Did the Sage Dream He Was a Butterfly?
Or did the butterfly dream it was the sage?
As I mentioned in my last blog, great teachers frequently use parables to explain profound truths in a manner that really sinks into the minds of their followers.
The Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu, supposedly dreamt that he was a butterfly and, on waking, was puzzled about whether he dreamed he was a butterfly or whether the butterfly was now dreaming it was a sage.
There is a parable about King Janaka that has been used by Indian sages for centuries. It is a powerful teaching tool. Here is my version of it.
King Janaka was at the height of his power and fame. His army was large and well trained and there were no enemies of consequence. His ministers were competent. His people were well fed and prosperous. His concubines were many and pleasing.
Life was good.
There is always a worm in the woodwork.
A neighboring king, who had been a well-behaved vassal, had ambitions. He not only put together a clandestine army but also suborned a division of Janaka’s own forces with the help of a traitorous general.
The attack was sudden, and it came at dawn.
The palace guards were quickly subdued and slain. Hearing the clash of swords, Janaka’s personal bodyguards quickly spirited him out of the palace, still in his night clothes, and then turned to confront the invaders. They were killed but Janaka was able to slip away.
Janaka, alone and on foot, came to a distant village in his kingdom. He was trying to reach a regional capital that housed an army division that, he believed, was loyal to him,
He was tired. And hungry. And thirsty.
He was barefoot and clad only in a loincloth. He had discarded his nightrobe and sandals because they carried the royal insignia and would have given him away. He had rubbed mud on his face and body and concealed his features behind a strip of cloth dangling from a makeshift turban.
In this garb, he was indistinguishable from the beggars who always thronged the center of the village.
A housewife saw his desperate condition and took pity on him. She offered him some rice, but he had no vessel to receive it. So she tore a plantain leaf from a nearby tree and gave it to him to use as a plate.
The leaf was big.
As Janaka looked for a place to sit, a cow bit the protruding end of the leaf and pulled. The rice spilled to the ground and scattered.
Janaka knelt down and reached for a clump of the fallen rice.
A stray dog, emaciated and mangy, was also eying the same chunk of rice. As Janaka’s hand came close to it, the dog bit it viciously.
The pain was so sharp that Janaka screamed.
And found himself shaking and on his royal bed in the royal bedroom he had fled a few days ago.
So vivid was the dream that Janaka was perturbed.
A question kept nagging him and it would not go away.
Which was ‘real’?
Was the king who ruled a peaceful, prosperous kingdom ‘real’?
Or, was the defeated king desperately trying to regain his kingdom ‘real?
The wisest men in the kingdom tried to answer his question.
Janaka did not find their feeble explanations satisfactory and he had them jailed.
Among the jailed was the sage Uddalaka.
When Uddalaka’s son, Ashtavakra, came to know this, he decided to come to King Janaka’s court to answer his question and free his father.
What did Ashtavakra tell Janaka? Which was ‘real’, the king or the deposed king in desperate straits?
I will tell you in my next blog.