Friday, December 31, 2010

Arabian Nights, Ananda Mimamsa and Happiness













I know an executive whose income runs into several lakhs per month and yet rarely have I seen him smiling.

In contrast, one of the happiest faces I have seen is that of my milkman Ketan. It may be peak winter, as it is now, or it may be raining torrentially as it was a couple of months ago – but he invariably greets me with a cheery good morning as he comes to deliver milk packets every day without fail. In the rainy season he wears a rain coat and goes from house to house to deliver the milk, stopping his bicycle in front of each house and getting down to walk to the front door. His clothes will be drenched in spite of the raincoat and inside the clothes, his body will be drenched. In winter, he would be shivering inside the old windcheater he wears. But that does not reduce his smile or the cheerfulness in his voice.

I made a social visit to a doctor sometime last year. We were friends, sort of. He is on the staff of a large hospital as a fulltime senior doctor, and saw patients at home before he went to the hospital in the morning – private practice. When he came home for lunch, he again saw patients. In the evening when he came back from the hospital, there were more patients waiting for him at home – he spent two or three more hours seeing them then.

When I visited the doctor on that day, he had finished his consultancies for the day and was somewhat relaxed. His wife brought us tea and we talked over the tea. Or rather, he talked and we listened – his wife, my wife and I. And he talked for more than an hour and a half, until I said we had to go, it was getting late, and he reluctantly stopped.

What the doctor talked about for an hour and half was about how his lot was worse than that of a rickshawwalla. Literally. The bitter doctor bickered about how the riskshawwalla makes more money in terms of the investments he has made. Looking back later we found it difficult to believe this, but he had earnestly and sincerely argued for full ninety minutes that he earned less in terms of his investments compared to a rickshaw puller. He spoke of the years he had spent as a student working hard so that he can join medicine, of the years he had spent as a medical student, of the years he had spent as intern, of the years he had spent as a fresh doctor; he spoke of the hours he had to study during each of these years and of the hardships he had to put up with, of the nights of sleep he lost in the process, and of the money he had invested at each stage. What did a rickshaw puller invest, he asked me rhetorically. Wasn’t the rickshawwalla making more money than he was?

0o0

I have always loved the Arabian Nights, right from my childhood days when I read stories of Sindbad, Alladin, Hatim Tai, Harun al Rashid, and of course of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. [Once, some thirty years ago, I took a group of, mostly, executives from two of India’s leading corporate houses for a fifteen-day study and meditation camp in the Himalayas. The executives were all older than me, I was the youngest. I remember the group in a moment of fun naming me Ali Baba and themselves the forty thieves – they were forty in number. I enjoyed it.] I have with me different versions of the Nights and I love picking up a volume and reading a story randomly every now and then.

Yesterday I came across a volume of Powys Mathers’ translation of the Nights in a used books shop and purchased it – I have a particular affection for this translation, done from the literal and complete version of Dr JC Mardrus’ original French translation of the Nights. Later, in the evening, I began reading the volume. One of the stories I read was The Tale of The Two Lives of Sultan Mahmud. This is how the story, told by Scheherazade starting on the eight-hundred and nineteenth night, begins:

“It is related, O auspicious King, that Sultan Mahmud, who was one of the wisest and most glorious of the Egyptian rulers, used often to sit alone in his palace, weighted down by a causeless sadness and beholding the world black before his eyes. At these times, life was tasteless to him and without significance; yes, even though Allah had given him, without stint, health and youth, power and glory, and for his capital, the most delicious city of the earth, where his eyes might ever be rejoiced by flowers, serene skies and women gilded like the waters of the Nile. These gifts were forgotten during the hours of royal sadness and Mahmud envied the lot of drudges bent over the furrow, and travellers lost in the waterless desert.”

One day the sultan was sitting alone, lost in his own dark world. His was more deeply dejected than usual. His inner world was bleak and the world outside looked to him blacker than ever. He refused to eat and drink, or to attend to his duties as king. There was only one thing he desired: that dark object of desire for all men lost in bottomless melancholy – death.

It was then his chief wazir came to him, informing that someone was waiting to meet him – a very old man. “If I may judge by his words,” said the wazir, “he is the greatest sage, the wisest doctor, and the most extraordinary magician who has ever lived among the sons of men.” The sultan silently agreed to meet him.

The withered old man who entered did not kiss the ground in front of the sultan or bow down deeply, as was the custom. Instead he announced in a voice that reflected nothing but authority that he has come to make him, the sultan, conscious of the gifts which Allah had showered upon him. He then took the sultan by hand and dragged him roughly towards one of the four windows of the chamber in which they were. “Open!” he commanded pointing at the window. Obediently Sultan Mahmud opened the window. “Look!” the old man commanded again.

