Everybody loves parables. Short stories with a deeper underlying meaning. Here are 5 epic thought-provoking Vedanta parables that bring out the essence of Hindu philosophy
The Vedanta philosophy that has its root in Hinduism encompasses different thoughts and ideas passed on over the centuries from generation to generation. It tries to answer questions that have bothered man since time immemorial.
- Who are we?
- Who created us?
- Where have we come from?
- How did we land here?
- What is death?
- What is the ‘I’ in me?
One of the popular podcasts that I often listen to during my daily evening walks is the ‘Vedanta Talks’. These are discourses delivered by Swami Sarvapriyananda that are delivered in the podcast format.
A recent episode that I listened to involved the Swami summarising the entire Hindu philosophy in the form of 5 Vedanta parables.
For those interested in listening to the original podcast, use the link shared above. Here below is my retelling of these 5 Vedanta parables for my readers’ benefit and for posterity.
Vedanta Parable 1 : King Janaka’s perplexity
King Janaka ruled over the kingdom of Mithila. He was a mighty emperor whose kingdom was blessed with riches and hardworking subjects.
Once, the neighbouring king invaded his kingdom without giving the slightest hint. Taken unawares and cornered, King Janaka and his army fought valiantly but lost. King Janaka was bound up and paraded before the other invading king.
“O Raja!, I will not take your life for you have been a good king. However, you stand banished from the kingdom and you have a day to cross your kingdom’s borders and go to exile forever.”, thundered the new king.
King Janaka tired from the battle sought food and water but was unceremoniously driven out. On he went, lamenting his fate in the direction that led him out of the capital onto the borders of his kingdom.
He begged for food and water along the way but to no avail. All his subjects turned him away not wanting to invite the wrath of the new king.
Cursing the twist to his fate, he crossed the border of his kingdom in about half a day. He comes across an ‘Annakshetram” or ‘Free kitchen’ that served meals to the needy and poor.
Wrecked with hunger and thirst, King Janaka joins the long queue. Alas!, to his dismay, they run out of food by the time King Janaka makes it to the head of the queue. Desperate, he asks the server to scrape the bottom of the dish and give him whatever is collected.
Taking pity on the wretch of a king, the person serving collects a spoonful of scrapings and drops it into the king’s palms.
Eager to have his first meal after the battle, King Janaka sits under a tree and prepares to put the morsel into his mouth when a hawk swoops down from the tree and upsets the king’s palms. Down to the dust, the morsel falls leaving the king absolutely bewildered.
Cursing his lot loudly, the king starts beating his chest when all of a sudden, King Janaka sits up from in his royal bed in the middle of the night. He realises that he had been dreaming all along. He let out a sigh of relief!
However, now a philosophical question arises in his mind. His mind wonders what the real truth was. Was that which he experienced in the dream ‘The Truth’? Or is that which he is experiencing in his waking state ‘The Truth’?. So flummoxed is he with these thoughts that he starts repeating endlessly, “Was that the truth or is this the truth?”
The guard alerts his wife on hearing the king muttering this sentence repeatedly. His wife tries to shake him out of his stupor but King Janaka only keeps repeating, “Was that the truth or is this the truth?”
She summons the royal physician. He tries asking the king what the matter was and examines him for any head injury and subsequent concussion. However, he could not get the king talking sense. The king only keeps repeating endlessly, ““Was that the truth or is this the truth?”
The next day, the King’s condition becomes the talk of the town. Passing through the kingdom at that time was Sage Ashtavakra, a renowned and learned being. He understands the king’s condition through his divine powers and proceeds to the palace to have a word with the king.
Seeing the king, the sage loudly says, “Neither that is the truth, nor is this the truth – You, my king, are the truth”
The Vedanta parable drives home the key essence of the Vedanta philosophy. The waking state and the dreaming state are both not the truth. They are illusions that we see and participate in. They both are so realistic that it is hard to conclude that they are illusions or ‘Maya’.
While dreaming, we live the dream as though it is happening for real. We conclude that the dream is an illusion the moment we wake up. Similarly, Vedanta states that the waking state is also a dream from which we do not wake up till death.
The only truth is we ourselves – the soul which is Brahma himself. We experience this only in deep sleep.
Vedanta Parable 2 : The Washerman and his Donkey
A washerman in a village used to load the clothes to be washed every day on his donkey and they used to walk two kilometres to the stream flowing near the neighbouring village. The washerman on reaching the stream, would tie the donkey to a small tree near the stream and unload the clothes.
