to politics and citizenry were all forgotten. He became so overcome with attachment, he could scarce spend a minute away from her.
In the interim, Indra, the king of the celestials, began growing uneasy with Ūrvaśī’s long absence from his kingdom. He commissioned the gandharvas to bring Ūrvaśī back at any cost. Recognizing that the apsara could not be lured away from the besotted king easily, they stole the kid sheep left in Purūravā’s care. As the gandharvas rose in the air along with the kid sheep, they began to bleat piteously, awaking Ūrvaśī. Alarmed, she awakened the king and said to him, “we had a pact, O’ king. The two kids are like sons to me. Yet you rest in sweet slumber, as they are being abducted. Alas, I have been undone by an unworthy husband, who merely poses to be a man.”
The king was greatly distressed upon hearing his queen wail thus. Unmindful of his nakedness, the king made after the fleeing gandharvas. The vile gandharvas flashed lightning at that instant, and the king became visible to Ūrvaśī is all his nakedness. Having cast eyes upon her husband’s nudity, the divine damsel recognized that the conditions of her marital union were violated. She was left with little choice but to return to the celestial realm, leaving the king distraught.
Purūravā became delirious with yearning. He searched for Ūrvaśī everywhere, wandering the globe frantically. He reached Kurukṣetra and there by the lake, Anyatāplekṣa, he identified Ūrvaśī in the company of other nymphs. Both relieved and tormented at her sight, Purūravā began pleading with her, “darling, you are not to abandon me thus. I am supremely attached to you. I know I am dear to you, and you know me to be faultless in this eventuality. Should you abandon me, the body that you once embraced lovingly will perish right here. It will lay lifeless, a feast to wolves and crows.”
Ūrvaśī was overcome by compassion for the delirious king. She began to admonish him. She said to him, “king, do not die. I did not run away from you. There can be no friendship with womenfolk, for wily women verily are like wolves that feast on your flesh. Kings must take care to not place their trust in women or in thieves. Return home now and find peace.”
इत्येवं बोधितो राजा न विवेदात्ममोहितः।
दुःखं च परमं प्राप्तः स्वैरिणीस्नेहयन्त्रितः॥
ityevaṁ bodhito rājā na vivedātmamohitaḥ|
duḥkhaṁ ca paramaṁ prāptaḥ svairiṇīsnehayantritaḥ||
Although urged thus, the king was oblivious to reality for he was deluded. Bound by the wiles of the bold damsel, he attained grievous misery.
Ūrvaśī’s words of wisdom did not mitigate the misery of Purūravā, for he was too attached. Preoccupation with the flesh had driven him to neglect his royal duties and to pursue the object of his gratification. In essence, his desire for his own pleasure had blinded him to reality and to the neglect he had subjected his citizenry to. It is pertinent to note here, Ūrvaśī’s words –
न विश्वासो हि कर्तव्यः स्त्रीषु चौरेषु पार्थिवैः।
na viśvāso hi kartavyaḥ strīṣu caureṣu pārthivaiḥ|
A king ought not to place his trust in women or on thieves.
The celestial nymph was calling the attention of Purūravā to his duties as a king. She was urging him to recognize that his preoccupation with her had divested him of his passion for a just and able rule; the very core of his dhārmic identity. He was thus swept away from his identity with his self and was sucked into an illusory world that left him broken hearted. In the profound sense, this would be the distinction between love and attachment – love redirects one towards his inner reality while attachment veers him away from it. Love stems from the spirit while attachment stems from the need for self-gratification. Love is thus elevating and liberating while attachment is binding and painful in its eventuality.