By Hee-Haw, NewAgeIslam.com
The Master entered the room, his head bent low, carefully measuring each step that he took. A dozen disciples silently trailed in after him. He headed to the far end of the room, where he usually sat, and, lifting the glass globe of the oil lamp, gently snuffed out the wick. Thereupon, he quietly settled on his seat—a slim mattress spread out on the bare floor.
An uneasy calm prevailed in the room. The disciples waited with bated breath to hear the Master speak about the day’s events. They were charged with a confused tangle of intense emotions, but the Master kept silent for a long time.
Some disciples, particularly those who were new, found the Master’s long silence inexplicable, even unbearable. ‘What sort of man of God is he?’ one of them thought to himself, ‘He seems completely unmoved by the gory dance of death he has just witnessed.’
‘Only a stone-hearted charlatan could behave this way,’ another man, who had only recently come into contact with the Path but had yet to receive initiation in it, told himself. At once, however, he bit his tongue in regret for thinking ill of the Master.
Under the cover of darkness, and unbeknownst to the disciples, the Master silently wept. Then, after a long while, he gathered himself together and cleared his throat, signaling to the men that they should now speak if they wished.
The agitated disciples assailed the Master with many questions, entreating him to explain how God, who, he had taught them, was the epitome of Love and Compassion, could have permitted the denizens of their town to commit such horrific barbarities that day, and that, too, all in His name. The violence still continued unabated and several hundred people had already lost their lives.
It was a distressingly familiar story, the basic plot being probably as old as humankind itself. It was also a truly universal story if there was one, for what transpired that day in that little Indian town was but a repetition of what seemed to be a universal phenomenon, one that happened, from time to time, almost everywhere, though the actors were different in different places.
It had all begun when two men—one a Hindu and the other a Muslim—had entered into an altercation over the price of bananas in the market. In just a short while, their trivial argument was transformed into a full-scale war between two communities, with men (and a few women, too) rushing out into the streets, armed with spears and flaming torches. Hindus and Muslims set fire to each other’s shops and homes, spearing and burning hundreds of people, including dozens of infants, to their deaths.
Mobs of Hindus and Muslims angrily raised the names of God as battle-cries, demanding Divine assistance in their murderous campaign as they ran through the lanes, maiming, raping, killing, and burning.
‘Allah-o-Akbar!’ the Muslims thundered.
‘Har Har Mahadev!’ the Hindus cried out.
‘O Bhagwan! Cause the Dirty Musalmans to Perish!’ the Hindus chanted.
‘O Allah! Dispatch the Hindu Kafirs to Hell,’ the Muslims prayed.
‘Remember, brave men, God’s immense heavenly rewards if you kill the Cattle-Slayers!’ the Hindus shouted in unison.
‘The blessings of Allah be upon the slayers of the Cattle-Worshippers!’ the Muslim mobs exulted.
And so, in just a matter of a few hours, almost the entire town was up in flames. It was later revealed that hardly a tenth of the population of that once prosperous town survived the deadly violence of that single day.
The Master sat unfazed as his disciples vented their anguish at the day’s events. Some clicked their tongues mournfully. In their minds they accused God of being a cruel tyrant for permitting such terrible mayhem when He could well have intervened to stop it had He wished. If He were truly powerful, could He not have prevented the sacrilege of His holy name, they asked themselves? After all, they argued, the rioting Hindus and Muslims both claimed to be engaged in saving His honour.
If God were truly the epitome of love, as the Master had taught them, why, a disciple broke the silence and asked the Master, did He allow Hindus and Muslims to hate each other so virulently, and that too, or so they imagined, for His sake? It was not for the lure of wealth or lust for women that the Hindus and Muslims of the town had gone about looting, killing and raping, he pointed out. Rather, they had been driven by what each considered as their divine duty. It was in the name of the good—of God—that such evil as the town had never before witnessed had been perpetrated that day.
Some disciples were even more frank in expressing their anguish. They confessed that the gory events they had witnessed with their own eyes had completely shaken their faith in God. One disciple, of whom the Master was particularly fond, even declared that all talk of God was probably a hoax.
The Master patiently waited for the disciples to fall silent. A soft smile spread across his tired face, and then he began to relate a story, for that was how he generally taught his disciples in order to answer their many questions.
A rich man, having spent many years building up a thriving business enterprise, decided to donate his fortune to a good cause, realizing that at most only a few years remained before he would be called to return to the eternal home, where all must head one day.
When men grow old and advance towards their graves, they often seek, whether consciously or otherwise, to relive their fondest childhood memories. Sometimes, they begin to seek out the things that gave them most joy as children. As a child, nothing fascinated this man more than stories about birds and animals. While other boys his age would amuse themselves in the outdoors, playing boisterous games and pranks, he would spend hours together pouring over the books that his parents bought for him. He liked best the many illustrated books of animal tales that he had in his collection. They depicted an exciting and enchanted world—wholly different from the one he knew—peopled by an abundant variety of creatures that lived with each other in perfect harmony. How he wished he could live among them! There, lions lay down with deer in lush meadows; puppies and kittens curled up in the same hay-stacks; foxes and hens trotted off, hand-in-hand, to the market; alligators and goldfish playfully raced each other in bubbling pools; and elephants and mice gleefully ran about together in circles till they fell down dizzy.
