Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parable of the Young Bird and the Termite Salesman

She was young and beautiful. Each of her feathers sparkled. And she loved to use those feathers, to lift herself into the sky on their power. She loved to soar into the open sky. She loved to stretch her wings and float effortlessly in the open sky. Floating with the wind – there was nothing she loved more than that. She loved the freedom it gave her, the experience of boundlessness it gave her. She felt her boundaries melting and herself becoming one with the sky and the wind. As though she did not exist as separate from them, as though was one with them. As though she was not floating in the wind, but was the wind itself. And she sought greater speeds, because the greater the speeds she achieved, the less she existed as separate from existence, and the more she became one with existence. She knew it is for this she was born and there was nothing more important in life to do than this floating in the vastness of the skies.

Then one day it happened. She was perched on a tree pruning her feathers she loved so much after spending hours in the skies. Looking down, she saw a man standing under the tree. I am a white ants salesman, he said – give a feather, take a termite, he said. There was a scheme too, he said – buy one, get one free.

She was hungry from all that flying she had done The sun had been more glorious than ever before, and the winds the strongest. She had spent so much time in the skies that she was truly hungry. She pulled out one of her feathers and gave it to him – she had so many, what difference would one make. She ate the first termite he gave her and she liked the taste. And then she ate the second one too – the one she got in the scheme. The termites were delicious.

The salesman came the next day too, and again she bought a termite paying a feather, and got one free. Yummy termites! Soon this became a habit with her. And soon she grew addicted to eating termites. One by one, she kept giving the salesman her feathers.

Flight was not that easy or effortless now. She really had to struggle. She found it difficult to float in the skies, or even to soar into the skies. The blue sky was now something she preferred to sit and watch from the tree, to which she could somehow just manage to fly up from the ground to which she came down for food.

And then came a time when all she could do was hop on the ground.

Food was scarce under the tree on which she lived. She had to cover long distances to fill her stomach. One day in her search for food she came across a huge termite hill. Thousands and thousands of white ants! She ate to her fill. And then it occurred to her – she could give back two for each of the termites she had eaten and buy back her wings. Maybe three or four for each, if needed!

She saw the man who sold termites passing by. She called out to him aloud: “Enough. I have had enough of termites. You take your termites back and give me my feathers back.”

The man who sold termites said: “I sell termites for feathers. I don’t buy termites paying feathers.”

It was too late. The young bird had forever lost his freedom. He had given away his sky.

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Life is often like that. We sacrifice lasting good for immediate satisfaction. And we regret later, when it is too late.

The Upanishads use two beautiful words to describe this truth of life: shreyas and preyas. And, says the Katha Upanishad, at each juncture in our life, we are confronted by the choice between them. Fools take the path of preyas, of immediate satisfaction – it is so wide and smooth, so well-travelled. And it is only the rare brave man that takes the path of Shreyas, lasting good, what is truly valuable, and walk on the path less travelled.

A student of mine has a great job in London. His pay is very good, superb. He earns in a month what most people do not earn in several years. And of course he has to slog for it. Seventeen to eighteen hours a day, officially six days a week, but almost invariably all the seven days. After a whole year in London, the only part of London he has seen the route from his house to his office. He does not know London exists outside this route too.

I wouldn’t have minded that, if it had only been for a while. Why not earn all that you want and then live your life? But no, he now plans to buy a house in London, for which he has to take a loan, and to pay back that loan he has to work harder than ever before. He has more plans – getting a Ferrari is the next item on his agenda. And his agenda is long, I have no doubt.

He has forgotten the skies. It is for the termites that he now lives – bigger and better termites, tastier termites.

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