TALES TOLD BY MYSTICS: A significant branch of India's vast literary heritage consists of tales told by mystic through the ages, different from myths and legends. Though taken for granted as a part of our folklore and rarely discussed, their influence on the minds of generations of common people has been only next to that of the epics. Sometimes they hit the nail on the head, sometimes they shock and sometimes they make one laugh at oneself, but they invariably enrich one's mind by identifying the complex and intriguing forces - psychological and occult, at work in our lives.
This collection, probably the first ever of its kind, of a full hundred tales culled from sages known and unknown, through decades of a sustained interest by its present author, should prove as revealing as they proved for centuries past.
MANOJ DAS (b. 1934), who had a picturesque career as radical youth leader once courting jail and taking an active part in the Afro-Asian Students' Conference at Bandung, Indonesia (1956), is well-known today as one of our foremost writers, writing in his mother tongue Oriya as well a in English. His short stories are translated into several of world's major language and his personal columns in some of the national dailies were widely appreciated. He is also recognized as an able interpreter of India's literary and cultural heritage. He teaches at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Pondicherry, while a couple of universities have conferred on him the status of Honorary Emeritus Professor.
Taking a break from his original writing, he has applied his creative talent to telling a hundred tales from the compassionate world of the mystic teachers of yore.
The India of yore, evidently, was an astoundingly fertile ground for the growth of several genres of fiction. Parallel to the chronological development of its mythology (The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Itihasa or the epics and the Puranas), there grew a solid ethical, moral pragmatic and purely earthly tradition of literature consisting of the Brihatkatha (only a part of which is available to us as the Kathasarit-sagara), a compilation of lively tales of wisdom, wit and delight; the Jatakas, the world's first compilation of fables, apart from stories based on dramatic events and characters of a remote past, like those of Savitri and Satyavan, Dushyanta and Shakuntala, Nala and Damayanti, king Harihchandra, etc. some of which were incorporated in the Mahabharata and come to be regarded as aspects of our mythological lore.
But independent of all these branches grew yet another branch of tales told by mystics through the ages, rich in psychological insight and profound for their revelation of the mysteries of Truth and Consciousness, and for shedding light on various perplexing issues we encounter in life. They were narrated by sages, gurus and other mystics, in order to drive home a point, to elucidate a philosophical proposition or to simply enlighten the seekers on the demands of life spiritual. Most of these stories had a wonderful plasticity about them. A story might have been told by five teachers, but each teacher told it in his own way-a way often determined by the peculiar need of his audience- yet the theme of the story remained unerringly effective.
Such stories have prevailed as an oral tradition, though some biographers of such Masters have recorded them, as work, Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, by 'M'
The Vedic and the original Vedantic tradition permitted no dichotomy between the life mundane and the life Divine. Though immersed in Avidya, ignorance, the human life struggled to grow towards the light of true knowledge and Truth. The world and the society, with all their problems, were not false or illusory; the problems, in fact, were challenges, expecting the seeker to delve into them in order to discover the truth they hide. Viewed properly and with humility, understood keeping in mind the ultimate goal of one's life. Every situation could contribute to the process of one's inner growth.
However, at a certain phase of India's social development, several schools of mysticism grew contemptuous of the world and declared the so-called worldly life as anathema to the life spiritual. It was unfortunate, but not surprising. Those who received a touch of the spiritual bliss, the pleasures the world offered appeared to them ridiculously poor. They chose to reject the latter, without suspecting that such pleasures could be distortions of a value genuine and that spiritual consciousness of a sublime order could restore such distortions to their original glory which they had forfeited under Nature's tyranny.
We find, that is why, a strong presence of the element of an ascetic denial of life in so many tales the mystics told. We should view them as a revolt against the common man's extreme preoccupation with the gross, crude and selfish physical life. The impatient mystic would like to give him a jolt to wake him up to the other and greater reality-the Divine-though unfortunately in his zeal to do so the mystic generally highlighted only one aspect of the Divine- the aspect of the static, pure bliss, and forgot that the world too is nothing but the Divine in the process of unfolding Himself. This is what should be the attitude of a true mystic: "The difficulty of harmonizing the divine life with human living, of being in God and yet living in man is the very difficulty that he is set here to solve and not to shun. He has learned that the joy, the peace and the deliverance are an imperfect crown and no real possession if they do not form a state secure it itself, inalienable to the soul, not dependent on aloofness and inaction but firm in the storm and the race and the battle, unsullied whether by the joy of the world or by its suffering. The ecstasy of the obeys the impulse of divine love for God in humanity; If there is an opposition between the spiritual life and that of the world, it is that gulf which he is here to bridge, that opposition which he is here to change into a harmony. If the world is ruled by the flesh and should be here to conquer it for God and the Spirit." (Sri Aurobindo. The Synthesis of Yoga)
I must hasten to add that even stories with a strong ascetic orientation were designed not so much to inspire disgust for the mundane world as to warn man against attachment to false values, greed lust etc., and his readiness to use even occult powers for satisfaction of blind desires.
But satire against stupidity (the first sign of stupidity is, it never suspects itself-says a mystic), inhumanity, and exhortations to broaden the consciousness assume an equally great importance in many such tales and several of them reveal subtle mysteries of the spiritual world.
Most of the tales retold in this volume circulate orally. The popular ones among them have been retold by different mystics in their own ways. Some stories can be traced to ancient works like the Puranas-and some to the Jatakas and the Kathasaritsagara. All the tales told by mystics are folktales- but only in a special sense. I have scrupulously steered clear of both the traditional folktales and the mythological tales, though a sprinkle of mythology-an occasional appearance of characters like Narada or Garuda could not have been avoided. I have come across plots of at least two of these stories circulating as ordinary folktales, naturally minus their didactic elements.
I was initiated to this genre of stories, when a child, by my mother, who in her childhood had gathered them from pilgrims and mendicants for whom her parental house was an ever-open shelter. Over the past four decades, I have continued to collect them from numerous sources- individual narrators and whatever records are available of tales told by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Nigamananda, Sri Vijaykrishna Goswami, Swami Ramdas, Swami Ram Tirth Yogiji Maharaj and others. One story is form Swami Brahmananda who lived at Chandod on the river Narmada-as communicated to me by my friend, Shri champak Chatterjee, administrator and writer.
Some of these stories (like the four blind men debating on the shape of an elephant, or the story of the man who chanced upon the wishfulfilling tree) are so widely known that I had reservations about including them in this Volume. But, without them, the collection would lack its representative character. Hence they too are there.
I am entirely responsible for the way I have narrated them-for the aspects of the stories which I have emphasized, for they are the aspects which have impressed me. To the best of my conviction, the theme and the spirit of the stories have been faithfully projected.
The brief comments at the end of most of the stories may appear superfluous to some readers. In the eighties of the 20th century I serialized a number of these stories in The Indian & Foreign Review, a Journal published by the Government of India mostly for circulation abroad. Brief notes stressing the significance of the stories were appreciated not only by foreign readers but also by Indians. Hence, except where a massage is absolutely obvious, comments have been appended to the stories. I expect that there will be readers who will discover in the stories messages subtler than those hinted at by me.
I bow to the great Masters, the original tellers of these stories, in gratitude.
It is fitness of things that these stories, a treasure of our national heritage, should be published by our National Academy of Letters. I am most thankful to the Sahitya Akademi.
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