‘Ah! If only I could create a little world like that, my life would have been well worth it,’ thought the man to himself, painfully aware that neither in the world of humans nor that of animals did the abounding harmony which the books that he had devoured as a child spoke of actually exist. And so he decided to devote much of the fortune that he had earned to set up a model farm. It would serve, or so he hoped, as an inspiration for humans and other creatures to emulate. It would house all the delightful creatures he had read about as a child. There would be horses and donkeys, elephants and lions, cows and sheep, pigs and goats, parrots and mice, and many other varieties of beasts and birds, and they would all live together in great joy and harmony—just as they had in the books he had once read.
Accordingly, the man set about procuring a wide assortment of creatures from various lands. He housed them all in a sprawling estate, nestled in a delightful valley surrounded by towering mountains. Then, he gathered them all together and addressed them.
‘You, my friends, will be a beacon unto the world,’ he excitedly began, ‘for through your love and compassion for each other you shall be an inspiration and an example for everyone else. Bird or beast, four-legged or two-footed, winged or hoofed, you all shall, I hope, live together as loving, trusting friends! That is my dream, and you must promise to make it come true.’
‘Long live the model farm! Hurrah!’, the man excitedly concluded his speech, and all the assembled creatures grunted, snorted, squeaked, hooted, tweeted, barked, meowed, bellowed, trumpeted and mooed after him, happily shaking their heads, wagging their tails and flapping their wings in agreement.
And so the farm of the man’s dreams came into being. In a short while, news about it spread far and wide. People who heard about it could hardly believe their ears! Never before had they heard of tigers cavorting with rabbits and of cows and mice working together in the carrot fields! They also learnt the secret behind this veritable miracle. Through their love each other, the denizens of the farm expressed their love for the man who had transformed their fortunes by rescuing them from a harsh life in the jungles and in circuses and butcheries, and who had provided them the wonderful valley as their shared home.
Now, as they say, every good thing must come to an end, and it so happened that not long after the farm had been founded that the man fell ill and passed away, being called back, as we all will one day, to the eternal home. When this news reached the birds and the beasts of the farm, they were besides themselves in grief. A ten-day period of mourning was declared, during which not a single creature stirred out of its house.
No sooner had the period of mourning given over, however, than a remarkable thing, which no one had ever expected, happened. On the morning of the eleventh day, the inhabitants of the farm all came rushing out of their homes, armed with whatever implements they could lay their hands on that could serve as weapons. Their faces were lined with fury. The pigs banded together, angrily raising forks in their hands. The mice rushed out over the meadows brandishing little pocket-knives. The parrots grabbed sharp pebbles in their beaks and flew around screeching frantically. The cows hurtled towards the farm-house bearing enormous milk pails on their heads, intending to use them as missiles. The dragonflies carried flaming torches, which they had attached to their wings with bits of string. The dogs, lions, tigers, alligators and other such creatures had no need for weapons—they raced about the farm, baring their teeth and brandishing their paws, scaring all the other creatures. The entire farm was drowned in an angry cacophony.
‘Our late lamented master man was most definitely a pig!’ the pigs exclaimed, ‘and so he will be buried in our sty!’ Challenged by a gang of irate pigeons to prove their claim, they angrily retorted, ‘Proof? Why, he would lovingly grunt to call out to us, and only a pig could do that!’
‘Stop your meaningless banter!’ the dogs barked in unison. ‘It’s not for no reason that you’re said to be pig-headed! The master was certainly one of us. Dog is man’s best friend, as they say. The master spent more time with us than with any of you, and so he must be buried in our kennel.’
‘Ha! What utter nonsense! We’ve never heard anything so absurd before!’ the cats spat out. ‘It was we who had the honour of sleeping with the master in his bed. No one else did. That conclusively proves—though proof is hardly required—that he was a cat, of a very rare breed, no doubt. He must be buried in the cat-house. We’re going to build an impressive tomb for him in there.’
‘You must be joking!’ cried the parrots. ‘You’ve all so quickly forgotten how our revered master would sing and whistle when he was happy. Have you ever heard cats and dogs and pigs sing? Only a bird could do that! A bird he was, then, and he must be laid to rest in the aviary.’
‘Indeed! Indeed!’ chimed the nightingales.
‘Hear! Hear!’ sang the mynahs, ‘The master was a bird! The master was a bird! The master was a bird!’ they stupidly trilled.
‘Enough of your silly prattle,’ the army of ants boomed. The first thing the master would do when he got up each morning, they reminded the other creatures, was to place a handful of sugar at the foot of the giant ant-hill for the little creatures to feed on. ‘Only a fellow ant could have such compassion for us!’ the ants protested. And they began talking about the elaborate arrangements that they were making to transport the man’s body to a secret underground chamber deep inside the ant-hill.