“Sultan Mahmud put his head out of the window and beheld a vast army of riders pouring down upon him from the mountain citadel, and waving naked swords. The first lines had already come to the palace foot and were climbing the walls with a clamour of war and death. Mahmud understood that his troops had mutinied, and came to kill him. He changed colour and cried: ‘There is no God save Allah! This is the hour of my destiny!’”

The old man immediately shut the window and opened it again in a single movement. The army had disappeared now. The whole palace stood enveloped in peace, as did the city around it with its four hundred minarets.

Without giving Sultan Mahmud time to recover, the old man then took him to the second window. What the sultan saw when he opened it and looked out made him recoil in horror. “The four hundred minarets of the mosques, the domes of the palace, the thousand fair terraces stretching as far as the eye could reach, were all one flaming fire, fanned by cries of terror, and belching up black smoke to hide the sun. A savage wind whooped on the flames towards the palace, until the fair building was only cut off from that red ocean by the fresh green of the gardens.” But when the old man shut the window and opened it again, the fire had disappeared and everything stood bathed in serenity everywhere.

Again the old man rushed the sultan to the third window through which he saw a furious Nile rushing towards the city to swallow it up. The waves were so tall that the tallest terraces were already under water and the river was rushing towards the palace in a violent rage. The flood had disappeared when the old man closed the window and opened it again.

What Sultan Mahmud saw through the fourth window to which the old man had dragged him without giving him time to relax was not the green fields that were there, carpeted with roses and sweet basil, narcissus and jasmine, thickets of orange trees. There were no sweet singing birds there that usually filled the whole place with their wonderful music. Instead, Mahmud saw “a red and white desert of terror burned by an inexorable sun; among its aching rocks laired starving jackals and hyenas; vile snakes sped swiftly to and fro upon it.” The sight disappeared and the green reappeared, teeming in flowers and fruits and singing birds as the old man closed and opened the window once again.

Mahmud was now utterly confused and terrified. He was no more sure whether he was awake or asleep, sane or insane. But the old man gave him no time to relax and collect himself. Instead he dragged the sultan to a small fountain that was in the chamber and commanded “Look!” pointing at the water at the base of the fountain. As Mahmud bent down to look into it, two old hands with unbelievable power forced his head under the water.

0o0

Sultan Mahmud now found himself shipwrecked at the foot a mountain that overlooked the sea. He still wore his royal clothes and his crown. At some distance were a group of rough looking people. They were looking at him and making rude gestures. He walked towards the group and announced: “I am Sultan Mahmud. Depart!”

The people laughed at him all the more. The chief of the group came to him and removed his clothes and picked up his crown. He threw the whole lot the sea, and told him, ‘Dress sensibly.” He forced the sultan to wear the coarse farmer’s clothes they were wearing. “Come and work with us,” he told Mahmud, “for in our country those who do not work must starve.”

“I do not know how to work,’ Sultan Mahmud objected. ‘But you can be an ass,’ retorted the man. ‘Anyone can be an ass.”

They dumped all their tools on him and he staggered along behind them, carrying their spades, harrows, pickaxes and rakes. When he reached the village, he was shut into an old stable and given an onion and some stale bread to eat. By the morning, he found that he had turned into an ass – but with all his human memories intact.

In the morning he was taken out for ploughing the field. He refused to budge from his place and they beat him brutally. He brayed in intolerable humiliation and agony. For braying was the only thing he could do now – he was a donkey and had no human speech. Finding him stubborn and useless, the farmers sold him to a miller.

The miller blindfolded him and tied him to the mill, forcing him to turn the mill for hours at a stretch without a break. The miller mercilessly used his goad and stick on him, apart from the constant shower of curses and kicks. His food was a daily ration of beans along with a bucket of water and his only rest was the time he took to eat the beans and drink the water. The former sultan now kept treading along from dawn to dusk turning around the mill, walking in his own dung and urine all the time.

It was five years later that an accident saved from the miller – one day the roof of the mill collapsed on his head. Sultan Mahmud found himself a human being once again.

He now found himself a stranger in an unknown city where an old man spoke kindly to him. The old man enquired if he would be staying in that city for long, adding that he would be welcome there since he was young, strong and handsome. “I would stay in any place where they did not feed me beans,” replied Mahmud.

