Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The World of Tamas and Richard Bach

Richard Bach is best known for his Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a tiny book that achieved the ultimate literary success of becoming a cult book for an age. It was the friend, philosopher and guide, the guru, for young people all over the world in the nineteen-seventies. Millions of young men and women were inspired by it and tried to live their lives as the book taught.

Bach’s next book, Illusions, did not achieve the success its predecessor attained. However, the book has at its beginning one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read – a profoundly beautiful story that can mean scores of different things to different people at different times. This is one of my favourite ‘teaching stories’ – I have used it on different occasions as a vehicle to take my students to a variety of truths.

Here is the story reproduced in its entirety:

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.

The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.


This is exactly how the world of tamas is. Those creatures that live at the bottom of the river are living in tamas. When you are dominated by tamas, you refuse to let go, you refuse to change. You unconsciously associate all change with death and all change is anathema to you. You dread it. And in your moral fear, you cling – what you cling to does not matter, but you cling. It could be to the twigs and stones at the bottom of the river. Or it would be to customs and traditions that have lost all meaning. It could be to truths that have become false with the tides of time, to lifestyles that have become irrelevant, to relationships that have ceased to have meaning, to your possessions or to a thousand other things. It could even be to the empty packet of the toothpaste that you bought ten years ago, or to the toothbrush that you stopped using ages ago. But if you are tamasic, you cling to them. Cling to them for your life. And you are terrified of the very thought of letting go. For your mind, steeped in tamas, tells you: “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die.”

Krishna discusses tamas at length in the Bhagavad Gita and contrasts it to the other two gunas – sattva and rajas. Speaking of tamasic knowledge, Krishna says that they do not see even when they see: they see what is not there, and do not see what is there. To them what is real is unreal, and what is unreal is real.

That is what happens when we are under the influence of overpowering tamas. The creatures at the bottom of the river see the ‘messiah’ floating by above them. They hear his words, his exhortations to let go. But all they do is to continue to cling tightly to the twigs and stones at the river bottom. And make legends about a saviour.

I am sure they clung all the more tightly to the twigs and stones when they saw the creature floating downstream and heard him.

Indian culture tells us the story of Indra, the lord of the gods, becoming a pig due to a curse. He lives lifetimes as a pig, enjoying the pleasures of the pig’s life, considering them the highest pleasures, producing numerous children in every lifetime, considering the pig’s world the best of all worlds. The gods come to awaken him, enlighten him. When they tell him he is the lord of the gods, the master of the heavens, and ask him to go back with them to the heavens, he attacks them furiously and drives them away, telling them there can be no life better than that of the pig. As they run away in terror, he moves towards his sow, grunting in triumph.

Life is not meant for clinging, but for letting go. So long as you do not let go, you do not know of other possibilities. When you let go, other possibilities open before you.

When the child leaves its mother’s womb, as Tagore puts it, it is born into the wide open wonderful world.


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