Once upon a time...
In the village of Kishangarh on the banks of the Yamuna River lived two very different people, let us call them Astik Ram and Nastik Ram. As his name would suggest, Astik Ram was a devout believer in all the scriptures and followed all religious teachings to the letter. There was not a fast that he did not keep, nor did there exist a deity whom he neglected to worship. Neat, clean and moderate in person, habit and speech, he was a model of correctness, and the whole village used to point to him with pride as an example to the world on how to live a correct life.
The other gentleman -- wait, that's too strong a word -- the other person in our story, Mr Nastik Ram, was a bit of a contrast to Astik Ram. Vile of tongue and ugly to look at, he lived a fairly debauched life. No one really liked him much, which suited him since he was quite content to eke out his solitary existence growing his crops, smoking ganja and carousing with itinerant nautch girls in his spare time.
Astik Ram could be seen at the ghat of the Yamuna each morning before sun-up, bathing himself in the holy river, summer or winter. Having performed his bath, he would collect a stone from the river bed, wash it and place it on a rock. Then he would do a complete puja to this Shivling (symbol of Shiva, the mightiest god of the Hindus): wash it with milk and honey, adorn it with a tilak, honour it with flower petals, offer it fruit, sweets and money, chant holy verses and invoke blessings for all living creatures.
Nastik Ram found out about this quite by accident -- he had been out drinking with some of his more unsavoury friends one night and was so high that he couldn't find his way home. He passed out in a thicket near the Yamuna, and was only awakened by the sound of Astik Ram's chanting in the morning. Nursing a massive hangover, he was about to go and tell the pious one to shut up and let him sleep when his curiosity got the better of him. He watched in amazement as Astik Ram performed his morning rituals, and when Astik Ram had left, went over and kicked the metaphorical Shivling back into the river, ate the fruit and sweets, pocketed the money and went merrily on his way.
From that day on this became a regular episode. Each morning, when Astik Ram came to perform his puja, Nastik Ram would be waiting for him in a tree near the bank of the Yamuna River. He would doze or watch while Astik Ram did the rituals, and once Astik Ram had left, he would climb down, desecrate the puja, eat whatever had been offered to Shiva, pocket the offered money and be on his way.
This continued, until one year the gods chose to send down an extra-heavy monsoon. The rain wouldn't stop, and the normally placid Yamuna turned into an angry, destructive beast with a life of its own. It snarled and roared on its way to meet its sister; whole villages were washed away by its fury, and the people of Kishangarh huddled in their huts, praying that they and their crops and livestock would be spared.
When Astik Ram arose in the morning to go to the ghat, his wife was aghast. "Where are you going, my Swami?" she asked.
"To the ghat to do puja", he replied.
"With the river in this state? Forget the ghat, you won't reach anywhere within a 100 metres of the river."
"But I have to do puja! Let me try at least", and saying this Astik Ram stepped out of the house. He hadn't gone very far when he realised the correctness of his wife's concern: the river water had nearly come up to the village, soon he was floundering in a torrent up to his waist, and each step renewed afresh the very real chance of his being completely washed away. He stopped, pondered for a minute, and with a heavy heart returned home. "Today I will do the puja in our garden", he told his wife, who immediately busied herself cooking choice savouries to offer the Gods.
What of Nastik Ram? Not knowing of Astik Ram's change of heart, he was on his way to the ghat as usual. Nearly washed away by the torrent many times, bruised from the logs that the river kept belabouring him with and in mortal fear of his life, he somehow made it to his favourite tree and huddled there, shivering in the cold and hoping Astik Ram would come and do his business soon so that he could get out of this hell and back to his warm hut.
An hour passed.
Many more hours passed.
Eventually he realised that Astik Ram wasn't coming that day, and decided to return home. Now he was faced with a fresh problem; in the hours he had spent on the tree, the river had grown even more violent and would now be over his head if he descended from the tree. Nastik Ram was a reasonably good swimmer, but only a suicidal madman would have tried making any sort of headway in that manic current.
He sat in the tree all day, cold and miserable and wondering if he would ever make it back home again. "I should have chosen a fruit tree instead of this peepal to sit in", he thought as his stomach kept growling from hunger. When the evening approached and the river showed no sign of receding, he started preparing for the night, lashing flexible branches together to make a rude cradle that would prevent him from falling off even if he slept.
Sleep wasn't easy to come by, but after tossing and turning and cursing his luck for what seemed like hours, he eventually did manage to doze off in the early hours of the morning. It seemed that he had barely closed his eyes when he was rudely awakened by a loud noise. Bleary-eyed, he looked up and saw a luminous being sitting facing him in the tree. It looked like a man (if men can be ten feet tall and blue in colour) and seemed to be speaking to him in a voice like thunder.
"Awake!" said the being.
"What the f**k are you doing, waking me up in the middle of the night?" asked Nastik Ram, "Go away and leave me alone."
He turned over to try to fall asleep again, but the luminous being was insistent.
"Listen dude, I don't know who you are and whether you make a practice of ruining peoples' sleep, but we'll discuss that in the morning. Right now I just want to catch some sleep and forget this cold and hunger, we'll have a long chat about your problems over a drink and this great ganja I got from Varanasi later, OK?"
"Oh what the hell, I won't be able to sleep now anyway. Talk, what do you want?" asked Nastik Ram as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
"I am Shiva. Ask me a boon," said Mahadeva.
"Huh? First of all, I don't believe you exist. And even if you did, why would you want to grant me any boons?"
"You are my true follower. Ask a boon and it shall be granted," said Shiva.
"Nono, you've got it all wrong! I don't follow you or anyone, there's been some mistake!"
"Of all those who follow me, you are the most diligent in your practice. Ask me a boon", He reiterated.
Nastik Ram was beginning to see faint glimmerings of understanding now. "Dude, you have it all wrong. The man who practices your religion is Astik Ram, he's the one you want. See that hill over there? If you go towards that you will come to a wheat field. Turn left after the field and then turn left again when you come to the cowshed, he lives..."
Shiva smiled again.
"I do not make mistakes, my child. I am here to grant you a boon. Ask and whatever you want will be yours."
"But why me? Assuming for a moment that you're Shiva, don't you know that I crap on your symbol, eat your food and steal your money? And yet to want to give me a boon... something doesn't seem right here," Astik Ram insisted.
"What you believe is not important, only your consistency and determination can win me over," explained Mahadeva, "The man who would risk his life and undergo immense hardship rather than abandon his path is my only true follower."
He smiled again.
"Ask me a boon."
And Nastik Ram did, but that's another story.
I can't remember whom I heard this story from some years back. If anyone knows the origin please contact me at other.one.percent (at) gmail (dot) com .