The old man assured him that he does not have to worry on that account – he would be eating the best food possible every day of his life. “Now,” he continued, “go and stand outside the hammam at the corner of this street and ask every woman as she comes out if she is married or single. When one tells you she is single, you will become her husband instantly, for that is the law of our land. But be very careful not to omit a single woman from your questioning, or you will find yourself in grave trouble; for that is also the law our land.”

The first female Mahmud saw coming out of the hammam was a pretty girl of thirteen. “This would console me for all my troubles,” he thought. He asked her his question and the girl informed him she had already married a year ago.

The next woman to come out of the hammam was an ugly old hag. Mahmud shivered as he saw her – he had never seen a woman half as monstrous as she was. “I would rather die of hunger or become an ass again than marry this venerable ruin,” he thought. But the old man who had befriended him had talked of the consequences of leaving out any woman who came out of the public bath. He asked his question, and, to his relief, the woman told him she was married.

The next woman to come out was infinitely older and uglier than this one. Mahmud had never seen anything – anything at all – as disgusting as this one was. But he had to ask his question – he had no choice. “Are you married or single?” he asked her in a voice quaking with terror at the prospect of having to marry her. And pat came her reply, “Single, O eye of my eye.”

“I am an ass, good aunt, I am an ass! Look at my ears, look at my tail! Nice old women do not marry asses,” he told her in a begging voice. But she had already fallen in love with him. She was taking steps towards him, her mouth poised for a kiss, her harms spread out to gather him in them. Her hands were now holding his head in them and she was bringing her mouth to his.

Mahmud shook his head in violent disgust. He was finding it difficult to breathe. He fought for air, fought for his life with all his might and with a final frenzied struggle, pulled his head back.

He found he had pulled his head out of the fountain and was struggling to breathe again. He looked around. He was in his palace. His wazir was standing on his right and the old man was on his left. There was one of his favourite slave girls standing in front of him, holding out to him on a gold salver a cup of sherbet that he had commanded a few moments before the wazir had come to him to inform him of the old man wanting to meet him.

Relief flooded him. He was a king. He was not shipwrecked, he was not an ass, he was not the husband of that disgusting old, old woman. Of what a pleasure it was to be a sultan, what a privilege! Sultan Mahmud wanted to shout, he wanted to sing, he wanted to dance for joy.

But the old man had begun speaking to him. “Peace be with you, Sultan Mahmud! I am here to make you conscious of the gifts that Allah has showered upon you.” With that he disappeared, leaving no trace behind, as though he had never existed at all.

Sultan Mahmud fell to his knees, weeping; he banished sorrow from his heart, and being happy, began a life that spread happiness about him.

0o0

The Taittiriya Upanishad has something incredibly beautiful to say about happiness, ananda, which is the ultimate object of search of all beings. It speaks about it in a small section called the Ananda Mimamsa – an enquiry into happiness, a study of happiness.
The Mimamsa asks us to imagine a young man. He is young, he is noble, he is educated, firm in body and strong, and he is the master of the entire earth with all its wealth. Let’s call the highest joy such a man is capable of experiencing a single unit of human happiness, says the Mimamsa.

Multiply that happiness a hundred times, continues the Mimamsa, and that is one unit of happiness of the gandharvas of earth. And a hundred times the happiness of the gandharvas on earth is one unit of the happiness of the celestial gandharvas. And a hundred times the joy of celestial gandharvas is one unit of happiness of the manes and a hundred times that is one unit of happiness of the gods in the transient heavens and a hundred times that, one unit of happiness of the sacrificial gods.

And a hundred times that happiness, says the Upanishad, is the happiness of the gods; and a hundred times that, the happiness of Indra. A hundred times that is one unit of bliss of Brihaspati; and a hundred units of that, one unit of the bliss of Prajapati. The happiness of Prajapati, multiplied one hundred times, is one measure of the bliss of Brahma.

As the Upanishad makes this count, it tells us at each stage: and that is also the bliss of a man versed in wisdom and free from desires. That is, the young man, cultured, educated, healthy, owning the entire earth with all its wealth experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Indra experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Nor does Brihaspati, Prajapati or Brahma experience any more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires.

The highest happiness belongs to a man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. A man who has learnt to accept things as they are and surrender to them. A man who is not a victim to the fires of insatiable desire.

As the cheery smile and happy greeting of my milkman shows, one can be happy in the most ordinary circumstances too.

And as the instance of the executive who makes several lakhs every month shows, and as the instance of my doctor friend who feels he is less fortunate than the rikshaw puller shows, one need not necessarily be happy in the middle of riches.

A sultan can be unhappy too, until he learns to count his good fortunes.

