May 062008

Persistent in our delusions, smug, convinced of our own greatness – we fail to see that that which we are fighting so hard to preside over is but a puddle of urine

One of my favourite stories by Maulana Rumi has to do with a horse and its urine. I can already see some eyebrows being raised. But stay with me. I promise it is not as offensive as it sounds.
I heard a Turkish sheikha tell this story to a hall full of prominent spiritual leaders from across the world at a conference in Jaipur just two months ago – some extremely orthodox. And when she began, I saw the same reaction – the deep breaths, the arched eyebrows and the uncomfortable glances being passed across the tent. Was she really serious?!

By the time she finished, however, the glittering mukesh tent shone brighter than it had all day with the sparkling eyes and smiles of all present. Something about this story had touched a chord in everyone. And the genius of Maulana Rumi, once more, had succeeded in uniting people from all walks of life with its simple yet universal message.

The story begins with a horse standing in a market. It is tied to a pole. After a few uncomfortable hours, it urinates on the ground. Then it goes back to chewing on whatever it was chewing on. After a little while, a tiny blade of straw, flung around by the wind, lands in the urine. Being so light, it starts to float. And so, floating in the pool of urine, it starts to sing: “Oh what a fine captain of the great seas I am.”

Pause. One must pause here to think. Even in that tent, that day, there was pin-drop silence for a good minute after the sheikha recounted this story. It took people a while to understand why this learned, spiritual leader had chosen to talk about a straw floating in a horse’s urine. And then, for those who still had not gotten it, she thundered, “We are all that straw!”

Yes, we are all that straw. Not just in Lahore, or in Pakistan, but all over the world: we are that straw. And there has never been a more fitting story to describe the limited perspective of mankind.

Persistent in our delusions, smug, convinced of our own greatness – we fail to see that that which we are fighting so hard to preside over is but a puddle of urine. And, in our enthusiasm to reign over that puddle, we are as comical as that straw.

In a recent election, I witnessed some behaviour that would have inspired Rumi to write myriads of similar verses. What started off as a friendly little contest was soon transformed into a microcosm of Pakistan’s political system with the powers-that-be doing all they could – no holds barred – to stay in power, the powers-that-longed-to-be compromising their beliefs to get elected and the powers-that-once-were engaging in mud-slinging campaigns to bring others down with them.

It was a sorry sight – everyone fighting to be the king of the hill. And yet this is just one example.

How many times have you seen a man so proud of what he earns that he forgets that there are worlds outside his office? How many times have you seen a housewife so obsessed with retaining control of her husband and children that she forgets that there is a country out there? And how many times have you come across professionals so caught up in mastering their own field that they forget there are realms out there, other than theirs, to be conquered?

Mystics believe that the only way to live a complete and purposeful life is “to be in the world but not of the world”; to live and fulfil your responsibilities while realising that this world is but a transitory place. Those who fail to realise this look as ludicrous to others as that piece of straw singing its own praises and celebrating its own good fortune in that puddle.

A great Sufi saint of this century, Hazrat Inayat Khan, once wrote, “That which the world calls success is to me but a doll’s wedding.” If we are to make of our own lives something more substantial than a doll’s wedding, we have to begin by realising that the mini-fiefdoms we cherish so much are but temporary monuments to our egos: true happiness lies in self-knowledge.

Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist specialising in Sufism. She can be contacted at

Courtesy: Daily Times, 6/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:27 pm

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