The Impoverished Gift
Thus offered the royal servant-
“Your Highness, despite much pleading
Narottama, the greatest of the Sadhus,
Shunning the opulent shelter of your golden temple
Is engaged upon the sacred devotions of sankirtana
Under the shade of a tree by the roadside.
Scores of devotees swarm the holy man
Tears of uncontrollable bliss overflow their
Down-turned faces, and cleanse the earth with
Waves of piety.Your temple stands near-empty;
As the honeybee, driven wild by the first wafting
Of the perfume from the lotus grove, instantly rejects
The gilded pot of honey and flies briskly over to
Where the lotuses have blossomed in profusion, eager
To quench his thirst, likewise, the great multitudes,
(Caringnot for the glittering temple) run from
Far and wide to there, where down by the edge
Of the street, from the lotus blossom of the
Devotee’s heart, there emanates the fragrance of Heaven.
Upon the jewel-studded throne- the lonesome Deity
Suffers silently in ultimate rejection.”
Hearing this, and understandably vexed, the monarch
Stepped off the royal throne, and with due haste
Rushed to where under the shade below the bough
Sat the sadhu upon his grassy seat. Offering pranam
At his feet, he spoke thus. “Behold, Father, yonder
Royal temple with the golden dome- its crest
Piercing the sky itself! Why, pray, would you
Reject such grandeur, and offer praises to the divine
Here by the dusty street?”
“The divine resides not inside that vacuous temple,”
The sadhu responded. “Resides not?” retorted
The sovereign in fury. “O Sannyasi- you blaspheme
Like an atheist! Radiant upon a jewel-encrusted throne
Sits in glory the luminous icon of divinity. You call
That empty and vacuous?”
“Not empty, Your Highness, it is full only of Royal
Arrogance. Within that hall of glamor, it is yourself
You have installed, not the benevolent devata.”
With knotted brow, the irate sovereign then spoke thus.
“With the princely sum of two million pieces of gold
Have I created this unblemished temple which
Rises past the clouds, and through the chanting of
Potent puja mantras consecrated to the sacred divinity-
And you tell me that the devatahas not a place within
This temple of glory?”
With an unruffled voice, the sadhu responded-
“That year when a raging wildfire consumed their
Homes and impoverished twenty thousand of your
Subjects- homeless, penniless and desperately hungry,
They stood at your palace door, begging for relief from
Your royal hands. Their collective pleas fell upon deaf
Ears, and without hope, they retreated to the deepest
Forests, into caverns, under the shades of trees by
Street-sides, the courtyards of abandoned old temples
Split asunder by overgrown invading wild asath. That very
Same year,spending your two million pieces of gold
Your Highness created your temple of gold
And consecrated to the divine. That day Bhagwan,
The Compassionate One, spoke thus. “My timeless
Home spread across the limitless Universe is strewn
With countless luminous points of light dispersed
Beyond the endless blue of the sky. That refuge of
Mine is founded ever upon the four pillars of Truth,
Peace, Compassion and Love. The lowly, impoverished
Miser who cannot provide even shelter and safety to his
Own homeless subjects- he dare offer me a home!”
That instant the Compassionate One departed to where
Under the shades of trees languished the impoverished.
The refuge-giver joined his flock, the refugees. Empty
As the bloated foam riding the vast seas- likewise is
Your vaunted temple empty under the vast skies-
Nothing but bubbles of gold and vanity.”
Lighting up like a conflagration, the monarch thundered,
“Bogus lowlife charlatan, leave my kingdom forthwith-
Make haste and begone!”
His voice calm and resolute, the sannyasi replied-
“Where you expelled, my dear King, the beloved of the
Devotees- Your Highness, pray expel me there.”
[Rabindranath Tagore, the timeless cultural icon, identified consistently with the cause of the oppressed and colonized around the world, and spoke out decisively for them in his speeches, lectures, during travels worldwide and conversationswith the greatest minds of his time (which included, rather importantly, some of the greatest in human history, including Albert Einstein, Romain Rolland, H.G. Wells, and many other luminaries including a great many who were influenced and inspired by his work and his message). Most of all, his empathy for the poor, the downtrodden, the tyrannized of the world is graphically emblazoned across his literary writings, and it is well past time that many of these be brought before the world as a whole. Given Tagore’s immense oeuvre, this is a massive task indeed. This translator intends to present some of these, in bits and pieces as long as fate provides the necessary time.
Tagore’s DeenaDaan is a story narrative whose relevance extends far beyond both the space of the kingdom where the event takes place, and also the time frame which extends to all time. It underscores the obscenity of extravagance on the part of the rich and powerful (here depicted through the grandiose actions of a monarch, and yet just as applicable to the obscenity of imperials looters and plunderers, many, many from the haughty Western world, who routinely lay to waste the precious resources of the earth and pile up unimaginable plunder and heartless consumption at the cost of millions of the poor and deprived whose lives are piled high with suffering and violence to keep running the machinery of the inherent evil and arrogance of the mighty). In this balladic story, a vainglorious monarch expends enormous quantities of gold to build up a glittering temple to benevolent God while at the same time heartlessly turning away thousands of suffering subjects rendered paupers by a wildfire which consumed their all. The arrogant King is taught a lesson in humanity and morality by a highly revered sage who chooses to offer his devotions to God under the trees and upon the dust of the green earth instead of the King’s opulent temple. There is truth here which applies to the imperial, consumerist and market-economy world (the government, business and military nexus which is running berserk in the capitals in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere) and its heartless greed and arrogance right now in our times.
Narottama– name of the sannyasi; literally, the highest among men.
Sadhu– a holy man, a renunciate, a recluse.
Sankirtana– sacred devotional chants usually to the Lord Krishna practiced by Bengal’s Vaishnavas.
Pranam– the Hindu practice of touching an elder’s feet out of reverence.
Sannyasi- an alternative name for Sadhu; literally, one who has renounced the world.
Devata– the deity or divinity being worshipped.
Asath- also called aswath or the peepul tree, similar to tree of enlightenment associated with the Buddha.
Bhagwan- the Lord of Destiny in Hinduism; often implying God.
The author is Professor, Dept. of ECE University of Dayton
First published by Counter Currents on 15 Mar. 2017