The Insight of True Knowledge: The Tale of a Himalayan Monk

A short story giving a profound insight into the nature of true knowledge

The majestic grandeur of the Himalayas is as timeless and sublime as Sanatana Dharma itself. There are as many number of crevices, caves, vales, and peaks as there are verses and proses extolling their noiseless beauty. Hundreds of years ago, there was a nameless, modest monastery located in a nameless cave approachable only after an oxygen-exhausting, arduous trek of nearly two hours from the nearest village. Nobody knew the antiquity of this Ashram, the monastery; it always seemed to exist at the same spot. At any given time, it housed four permanent Acharyas or Preceptors who had attained self-realisation in the same Ashrama, which they had joined as young lads… eight years was the cutoff age for joining it. On occasion, wandering sadhus and sanyasins would visit it, stay for a few days or weeks engaging in penance, imparting philosophical discourses, and teaching the secrets of the journey into one’s own inner self.

The boy who joined the Ashrama at that tender age had to undergo a rigorous learning and living routine for fourteen years. He would have absolutely no contact with the world outside his Ashrama. The only world outside his monastery’s physical space was the gorgeously august peaks all around, a few scattered ponds, a brook on the left whose gurgling was like a constant mantra, and sparse vegetation that was scattered in the vicinity. Inmates were forbidden to pluck or harm anything in it. Food was obtained through Bhiksha from the village. Acharyas would take turns to go on Bhiksha no matter their age, and students aged eighteen and more would accompany them on this ritual and collect their Bhiksha. This would be brought back to the Ashrama and shared with all. They all ate only one meal a day. Of course, the risk of not receiving even a single grain or morsel of Bhiksha was ever-present but had never occurred in the dateless history of the Ashrama, which occupied both a central and a sacred place in the minds, hearts, souls, and lives of the villagefolk. To them it was a place of repose, a fountainhead of spirituality, a manifested echo of their deepest longings for the Divine.

The first graduation ceremony of a student entailed him to go, alone, to the village for Bhiksha. No other Ashrama inmate went for Bhiksha on that day. The preceptor would not even tell him the exact route to reach the village but would only provide a few hints as to the direction in which to go. The student was also forbidden from asking any villager for the route back. One of the purposes of this was to acquaint the new monk with Samsara, the transactional world. It was the acquisition of a knowledge of a vastly different sort from what he was deeply familiar with: philosophical discourses, long hours of quiet contemplation, penance, and the patient, sustained effort to understand that music of the string which throbs behind all of creation.    

And so, it was the graduation day of one such student. He held the feet of his Acharya with both hands each to the side of his ears, gently brushing the crown of his shaved head on the Guru’s toes. And set out. The route was arduous because it was unfamiliar, treacherous, and because, for fourteen years, he was not used to this kind of travel even once. Within minutes of starting his journey, he scraped and bruised his bare feet, and lost his way numerous times and at one point, nearly fell off the side of a sudden crag and a modest portion of the skin on his right bicep tore. The journey took him nearly five hours and when he arrived at the village, it was nearly one in the afternoon.

The first sight that greeted him was the large lake on its outskirts. Not knowing which way to go, he directly walked on its bund which sloped down at its leftmost end to reveal a mud path that further opened up a street lined with homes of varying sizes, facing each other on either side of the street. After walking for ten more minutes, he paused at the first house and called out, Bhavati Bhikshaam Dehi and waited. When nobody came out after five minutes, he walked on to the next house. The door was latched shut from the outside. After two more houses yielded nothing, an old man from the opposite house called out to him and said, “Deva! I see it is your first day. We thought so when nobody turned up today. Most of us have had our meal and there is nothing left. We light up our stoves again after sunset. Please forgive us. But I’m sure you will get something from the fifth house on the left in the next street. Please go at once.”

The student soon reached this fifth house and standing before its expansive and ornate wooden door, called out, “Bhavati Bhikshaam Dehi!” Two minutes later, a stout but well-muscled man emerged. He only had a dhoti wrapped around his waist and the moment he saw the student, smiled warmly, half-closed his eyes, turned his neck up slightly, and said, “Namaste Deva! Just one moment.” He turned his neck to the door and shouted a name. Presently, a young lady, in full bloom of youth appeared. She was roughly about the student’s own age. The man said, “Daughter, one of the Devas from the Ashrama has come to bless us. It is his graduation day. Please fetch some Bhiksha immediately.”  

To the student, this was new. He had never seen a “daughter.” Another human being like him, but so markedly different from him and all others in the monastery. The face was smooth…not a trace of roughness…no hair on the cheeks…the body was shaped in…weird angles. This was new knowledge…

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Then she returned with a large vessel. Assorted food grain. And as she began to pour it into his sack, he looked at her intently, with open, frank, and innocent curiosity. Her father observed this but said nothing. The Bhiksha was given, her vessel empty. She said, “Deva, there is enough grain to last a week. Namaste.” But the student-monk didn’t leave. He continued staring at her…measuring her, as though consuming her form as a whole, resting his gaze for longer and longer durations on her breasts, then her waist and the shapely arc of her hips. She blushed and turned to leave. Her father held up his palm, stopping her. He looked at the student-monk directly and said, “those,” pointing to his daughter’s breasts, “are God’s most noble creations. She will marry very soon and have a baby. God has placed them there so that they will fill with milk, which will nourish the baby.”

Instantly, the student-monk said, “Please hold the vessel before me.” Both father and daughter exchanged a glance but she complied. He poured back all the grain and retained only that quantity sufficient for that day. He said, “Namaste,” blessed them and trekked his way back to the Ashram. This time, he didn’t lose his way.

When his Acharya saw the meagre quantity of Bhiksha, he was surprised and asked him what had happened. The student-monk narrated the conversation with the father-daughter duo and said in a tone of conclusive serenity, “That lady is roughly as old as me, and is God’s own creation like me. She will marry eventually…who knows…maybe in a year or two or three or four…for twenty-two or three years, God has sustained this creation and he will wait for her unborn one…a new creation she will give birth to and then fill her breasts with milk so it won’t go hungry. In which case, what kind of a person would I have become had I taken the food grain for seven days in advance?”

The Acharya went mute for a minute, a silence that nobody in the monastery wanted to end. Then he stepped forward and embraced his disciple and said, delicately breaking that profound quietude, “None of the Acharyas here, including me have anything left to teach you, my child. You have known all there is to know.”

Source: This is a recollection of a story I had heard many years before.

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, and translator. Author of the bestselling "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." English translator of Dr. S L Bhyrappa's blockbuster Kannada novel, "Aavarana".