The rest of the day would be spent washing the clothes and drying them by the stream bank. Around four in the evening, the washerman would load the dried clothes back onto the donkey and they would trudge back home.
One day, on reaching the stream, the washerman realises that he has forgotten the piece of rope used to tie the donkey to the tree. He is aghast and worried. As he is pondering with his hand on his head, the owner of a tea stall nearby enquires the reason for his despondency.
The washerman tells him his problem. The tea stall guy tells him, ” You know that you have forgotten the rope. Your donkey does not know it. Perform the act of tying him to the tree using an imaginary rope. He will stay put in his place the whole day”
Though sceptical, the washerman due to lack of any other idea does exactly what the tea stall guy suggested. He goes through the motions of tying one end of the rope to the donkey’s neck and tying the other end to the tree by the stream.
With a constant vigil on the donkey for the next 30 minutes, he starts washing the clothes. To his surprise, the donkey never moves from its place. Assured that the plan is working, he goes about his chores till evening.
At four in the evening, the washerman loaded all his clothes onto the donkey and prompted the donkey to start the journey back home. However, the donkey did not budge. No amount of goading and pushing convinced the animal to get moving.
Worried the washerman goes up to the tea stall and tells the guy who had given him the idea in the morning about this new problem. The tea stall guy tells him, “Dear Sir, you have make-believe tied him. Now you need to make-believe untie him. Only then will come along with you.”
The washerman is amazed. Nevertheless, he comes back and goes through the motions of untying the donkey from the tree and then untying the rope from the donkey’s neck. He then goads the donkey to start moving. Lo, behold! – The donkey starts walking back home.
This Vedanta parable throws light on what Swami Sarvapriyananda calls ‘superimposition’ and ‘de-imposition’. Based on our upbringing and environment, we imagine certain things in our life as inviolable.
Similarly, when born, we are superimposed to believe that we are the body we see every day. We feel sorry as we age, we feel hurt when the body hurts. However, just like the donkey, we need someone to de-impose what has been superimposed on us.
It is the ultimate truth that helps us in this direction
Vedanta Parable 3 : The 10th Man
10 students completed their education at the gurukula and decided to embark on a pilgrimage. They set off and travelled far and wide.
One day they came across a river. Seeing no boatman around, they decided to wade across at the shallowest point. Once they reached across, they decided to count themselves to ensure nobody had gone missing.
The first student started counting. “1…2…3…”, he went on till the 9th person. With surprise and shock registering on his face, he counted all over again ending up at 9 yet again. He gave a loud wail and sat down. Another student volunteered to count. He too started with the person nearest to him and ended up at 9. He too lost hope.
This repeated till all were convinced that one person had gone missing. Each of them had missed counting themselves.
A sage who was passing by stopped hearing them all wailing loudly. He inquired what the problem was. They narrated the turn of events that had caused them sadness.
He realised very quickly their foolhardiness. However, he knew that just pointing out their mistake may not create an enduring lesson for them. He consoled them saying, ” Do not worry. Nobody has gone missing. Let us repeat the count one more time.
One of them volunteered to count. He started by pointing at each of the others and shouting aloud a number starting from one. When he reached 9, his face fell and he looked at the sage. The sage immediately pointed at the person who counted and loudly said, “Ten”.
It was like a curtain of darkness that had been lifted. The students shouted in joy and embraced each other.
This Vendanta parable throws light on how finding ourselves is very akin to the scenario shown in the story. We think we are the Physical body which is not true. If we go inwards then ‘I’ might mean the Vital body. This too changes. Hence we are not the vital body. Am I the Mental body then? Again my mind wanders and changes. Similar logic rules out us being the Intellect body and the Bliss Body.
All that I thought is me is not me. Then who am I? The counter (the person who counted) in the parable did not count himself because he was expecting to find the 10 person where he found the other 9. He was operating on pure reasoning. We do the same mistake while trying to find ourselves. We look outside to find the ‘I’.
Vedanta asks us to look inwards. ‘I’ am the awareness that experiences the Physical, Vital, Mental, Intellect and Blissful bodies.
Vedanta Parable 4 : The Prince of Kashi
A long time ago, the city of Kashi was ruled by a just and noble king. His queen and he had a seven-year-old son. They longed for a daughter to complete the family.
On the occasion of some festivities, it was decided to dress up the prince as a girl and get the royal painter to paint the memory for keepsakes.
The prince was transformed into a lovely girl child with appropriate makeup and dress and the painter made a good job of capturing the prince dressed as a princess. Everybody praised the painter and he was handsomely rewarded by the king and queen. The king and queen used the painting to alleviate their sorrow of not having a girl child.