Happiness comes from being contented and accepting. Where there is no contentment or acceptance, there is no happiness.

Years ago a Christian nun who was then my student gifted to me a copy of the Bible. Giving the book to me she wrote on the front page, quoting the Bible itself: “Happy the man who finds wisdom.”

Wisdom is finding contentment. Wisdom is finding acceptance. Wisdom is counting one’s blessings.

It is not the rich man that finds happiness. It is not the powerful man that finds happiness. It is not the famous man that finds happiness.

It is only the wise man that finds happiness.

Happiness is finding contentment. Happiness is finding acceptance. Happiness is counting one’s blessings.

0o0














I know an executive whose income runs into several lakhs per month and yet rarely have I seen him smiling.

In contrast, one of the happiest faces I have seen is that of my milkman Ketan. It may be peak winter, as it is now, or it may be raining torrentially as it was a couple of months ago – but he invariably greets me with a cheery good morning as he comes to deliver milk packets every day without fail. In the rainy season he wears a rain coat and goes from house to house to deliver the milk, stopping his bicycle in front of each house and getting down to walk to the front door. His clothes will be drenched in spite of the raincoat and inside the clothes, his body will be drenched. In winter, he would be shivering inside the old windcheater he wears. But that does not reduce his smile or the cheerfulness in his voice.

I made a social visit to a doctor sometime last year. We were friends, sort of. He is on the staff of a large hospital as a fulltime senior doctor, and saw patients at home before he went to the hospital in the morning – private practice. When he came home for lunch, he again saw patients. In the evening when he came back from the hospital, there were more patients waiting for him at home – he spent two or three more hours seeing them then.

When I visited the doctor on that day, he had finished his consultancies for the day and was somewhat relaxed. His wife brought us tea and we talked over the tea. Or rather, he talked and we listened – his wife, my wife and I. And he talked for more than an hour and a half, until I said we had to go, it was getting late, and he reluctantly stopped.

What the doctor talked about for an hour and half was about how his lot was worse than that of a rickshawwalla. Literally. The bitter doctor bickered about how the riskshawwalla makes more money in terms of the investments he has made. Looking back later we found it difficult to believe this, but he had earnestly and sincerely argued for full ninety minutes that he earned less in terms of his investments compared to a rickshaw puller. He spoke of the years he had spent as a student working hard so that he can join medicine, of the years he had spent as a medical student, of the years he had spent as intern, of the years he had spent as a fresh doctor; he spoke of the hours he had to study during each of these years and of the hardships he had to put up with, of the nights of sleep he lost in the process, and of the money he had invested at each stage. What did a rickshaw puller invest, he asked me rhetorically. Wasn’t the rickshawwalla making more money than he was?

0o0

I have always loved the Arabian Nights, right from my childhood days when I read stories of Sindbad, Alladin, Hatim Tai, Harun al Rashid, and of course of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. [Once, some thirty years ago, I took a group of, mostly, executives from two of India’s leading corporate houses for a fifteen-day study and meditation camp in the Himalayas. The executives were all older than me, I was the youngest. I remember the group in a moment of fun naming me Ali Baba and themselves the forty thieves – they were forty in number. I enjoyed it.] I have with me different versions of the Nights and I love picking up a volume and reading a story randomly every now and then.

Yesterday I came across a volume of Powys Mathers’ translation of the Nights in a used books shop and purchased it – I have a particular affection for this translation, done from the literal and complete version of Dr JC Mardrus’ original French translation of the Nights. Later, in the evening, I began reading the volume. One of the stories I read was The Tale of The Two Lives of Sultan Mahmud. This is how the story, told by Scheherazade starting on the eight-hundred and nineteenth night, begins:

“It is related, O auspicious King, that Sultan Mahmud, who was one of the wisest and most glorious of the Egyptian rulers, used often to sit alone in his palace, weighted down by a causeless sadness and beholding the world black before his eyes. At these times, life was tasteless to him and without significance; yes, even though Allah had given him, without stint, health and youth, power and glory, and for his capital, the most delicious city of the earth, where his eyes might ever be rejoiced by flowers, serene skies and women gilded like the waters of the Nile. These gifts were forgotten during the hours of royal sadness and Mahmud envied the lot of drudges bent over the furrow, and travellers lost in the waterless desert.”

One day the sultan was sitting alone, lost in his own dark world. His was more deeply dejected than usual. His inner world was bleak and the world outside looked to him blacker than ever. He refused to eat and drink, or to attend to his duties as king. There was only one thing he desired: that dark object of desire for all men lost in bottomless melancholy – death.