‘Lay off, all you creatures of the land and the air!’ interrupted the fish from the pond nearby. ‘Remember the hours our master would spend swimming with us? Why, only a fish could do that! The master’s body must be consigned to our pond.’
In similar fashion, the other beasts on the farm pressed their claims to the man’s body, angrily insisting that he was actually one of them. Soon, their words changed into blows, and in no time at all the farm was transformed into a vast battle-field. The animals set upon each other, all fired, so they believed, by an irrepressible zeal for their recently-deceased master. Each species was driven to uncontrollable madness that day, impelled by the dogged belief—which, despite all their other differences, they all curiously shared—that the man had actually been one of them, and that, therefore, it was their right alone to do with his body what they pleased.
And so it came to be that their misplaced love for, and devotion to, the man who had done so much for them led the denizens of the farm to wage war against each other. By the time the sun had set that evening, not a single one of them remained.
All along, the man, nestled in his place in the eternal home, silently watched the birds and beasts tearing to shreds the dream that he had once dreamt as tears welled in his tired eyes.
The Master lifted his head and turned about. In the darkness he could see the gleam of tears trailing down the faces of his disciples.
‘And just as it was with the creatures of the farm, so it is with men who claim to follow various faiths,’ he explained for the benefit of some of the disciples who did not fully understand the import of the story. The inhabitants of the farm knew almost nothing of their master, and so, in their misplaced zeal for him, each construed him in its own image—in a manner that bore no relation at all to his reality. That, the Master explained, was also how most men born into different religious communities thought of the Divine. Not knowing God through their own personal experience, they fanatically clung to the beliefs, myths and rituals of their communities, on which they had been reared since infancy, insisting that only their particular way of conceiving God was valid and that all others were sure roads to hell.
Their competing claims to their master’s legacy led the denizens of the farm to deny his unbounded love for all of them. In the same way, the Master went on, every religious community fondly imagined that God was on its side alone—in effect claiming to own Him, and, in this way, rudely denying the reality of God’s universal love and compassion. Inventing their own images of God in a narrow, conceited way (just as the inhabitants of the farm had with regard to their deceased master) had led every religious community to imagine that it was the best of all, that it had God on its side, and that the rest of humanity had no worth whatsoever in His eyes.
Such a belief had no basis whatsoever in reality, the Master asserted. ‘It’s simply a device to boost the ego—of entire communities and their members. If they think it’s going to take them to heaven, they’ll be in for a major surprise when the time comes!’ he said, softly laughing to himself.
Being convinced that they enjoyed a special status in God’s eyes, the Hindus and Muslims of the town, the Master went on, had behaved no differently from the squabbling ants, birds, fish, pigs, dogs and cats of the farm. This conviction that they both shared had brought about their inevitable ruin, he pointed out, just as in the case of the denizens of the farm.
The disciples gently nodded their heads, signaling their agreement with the Master as he went on. If it was their zeal to claim their master’s legacy that had led the denizens of the farm to wage war against each other, human beings were hardly different. It was almost inevitably a firmly-held, yet wholly untenable, belief in being God’s chosen people or in its inherent goodness, which each religious community desperately clung to in its arrogance and ignorance, that drove them to war. Indeed, the Master noted, most of the wars that the world had witnessed throughout human history had been driven by competing visions of goodness, rooted in religious zeal, rather than by unbridled greed or lust.
‘Note, my dear children. There’s almost nothing more terrible than misplaced love, goodness and commitment, nothing more dangerous than hate produced for what is wrongly imagined to be a holy cause,’ the Master explained. ‘Much more blood has spilled in the name of God and goodness than for any base motive,’ he added firmly. Both the denizens of the farm and of the town, he reminded the disciples, had been motivated by what appeared in their own eyes as the noblest of intentions and the consequences of this were plain to see.
The Master drew out further meaning from the story for the benefit of his disciples. The man who had set up the farm had intended that the different species he had settled there should live together in love and joy. Likewise, God had wished the same for all the beings that He had settled on earth. Just as the master of the farm could hardly be blamed for the terror stirred up by the birds and animals in his name, so, too, was it unfair to blame God for the horrors that human beings continued to perpetrate while invoking Him and supposedly in His defence. Just as it was the animals’ misplaced love for their master that had caused the destruction of their farm, their supposed devotion to God, the Master noted, had led Hindus and Muslims, both of whom claimed to enjoy His special favour, to destroy the town that they had once shared. Such, he commented, was the inevitable consequence of misplaced goodness.
‘And just as the man, on witnessing from his place in the eternal home what had overcome the animals and birds whom he so loved, began to sob uncontrollably,’ the Master concluded, ‘you may be sure that God weeps at this very moment at all the many horrors being committed in His name by those who imagine themselves to be His most devoted servants.’
Hee-Haw is the pseudonym of a scholar in religious studies, an agnostic, who writes an occasional column for NewAgeIslam.com.