Each culture has its own ways and what we think of as differences often have the same idea beneath. A wry story to teach this point tells of the European who watched a Chinese gentleman burn bank notes before the memorial tablets of his ancestors.
He asked, in open incredulity, “How can your ancestors benefit from the smoke of paper money?” (His question could have been just as easily to a Hindu doing pinda daanam at a shraadh). Our Chinese gentleman bowed courteously and said, “In the same way that your departed relatives appreciate the flowers that you put on their graves.”
The world meanwhile is a wealth of story and this weekend I thought it might interest you to recall the wit of Mulla Nasruddin, a beloved character like Tenali Raman for many. I read as a teen first, of the waggish mulla in Idries Shah’s The Way of the Sufi and was quite enchanted, years later, to see the famous bronze statue of Nasruddin on his donkey in a lovely old square in Bukhara.
The mulla’s stories contain pithy lessons for everyday life. About worrying needlessly, there’s the incident of Nasruddin throwing handfuls of crumbs around his house. “What are you doing?” someone asked him. “Keeping the tigers away.” “But there are no tigers in these parts,” protested the someone. “That's right. Effective, isn't it?” answered Nasruddin.
A famous one about presuming too much goes, that one day, Nasruddin lent his cooking pots to a neighbour, who was giving a feast. The neighbour returned them along with a tiny extra pot. “What’s this?” asked Nasruddin suspiciously. "According to law, I have given you the offspring of your property which was born when your pots were in my care," said the joker. Soon after, Nasruddin borrowed his neighbour's pots, but did not return them. When the man came to get them back, Nasruddin wailed, “Alas, they’re dead! We know, do we not, that pots are mortal?”
About the consequences of contrary behaviour, the tale goes that people ran to tell the mulla that his mother-in-law had fallen into the river. “Hurry, the fast current will sweep her out to sea!” they cried. Instantly, Nasruddin dived in and swam upstream. “What are you doing?” screamed the whole village, watching from the bank. “Hey!" puffed the mulla, “I know my wife’s mother. Logically, if everyone else is swept downstream, the place to look for her is upstream."
One fine, philosophical morning, a scholar asked Nasruddin, “What is Fate?" “An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other,” was the Buddha answer. “Well, personally, I believe in cause and effect,” sniffed the scholar.
“Very well,” said Nasruddin, pointing to a procession in the street. “See that? That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver coin that let him buy the knife with which he killed his victim; or is it because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?”
One day, Nasruddin told a group of seekers who sought wisdom from him, “If you want truth, you will have to pay for it.” “But why should we have to pay for something like truth?” they asked, shocked.
“Have you noticed,” said Nasruddin severely, “that it is the scarcity of a thing which determines its value?”
Now this isn’t a Nasruddin story but a teaching story nevertheless and in my personal top ten: A powerful king was in a position of such splendid security that wise men were his mere employees. And yet one day he felt deeply uneasy about everything and finally had to send for the sages who lived in the forest and ask them their advice.
He said, twisting his hands, “I don’t know why, but something impels me to seek a certain ring, one that will enable me to stabilise my emotional state that is wavering all over the place now.” The sages listened impassively. “I must have that ring!” the king went on in a determined voice. “And this ring must be one which, when I am unhappy, will make me joyful.
Yet, if I am happy and look at it, I must be made sad or at least sober. A mood ring! That’s what I need.” The wise men consulted one another, plunged into deep meditation and came up with an idea for a suitable ring for their troubled king.
It was a simple band, inscribed with a short, stark sentence, “This, too, will pass.”