It was then his chief wazir came to him, informing that someone was waiting to meet him – a very old man. “If I may judge by his words,” said the wazir, “he is the greatest sage, the wisest doctor, and the most extraordinary magician who has ever lived among the sons of men.” The sultan silently agreed to meet him.

The withered old man who entered did not kiss the ground in front of the sultan or bow down deeply, as was the custom. Instead he announced in a voice that reflected nothing but authority that he has come to make him, the sultan, conscious of the gifts which Allah had showered upon him. He then took the sultan by hand and dragged him roughly towards one of the four windows of the chamber in which they were. “Open!” he commanded pointing at the window. Obediently Sultan Mahmud opened the window. “Look!” the old man commanded again.

“Sultan Mahmud put his head out of the window and beheld a vast army of riders pouring down upon him from the mountain citadel, and waving naked swords. The first lines had already come to the palace foot and were climbing the walls with a clamour of war and death. Mahmud understood that his troops had mutinied, and came to kill him. He changed colour and cried: ‘There is no God save Allah! This is the hour of my destiny!’”

The old man immediately shut the window and opened it again in a single movement. The army had disappeared now. The whole palace stood enveloped in peace, as did the city around it with its four hundred minarets.

Without giving Sultan Mahmud time to recover, the old man then took him to the second window. What the sultan saw when he opened it and looked out made him recoil in horror. “The four hundred minarets of the mosques, the domes of the palace, the thousand fair terraces stretching as far as the eye could reach, were all one flaming fire, fanned by cries of terror, and belching up black smoke to hide the sun. A savage wind whooped on the flames towards the palace, until the fair building was only cut off from that red ocean by the fresh green of the gardens.” But when the old man shut the window and opened it again, the fire had disappeared and everything stood bathed in serenity everywhere.

Again the old man rushed the sultan to the third window through which he saw a furious Nile rushing towards the city to swallow it up. The waves were so tall that the tallest terraces were already under water and the river was rushing towards the palace in a violent rage. The flood had disappeared when the old man closed the window and opened it again.

What Sultan Mahmud saw through the fourth window to which the old man had dragged him without giving him time to relax was not the green fields that were there, carpeted with roses and sweet basil, narcissus and jasmine, thickets of orange trees. There were no sweet singing birds there that usually filled the whole place with their wonderful music. Instead, Mahmud saw “a red and white desert of terror burned by an inexorable sun; among its aching rocks laired starving jackals and hyenas; vile snakes sped swiftly to and fro upon it.” The sight disappeared and the green reappeared, teeming in flowers and fruits and singing birds as the old man closed and opened the window once again.

Mahmud was now utterly confused and terrified. He was no more sure whether he was awake or asleep, sane or insane. But the old man gave him no time to relax and collect himself. Instead he dragged the sultan to a small fountain that was in the chamber and commanded “Look!” pointing at the water at the base of the fountain. As Mahmud bent down to look into it, two old hands with unbelievable power forced his head under the water.

0o0

Sultan Mahmud now found himself shipwrecked at the foot a mountain that overlooked the sea. He still wore his royal clothes and his crown. At some distance were a group of rough looking people. They were looking at him and making rude gestures. He walked towards the group and announced: “I am Sultan Mahmud. Depart!”

The people laughed at him all the more. The chief of the group came to him and removed his clothes and picked up his crown. He threw the whole lot the sea, and told him, ‘Dress sensibly.” He forced the sultan to wear the coarse farmer’s clothes they were wearing. “Come and work with us,” he told Mahmud, “for in our country those who do not work must starve.”

“I do not know how to work,’ Sultan Mahmud objected. ‘But you can be an ass,’ retorted the man. ‘Anyone can be an ass.”

They dumped all their tools on him and he staggered along behind them, carrying their spades, harrows, pickaxes and rakes. When he reached the village, he was shut into an old stable and given an onion and some stale bread to eat. By the morning, he found that he had turned into an ass – but with all his human memories intact.

In the morning he was taken out for ploughing the field. He refused to budge from his place and they beat him brutally. He brayed in intolerable humiliation and agony. For braying was the only thing he could do now – he was a donkey and had no human speech. Finding him stubborn and useless, the farmers sold him to a miller.

The miller blindfolded him and tied him to the mill, forcing him to turn the mill for hours at a stretch without a break. The miller mercilessly used his goad and stick on him, apart from the constant shower of curses and kicks. His food was a daily ration of beans along with a bucket of water and his only rest was the time he took to eat the beans and drink the water. The former sultan now kept treading along from dawn to dusk turning around the mill, walking in his own dung and urine all the time.

