The Hindu Experience: An Examination of Folklore and Sacred Texts

Purushottam Lai

Purushottam Lai, “The Hindu Experience: An Examination of Folklore and Sacred Texts,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 89–108.

Purushottam Lai, a native of India and professor of English at the University of Calcutta when this was published, is an internationally recognized poet and scholar. In 1958 he founded the Writers Workshop of Calcutta, an association of writers committed to translating the best of Indian literature into English and to promoting English as a creative force in Indian writing. Professor Lai edited this association’s scholarly journal, Miscellany. He wrote and edited dozens of books, including works of his own poetry and translations of much of the sacred literature of India. His task when this was published was a “transcreation” of one of the world’s longest epic poems, the Mahabharata. When this was published he had published at least 132 volumes of the proposed 180-volume project.

In his remarks, Professor Lai denies that India has a “literature” of belief as such, and instead gives us both explanation and experience through the deceptive simplicity of narrative and parable, the oral tradition that has preserved and transmitted India’s sacred literature throughout the vast sweep of her history and across the vast expanse of her subcontinent. The counterpoint of his own half-ironic, half-puzzled commentary underlines the listener’s responsibility to derive his own meaning from these tales, although by anchoring them to crisis points in his own autobiography—his coming of age paralleling that of India’s—Professor Lai lets the audience experience vicariously his or her own search for meaning.

Part of the warmth of his presentation lies in that personal sharing. Part of it also lies in the flashes of wit that make his telling of these stories unique and idiosyncratic—similar to but not identical with their written forms. In his own way, he keeps the oral tradition alive. And in his questioning of his own culture, he also brings us face-to-face with the half-submerged questions we have always sensed about the links between our own society and our religious tradition.

There’s a poem by Rabindranath Tagore which he wrote on 27 July 1941 on his deathbed in Calcutta. It’s called “Poem Thirteen.” He numbered these poems because he was so afraid he was going to die. In fact, two days after he wrote the poem he became unconscious and he never recovered; a week later he died. (He’s the only Asian poet to have received the Nobel Prize. That was in 1913, and since 1913 no one seems to have found an Asian poet worthy to receive the Nobel Prize.) This man believed, and believed deeply. Never in his life did he ever think there was no answer; and yet in those last days, he was very worried, terribly worried. He’d started losing faith. The poem is called “The First Sun,” or “The First Day’s Sun.” And here it is—very brief, very telegraphic. There’s not much to say when you’re going to die. (It’s something, I think, perhaps speakers and lecturers should learn.)

The first sun asked the world’s first life,
“Who are you?”
No answer. Years passed. The last sun asked the last question
From the western ocean on a songless evening,
“Who are you?”
No answer. [1]

You can see what he’s getting at. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west—somewhere in Utah. And the East thought it had an answer when the sun first rose. No way. It isn’t that easy. And the West tried its best, too—much later, with technological and other revolutions, yet as the sun set, the question was the same. There was no answer. As Tagore says, “‘Who are you?’ No answer.”

So please don’t expect any answers today. Some confusions, some illuminations, some suggestions on this problem of belief, of how to live, of who I am, of what I learned and what I hope I can communicate.

I was born in 1929 in the Punjab but I’ve lived all my life in Calcutta. (That’s forty-nine years.) My father left Punjab when I was one year old, put a thousand miles between us and it, and never went back. It was difficult. I was a Punjabi coming into a Bengali environment. I was a Hindu. And as my introducer remarked, I got sixteen years of Catholic training. (I had no choice in this. Various things were decided for me.)

It was a time of uncertainty and terror and mystery because, in 1939, it just happened that somebody declared war on somebody and it was the Second World War. Every morning, a young boy of ten, I would open the newspapers and find these pictures of killing, of destruction. Every day.

And I had a question. (I’ve always had questions and never had answers.) There was no one to go to except mother. In fact, that’s my point. That’s the way the “literature of belief” operates in India. We have no texts. We don’t go to temples. There are no sermons. We don’t study it in the university. If I had a problem, I would go to her. It is the oral tradition. It sustained me up to a point, and beyond that point it didn’t. But whatever answers came came that way. I will try and give them to you.

