India has been the land of stories from time immemorial. I believe that the Indian tradition believes a lot in story telling as they can be a good way of passing knowledge from one generation to another. I have yet to meet an Indian whose life has not been influenced by the stories that he has heard from his parents/grand-parents/uncles/aunts. The following is one of the stories that I heard. Over the years, I have understood its true meaning.
Once upon a time in a rich and powerful kingdom lived a man. He was the greatest warrior that the people had ever seen, and his exploits in the battlefield were known far and wide. His bravery and fortitude in face the face of battle was so famous, that no wonder he was soon elevated as the commander-in-chief of the king’s army. Being in such a high position, he was bestowed with the best that the king had to offer – in the form of servants, luxuries, wealth, and stunning palace – where he lived with his beautiful wife.
Every day, at the break of dawn, the general would practice the art of war craft in his palace’s courtyard as his wife watched from one of hidden balconies above. This routine followed for many years and each day the general emerged victorious in his make belief war games. There was no one in and around the kingdom who could defeat the general and his reputation continued to increase many folds. Each day as his practiced his wife would silently watch and when he emerged a winner, she would earnestly thank god and feel the pride of being a consort to such a great man. Life couldn’t have been more beautiful.
Up until one day…
One morning, as the wife watched her husband’s daily exercise, she was aghast to see him loose. When he returned back to his retiring chambers, she saw him disheveled and asked him what was amiss. He didn’t reply and continued with his other activities of the day. The wife dismissed this incident, thinking that her husband might not have been in good health. However, the doubt had set itself deep inside her. The next day she woke up anxiously to watch her husband practice his skills again, with an element of doubt for the inevitable. As she had suspected, her husband lost again. Upon his return she confronted him again, and was turned down without a reply or explanation. This continued for many days at a stretch. The woman, a dutiful wife was genuinely worried for her husband’s well being and status, so she continued to dog him with the same question again and again each day.
Then one day the general gave in to his wife’s continuous interrogation. He told her that many months ago, he had been invited to the King’s private chambers. While he was on the way, he happened to pass the royal swimming pool, where the king’s daughter (the princess) was swimming. He told his wife that he had never seen such a beauty in his life and since that day the image of the princess swimming was etched in his mind and no matter how much he tried he couldn’t remove it from his memory. He told his wife, that he was embarrassed to even have such a thought when he had such a beautiful, loyal, and dutiful wife as herself. And this had made him feel guilty and he couldn’t concentrate on his battle exercises. Thus he was losing each time.
The general’s wife was shocked at this revelation, but she empathized with her husband. He was known for honor and self-discipline, and the very act of owning up to his faults and feeling guilty about his actions, was enough to convince her that her husband was a truthful person and needed help. She was determined to help her husband out of this problem. She asked him how she could do that. The general replied “I have a strong urge to consummate with the princess”, and continued “however, I know that it’s not ethical since I am married and also because the king would be extremely displeased with this act.” The wife thought deeply about this dilemma, and replied “My lord, I love you and whatever brings happiness and peace to you is good for me…but you are right that the king would not be happy with this affair”. She continued, “And also it would be impossible for you to reach the princess on your own”. She requested her husband to give her time to think this over more deeply and then provide a solution to him.
A few days later, she called upon the general and explained her plan. She told him that they would go into a self-exile from the kingdom and settle far away from it. She would then return back and enroll as a slave to the princess. Thus, she would work for the princess and gain her confidence. She would tell the princess about a man who loves her deeply. Once she has the princess’ trust she will bring her to the assigned location where the general can meet her. This way, she believed that her husband’s wish will be fulfilled. As for her, she would be happy that her husband is at peace with himself.
The planned seem too fantastic to be true, but the general’s situation wasn’t getting any better, so he reluctantly agreed for it. And so, the couple left the kingdom. After a few days of traveling they came across an old dilapidated temple where they stopped for rest. The lady told her husband that this was a good place where he could spend the time while she went back to the kingdom to begin the second phase of the plan. The general looked at the temple and its disheveled state and asked his wife what he was supposed to do here while she was away. “Well, you can look after this temple. That will keep you busy in my absence. And when you have time you can think about the thing that you like most”. Saying this, the lady left.
As she had planned, she returned back to kingdom and became the servant in the princess’ place. She worked her way through to the princess and slowly began to build the trust with her. She subtly alluded to the princess about the love that a person had for her. The princess was intrigued but was not ready to believe all that a slave was telling her. The general’s wife sensed this and understood that this task would take a long time to reach its fulfillment.
And so it happened. After many years of loyal service, the general’s wife was finally able to achieve the extreme trust from the princess. Also by this time the princess was curious enough to meet the person whom her most loyal servant claimed loved her more than heaven and earth. So the princess agreed to go with her servant to the temple where that person was to be found. The general’s wife was overjoyed with the fact that her dedication and devotion to her objective was finally yielding the results that she had anticipated. So, with their respective thoughts in mind, both the ladies set off to the temple.
