“No duty is ugly, no duty is impure it is only the way in which the work is done, that determines its worth.”
This learning is beautifully portrayed in a story from the Mahabharata. It consists of the teachings imparted by a vyadha (butcher) to a sannyasi (monk) and is therefore known as the Vyadha Gita. It occurs in the Vana Parva section of The Mahabharata and was narrated by Rishi Markandeya to Yudhishtir.
The story is as follows:
In a small jungle of India, sat under a tree, in stern and harsh silence, a monk, with hands crossed upon his breast and his eyes closed for hours at a time, while he meditated in deep concentration upon the laws of Nature within the universe and within himself. The good peasants of the neighbouring village passed him with bated breath and rarely stopped to look upon him save with eyes of fear, for the lines of love were not stamped upon this yogi’s face, nor was he full of that sweet humanity or humility which the holy ones who dwelt in the jungles were apt to display in their silent and ardent quest for illumination.
One day, as the yogi took his accustomed seat underneath his tree of meditation, he was startled out of his deep trance-like silence by the droppings of a heron that sat on a branch above him. The angry yogi flashed a burning glance at the innocently-offending heron, and lo, at that glance, the heron fell at his feet dead, for the fire in the glance of the angry yogi had taken the life of the bird!
The yogi gazed at the havoc he had wrought on the poor heron, but no pity stirred in his breast for the life he had taken. Only a great throb of conscious power rose within him at this sign of accomplished ambition.
“Now thought he, “I am a real yogi. I may not be able to remove mountains or look at the invisible workings of the universe. I may not be able to put off my body at will or call from a distance a man or a beast in a second. I may not be able to materialize objects for the entire world to wonder at. But I can, with a look of anger, slay a life. So, let all beware that they anger me not, lest I show them my power at the cost of their lives.” So thought the yogi and again entered into the concentrated silence of meditation."
Now, as the day wore on, he rose and sought the village to ask for the frugal meal that a yogi is wont to beg from the homes of the pious each day. He called aloud at the door of a poor Brahman and demanded in harsh tones for his fare from the lady of the house who opened the door to him.
“One moment, Sir,” she said, “And I will bring to you such food as I have,” and bowing to the yogi she turned and re-entered her house.
The moments passed and lengthened into the half of an hour ere the housewife again came to the yogi, bringing him choice fruits and sweetmeats, and holding them toward him with sweet humility and downcast eyes. But the yogi thrust them away and harshly said, “This a fine way you treat a holy beggar keeping him waiting at your door to suit your will ! Do you know who I am?”
And he cast an angry glance at the woman who met that glance with calm humility and wise serenity.
“Oh yes, Sir” she softly said, “I know who you are. But I am a woman and not a heron whom you can kill by an angry glance.”
The yogi stared and looked at her in wonderment, but ere he could question her how she came to know of the heron, the Brahmani replied: “I am a yogi, too, good Sir, and the things that are I see. For me space holds no obstacle, material environments do not cloud my spiritual sense. I read the thoughts of men and that which transpires in the far distance is revealed unto me. So I saw you in anger slay a heron and I read the thoughts in your mind at my long delay in serving you with food, and now again, a moment ago, I knew you desired to punish me. But, good Sir, your power is lost on me for mine is greater than yours. Mine is born of spiritual devotion to duty and kin, while you seek psychic powers for self-aggrandizement. But, pray, pardon me Sir, I will now tell you how, against my desire, I have kept you waiting thus for these fruits. It is written in the Sacred Books that a woman’s first duty is to her husband and home.
By this devotion she may gain greater spiritual development than by any other means. So it happened that when I left you, my husband had just returned from a long journey, hungry and almost overcome with weariness and heat. As my first duty is to him, I cooled him, served him and fed him. He is head of our house, the first in my soul. Through his great devotion to God, he has been blessed with wonderful of Truth. This illuminated Truth he bestows upon me freely. He feeds me, he clothes me, and he keeps the roof-tree above me by his labours. His love comforts me, his strength encourages me, his Truth teaches me and he serves me with his wisdom. And in turn I, most blessed among women, see in him my spiritual guide, my benefactor and my lover. So, with all devotion and humility I serve him and my attention to him is ever undivided. It is through this loving devotion to my good husband, my good Sir, I have attained these spiritual powers which make the invisible visible and the unreadable knowable to me.”