So when all this happened—the mystery and the uncertainty and the terrors of growing up in an alien environment—and because the Catholics had some answers which didn’t fit into my way of looking at life, I went to mother and said, “What is this? What is going on? Why do people kill each other? What are we here for? What are we doing?” She’s a very devout worshipper of Krishna and has a god room in which she worships. (My father is not a believer. My father says that when she goes to heaven he’ll hang on her sari and he’ll manage to get there.) She came up with a parable. (This is the literature of belief. There are no set statements, nothing definite, clear, written down.)

She said, “Have you heard the story of the parable of the drop of honey?” And I said no. It’s a parable that’s found its way into Christian doctrine too. In the Gesta Romanorum, it is retold in a very Christian way by John of Damascus, but he changes it. And this is the parable—in the context of World War II, people killing each other, India being pulled into the war, Indian soldiers fighting too, and a young boy just questioning and wondering why this should be.

It’s about a Brahmin who is walking through a forest. Darkness falls in the forest, and he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going, but he sort of knows the road. (We all sort of know the road yet do not know that this is a very tricky kind of world in which we live—a jungle, sometimes called the cement jungle.) In any case, he walks; and without warning, suddenly there’s a well overgrown with creepers. He thinks it’s the road, and he falls in. As he falls, knowing he is falling, he reaches out and grasps at a root that is protruding from the side and he hangs on. And then he wonders what to do. So he looks up and there’s the sky, and all around him is grass of all kinds and creepers and shrubs, and this root. He says, “I can get out. It’s not that difficult.” But as he tries, the root weakens and loosens. “Oh no,” he says, “no, I’d better hang on.” So he wonders, he looks around, and he sees there’s nothing else to do, no hope, no rescue. And then he finds that on his left is a grass blade; and on that grass blade, for some mysterious reason, there is a drop of honey. So, hanging on with one hand to his root, he reaches out—very gin gerly because the least effort he makes is going to create problems for him. (The least effort we make is a movement towards the grave.) But he reaches out, he lifts that drop of honey with one finger, and very slowly, very artistically, very happily, he tastes it—puts it on his tongue—and says, “How sweet.”

And that was the metaphor I was told, the parable that was supposed to explain to me the existential predicament of man, why people did what they did in the well in which they had fallen, why people killed each other, why they worried. And of course, the idea was that you must keep looking for the drop of honey. I believed that and I kept looking.

I grew older and went to school at Saint Xavier’s College, which is a Catholic Jesuit institution. Every morning they taught us the New Testament—we had to learn it by heart—and Bible history and moral instruction and catechism. Four periods a day went into that. And it was now 1943. I was a young boy of fourteen. India was still at war and a great deal of the wealth in India was going to feed the army and the battle effort. So every morning we prayed (this was compulsory): “Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. . . . Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:9–11). Daily bread? 1943? Does anyone know that date? Does it have any meaning? The Bengal famine? Three million people who died in the streets of Calcutta while we were chanting our prayer?

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” (Matt. 6:12–13).

It just so happened that the kingdom happened to be England’s, and the British were ruling us. And so there was a problem. We had all the lovely, beautiful ideals in front of us. And everything was in books, and in books at least it was all right. God was in his heaven, but all was not right with the world. The world was out of joint. O cursed spite that ever we were born to set it right. [2] Three million people. This is a matter of historical record. As a young boy of fourteen, I watched them come from the provinces outside Calcutta because there was no food. Yet it was a man-made famine. They died in the streets of Calcutta and not a single loaf of bread was stolen though they died outside shops stocked with bread. Now whether this was a crass stupidity or outright moral bravery I have never found out.

And I had to go again to mother and ask, “Mother, what is this? I hear one thing in school and I see another thing in the world. How do you explain this?—this apparent disjointedness, this lack of a relationship between values and reality? What kind of a world is this in which we live?”

And then Ghandi came. (All this is interwoven, you see. I cannot separate my life from my beliefs, and I cannot separate my life from what I see around me.) And then Ghandi came along and said, “Leave India. Just get out.” And the British said, “Yes, but what happens when we get out? The Japanese are coming.” Ghandi said, “Well, that’s our business. We’ll look after the Japanese. You get out. You mind your own business.”

