Long, long ago in a little village in South India, there lived a poor, aged simpleton called Paramartha. He was a bogus guru who had five equally bogus disciples. Their names were Mudhead, Foolish, Weakling, Idiot and Rascal. Since all gurus and their disciples live in ashrams, they did too and their activities and experiences together were many.
One morning the guru and his disciples set out for a temple in a neighboring village. On the way Paramartha explained life to his eager disciples:
“It’s so simple,” he said, “life is what all living things have, and all living things move. Look at this tree. It’s leaves move and so we can safely say that it is a living thing. Do you understand?”
“Oh great and wonderful guru,” his disciples chorused, “you explain the most difficult things in the simplest ways. How fortunate we are to be your disciples!”
Soon they came upon a river and the guru called one of his more senior men:
“Rascal, do you know whether this river is asleep or awake? I know from previous experience that this river is a very cunning river. We must be very careful with our dealings with it. Before venturing across it we need to know whether it is asleep or awake. Please go and check the situation.”
Rascal, eager to please his guru, ran to the riverbank. Plan in mind, he searched for an old, dry, tree branch. Quite soon he found one and set fire to it.
“Hmmm,” he thought, “I will burn this river. Then I will soon know if this river is awake or asleep.”
As soon as Rascal put the burning branch into the river he heard a loud hissing sound. It frightened him so much that he fell over. Shivering and shouting, he got up and ran to his guru:
“My dear guru! Now is definitely not the time for crossing this river. It is very much awake! As soon as I touched it, it hissed loudly and covered me with smoke. It was so angry I was afraid it would get up and hit me. It is only by your great mercy and the mercy of my parents that I have come back alive. What a terrible experience!”
“Please calm down Rascal,” said the guru. “What can we do? We have to accept this as the arrangement of God. We will just have to wait until the river falls asleep.”
And so guru Paramartha and his disciples took shelter of a nearby garden and discussed the cunning nature of the river they were attempting to cross. Fool, one of the more philosophically inclined of the disciples said:
“Guru maharaj, I have heard a great deal about the river mind and about this river in particular. We cannot afford to underestimate its prowess. My grandfather has had personal experience of its temperament. He is a very successful merchant and one day, returning from one of his business ventures, he happened to pass this way. His assistants, and two donkeys laden with salt bags, accompanied him.”
“It was summer and the day was hot. They decided to take bath and give the donkeys some rest. Both men and donkeys stepped into the cool waters of the river, bathed and then spent some time under the green shady trees. When the heat of the day had passed they again went on their way.”
“The party had not been traveling long when one of the assistants shouted in dismay: Oh no! Master, look! The salt bags are still well stitched but they are wet and there is no salt in them. Where has it gone? Who is responsible for this?”
“Actually, we are very fortunate,” replied my grandfather after some thought, “If this river had not been able to rob us of our salt it may have become angry and swallowed us all. We have been saved by God. We are very fortunate indeed!”
“And so all the servants were satisfied and continued on their way.”
While Fool was discussing the nature of the river mind with his guru a man on a horse came by. Despite the warnings of the disciples, he entered the river and quickly and easily reached the other side.
“What an extraordinary feat,” the amazed Paramartha guru exclaimed.
“Yes,” chorused his disciples.
“Guru Maharaj,” said weakling, as they watched the horseman disappear into the distance, “If you had a horse all our problems would obviously be solved. We wouldn’t have to worry about these tricky rivers anymore. We could easily cross them. Why don’t we buy a horse?”
“Later,” said the guru, “we can discuss that later. Right now we have more important matters at hand. Evening has come. I think the river is now sleeping. Otherwise how could that horseman cross it so easily? Yes, I’m confident it is now asleep. Mudhead, please go and check.”
Mudhead, though eager to serve his guru, was not the most intelligent of his disciples.
“This is a very difficult task,” he thought, “I don’t want to displease my guru, so I will use Rascal’s system to check whether the river is sleeping. Yes… better to follow a proven path. Now, where is that branch he used?”
Finally he found the branch, black and water logged as it was, and ran to the river’s edge. Gingerly he plunged it into the river, and to his relief, no sound or smoke came.
“Ah, guru maharaj will be pleased,” he smiled. Quietly he tiptoed back to his fellow pilgrims. “Dear guru maharaj, this is the time. We must go now. This opportunity may not come again so easily. The river is presently in deep sleep. Please, don’t make any noise and step very carefully. If we go now and are cautious, the river will not wake up and we will be able to cross it without difficulty. Come!”
As soon as guru Paramartha and his disciples heard this they immediately got up and slowly, step by step, began to cross the river.
Hearts palpitating, ears magnifying the smallest sound, they stealthily waded across the river. When what seemed like an eternity had passed, they finally reached the other side. Immediately three of the disciples began jumping and dancing in ecstasy.
“Guru Maharaj, how wonderful you are. By your mercy, we have finally crossed this terribly dangerous river. All glories to you, what power! What intelligence! What……”
“Don’t be too happy yet,” Fool interrupted, “let us check whether in fact we did all arrive safely on this side.” And with that he began counting the members in the party. As his name suggests, Fool was not the most intelligent of men and hence he forgot to include himself in the counting.
