The Heart of Parasan
An Indian folk tale from the Book of Images, by Dhan Garga, attributed in origin to Murdhna Joti.
PARASAN was a sudra, and the son of sudras before him, for a sudra may no more change his lot than a thistle its leaves.
Of a day, the wife of Parasan went away, leaving only her body. The ghat is not for the wives of sudras. Parasan, being fortunate, dwelt not far from the river, which is kind to all castes. Thither he bore the body of his wife, and at the place where she had been accustomed to wash garments, gave to the waters her old garment to be laved.
On returning from the river, the heart of Parasan was heavy and his mind was troubled with questions. The mind of a sudra is dull from little thinking, yet the Atman in Parasan is the same Atman that is in all. It was this Atman which made heavy his heart and troubled the mind of Parasan. Being but a sudra, Parasan thought not of the Atman that stirred in him.
“I am but a sudra and I am alone. I will ask questions of the fathers. They will quiet my mind, and my heart being heavy, I will sleep and in dreams shall not be alone.”
So Parasan went to the hut of the head men of sudras. There the fathers of the village sat by the fire in grave silence.
“Masters, my wife is gone. My heart is heavy and my mind is troubled. Where now is my wife? Is she sudra still? Are there castes beyond Ganges?”
“The castes are one in death, but only a Brahmin may say what lies beyond death. The castes have always been in the world, like death. It is not for a sudra to question his lot, even in grief.”
Parasan asked again: “Is not a vaishya a man to be envied? Is not his lot in life richer than ours, and in death his body goes to the pyre?”
“Toil at thine own task. In the field of a vaishya are many stones that a sudra is spared. Or even if a merchant, he also is sudra for profits. Those who purchase are his lords. Those who carry his ashes are as heavy of heart as thou with thy, wife’s body to bear to the river.”
These things Parasan weighed, but with the mind of a sudra to which even a little thought is a great burden. As the Atman still troubled him he asked further of the fathers.
“The kshatriya reaps, but he sows not. There have been no wars, yet of kshatriyas there are as many as in war. How is it karma that a kshatriya should be idle when others toil through the day and in the night their labors spring up again for the morning?”
“The arm of the kshatriya is yet more heavy in peace than in war. He has wounds a sudra cannot see, and in death his body is food for vultures and for dogs. Neither the ghat nor the river receives it. Mayhap for thy fault-finding hast thou been reborn in the body of a sudra. Be at peace. It is the will of the gods.”
Then the Atman troubled him further, so that Parasan asked within himself, “Which is I, and which is my caste?” And his heart grew heavier and his mind saw no light.
“Fathers, what is this which I am, and this my body? Am I sudra, or is caste of the body? How can there be karma and also the will of the gods ? ”
The fathers reproved him gravely.
“These are not questions which the fathers of sudras can answer. Bring not shame on the fathers with vain questions. Respect for the elders is proper for sudras. These things are from old times. Our fathers before us have left us commandments. A sudra has but to obey to fulfil his duties. Duties being performed, there is peace. That thy heart is heavy and thy mind not at rest is a sign of sin. Only the Brahmins should speak of these things which thou askest. For thee, it is a sin. Sin no more, and peace will return.”
Parasan went away. But his heart remained heavy and his mind knew no peace. Parasan thought this was sin, not knowing that the Atman moved within.
One day, as he toiled at his tasks, his head weaving from side to side in the monsoon of questions, his shadow fell on a Brahmin returning from sacrifice in the temple. The Brahmin spat upon him, and pronounced a curse upon Parasan, upon his wife, upon his children, upon his fathers, and upon, all sudras, for defiling of a Brahmin with his shadow.
Parasan, being withdrawn into his heart and into his head, knew not that he had defiled the Brahmin, nor heard he the curse pronounced, but only the sound of speaking. He raised his head and seeing that a Brahmin stood before him, and, having heard the sound of speaking, Parasan addressed his questions to the Brahmin. For though it is not lawful for a sudra to touch a Brahmin, nor address a Brahmin, it is not sin for a sudra to make answer when a Brahmin has spoken.
“Master, I am a sudra whose wife is dead, and whose heart is heavy, and whose mind is troubled with questions. The fathers’ have said that only a Brahmin may speak of what lies beyond death. Who and what am I? When a sudra dies does caste die? Or when he returns into a body does caste wait for him here in the body?”
But the Brahmin, feeling himself defiled, cursed Parasan with a triple curse, naming the past, the present, and the future.
“Sudra thou hast been, chandala do I condemn thee in this moment, and pariah shalt thou be in thy dying. Go live with outcastes, and in death, mingle thy bones with the dogs. Be gone, accursed defiler.”
So Parasan became an outcaste, and the fathers were troubled no more.