And at Saint Xavier’s we could see it was a call for nonviolence, for people rooted in truth came out in the streets of Calcutta, marchers ten abreast without any weapons whatsoever. Naturally, with all this clamor going on all around in the streets of Calcutta, classes would have to be disbanded, and we students would go out, age fourteen, age fifteen, and look at what was going on outside while they taught us such beautiful things inside. And the British tommies would come. (They had stopped trusting Indian soldiers.) Under Section 144, people in groups of more than five were illegal assemblies. So the sergeant would say “No more” to the marchers. I saw with my own eyes that the tommies fired the first shots and the first row fell; the second row moved forward, the second shots were fired, the second row fell; the third row moved forward. The third time when the order was given to fire they wouldn’t fire. And I remember Ghandi said, “We won. We’ve changed their hearts.”

Yes, but I had a problem. I had to do something in this context. So I did something, and it didn’t seem to solve very much. Since we had to wear ties, I decided I would come to class without my tie. What a terrible, terrible decision! It was like dying the day I walked into class one day with my tie in my pocket. My teacher (he’s my son’s teacher, too) said, “Lai, where’s your tie?” I said, “Father, my conscience doesn’t permit me to wear a tie.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Father, to me it’s a badge of slavery.” He said, “That may be, Lai, but you’d better go downstairs to the prefect and see that next time you don’t do it. There are rules here in this college.” So I went downstairs and I received what is called “six of the best”—that is a nice euphemism—and a warning never to come back again without a tie on.

That was a terrible struggle. I learned then what is meant by a struggle with conscience, what it means to wrestle with the angel. I decided, no, I would do it again. People were dying outside. If I couldn’t do that (and after all, the Catholics had taught me about the primacy of conscience), then nothing about conscience was here. So I went to class without a tie the second time, but this time there were five other boys sitting without ties in my class, and one of them happened to be the son of the president of a large steel corporation. So ties were made optional. I’ve never worn a tie since then.

That still didn’t solve the problem. I still went back to my mother and asked, “What kind of world is this where there’s dying and there are conscience problems and people don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong?” And she told me another parable, an old, old folk story that’s told again and again in India. (It’s also retold by Andre Malraux in his book, Anti-Memoirs.) Malraux, once the French minister of culture, learned this story from professors at the Sanskrit University in Benares, the holy city. [3] This is the story that was told him, the story that was told me by mother, the story that is floating in the folklore of India, a story that every Indian, every Hindu, in a sense, learns. It’s a story of a lota, of the brass vessel for water. I’ll give it to you. It might help you. It helped me a little bit—not very much—to make sense of the famine and to make sense of the crisis of conscience. All my questions had not been solved—just a few, just a very few and not even solved completely.

This is a story of Narada, the Brahmin who lives in Vishnu’s heaven. He’s a very strange character. He has long hair. He carries a one-string sitar, and he asks the wrong questions, which are really the right questions, questions that cannot be answered. So he goes to Vishnu and says, “Vishnu, I hear that the world is may a.” And Vishnu says, “Yes, the world is may a.” (Maya is defined in Webster’s Third International as the Hindu theory of cosmic illusion by which the phenomenal world appears to be real. Isn’t that beautiful? Webster knows everything. But is it real? Is it not? It appears to be real.) So he asks Vishnu, the preserver of the world, “What is mayal”

Vishnu smiles: “I can’t answer that question. Maya can be experienced but it cannot be communicated.”

And so Narada says, “I see your game, Vishnu. You refuse to tell me what maya is. You make maya but you cannot explain maya. Very well. I have a trick up my sleeve, too. If you cannot explain to me what maya is, I will withhold my worship from you.” (Now, we know what happens when human beings withhold their worship from gods. The gods vanish. It’s as simple as that. The gods we worship are the gods we create. We cannot worship the gods who create us. This I learned or was told, at least, a long time ago.) So Vishnu steps down and says, “Narada, all right. I’ll tell you what maya is. Please worship me.” So they walk together, not a word from Vishnu. (What can he say? You cannot explain maya; it’s an experience. It cannot be communicated. It can only be felt.)