“Oh no! What a loss, what a great loss!” he exclaimed. “When we arrived at the river’s edge we were six in number and now we are only five. We have lost a person. What a treacherous river. What a disaster! What……..”
“Wait,” interrupted his guru, “don’t be too quick in your conclusions. This is not the character of a sober man. Please let us sit down and I will count.”
And so guru Paramartha began to count. Being a simpleton, he too forgot to include himself. Once, twice, thrice he counted and each time he counted only five members in the party. Confused, he locked his skinny legs in padmasana and meditated on the matter for some time. Finally he opened his eyes and with sobriety and detachment said to his disciples, “We must see this as the arrangement of God. We have lost a man. This river is indeed a treacherous one. Even while sleeping it has managed to cause some mischief. This loss has deeply affected my heart but what to do? We must remember we are sadhus and remain aloof from the influence of such distress.”
In a state of panic his disciples frantically began to count and each came to the same conclusion. There were now only five men. One, two, three, four, five. A mood of intense lamentation filled the air and all the disciples began crying and rolling on the ground. The screaming and sobbing was so intense that guru Paramartha lost his composure and began cursing the river:
“Oh evil-minded river! What an outcaste you are! Have you no mercy? Were you not born with brothers and sisters? Can’t you understand the grief your callousness has caused us? My disciples are such a wonderful and intelligent group of men, an inspiration to any guru, and now you have mercilessly swallowed one of them. Even though we were considerate and didn’t disturb your sleep, you cheated us. Being sadhus we will not take action against you, but rest assured that one day you will also be cheated.”
Like mad men, guru and disciples continued to curse and cry. The air was pierced with arrows of loud abuse, anger and lamentation.
At that time a pilgrim was passing by and he was amazed by the strange sight and intensity of noise. “What a curious sight,” he thought, “why are these people so disturbed I wonder? They look very upset. Something terrible must have happened. Let me make some inquiry into the matter.” And so he walked up to them and said, “My dear sirs, what is wrong? Why are you in such distress? Has someone died? Please tell me.”
“My dear friend,” lamented the guru, “you could not possibly understand our grief. Previously I had five wonderful disciples. Now, by the treacherous mischief of this river I have only four. What to do? Such a great loss has caused us intense pain.”
Hearing this the pilgrim himself counted the men and saw that there were factually six members in the party, one, two, three, four, five, six. “What a group of simpletons,” he mussed, “let me see what fun is to be had from them.”
Solemnly offering obeisance’s to the guru the pilgrim said, “I can understand your grief. This river is indeed a treacherous one. Please allow me to assist you. I am very expert in the Atharva Veda. I know all about ghosts, yakshinis, gandharvas and so on and they are all under my control. They will follow my instruction. Please offer me a little gift as dakshina and I will call your disciple back from the river. It is my duty.”
Hearing this the guru became overwhelmed with joy.
“Dear Sir,” he lauded, “you are a Godsend. I am deeply impressed that though you are so learned you are prepared to help we poor sadhus. We are most grateful and are prepared to give the little we own as dakshina. Please, kindly bring our man back to us. We’ll give you 45 gold coins.”
The pilgrim, overwhelmed by the thought of gaining 45 gold coins so easily, was quick to act.
“My dear fellows,” he said as he theatrically took a large stick from his possessions, “All stand in a line, bend down and close your eyes. Don’t move or open your eyes, but when I touch you say: I am here! and give your name. In this way I will be able to bring your dear friend back to you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, yes,” they all chimed and eagerly formed a line. Being simple souls they were fully confident that the man would fulfill his promise.
“Right,” said the mystic rolling up his sleeves, “please close your eyes and we will begin.” The men closed their eyes and waited. Within seconds they heard a very loud “Whack!!” followed by their guru screaming “enough, enough! I am here. I am Paramartha guru.” They then heard the pilgrim count matter-of-factly, “one.”
Trembling at the knees each disciple peeked through half closed eyes to see what had happened. The mystic was brandishing his large stick and their old guru maharaj was still on the ground trying to recuperate from the severe blow. Frightened, and feeling sick at heart they all looked to Rascal. He was a senior disciple. What was he going to do? Recognizing the gravity of the task Rascal braced himself to set a good example come what may. He was just in time for he also received a heavy blow. “Ouch! I am Rascal. I am here.” he said as rapidly as he could. And the mystic matter-of-factly counted , “two.”
Slowly one after another he beat each of the six men, counting as he did so. And he counted six. One, two, three, four, five, six. Then he said, “please open your eyes. Now, as you can plainly see, you are six again. I have successfully called back your lost man. Please give me my 45 gold coins and be happy.”
Guru Paramartha checked his number of disciples three times. Finally convinced that they were all present, he gladly gave the pilgrim his gold coins who, overjoyed, went on his merry way. The guru and his disciples embraced each other and marveled at their good fortune.
Enthused, they collected their few belongings and returned to their ashram – this time over a bridge.