It was five years later that an accident saved from the miller – one day the roof of the mill collapsed on his head. Sultan Mahmud found himself a human being once again.

He now found himself a stranger in an unknown city where an old man spoke kindly to him. The old man enquired if he would be staying in that city for long, adding that he would be welcome there since he was young, strong and handsome. “I would stay in any place where they did not feed me beans,” replied Mahmud.

The old man assured him that he does not have to worry on that account – he would be eating the best food possible every day of his life. “Now,” he continued, “go and stand outside the hammam at the corner of this street and ask every woman as she comes out if she is married or single. When one tells you she is single, you will become her husband instantly, for that is the law of our land. But be very careful not to omit a single woman from your questioning, or you will find yourself in grave trouble; for that is also the law our land.”

The first female Mahmud saw coming out of the hammam was a pretty girl of thirteen. “This would console me for all my troubles,” he thought. He asked her his question and the girl informed him she had already married a year ago.

The next woman to come out of the hammam was an ugly old hag. Mahmud shivered as he saw her – he had never seen a woman half as monstrous as she was. “I would rather die of hunger or become an ass again than marry this venerable ruin,” he thought. But the old man who had befriended him had talked of the consequences of leaving out any woman who came out of the public bath. He asked his question, and, to his relief, the woman told him she was married.

The next woman to come out was infinitely older and uglier than this one. Mahmud had never seen anything – anything at all – as disgusting as this one was. But he had to ask his question – he had no choice. “Are you married or single?” he asked her in a voice quaking with terror at the prospect of having to marry her. And pat came her reply, “Single, O eye of my eye.”

“I am an ass, good aunt, I am an ass! Look at my ears, look at my tail! Nice old women do not marry asses,” he told her in a begging voice. But she had already fallen in love with him. She was taking steps towards him, her mouth poised for a kiss, her harms spread out to gather him in them. Her hands were now holding his head in them and she was bringing her mouth to his.

Mahmud shook his head in violent disgust. He was finding it difficult to breathe. He fought for air, fought for his life with all his might and with a final frenzied struggle, pulled his head back.

He found he had pulled his head out of the fountain and was struggling to breathe again. He looked around. He was in his palace. His wazir was standing on his right and the old man was on his left. There was one of his favourite slave girls standing in front of him, holding out to him on a gold salver a cup of sherbet that he had commanded a few moments before the wazir had come to him to inform him of the old man wanting to meet him.

Relief flooded him. He was a king. He was not shipwrecked, he was not an ass, he was not the husband of that disgusting old, old woman. Of what a pleasure it was to be a sultan, what a privilege! Sultan Mahmud wanted to shout, he wanted to sing, he wanted to dance for joy.

But the old man had begun speaking to him. “Peace be with you, Sultan Mahmud! I am here to make you conscious of the gifts that Allah has showered upon you.” With that he disappeared, leaving no trace behind, as though he had never existed at all.

Sultan Mahmud fell to his knees, weeping; he banished sorrow from his heart, and being happy, began a life that spread happiness about him.

0o0

The Taittiriya Upanishad has something incredibly beautiful to say about bliss, ananda, which is the ultimate object of search of all beings, in a small section called the Ananda Mimamsa – an enquiry into happiness, a study of happiness. The mimamsa asks us to imagine a young man. He is young, he is noble, he is educated, firm in body and strong, and he owns the entire earth with all its wealth. The Upanishad then says let’s call the highest joy such a man is capable of experiencing a single unit of human happiness. Multiply that happiness a hundred times, and that is one unit of happiness of the gandharvas of earth. And a hundred times the happiness of the gandharvas on earth is one unit of the happiness of the celestial gandharvas. And a hundred times the joy of celestial gandharvas is one unit of happiness of the manes and a hundred times that is one unit of happiness of the gods in the temporary heavens and a hundred times that, one unit of happiness of the sacrificial gods; and a hundred times that happiness, says the Upanishad, is the happiness of the gods; and a hundred times that, the happiness of Indra.

A hundred times that, continues the Upanishad, is one unit of bliss of Brihaspati; and a hundred units of that, one unit of the bliss of Prajapati. The happiness of Prajapati, multiplied one hundred times, is one measure of the bliss of Brahma.

As the Upanishad makes this count, it tells us at each stage: and that is also the bliss of a man versed in wisdom and free from desires. That is, the young man, cultured, educated, healthy, owning the entire earth with all its wealth experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Indra experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Nor does Brihaspati, Prajapati or Brahma experience any more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires.

The highest happiness belongs to a man versed in wisdom and is free from desires.

