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Parable of the King And the Poet-thief

Sudhamahi Regunathan

Night was falling. The moon was playing hide and seek with the clouds. The trees were swaying with a gentle breeze.

The king looked out of the window of his palace. His city seemed to be in deep slumber. He settled down in his bed but try as he might, he could not fall asleep.

When one cannot fall asleep, one’s mind starts wandering. The king found himself thinking about his life. “What do I not have?” thought the king as he calculated his assets. He had everything. He enumerated all that he was blessed with and found himself composing a verse:

“Queens of unrivalled beauty and law-abiding citizens Men of unparalleled sincerity and soft-spoken servants Armies of trumpeting elephants and wind-paced horses...”

All sleep vanished from the king’s eyes. He needed one more line to complete the verse. So what if he had all this, how was he going to tie them up? What was the last line to be? Tossing and turning, the poet-king fell into what is called ‘artistic angst’. He repeated the first three lines a thousand times in the hope that the fourth may flow from them. His queens were beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful women that had ever been born.

They all loved him. The people of his kingdom loved him. They supported him and stood by him at all times. His courtiers and friends were helpful and there was never any dissension just for the sake of it. And his army? The king swelled with pride. His strong majestic elephants could win any war on their own.

He had horses that were unmatched in speed. Thus his army was one of the strongest ever. But what should the fourth line be? The king was now getting agitated.

In the king’s city lived an impoverished poet. That night, he couldn’t sleep because he was hungry. Searching for food, he sneaked into the king’s palace. Groping his way in the dark, he found he had walked into the king’s chamber. Sensing that the king was awake, the poet-thief sat down and moved as close to the ground as possible. Soon he reached the king’s cot and lay underneath it.

He saw a bowl of fruit on the table opposite the king’s bed and decided to wait for the king to fall asleep so that he could get hold of the fruit. The hungry poet waited for a long time, but the king only tossed and turned. Finally, the poet paid attention to what the king was saying. Upon hearing the first three lines of the king’s verse, he said: “...I have them all which turn to nothing when the eye closes”.

The words had slipped out spontaneously from the poet’s mouth and only later did he realise his mistake. The king, excited on hearing the concluding line of his verse, jumped out of bed and looked around for the source of the voice. In just a single line, the voice had estimated the value of all that the king had. Beautiful and precious the king’s possessions were, no doubt, but they were not eternal. They were guests of time.

The poet-thief was caught. “So, you are a thief”, said the king, unsure of how to react. “No sir”, said the poet. “I am not a thief. I am a poet. Poverty has made me steal”. Indeed, reflected the king, paucity can mar character. He gave the poet a lakh gold coins and bid him farewell with respect.

Acharya Mahaprajna draws many lessons from this simple story. The idea of possessiveness is crippling. It leads to greed, arrogance, anger, aversion, fear and lust. These emotions are the seeds of violence and when they sprout, ugly incidents like fundamentalist violence take place. This does not mean one should give up possessions.

It only means that one should give up possessiveness. Says the Acharya: “Both paucity and plenty are related to the idea of possessiveness and therefore mar character.

Possessiveness could be of material wealth or of one’s own beliefs and learning. True learning lies in accepting and appreciating another’s also. True living is in sharing and practising amity”.
Right conduct, right knowledge and right vision combined with intuition have to be developed to live a life of equanimity and bring peace to one’s surroundings.

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