Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The great abadhuta (“ascetic”) told the celebrated king Yadu that he had twenty-four gurus (“preceptors”). They were not all humans; among them were natural objects such as the ocean, the sky and the tree, non-human animates such as the bees, the python, and a certain dove, and then the humans – ordinary humans, not great leaders of men or scholars or saints. The episode of the abadhuta occurs in Srimad Bhagavata (and in Jagannatha Das's Bhagabata). It is mainly about the knowledge of life that helps one to rise above the feelings of sorrow, anger, pleasure, etc. that day-to-day life brings. One loses one’s sense of balance in the periods of happiness and of sorrow as well. And both happiness and sorrow are temporary; when one is happy, one does not realize that happiness is short-lived, and when one is sad, one does not realize that sorrow is also temporary.

It is not possible to mention here what all the abadhuta learnt from each of his gurus. So we will touch on what he learnt from just a few of them. From the sea he learnt indifference to gain and loss. During the rains rivers bring more water to the sea, and during summer, water dries up, but the sea neither swells nor shrinks in these seasons. From the tree he learnt what it means to give. The tree gives whatever it has – flowers, fruits, shade, etc. – to whoever wants it, without considering whether he is deserving or not. From wind he learnt a certain kind of detachment. Wind is both inside the body and outside, serving it in many ways including removing smell. It is in and around every body, but is not owned by any particular body. From the python he learnt how to be content with whatever comes one’s way. It consumes whatever it gets, and starves if it gets nothing. From the thief of honey, he learnt how it is a way of the world that someone else takes away the fruit of someone’s hard labour. The bees work hard at extracting honey, but do not consume it themselves. They save it, and then the honey thief comes, smokes the bees, and takes away the honey. In this regard the bee is like the miser who works day and night, denies himself and others the simple pleasures of life in order to save money, and then loses it to a thief. From the dove he learnt about the undesirability of excessive attachment to one’s family, and from the daughter of a certain brahmin, the fact that congregation of many people merely leads to unpleasantness and quarrel. Certain events in the lives of the dove and the girl led the abadhuta to these insights. These events are described in the form of little stories in Srimad Bhagavata. We need not go into the details here.

The abadhuta changes our idea of a guru. None of these twenty-four teachers of him taught him directly, including the human teacher, the girl or the honey thief. None of them knew that he was learning from them. Some of them merely existed, some like the python lived out their lives in accordance with their nature, and some like the dove, the honey thief, and the girl chose to do what they did. The abadhuta did not exist, as far as each of his twenty-four gurus were concerned. Therefore they could hardly be called gurus. But for him, they indeed were his gurus, because he learnt from them.

He reminds us of Eklavya of the Mahabharata who called Dronacharya his guru, who indeed had refused to teach him. Eklavya practiced archery in his name, and acquired the skills. When the occasion arrived, he showed Drona that in archery he exceeded the Kaurava and the Pandava princes who he taught every day. Although self-taught, he had the humility and the sense of gratitude to call Drona his teacher because he had received inspiration from him. Drona of course was completely unaware of this.

Unlike Eklavya, the abadhuta had no way of expressing gratitude to his gurus. He never met his human teachers, to whom alone he could have told what they meant to him. He could do that only when he met someone like the great king Yadu, who was willing to listen. There is another difference between Eklavya and the abadhuta; the former learnt a skill, and the latter, the knowledge of life and of the world, with which he transcended the world. Each got what he sought.

Consider now the kind of shishya (“learner”) the abadhuta was. It would be saying the obvious if we say that he was a great learner. He had the motivation to learn and the intelligence too, but what was far more important was that he had an alert and completely receptive mind that richly responded to things around him, especially the unspectacular, unobtrusive, and mundane things that would ordinarily escape attention. He reflected on what he saw, and derived meanings from them. His life shows that the knowledge one acquires from experience and reflection is much more important than what one does from texts, when it comes to the knowledge of life.

We must note that he did not learn the affirmative values from every single guru of his; in fact, from most of them he learnt what not to do and what not to be. This shows that both the good and the bad are sources of true knowledge. This also shows that a learner must not decide in advance what to ignore; he must open oneself to everything – from the python to Pingala.

Now, coming to the content of the abadhuta’s knowledge, one might ask why he derived those specific meanings from his experiences. Were those the only meanings that could be derived? Surely not; the sky and the sea might mean other things to others. In general, almost any experience is interpretable in more ways than one. Srimad Bhagabata does not raise this issue in this particular context, probably because it would have arrested the flow of the narrative. But one can construct an answer drawing from another great work, namely, the Bhagavat Gita – putting it very briefly, what one seeks and what one becomes are due to the way one is programmed. A detailed answer is beyond the scope of this piece.

In a different world today, hundreds of years after Srimad Bhagavata was composed, one might ask how to relate to the abadhuta’s quest. One answer could be along the following lines: one cannot learn about the guiding values of life from texts alone; for this, one has to reflect on life as it is lived. And one must be “prepared” to learn in the sense of the abadhuta episode and then one would derive illuminating meanings from everything and from every experience.

Finally, if one wishes to dismiss the abadhuta’s values are hopelessly dated and irrelevant in today’s context, consider the way of living he symbolizes, which can be summarized as follows: live your life but remain unattached - let nothing tie you down emotionally Is there really a better way for living one’s life in harmony with the world and with oneself?


Richa said...

The post is very refreshing. And your last comments sums it up so well, ‘detachment alone can help us lead a life with complete harmony of the world and self.

I which chapter does reference of Abadhuta occur in Bhagvat? I read somewhere about the virtues these inanimate objects teach us, but never knew about this story. Thanks for sharing it on your blog.

Srijit Mishra said...

Sir, This is a very beautiful piece. Certainly, there is so much to learn from your writing. Regards, Srijit

Durgasankar Mandal said...

I read of the story of Abadhuta while I was but a child at Class VIII - a long long time ago. I read it in Bengali - a book called "Vedanta in stories."

I now was about to relate this story to my wife. Thought I should search the Net before I start the tell. Thanks for a beautiful post.