Thursday, December 30, 2010
The Moth and the Candle: A Sufi Fable
“One night the moths gathered together, tormented by the desire to unite themselves with the candle. All of them said: ‘We must find one who can give us some news of that for which we seek so earnestly.’
“One of the moths went to a candle afar off and saw within the light of a candle. He came back and told the others what he had seen, and began to describe the candle as intelligently as he was able to do. But the wise moth, who was chief of their assembly, observed: ‘He has no real information to give us of the candle.’
“Another moth visited the candle. He passed close to the light and drew near to it. With his wings, he touched the flames of that which he desired; the heat of the candle drove him back and he was vanquished. He also returned, and revealed something of the mystery, in explaining a little of what union with the candle meant, but the wise moth said to him: ‘Thine explanation is of no more real worth than that of thy comrade.’
“A third moth rose up, intoxicated with love, to hurl himself violently into the flame of the candle. He threw himself forward and stretched out his antennae toward the flame. As he entered completely into its embrace, his members became red like the flame itself. When the wise moth saw from afar that the candle had identified the moth with itself, and had given to it its own light, he said: ‘This moth has accomplished his desire; but he alone comprehends that to which he has attained. None others knows it, and that is all.’” [Attar’s Fables]
One of the truths the beautiful fable tells us is that there is no way of knowing the Ultimate Truth, except through experiencing it by becoming one with it, no way of knowing God except through experiencing him by becoming one with him . Those who want to experience God must be willing to lose themselves in God. God cannot be known from the outside. He cannot be experienced so long as you are there as different from him. And when you cease to be, when you lose yourself in him, when you become one with him, then and then alone you know him.
Sri Ramakrishna, the great mystic, used to speak of a salt doll that goes to measure the depth of the ocean. But when the doll enters the ocean, it becomes one with the ocean. There is no more any measuring then, there is only a becoming – becoming one with the ocean.
It is this experience of the salt doll becoming one with the ocean that sages from all over the world give voice to in ecstatic words.
Here is Vak Ambhrini, the eloquent poet sage of the Rig Veda giving voice to her experience of becoming one with the Ocean. She says:
“ I move with the Rudras and with the Vasus, I wander with the Adityas and the Vishwadevas. I hold aloft both Mitra and Varuna, and also Indra and Agni and the twin Ashvins.
“I uphold Soma the exuberant; I uphold Tvasta, Pushan, and Bhaga. I endow with wealth the offerer of oblation, the worshipper and the pious presser of the Soma.
“I am the ruling Queen, the amasser of treasures, full of wisdom, first of those who are worthy of worship. That me the Gods have installed in all places, with many homes for me to enter and dwell in.
“Through me alone all eat the food that helps them see, breathe and hear the spoken word. He is not aware of me, yet he dwells in me alone. Listen, you who know! For, the words I speak to you deserve your trust.
It is I who announces the tidings that the gods and men alike rejoice to hear. The man I love, I make mighty in strength. I make him a priest, a sage, or a learned scholar, as I please.
“I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may slay the hater of the words of sacred wisdom. I rouse the people, and make them strive. I have entered the Earth and Heaven, filling everything.
“I give birth to the creator in the heavens atop the world and my own origin is deep in the ocean, in the cosmic waters. From there I permeate all existing worlds, and even touch yonder heavens with my forehead.
“It is my breath that blows as the mighty wind, while I hold together all the worlds.
Beyond the heavens and above the earth I tower, such am I in my might and splendour”.
Yoga is the path to lose yourself so that you can be one with him and know him. Devotion is the path to lose yourself so that you can be one with him and know him. And meditation is the path to lose yourself so that you can be one with him and know him. This losing yourself and knowing him by becoming one with him is also known is jnana, as in jnana-yoga. This is the knowledge that wisdom books from across the world declare as the only knowledge worth knowing.
And another thing that the fable tells us is that there is no way of communicating that experience. To communicate, you must exist as a separate individual. And so long as you exist as a separate individual, you really have nothing to communicate.
Mind is like the moth that goes near it, but cannot experience it. That is why the Upanishads say: yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha – the Ultimate Truth is that from which words return, having not attained, along with the mind.
In fact, the mind is the obstacle in attaining it. It is the mind that stands in the way of our experiencing it. And that is why Zen says there is only one thing to be attained: no-mind. When you attain the no-mind, everything else is already attained.
In the Chhandogya Upanishad, when young Shvetaketu’s father asks him if he had learnt that by which one hears what cannot be heard, by which one perceives what cannot be perceived, by which one knows what cannot be known, it is this knowledge he was talking about.
Just as the mind is the obstacle in knowing the Truth, so too are words obstacles. For it cannot be communicated through words either.
Actually, it cannot be communicated at all. But if there is a means of communicating it, then it is silence. Silence is the nearest means through which communication is possible. And that is why the Sufi sage poet Jalaluddin Rumi rued: “I wonder why I ever thought to use language.”
Silence can communicate it – perhaps. Dance can communicate it – perhaps. Singing can communicate it – perhaps. But certainly not words, not language, not reason, not the intellect.
It is gunge ka gur, sugar in the mouth of the dumb one, as we say in Hindi. When it comes to communicating it, the eyes are without words and words are without eyes – nain bin gira, gir bin naina. Those who have seen it do not speak, and those who speak of it have not seen it, goes a saying in Tamil: kandavar mindatillai, mindavar kandatillai.
The old story of ten blind men and the elephant tells us that each experienced the elephant differently since each felt with his hands a different part of the elephant. The one who felt its leg felt that the elephant is like a pillar. The one who felt its tail felt it is like a broom. The one who felt its stomach felt it is like a rock. And the one who felt its ears felt it is like the winnow. In their case, none of them knows the elephant as it is, but at the same time, everyone of them has some partial knowledge of it. But in the case of God, no partial knowledge is possible. God has no parts, no limbs, no qualities, and therefore the only way to know him is the way the moth experienced the flame in Attar’s fable.
It is for this reason that all theology is wrong and all philosophy is wrong. Because theologies and philosophies are products of the human mind and the mind can never reach it.
A mystic once compared the wisdom of those who have experienced it, like the seers of the Upanishads and mystics from other cultures, and the wisdom of philosophers and theologians. Theologians and philosophers are like a man fast asleep, he said. He has covered himself from feet to head with a thick blanket so that no light can disturb him. And all the windows of his room are closed. And from within his thick blanket, in the room with all the windows closed, fast sleep, he is trying to theorize about the morning. Whereas the seer is awake. He has thrown the blanket off. He has gone to the window and opened it. And he is looking out through it at the rising sun. He can see the glory that is the east. He can see the birds and beasts waking up. He can feel the morning breeze and smell its fragrance. He can see the trees awakening and the plants swinging in the breeze. He can see people going about their different jobs. He can hear the laughter of the children awake and at play.
The arguments of the philosopher and the theologian are like the arguments of the sleeping man. And what the seer is trying to do is to wake us up, so that we will throw the blanket off, get up and go to the window, open it and look out. He is not interested in logic or arguments, nor is he interested in constructing systems of thought. He may use logic, he may use arguments, he may use any other tool available to him, but he is not interested in any of those. His only interest is in waking you up. He has experienced the morning, and he wants you to experience it.
It is in this sense that the wisdom of the east begins with experience and ends in experience – begins with the seer’s experience and ends in our experience.