So they walk together and finally Vishnu slumps down under a tree at the edge of a desert. And he looks up at Narada and says, “Narada, you know I would like to tell you what maya is, but my throat is parched and I need some water. Can you get me some water? Here’s the lota.” So he produces the brass vessel and gives it to Narada. (Now I warn you in advance that this parable has the haunting black lucidity of a Ingmar Bergman film. Some of you may see the lucidity and some may just see the blackness but you won’t forget the haunting.) And Narada says, “Where do I get the water? This is a desert here.” And Vishnu points to a spot in the desert and says, “Look out there. There’s an oasis.” Sure enough it is. (Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a mirage. It’s the real thing.) And Vishnu says, “How long do you think it will take?” And Narada says, “That’s not very far, about fifteen minutes. I’ll be back in half an hour for you. Will you be waiting here?” “Yes.” “You will tell me what maya is if I get you the water?” “Yes.” “You promise this, a divine promise?” “It’s a divine promise.” “It’s a deal.”

Narada sets out. Blazing heat, incandescent heat, Indian summer—I mean, my Indian summer. Sure enough, in about fifteen minutes he reaches the oasis. There’s a hut. He shouts, “Is anyone there?” The door opens, and believe it or not he looks into the eyes of a beautiful girl. They are the eyes of Vishnu, haunting, mischievous, smiling, and enigmatic. (Not Mona Lisa eyes. I must make this distinction. The Mona Lisa smile has been described as the smile of a slightly constipated lady. This is merely the smile of Vishnu. This is the Buddha smile, the smile of serenity, the smile that cannot be compared, that has no opposites.) He says, “This is very strange. I thought I left Vishnu at the edge of the desert. How is it that Vishnu is here? It doesn’t matter. There is a more important thing.” He produces the lota and gives it to her and says, “This is very important. Life, death, right, wrong, good, evil, black, white, day, night, illusion, reality—everything depends on this. I will know at last what maya is. Can you get me some water?” “Sure,” she says, “plenty of water here. Come in and sit down.” He goes in, he sits down, she takes the lota, and she goes into an inner room. (Beware of Indian girls that go inside. Anyone who’s been to India knows that she will never come out.) He’s a stranger and it would be slightly awkward for an orthodox girl to appear before a stranger. So she doesn’t come out.

Instead her parents come and they have a brass platter with food on it and a glass of water but no lota. They give him the platter and say, “Please, eat.” And he says, “But do you know who I am? I am Narada. I live in Vishnu’s heaven. I drink ambrosia, the nectar of immortality.” (Incidentally, the word ambrosia comes from a Sanskrit word meaning immortality which the Greeks took up). “I drink nectar, the drink of the gods. I don’t want this food. I haven’t come here to be entertained. I’ve come here to get that lota of water. Where is your daughter?” And they look at him. “Eat.” He cannot refuse Indian hospitality. “All right,” he says. “I’ll eat.” And he takes that brass platter and he eats.

And he’s so tired by this walk through the incandescent heat that he dozes off. He goes off to sleep. When he wakes up the next morning, at the back of his mind there’s a voice saying, “I came here for a lota of water. I’m late. I’d better get back.” There is another voice now cutting through that first voice and the second voice says, “That girl you saw has lovely eyes, hasn’t she? You’ve never seen such eyes.” (Now, we know what happens to young people when they speak like that. They get married.)