When they reached the destination, the general’s wife was amazed to see that the old decaying temple was a good as new. It looked like sanctuary in the between the desolate landscape of the region. It had trees all around it, and neatly arranged flower beds with the most fragrant flowers blooming. The birds had built their nests in the trees and were chirping. And within this foliage, the temple shone like a diamond in a coal mine. As the ladies walked up the temple they saw a man sitting in one corner in a deep state of meditation. The general’s wife recognized him as her husband, although now he had long flowing hair and beard and a glow of a saint in his face.
She came close to him and whispered “My lord I have lived up to my promise. The princess whose beauty you so admired, I have brought her to you”. The general did not open his eyes and the calm on his face wasn’t disturbed. He replied “Who are you talking about? I have seen the most beautiful thing in the world. There is nothing more that I wish to see”.
What is being communicated?
What is a story? A story is defined as a narrative or tale of real or fictitious events. Stories are nourishment for our hungry souls. Often stories we regard as fiction have elements of truth dressed up to make them more palatable.”
In India, stories have been used to teach complex philosophical and religious concepts and also morals associated with humanity. The story teller is the magician who paints a vivid picture of the images in his mind and leaves it to the listener for interpretation. He carefully wraps the concepts in the narration and then expects the listener to decipher its meaning on his own and in his own capacity. One of the best forms of teaching is that where the elements of learning are correlated with objects so that they get entrenched in the listeners mind. The above story is no different. It is extracted from the teachings of Hindu philosophy.
By itself it looks as a story with a not-so-satisfying finish. But a careful examination of it reveals the very essence of the Hindu religious notion. And not only that, probably this story carries within itself the basic tenet which forms the foundation of all philosophies, and that is that “God is found in everything, provided we concentrate hard enough to find him/her”.
Hinduism says that the soul is continuously attempting to unite with the creator, however since its trapped within the human body; it has to follow the dictats of it. The mind although has the ability to reach out to god, it is always disoriented by the illusions of the material world. This is what is being addressed in the story. The general is left behind by his wife with the suggestion to look after the temple and meditate on whatever he finds most interesting. Inadvertently, she sets him on the course to self-realization. The physical process of tending the temple makes his mind quiet and still, also he is deeply in love with the princess and so he spends the rest of his time contemplating about her. This process is the same as what is followed in transcendental meditation, where the practitioner focuses on a single object in order to still his continuously wavering mental thoughts. The general over the years through his dedicated physical activity as well as his meditation becomes so calm and composed that he reaches beyond the thoughts of princess to touch the face of god. That’s the real meaning behind the statement “I have seen the most beautiful thing in the world. There is nothing more that I wish to see”. Here lies the true value of the story.
However, that’s not the end of it. The story carries within itself another layer of meanings. A more focused study followed by internal reflection reveals that meaning, and there-in lays the true beauty about the Hindu philosophy and the stories used to teach it.
On a philosophical level, the story talks about the continuous battle within the human mindscape. The characters and activities in the story signify a particular object in real life. The kingdom described in the story is the material world. It is rich and ornate and provides all material luxuries to the general.
The general signifies the human soul – strong, powerful, and technically perfect. The soul since its bound to the physical body is always in the pursuit of a goal which is defined within the reference frame of the material world, it has the capabilities to achieve that “material” goal, however that is not the true calling of the soul, and hence this disconnect between what is pursued and what should be pursued leads to disillusionment.
The princess signifies the ultimate aim – the oneness with god and eternal peace. Just a mere glimpse of the brilliance of that state is enough to dislodge the human soul from the current material pursuit and direct it to the path of enlightenment. This is the strong love/desire/urge that the general feels when he catches a glimpse of the princess.
The wife in the story signifies the human intellect, and just like a spouse, it is the constant companion to the soul. It is dedicated and focused towards the objective at all times. This objective is the derivation of desires. Hence based on what the desires are the intellect works to ensure that those are fulfilled. And when they are, the intellect is happy and proud with the outcome. In the story when the general’s (souls) aim is to be the best in war craft (material world) and he achieves it – the wife (intellect) watches him practice and is proud of his achievements at all time. However, when the general’s (souls) objectives change, the wife (intellect) is distraught and wants to ensure that these new aims are met. The wife (intellect) has the ability to achieve anything but needs to be told what has to be achieved. Once she knows the goal, she devises a plan and labors dedicatedly to bring the plan to its logical conclusion. The wife is the fundamental character in this story, because without her help and dedication nothing could have been achieved. This also proves the point that the soul and the intellect have to work in tandem to achieve enlightenment. But the urge for this enlightenment has to come from the soul, otherwise the intellect being a “blindfolded horse” will continue to gallop in the direction which it has been told to do so.
The temple in the story is the heart. The vagaries of the material world leave the heart bruised and wounded. That’s what the ruined temple signifies. In order to achieve the objective the heart has to be removed from its shackles and cleared off the debris that surrounds it. It has to be cleaned and purified so as to allow the light of enlightenment and the peace (the princess) to enter it. The process of tending to the temple signifies the dedication and perseverance that the soul has to show in order to remove the malaise of the heart. Just like it takes years for the heart to reach into the battered state that it is in, similarly it requires years of dedicated tending to bring it back to its original state. This is the job of the human soul and that’s what the general does in the story.
So when all the conditions are met, the objective (enlightenment) is achieved. This is the true meaning of this story.