“This comes of vain questions,” said they. “It is evil karma for a sudra to question his lot. The gods turn from such. Parasan has been led, by sin to defile a Brahmin. Thus has he lost his caste. The Pitris will no longer protect him and in death he will not reach to the regions of Indra. Well for him if he become not a bhut.”
Parasan, being a pariah, could enter no village and approach no person. If his shadow came nigh a path the children stoned him, lest he defile the four elements and bring sorrow upon their village. He wandered with wild dogs and with other pariahs., sharing their scraps and their bones.
These things troubled him not, but his heart remained heavy and in his mind questions pressed sorely. Yet seeing the miseries of others, though they knew not his, he became the sudra of outcastes, both of men and dogs. Thus the dogs followed him, knowing not why, but receiving from him friendliness. Thus the lepers came to him, for he feared them not and was friendly. Thus the hungered and the sick amongst the pariahs followed him, receiving friendliness. Thus his tasks became great and the memory of his lot sank into abeyance. Only his heart and his questions remained.
All this was the Atman in each, yet none knew it, for they were but dogs and outcastes, and Parasan the friend of the friendless.
On the day that his memory died, there came into the company of Parasan an ancient. When at night the others had ceased from their sorrows in sleep, this old pariah spoke to Parasan saying:
“Brother of pariahs, let me serve thee.”
Parasan answered him: “Thou art old and art feeble. Respect for the elders impels me. Friendliness for the feeble impels me. Thy need is greater than all. Take, then, this place where I lie, and repose thee, for the leaves have been warmed by my body.”
After this, the ancient of pariahs spoke again to Parasan, saying:
“Can I not serve thee, who serves others?”
Then Parasan told of his heavy heart and his questions that pressed sore.
“What dost thou remember of thy past that has weighted thy heart and pressed-sore thy mind ? ”
But Parasan, who had lost the memory of his own ills in serving the afflicted, remembered naught but the friendliness of his tasks as a sudra, naught but the great love of his wife, naught but the soft touch of his children naught but the grave kindness of the fathers, naught but the love of the dogs and the pariahs. He knew not that it was the Atman who had ploughed the soil, and planted the seed, and tilled the new growth, and slain the weeds of false memory.
“Then why is the heart heavy and the mind oppressed?”
“It is because none can find peace but in sleep. It is because sorrow awaits all at the awakening. It is because love cannot conquer death. It is because none can point the way of life.”
The Atman which spoke in the ancient of pariahs let fall the veil.
“Know, then, O Parasan, Brother of pariahs and friend of dogs, there are many who can point the way of life, but few to follow it.”
“What is the way, Father of all that lives,” asked Parasan, whose heart had grown lucent and whose mind saw the light, but knew not that it was from the Atman, “that I may follow it, thus to help thither all who suffer and all who die?”
“Only those who love, truly serve,” answered the ancient; “only those who serve from love are troubled without ceasing by the Atman. The Self is in all and serves all, but only those know the Self who are lost in their love, so that memory of their own ills and sorrows dies, not to be born again. Thy love made the door for the Atman to enter thy heart. Thy service made the window for the Atman to trouble thy mind. Thy questions made the soil for the Atman to enrich with the dead weeds of caste and of memory. Thy humility has made ripe the harvest for those who know the truth. Ask thy Self thy questions and the Self will answer.”
Then Parasan, looking inward with reverted gaze, found the Self of all that lives. His heart was no more heavy, and his mind was no more oppressed. The point of his heart grew luminous, and in his mind was light which cast no shadows, for his heart was pure and his mind clean. And in that light all things were that have been, that are, and that will be. Seeing all, Parasan found the memory of the Self, the knowledge of the Self, the bliss of the Self.
Thus Parasan, Knower of the Self, saw all things in the Self, and the Self in all things. Thus he helps thither all who suffer and all who die.
This is the way of the Self, that all may find the Self.
So Parasan found the Self.
Atman – pure spirit, an aspect of the Absolute, individualised in man, THAT which IS
Bhut – ghost of the departed, devil, greatly feared in India
Brahmin – Hindu priestly class, supposedly the highest caste, but this is a recent invention
Chandala – outcasts, one of no caste
Ghat – from a broad flight of steps leading down to the bank of a river in India
Karma – The Divine Law, of cause and effect, the action that reestablishes harmony
Kshatriya – the Warrior Caste, apparently second to Brahmins
Pitris – the pantheon of super-conscious beings who were our ancestral teachers, the so-called Gods
Self – the reincarnating Ego, the immortal man; embodied Atma-Buddhi-Manas, or purified mind
Sudra – lowest caste in Hindu system, an untouchable
Vaishya – third caste comprised of merchants, artisans, and landowners