Sure enough, one week later he goes to her parents and asks for her hand in marriage. And sure enough, her parents agree to it. That’s exactly what they’ve been waiting for. Now we know why parents are hanging around. (There’s no real reason for parents to hang around, believe me.) At the back of his mind there’s a voice saying, “But—” “All right,” he says. “Later.” One year passes. A son is born to them. (Isn’t it strange how these things happen?) The voice grows fainter and fainter night after night. Two years pass and a daughter is born to them. Five years pass and his in-laws die. Isn’t that strange? Now we know why the in-laws are hanging around. To die, of course. They leave property behind. And now we know why property is hanging around. To be left behind. So this man who came for a lota of water is now a big man in a small village. He has a lot to lose. He has property, he has crops, he has a wife, he has two children. He’s a little lord in that village, and in the twelfth year (there’s always a twelfth year. Don’t ask me why. Andre Malraux says when he was told the story in Benares it was the twelfth year) the floods came. Now, you may well ask where the floods come from in that desert. I don’t know. (I have no idea where floods come from. They come like the bombers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One fine day, on a sunny day, 80,000 people disappear because a bomb falls in Hiroshima. On another day in Nagasaki, another 80,000 people disappear. Floods come. They come to Provo. They come everywhere, the floods.)

And when the floods come, his hut is swept away, his field is swept away, his wife is swept away. When he goes to save her in the swirling waters, his children are swept away. He goes to save them and she is gone. And he blacks out, loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he is lying flat on the ground, his head cradled in the lap of Vishnu under the tree at the edge of the desert. Vishnu, looking down from Nirvana, says, “Narada, do you know what maya is now?” And Narada says, “Vishnu, don’t tell me what I think you’re going to tell me. Don’t tell me that all that happened to me didn’t happen. It happened.” And Vishnu smiles that same slightly mischievous, slightly wise, serene, haunting smile and tells him, “But Narada, you wanted to know what maya was, didn’t you? Do you know now or do you still have to learn?”

And then Narada realizes in a flash that it is this world in which people die, in which famines take place, in which nonviolent people are shot down week after week. Then he knows that maya is this desert of a world into which we’ve come to get a lota of water for Vishnu who is waiting at the edge of the desert. And instead of getting that lota of water of Vishnu, young boys have been looking into the eyes of young girls, and young girls have been looking into the eyes of young boys, and somewhere along the line they got sidetracked.

That was the parable I was told to explain the famine and the nonviolence of India. Does it make sense? I don’t know. But it made sense to me at the time. It helped.

And then we grow older. There’s only one more parable that I will say. (There’s not much one knows. There’s so little one knows.) I grew older, and in 1947 we got freedom. I was eighteen years old and we were free. And there were problems after freedom. I had to get a job. I went to the other person who came without a tie, the son of the president of the large steel corporation. The old school tie didn’t work. And then I wondered. The Jesuits taught us parables. The parable of the talents was constantly repeated (see Matt. 25:14–30). There was a servant that had five talents; and when his master went away, he doubled them and made them ten. The master came back and said, “You had five and you made them ten. Sit on my right hand.” And there was another servant who had two and made them four and the master said, “Sit on my right hand.” And there was a servant who had one and kept it one because he was afraid that he might lose it. And when the master came back, he was cast out into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It always puzzled me. What kind of a world was this again? It didn’t make sense to begin with, why one man should have five talents. Why couldn’t all have five talents to begin with? It was not a question to which I got an answer. We were told, “That’s the way the parable is. You accept it like that.” And so in the Indian context I tried to understand it. And I thought, yes, maybe that’s their karma. One deserved five, another deserved two, another deserved one. You just double it—it doesn’t matter whether you make ten or four or one. You just make it two—double it, double it, whatever you have. But I didn’t even have one. I was looking for one. There was no one to give it to me. How does one reconcile injustice with freedom? We had become free, and there was injustice all around. What was the purpose of life? If we could change the sorry scheme of things entire, would we not shatter it to bits and remold it nearer to our heart’s desire? [4]

So there was another parable I had been told to explain this problem that faced us all the time, and this was a parable of the wish-fulfilling tree. That is magnificent. In fact, I will have to end with that because I’ll have nothing more to say.

An uncle goes to the city and he comes back to his village where his nephews and nieces are playing with toys and sticks and stones and pieces of string—simple, trivial, ordinary things—and he tells them, “Look, you fools, this is no way to play. Don’t you know that there’s a wish-fulfilling tree right outside your cottage? All you have to do is go to the tree and stand there under the tree and start wishing and the tree will give you exactly what you want. All you have to do is go there and ask for it.”

