Today I heard a beautiful story. It comes from India. I liked it so much I thought I’d share it with readers of my blog.
The picture illustrating this post is of a statuette that depicts the story. The large central figure is the Hindu god Vishnu. He is asleep on a bed made by the body of a multi-headed cobra snake, which has its hooded heads over him as an umbrella. The snake bed is floating on an ocean of milk. This gives the god, in this form, the name “Narayana”, which apparently means he who moves on the waters. His wife, Lakshmi, is giving him a foot massage while he lies on the snake bed. He is dreaming, and from this dreaming a lotus flower grows out of his navel. On this lotus flower is sitting Brahma, the active creator of the universe.
Now here comes a really sweet part. We can sing to Vishnu as he sleeps. We can sing a sweet lullaby to him, gently into his ear, wishing for beautiful and good things to emerge into existence. “Narayana Narayana Om. Narayana Narayana Om.”
What do stories like this mean? From the beginning of time, people of every culture on earth have imagined how the earth came into being, how what we see around us every day came to exist, and how we relate to that world. Some of these stories have come to have the status of dogma among certain groups of people, meaning that the people who believe them refuse to accept that any other stories have any truth or value. Very often people who “believe in” such stories dogmatically don’t even come from the cultures that created the stories. And the history of dogmatism has been so ugly, and has generated so much destructiveness, that many modern people reject sacred storytelling entirely.
Let’s get beyond dogmatism and the rejection of dogmatism. Let’s see these ancient stories as beautiful artefacts, and gifts to the whole of humanity. Evocative, and reflecting deep truths. You and I do play a part in the creation of the world that surrounds us. What is outside reflects what is inside and vice versa. And that can be beautiful or it can be ugly. Either way, it is powerful. So, let’s go for the creation of beauty. Let’s whisper the lullaby sweetly together into Vishnu Narayana’s ear, metaphorically speaking.
For many people, these stories can have no value, even metaphorically. We are living in a world where extremists have hijacked religions, and where political ideas and movements that used to inspire people have melted before our eyes. Perhaps extremism is one response, and abandonment of faith another, to the same things? “Meaningful” narratives are troubled creatures, in our world. In the prologue to his novel and masterpiece, The Glass Bead Game, the author Hermann Hesse provides an imagined history of the 20th Century that includes this passage:
“Thousands upon thousands of persons, the majority of whom did heavy work and led a hard life, spent their leisure hours sitting over squares and crosses made of letters of the alphabet, filling in the gaps according to certain rules. But let us be wary of seeing only the absurd or insane aspect of this, and let us abstain from ridiculing it. For these people … dwelt anxiously among political, economic, and moral ferments, and earthquakes, waged a number of frightful wars and civil wars, and their little cultural games were not just charming, meaningless childishness. These games sprang from their deep need to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible. They assiduously learned to drive automobiles, to play difficult card games and lose themselves in crossword puzzles – for they faced death, fear, pain, and hunger almost without defences, could no longer accept the consolations of the churches, and could obtain no useful advice from Reason.”
Some of the references are a bit outdated – the novel was published in 1943. The point is still clear and as far as I am concerned is still at least as valid if not more so. Disagree if you want to. Time for one more sacred story before I sign off. This is the story of Jesus and Lazarus from the New Testament, as told by Osho (formerly called Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh):
“The New Testament has the beautiful story of Lazarus. Christians have missed the whole point of it. … Lazarus dies. He is the brother of mary Magdalene and Martha and a great devotee of Jesus. Jesus is far away; by the time he gets the information and the invitation, ‘Come immediately,’ two days have already passed and by the time he reaches Lazarus’ place four days have passed. But Mary and Martha are waiting for him – their trust is such. The whole village is laughing at them. … The corpse has already started stinking; it is deteriorating. … Jesus comes. he goes to the cave – he does not enter into the cave – he stands outside and calls Lazarus forth. The people have gathered. They must be laughing: ‘This man seems to be crazy!’ … But, unperturbed, Jesus shouts again and again, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the crowd is in for a great surprise: Lazarus walks out of the cave – shaken, shocked, as if out of a great slumber, as if he had fallen into a coma. He himself cannot believe what has happened, why he is in the cave.”
And Osho then adds his interpretation of the story: “This in fact is just a way of saying what the function of a Master is. Whether Lazarus was really dead or not is not the point. Whether Jesus was capable of raising the dead or not is not the point. To get involved in those stupid questions is absurd. Only scholars can be so foolish. No man of understanding will think that this is something historical. It is far more! It is not a fact, it is a truth. It is not something that happens in time, it is something that happens in eternity. You are all dead. You are in the same position as Lazarus. You are all living in your dark caves. You are all stinking and deteriorating … because death is not something that comes one day suddenly – you are dying every day. … The function of the Master is to call forth: ‘Lazarus, come out of the cave! Come out of your grave! Come out of your death!’ The Master cannot give you the truth but he can call forth the truth. … Truth you [already] are.” (Ah, This! p.6)
OK, sermon’s over. Let’s get back to our crosswords. Or our Playstations. Or to collecting money or real estate or information or getting our abs to look like a washboard, or losing those last 5 pounds. Why not be merciful to ourselves and, as Hermann Hesse said, answer the “deep need to close [our] eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible.” Or maybe we can faintly hear a disturbing voice, calling to us from outside the comforting depth of our cosy caves.