“You are indeed a wonderful woman,“ he said, “and your words make me drop my head in silence because of foolish and harsh vanity. Oh tell me words of advice that might be of service to me in this my quest for illumination, for great is your wisdom and marvellous your devotion must be to have brought about this development of soul in you.”
“No” said the housewife, “It is not me who should teach you, a Brahman, but this I will say that the same devotion that gave me these spiritual powers show me that you are an only son of your parents and in seeking to develop your soul, you have left behind you, in great pain and sorrow, your good parents who are pining for you. There you have fled your highest duty, and because of it, the true light has not been vouchsafed to you. I urge you to go across the market place. There you will find a hunter, a man of low caste indeed, but of great wisdom. Do you go to him and ask his advice, and you shall hear that which shall make you wise and see that which you shall not soon forget.”
“But,” said the Yogi, “a hunter? How can I be in the presence of one who kills living things for a living? An outcast is he and of unclean birth.”
“But you did kill a heron, though an ascetic. That wise hunter follows the calling of his caste. Sir, the caste of a hunter in which he is born. But he does not kill; he merely sells flesh as his forefathers did by buying it from somebody else. But even a pariah may acquire wisdom if he desire it, say the sages, wisdom’s gate is opened as wide to the meanest born as to the twice-born, even as God is equally approachable to high and low alike. Even from an illuminated Sudra the Brahmans have gratefully received lessons of Truth.“
At this the yogi turned and walked toward the stall where the hunter stood with his back toward him weighing some flesh that lay in the scales. The yogi looked at the hunter and stopped still. This hunter was an outcast and unclean, a killer of cattle and bird, a handler and seller of flesh and he, a Brahman, could not go into his presence, much less go to him for advice. That she, the marvellous woman, had bid him go to him and see that which he would never forget and hear the words that would make him wise.
As he stood there, some hundred feet from the hunter’s stall, pondering in uncertainty, the hunter put down his scales, turned and faced him, came directly toward him and bowed to him low.
“O holy Sir,” he began,” I have been awaiting you. Yonder good woman sent you hither to seek advice from me and you, in your perplexity, canst not make up your mind to seek wisdom from one who is unclean and an outcast.”
“How do you know all this?” faltered the yogi. “But a few minutes since I left the woman yonder. Here you dost meet me telling me all that has passed between us and read the shrinking of my heart and the promptings of my mind! “
“O Sir,” answered the hunter, “Illumination and yogi-powers are mine too.”
“What!” exclaimed the Brahman, “you, an outcast and a hunter, have spiritual powers? How come you by so great a blessing in these your low material surroundings?”
“If you will come with me, holy Sir,” humbly proposed the hunter, “and bless my house by the dust of your feet, I will show you how these powers came to me.”
Wonderingly the yogi followed the hunter into his home, a mud hut, where, with reverent air, the hunter led him to a room in which an old man of peaceful mien and, at his side, a sweet-faced woman, sat on seats elevated as a throne.
“See,” said the hunter, “these are my revered and beloved parents. These I have worshipped and loved and served all my life. These have been my earthly deities and to these I have given the strength of my concentrated love and homage from childhood up. And thus they, through my sacred devotion to them, have been the medium of my spiritual enlightenment. Yoga means joining the mind to the Holy Spirit, and when the mind is concentrated in a loving and reverent spirit upon something it worships as holy, it absorbs and is filled with the powers of the Holy Spirit, the energy of the Soul, called yoga-powers. O, holy Sir, you go back to your parents. Fill with love the void you have made in their hearts by leaving them in their old age. Satisfy them, give them your loving and devoted attention, and the gates of the understanding shall be opened unto you, and the wisdom and spiritual gifts you seek shall be yours.
Look you, Sir, my following the trade of a hunter is but a part of my devotion to my parents. While they live I shall do what they have done before me. And when my material services are no longer needful to them, when they leave me for another world, then I shall break my caste and enter into the glades of the forest to seek undisturbed my God in silence. But now my duty is here, and a blessed privilege is mine to serve in reverence these my parents, and walk in the laws of my caste uncomplaining. The realization of this and my adherence to it has alone been the means of my spiritual powers.”
In reverent silence the proud sannyasi heard and understood, and the jungle saw him not again at his accustomed seat until many years had passed. When he again came to that jungle, a kindly light gleamed in his face, and his glance was soft and full of love, for by the absolute and holy devotion he bestowed love upon the declining years of his departed parents, he had learned that love and duty to those nearest was the strongest lever to spiritual power and illumination.
Contributed by Jyoti Prateek