And these children are very smart like all kids nowadays and know that’s not true because, after all, you don’t get what you want. You have to work very hard to get what you want. And even if you work hard, someone else is working harder and he gets it first. And besides, some others have connections. They really get it first. So they don’t believe him and he goes away.

As soon as he goes away, guess what they do? They rush to the tree and start wishing. (This is a tree whose roots are in the sky and whose fruits are in earth. It’s the tree in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 15.) And they start wishing. And of course we know what kids wish for: sweets, candy. And you know what kids get—stomachaches. (What did you think they would get?) The trouble is that the tree will give you exactly what you want and with it, its opposite. Guaranteed. Nothing in this world comes single; everything comes with its built-in opposite. (Don’t ask me why; I didn’t make the world. I’m just suffering as much as anyone else, believe me.)

And so what else do they want? They want toys. And what do they get? Boredom. And they want bigger toys. They get bigger boredom. Bigger and better toys. Bigger and better boredom. Mattel toys. Swell boredom. There’s no getting out of that. The tree will give you exactly what you want, guaranteed, with its built-in opposite. Don’t forget that. That’s part of the game.

So the kids grow older. They’re suffering and they don’t know what’s happening. Now they’re called what I was in 1947—a young adult. (How nice. Fancy phrases. Overgrown kids.) They stand under the tree. (There’s nowhere else to stand. That’s where we all are. Where will you go? The tree is everywhere.) And now, of course, they don’t want kid stuff, not toys and sweets. They want other things—the four fruits that hang from the tree: sex, fame, money, and power. These are the four fruits; there’s nothing else available. Nothing else. (If there is, please let me know, because as a Hindu that’s what I was told.) All you have to do is reach out, grab them, and you’ve got them. Reach out, grab it, you’ve got it—and you’ve had it—because the tree will give you the opposite too. Guaranteed. The tragedy of life is not that you don’t get what you want. The tragedy of life is that you get exactly what you want—and with it, its opposite. You dream it, you wish it, you think it, you do it, you grab it, you’ve got it—and you’ve had it—because the tree will give you the opposite too. Guaranteed. That’s the real tragedy of life—that you discover too late the curse of getting exactly what you want. You dream it, you wish it, you think it, you do it, you grab it, you’ve got it—and you’ve had it. There’s no getting out of this. And here I was, looking for a job, and I was being told this parable. So the kids suffer and they agonize. They don’t know why they agonize.

Now they grow old. That’s all you can do under the tree. Now there’s another fancy name for them. Senior citizens. They’re under the tree waiting to be carried to the funeral pyre where they’ll be burned to the proper Hindu crisp. And now they are terribly worried. There’s not much time left. They huddle in groups and one group says, “Oh, it’s a hell of a world.” Fools, they’ve learned nothing from life. And there’s a second group which says, “You know, we have the answer. We made the wrong wishes. This time we’ll go and make the right wish.” Bigger fools. They’ve learned nothing at all. And there’s a third group which huddles and says, “If that’s the way the world is, I want to die. What’s the use living?” “All right,” says the tree. “You want to die? Take it.” And with death comes its opposite, rebirth. Oh my goodness, there’s no escape. Or is there?

Yes, there is, because the parable doesn’t end here. Parables don’t end like that. There’s the drop of honey and the lota of water. And there is a lame boy, a cripple, who also ran to the tree with his companions, but he was pushed aside. He fell down and he couldn’t get up easily; so when he got up, he found his friends under the tree wishing away. He crawled back into the hut and he waited. He said, “I’ll wait. There’ll be some time under the tree when it will be vacant. I’ll go then and make my wish.” (Now I don’t know what cripples want. Whatever they want is what he would wish for.) So he waited, looking out of the window. He saw his companions under the tree. Young children asking for sweets and getting stomachaches and suffering. He saw them asking for toys and getting boredom and suffering. He saw them as young adults grabbing sex, fame, money, and power. He saw them suffering, he saw them getting the opposite, he saw them agonizing and not knowing why they were agonizing, and he saw them dividing into three groups, one group saying, “It’s a hell of a world,” another group saying, “We made the wrong wishes,” and a third group saying, “I want to die,” but getting reborn. And in one dazzling, illuminating spectacle he saw this whole thing and stood there, marveling at the spectacle of the universe—these are the words now, very carefully used when the story is told again and again by village storytellers, by mothers, by others, whoever tells it, “marveling at the spectacle of the universe”—at the cosmic swindle of life, at the divine comedy (well, tragicomedy). There was a gush of compassion in his heart for his companions under the tree. And in that gush of compassion, he forgot to wish. He forgot to wish and the tree couldn’t touch him. He was free. (And it wasn’t the British who gave us that freedom. That was a freedom I learned from my mother.) The tree couldn’t touch him.