As the cheery smile and happy greeting of my milkman shows, one can be happy in the most ordinary circumstances too.

And as the instance of the executive who makes several lakhs every month shows, and as the instance of my doctor friend who feels he is less fortunate than the rikshaw puller shows, one need not necessarily be happy in the middle of riches.

A sultan can be unhappy too, until he learns to count his good fortunes.

Happiness comes from being contented and accepting. Where there is no contentment or acceptance, there is no happiness.

Years ago a Christian nun who was then my student gifted to me a copy of the Bible. Giving the book to me she wrote on the front page, quoting the Bible itself: “Happy the man who finds wisdom.”

Wisdom is finding contentment. Wisdom is finding acceptance. Wisdom is counting one’s blessings.

It is not the rich man that finds happiness. It is not the powerful man that finds happiness. It is not the famous man that finds happiness.

It is only the wise man that finds happiness.

Happiness is finding contentment. Happiness is finding acceptance. Happiness is counting one’s blessings.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nalayani: the Past Life of Draupadi


[Translated from the original Sanskrit]

[The Kumbhakonam Edition of the Mahabharata gives us several details that are not available in the KM Ganguli translation of the epic or in the Gita Press edition. The following is one such instance. I believe there is no other English translation of this available at the moment. The passage below constitutes Chapter 212 and 213 of the Adi Parva of the epic in the Kumbhakonam Edition, 1906. In the narrative sequence, these chapters come after Arjuna has won Draupadi, and immediately before all the five Pandava brothers wed her.]

Vyasa Said: Oh king, do not grieve over your daughter becoming wife to all five Pandavas. Her mother had earlier prayed that Draupadi should become the wife of five men. Yaja and Upayaja, constantly engaged in dharma, made it possible through their tapas that she should have five husbands and that is how Draupadi was attained by the five Pandavas as their wife.

It is now time for your whole family to celebrate. For in the whole world there is no one superior to you and you are now invincible – no one in the whole world has the power to defeat you. Let me explain further how she attained five husbands. Listen to me, your heart free from sorrow.

In another lifetime, your daughter was called Nalayani, a woman of impeccable virtue. She served her husband Maudgalya, an old leper, with great devotion. The man was mere bones and skin, bitter by nature, lustful, jealous and prone to quick rages. He stank terribly – his body emitted every foul smell. Advanced in age, his skin was wrinkled, his whole body crooked. His head had grown bald and his skin and nails had begun to wear off. Nalayani served her husband who practiced severe penances; she lived by eating his left over food.

Then one day, while he was eating, his thumb fell off into the food. Without the least hesitation, Nalayani removed it from the food and ate the leftover food. The man, who had the power to do as he wished, was pleased with this. He asked her to ask for a boon.

“I am not old or evil-tempered, nor jealous or hot tempered,” he told her. “My body does not smell, nor am I short in height or lust-filled. My blessings on you, beloved. Now tell me how I can delight you and where you wish to live and enjoy. I shall do all that you wish, tell me whatever is in your mind.”
When he repeatedly asked her to ask for a boon, she asked for one.

Maudgalya was a man of pure actions and he was now pleased with her. He had the power to give boons and he gave all one wished. So Nalayani of blameless beauty told her husband: “O lord, unthinkable are your powers. May you attain great fame in the world by dividing yourself into five and pleasuring me in all those five forms! And after that I want you to become one again and continue to pleasure me.”

“Let it be so!” the great seer Maudgalya of surpassing spiritual power told Nalayani of beautiful hair and alluring smile. He then turned himself into five and pleasured her in those five forms in every imaginable way.

He then spent time in the ashrams of sages worshipped by them, moving from one ashram to the other, assuming any form he desired. He went to the world of the gods and there moved among the celestial sages taking her with him. He lived as a guest in the palace of Indra, worshipped by Shachi, his food the ambrosia of the gods.

Desiring to enjoy pleasures with Nalayani, also known as Mahendrasena, he, the great lord, boarded the divine chariot of the sun god and moved around with her. He then went to Mt Meru and started living on the mountain. He dived into the celestial Ganga with her. He lived in the rays of the moon as the never-ceasing wind does.

When the great sage took on the shape of a mountain range, because of his ascetic power she became a great river in the middle of the mountains. When the sage transformed himself into a sal tree full of flowers, she attained the form of a creeper and wound herself around him. Every time he assumed a body, she traveled with her husband assuming a similar body. And so living, her love for him and his love for her increased in equal measure. The great sage continuously reveled with her using his yogic powers and she, as Divine Will would have it, gave him pleasures in turn.