Years rolled by. The painting was replaced by more modern versions of the prince and this painting was moved to safe storage inside the palace. Everybody forgot all about the painting.
The prince was around 18 years old and one day decided to explore the different rooms of his palace. He went around every room of the palace and eventually landed at the safe storage. His eyes fell upon the painting of the pretty princess. Something attracted him to the painting.
The more he stared at the painting, the more drawn he was to it. He reasoned based on the date mentioned at the back of the painting that the little princess painted in the painting was roughly his own age.
He started imagining her having grown up too into a fine damsel. Slowly but surely he started falling in love with the princess in the painting. He started spending a few hours every day in the safe storage lost in admiration of the princess. His mind too was not in the day to day affairs.
This started having an effect on his daily routine. His absenteeism in the court matters started troubling the king and the chief minister. No amount of coaxing and cajoling by his mom and dad helped in rising out the truth. Eventually, the king asked the chief minister, whom the prince trusted, to try.
The Chief Minister took the prince aside and asked him about the matter. The prince eventually after much persuasion, told him the truth.
“I have fallen in love with a girl”, he blurted.
“Oh, that’s ok. Who is the lucky one?”, asked the minister.
“It’s a princess”, replied the prince bashfully.
“That’s even better. Does she know that you love her?”, the minister continued.
“I have not even seen her in real life”, said the prince resignedly.
“How do you know about her then?”, queried the minister, surprised at the queer turn of events.
The prince led him by hand to the safe storage and showed him the painting of the princess.
The minister was thrown aback. He quickly collected his thoughts and said, “Dear Prince, that princess in the painting is none other than you”. He then detailed the story of how the painting came to be.
The Prince on hearing this heaved a sigh of relief and gave up his vain pursuit of the Princess.
This Vedanta parable shows us how we breathe life into dead things. Once it is alive, we either are attracted to it or fear it. The same way that the Prince of Kashi breather life into the painting of himself and imagined it to be a beautiful princess and was attracted to the imaginary ‘her’.
Once attracted to something or fearing something, we feel desire to make it ours or run away from it. The suffering starts when this desire fails. Even if it succeeds, it leads to other suffering.
The truth Vedanta says is there is ‘nothing other than me’. Everything is me. I am everything. When this truth hits home, desire dies away since you are not breathing life into anything that you may be attracted to or be fearful of.
Vedanta Parable 5 : The Lion who was raised by sheep
A lioness who was heavily pregnant goes on a hunt.
She finds a herd of sheep grazing nearby. Deciding that they would make for easy killing, she targets them. However, she slips on a ledge, has a fall as she runs for the sheep. The cub is born but the lioness dies due to her injuries.
The cub’s cries attract the attention of the herd of sheep and they adopt the male cub. Growing up with the sheep, the lion cub mimics everything he observes. He grazes on grass, prances on the hills and even ends up bleating like them.
3-4 years pass and the lion cub has grown to a full-sized male member of his species.
Once, as the flock is grazing near a lake in the forest, it again attracts the attention of another huge lion. He targets them and starts bounding for them when something unusual catches his eye.
He notices the fully grown lion cub trying to flee like the rest of the panicked herd. Suspecting something fishy, he targets the lion. Leaving the rest of the herd alone, he races after the cub. The cub sensing that the danger is behind him bleats piteously like a sheep and even shrieks when the lion catches up with him and rolls him to the ground.
To the amusement of the lion, the lion cub cries, “Please spare my life.”
He replies, “Don’t worry, I am not going to kill you. However, do you realize what you have been up to?”
Looking at the confused face staring back at him, the lion beckons the lion cub to follow him to the lake. There he shows the lion cub his reflection in the waters and tells him, “You are a lion just like me. You are not a sheep”. Do not be a disgrace to your species.
What I am, you are the same – This Vedanta parable compares the sheep to the 5 elements. Sitting in the midst of these 5 elements, the consciousness thinks that I am like them.
The guru or the Vedanta teaching are the Lion who shows the cub its true self. Vedanta shows man his true self. You are the true consciousness and one with the Universe. You are no different from the Universe. You were never born and you will never die. You are everything and everything that is there is in you.
While the stories are the vehicles to get the person to the goal of self realization, they do enhance our ability to grass the depth of the philosophy achieved in the Vedanta. The Hindu Vedanta philosophy was perfected not by one person or a group of people. It was refined and sculpted over ages and hence has the strength to withstand the test of time. Just like how Nature has perfected evolution over eons and not overnight. Hence the degree of adaptability in Nature is unlike anything we see around us.
Links to other stories on my Blog