It was an ordinary village morning. Birds sang, men gossiped. The farm animals went pottering about making farm animal noises, or just lay in the dust. Dogs sniffed each other. It was peaceful and sunny. Under a banyan tree an aged guru was talking to his pupils about the next life.
‘Now, in the next body, which you will all enter, whether it will be a human body or a monkey’s, or a dog’s, or a chicken’s, or an ant’s, or . . .’ Suddenly he stopped in the middle of his sentence.
His young audience saw a look of puzzlement spread over their teacher’s face. They saw it turn slowly to horror. His eyes had focused on the ground near his feet. He seemed to be staring at something there in the dust.
‘Please, leave me for a while, leave me,’ he said, his voice shaking. ‘Come back to me in the evening.’
The students scrambled up and left their guru to his thoughts. Later that day, as the sun dropped into the sky, they returned to the banyan tree, puzzled about what he might say to them.
‘My young pupils, this morning, while I spoke to you of the bodies of ants and chickens and monkeys and humans, I had a vision of the future. I saw what I am destined to become in the next life. I even had a glimpse of myself, already living in my next life.’
The pupils turned to each other, whispering and smiling about how such a holy guru was certain to become a splendid saint or a noble king, perhaps even a minor kind of god.
The guru interrupted them: ‘I want one of you, in return for the wisdom I have given you, to help me with a task I have in mind.’
All the pupils crowded forward, saying, ‘Master let me be the one.’ The guru held up his hand. ‘It is a difficult, unpleasant task. When I tell you what it is, you will wish to avoid it.’
But the pupils still said they would do whatever he asked. So they settled the question of who it would be by choosing lengths of straw from his hand. A very young student drew out the shortest straw. He was to perform the guru’s task. He started thinking what it could be.
‘My teacher, tell me what I have to do, so that I can immediately start to enjoy thinking about it.’
‘This morning, while I was speaking, I learnt that I was to be reborn very soon. I also learned what, after an interval of time, I was to be reborn as.’
The students looked at each other in dismay. Their guru to leave them soon! Perhaps he was to become a god? A king? A lion? A large tortoise? They did not dare guess, for fear of causing offence. The guru continued.
‘I am to become . . .’ he paused. ‘I am to return as . . . You observe that sow over there, the immense one snuffling up garbage and peelings? Well, in a short while I am destined to reappear on earth as a pig. Yes, a pig. To be precise, as the fourth piglet in that hulking sow’s next litter. And my reincarnation will occur fairly soon, by the look of her.’
The young disciples could not believe their ears. Their guru to be reborn as a piglet! To fall from meditation to mud, from purity to piggery in one tragic tumble!
The guru went on to give instructions to the chosen student. ‘You will recognize me. As fourth piglet, I shall have a mark on my brow. After a day or two I want you to take your knife, find the marked piglet and slaughter it. That way you will release my soul from its prison of pig, and send me quickly to my next life.’
The student was horrified at the idea of his guru becoming a pig, but just as horrified at the idea of murdering him. Though it would only be a pig, the pig would be his ex-teacher. But he had promised. Later that week the guru died, and the day after that the sow had four piglets.
A few days later the young student took his knife to slaughter the guru-piglet. He came upon the whole litter slumped on their sides in the sun after a good feed. Their fat stomachs were going up and down like see-saws and they were all snoring in a whistly, enjoyable way like a band of small, fat, pink musicians. It seemed a pity to disturb them, but the student found his ex-teacher, with the mark on his forehead, lying tucked deep in the sow’s side. He bent to pick him up. As one hand grasped the skin at the back of the piglet’s neck and the other tightened on the knife, the piglet woke.
In a flash the piglet saw what was happening. He also vaguely remembered asking someone to do something for him, someone in some other distant, uninteresting life. Yes, to slaughter him! That was all very well for a guru in another life to ask, but this piglet was no longer that guru. What is more, he had just woken from a very pleasant dream, in which he’d been lying in cool mud listening to the birds after a good rootle round in the swills and muck. He had been on earth a few days and knew what its pleasures were.
All this flashed through the young pig’s brain as he saw the glint of a knife raised above him. Even without being told, a piglet knows what a knife is, and he squealed. It was a terrorized scream of a squeal, like a hundred cart axles grating at once.
‘No, no, don’t kill me! Let me live! Let me go on being a pig! A pig’s life is wonderful! The muddiness and the slushiness, the scraps and the swills, our mother’s great, snoring, hot body, our smart, swirly tails – everything is too good to stop. I want to go on being this me-pig for as long as possible and then come back as another one, even if it has to be a different farmyard with different garbage and birds and humans.’
The student didn’t know what to do. But he put his knife down and went back to tell the others that he’d broken the solemn promise he made to his teacher before he died. It made him sad. Then he thought of how he’d given his old guru the chance of a good pig’s life. That made him happy, but puzzled.
He didn’t know what to think. ‘This life is very confusing,’ he said to himself. ‘Perhaps my next one will be simpler.’
Contributed by Jyoti Prateek