All this time, she remained the sage’s single wife, like Arundhati to Vasishtha and Sita to Rama, and like them entirely devoted to her husband. In this respect, she became nobler than Damayanti’s mother. Her mind became totally engrossed in the great brahmana Maudgalya, as though her soul itself had merged with him, and it never wavered from him.

This, oh great king, is the truth and for that reason, never think of it in other ways. It is this Nalayani who is born as your daughter Krishnaa from the sacrificial pit, as some divine plan would have it.

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Drupada said: Great brahmana, best knower of all scriptures, tell me the reason why the auspicious Nalayani took birth in my sacrifice.

Vyasa said: Listen to me, King, of how Lord Rudra gave her a boon and why the glorious one was born in your house. Let me tell you more of Krishnaa’s former life story.

Famous by the name Indrasena, the noble Nalayani travelled around with her husband Maudgalya, no worries in her mind. For Maudgalya, those years of reveling with her passed like moments. And then one day, after years of enjoying them, the sage lost interest in pleasures. Desiring the highest dharma, his mind was now turned towards brahma-yoga. The great sage, now keen on austerities, abandoned her.

Abandoned by him, oh great king, Nalayani fell to the earth. As she fell, addressing Maudgalya, she said: “Do not abandon me, great sage. I have been enjoying pleasures as my heart desired, and I am still not satisfied with the enjoyment.”

And Maudgalya told her: “You speak to me without any compunction about things that should not be spoken of. And you are causing obstacles on my path of tapas. So listen to what I say. You shall be born on the earth as a princess and will attain great repute. You shall be the daughter of the noble-hearted king of Panchala. You shall then have five renowned men for your husbands. With those handsome men, you shall long enjoy the pleasures of sex.

Vaishampayana said: Cursed thus, the glorious Nalayani became miserable and went to a forest. Still discontented with the enjoyment of pleasures, she worshipped the Lord of the Gods through tapas. She gave up hopes and expectations, fasted with only the air as her food, and following the diurnal course of the sun, began practicing the tapas of the five fires – with the burning sun above her and four burning fires surrounding her. Rudra, the Lord of Beasts, the Great Monarch of all the worlds, the Great God, was pleased with her severe penance and gave her a boon. “You will be reborn again and in that birth you shall be a lustrous woman; and you shall have five renowned men for your husbands. They will all have bodies like that of Indra and in valour too they shall be like Indra. And there you shall achieve for the gods their great work.”

Hearing this, the woman said: “I requested you for one husband. Why have you given me these five husbands? A woman shall have one man. How can a woman belong to many men?”

And the Great Lord said: “You told me five times, repeatedly, to give you a husband. Noble woman, you shall have five husbands and you shall find happiness with all of them.”

The woman replied: “It has been decided long ago that it is the dharma of a woman to have only one husband, whereas it is the dharma of a man, as practiced by many, to have several wives. This is the dharma for women that the sages decided in the past. And it has also been said that a single woman would be the partner of man in religious rituals. And we also see in the world that a woman has a single husband, just as she has a single virginhood – once ended, it never comes back. The smritis allow a second husband to a woman for the purpose of conceiving through niyoga in an exigency. If she goes to a third woman, that is considered a sin and when she has a fourth man, she falls and becomes a prostitute. This is the path of dharma and for that reason I cannot accept many husbands. That is something not seen practiced in the world and how could I be absolved from the sin of corruption if that happens?”

The Great Lord said: “In the past women lived a free life sexually and were considered pure after their monthly periods. It was not just once that you asked me [for a husband]. But having many husbands shall not be against dharma for you.”

The woman replied: “If I am to have many husbands, and if I desire sex [rati] with them all, I request you to grant me that I shall remain a virgin after my unions with each of my husbands. In the past I attained spiritual merit [siddhi] through service to my husband. I also attained desire for sexual pleasures through that service. Grant me that I attain both in my coming birth too.”

The Great Lord said: “Listen to me, auspicious woman. Rati [sexual pleasure/the goddess of sexual pleasure] and Siddhi [spiritual progress/the goddess of spiritual progress] do not enjoy each other’s company. In your next birth too, endowed with great beauty and good fortune, enjoying with your five husbands after regaining your virginity repeatedly, you shall attain great glory. Go now and you will see a man standing in the waters of the Ganga. Woman of beautiful smile, bring him, the lord of the gods, to me.”

When the Great Lord, Rudra, the lord that has become everything, spoke thus, she went round him in reverence and walked towards the Ganga, the river of great merit that flows in the three worlds.

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Translation by Satya Chaitanya