He had not done the good act, which is very easy to do: you must make up your mind to be good, and what you’ll get is heaven, and heaven is a punishment for good deeds because the Hindu heaven is temporary and you’re born again. He had not done the bad act, which is also very easy to do: just be selfish all the time, and you’ll get hell and then you’re born again—it’s a temporary hell. He had not done the absurd act. (We don’t even think of it; we leave it to the French. They are very expert in that kind of thing. The Hindu mind is not so subtle.) He had done what is known as the pure act. The act—well, I won’t define it. That act cuts through karma, cuts through maya, cuts through the tree at the root, and gets what? If freedom could be had by just punching a few buttons—if you knew the coordinates of freedom—would it be freedom anymore? He’s free, let’s put it that way.

And of course, the question always is, “But how is it possible? What kind of thing is this pure act that you talk about, this nonwishing gush-of-compassion act?” And inevitably the storyteller says, “Don’t ask me. Ask any mother why she puts the baby on the dry side of the bed at night and puts herself on the wet side, joyfully. Is it because she wants the baby to look after her twenty years later? Could be a very calculated act. Is it because it’s instinctive? Could be. Let’s ask a psychologist. Is it because she’s irrational? Could be. Is it because she gets a Freudian kick out of it? Could be. Ask her and she’ll say, ‘Would you mind not wasting my time? You go to college and find out. Meanwhile, let me look after the baby, please.’ She just does it. And the others try to find out what’s going on.”

That’s one way the storyteller explains it. The other explanation he gives is to ask the people, “Does any one of you have a rupee note?” (A rupee note is hardly ten cents.) Everyone has it and they produce it. He says, “Now you can do four things with it. One, you give it to charity, you do good to someone, you put your name to it—you do for yourself, too—you’ll get heaven. Serves you right—you’ll be born again. You can take the rupee note and spend it all on yourself, act as if you live in a vacuum and no one else exists in the world, you’ll get hell. Serves you right—you’ll be born again, and given another chance to do better. You can do the absurd act. (The French have found that out.) You can take the rupee note, tear it into little bits, and put it into the trash can. It’s your life; you’re free any time to take it. Or you can do the pure act, too. You can take the rupee note and give it in charity and, like the mother who puts the baby on the dry side of the bed and puts herself on the wet side at night joyfully, like the boy who stood there marveling at the cosmic spectacle of the universe, you, in a gush of compassion, give it; and though you want to add your name to it, you, in that gush of compassion, forget to add your name to it and by doing so you have done the pure act.

Ah, but don’t remember to forget or the tree will get you.
And that’s all the literature of belief that I know.


[1] Translated by Amiya Chakravarty as “The first day’s sun” in Visva-Bharati, Calcutta, 1942, revised in A Tagore Reader (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 374: “The first day’s sun / asked / at the new manifestation of being—/ Who are you? / No answer came. / Year after year went by, / the last sun of the day / the last question utters / on the western seashore, / in the silent evening—/ Who are you? / He gets no answer.”

[2] See Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, pt. I: “God’s in his heaven—/ All’s right with the world”; and William Shakespeare, Hamlet 1.5.187–88: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”

[3] See trans. Terence Kilmartin (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 181–82.

[4] Edward Fitzgerald, trans., The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859; reprint ed., New York: Random House, 1947), 48. Poem 73: “Ah Love! / Could thou and I with Fate conspire / To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, / Would we not shatter it to bits—and then / Remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”