The Arabian Nights tells us the story of Emir Khalid of Bassorah, renowned for his wisdom, justice and compassion. One day a group of men brought a young man before him, seeking justice. The men said the youth had been caught red-handed stealing from their house.
Emir Khalid looked at the young man. He was extremely handsome and obviously belonged to a good family. His face and eyes spoke of nobility of heart and the way he stood before him showed not the cringing fear of a thief, but of great dignity born of self-respect and honour. Something told the emir there was some deep mystery behind all this; this youth couldn’t be a common thief breaking into people’s houses to steal.
The emir asked the men to loosen the youth’s fetters. He went close to him and asked him, “Is what these men say true? Did you break into their house to steal?” The youth said what the men said was perfectly true, he did break into their house to steal. When the young man spoke, the emir was impressed by his command over himself and the elegance and culture in his speech. “But you do not look like a thief, nor do you speak like one. What made you do this?”
“Greed,” answered the youth. “I was tempted by the rich goods these men have in their house.”
The emir wouldn’t be convinced by his words. His heart screamed all the proof was wrong. This man was innocent.
But the man insisted that it was God’s will that he be punished – Allah must have his reasons, for the All Knowing One is not cruel. His hands should get what they have earned.
Punishment for stealing was to chop off the thief’s hands.
The emir now had no alternatives left. The men of the house had caught the youth red-handed, he had confessed. He sent the youth to the prison.
Announcements were made all over Bassorah, with the man’s name and his crime. His hands would be chopped off the next morning and all who want to witness the event should be present at the place for execution of punishments.
However, he gave secret instructions to the prison guards to keep their eyes and ears open. There had to be some secret here, the emir could not shake this feeling out of his mind. He had been dealing with criminals all his life and this young man certainly was not one of them.
In the loneliness of the prison, in the darkness of the night, the man’s sorrow came out in words. The guards overheard him and reported it to the emir. Come what may, the man was telling himself, he would not betray his beloved. Her honour was greater to him than the loss of his hands.
If there had been any doubts in the mind of the emir, they too were cleared now. He came to the prison the moment he heard from the guards and tried to talk to the man. The emir offered him a good meal and he sat with him and talked to him for an hour. But the man insisted he was a thief and should be punished.
The emir requested the youth to think it over until the morning. In the morning the emir would question him publicly again and all he had to do was deny the crime. The punishment would not be carried out, for the Prophet has said, “In cases of doubt, eschew punishment.”
In the morning at the place of punishment, questioned publicly, the youth gave the emir no chance to give up or defer punishment. He did not relent from his position and insisted on being punished for his crime.
“Perhaps the value of the things you stole is less than a quarter dinar,” proposed the emir. For if such was the case, the man could be let off. “No, it is more than that,” the man insisted.
“Maybe you had part ownership of the things you stole,” the emir suggested again. “No,” said the man.
In his helpless fury, the emir rose from his seat and smote the youth on his face. The young man was giving him no chance to save him.
The public too sensed something was wrong with the story. They looked at the young man and listened to his words, and they were sure he was no thief. Men stood in silence, their heads bent out of the weight of their grief. Women wailed openly, filling the open square with their loud cries.
The executioner raised his sword to chop off the man’s hands.
At that moment there was heard a tearing wail louder than all the other wails together. A young woman’s wail. A tortured, agonised, death-like wail that stilled everything and everyone in the square. Tearing the crowd apart, a young woman of incredible beauty rushed toward the place of execution. “No, no, no!” Her scream shent shivers through the whole crowd.
The executioner’s hand with the risen sword stopped midair. The woman rushed like a storm to the youth and clung to him as though for her very life.
The emir walked forward and questioned her. Yes, she knew the man. He was her lover. Their love was a secret. The night the young man was caught, he had come to meet her in her chamber as they did every night and when he realized he has been heard, he rushed towards the things in the room and gathered them in his hands. When they caught him, he claimed he was a thief. Such was the man’s love for her, he considered her honour greater than the loss of his hands.
The emir’s joy knew no bounds. He gathered the youth in his arms, tears of joy flowing from his eyes. The crowd danced for joy. The girl’s family had no objection to her marrying him. The emir himself gave the girl away to the youth as his wife, with her father’s permission. He also honoured the youth’s integrity with yet another gift – the huge sum of ten thousand dirhems.
The wise man listens not only with his head, but also with his heart. Sometimes even when the head has every reason to believe one thing, if the heart says no, we must listen to it. Especially when it is the matter of an evil deed or an action prompted by greed, lust, jealousy or anger, or an unpleasant duty.
There is a lesser known version of the story of Ahalya and Gautama in the Mahabharata. In this version, the sage asks their son Chirakari to chop off the head of his mother for her sin of adultery with Indra. Chirakari knows that as a son he must obey the words of his father, however shocking the thing he has been asked to do it is. But his heart does not agree with it. There is a big battle between his head and heart, with the result that he does not carry out his father’s order to kill his mother. By then Gautama, who had gone for his ritual bath after giving his son the order of matricide, has a change of heart. He realizes Ahalya cannot perhaps be blamed entirely for what happened, perhaps he himself is as much responsible for it as she is. He comes back running, his heart ready to jump out in dread of what his son might have done. He discovers his son has not yet carried out his order. In great relief he blesses his son and says:
Rage darpe cha mane cha drohe pape cha karmani
Apriye cha kartavye chirakari prashasyate.
“In matters of passion and haughtiness, in matters of wounded feelings and harming others, in evil deeds as well as in duty that is unpleasant, it is the one who delays that deserves praise.”
The heart is often wiser than our head. Give it a hearing, especially when what the head asks us to do is unpleasant.