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There is a lot of talk these days about Choice. My Choice. Your Choice. Everyone’s Choice. The assumption is that having absolute freedom to make one’s choices is all one needs to be an individual, to be oneself, to feel empowered. And that any attempt to curb any such Freedom to Choose is regressive, narrow-minded and therefore a complete no-no.
Not surprisingly, in today’s age driven mainly by an economic view of life and excessive-consumerism such campaigns on Choices and Empowerment are often led by business corporations which have deep financial interest in having customers exercise the ‘right’ kind of choices.
Curbing my temptation to go into a deeper sociological and socio-psychological analysis of this phenomenon, today I am choosing to tell a story. Actually I am merely sharing the story here, as told by a master storyteller of our times, Manoj Das. The story is an old one, perhaps nobody knows who told it first. But such stories have that timeless quality that make them relevant anytime, anywhere.
An internationally known bilingual creative writer (Oriya and English), Manoj Das is the recipient of India’s highest literary recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and several other prestigious honours. The version of the story I share here is from his book titled “Tales Told by the Mystics.”
Without further ado, here is the story:
A merchant was leading his caravan through a forest. They stopped near a brook at noon. While his workers were busy cooking the lunch for the party, the merchant leisurely strolled ahead and sat down under a tree.
A gang of woodcutters, in search of useful timber, saw the tree and decided to cut it down.
“Will you please move away?” the gang-leader asked the merchant.
“Who are you to order me about? Do you know who you are talking to?” the merchant rebuffed them.
The woodcutters did not know who he was. But they feared that they had offended a very important man. “Pardon us for disturbing you, Sir. We will look for some other tree,” their leader said.
The happy merchant dozed off. He heard a very sweet voice, coming from the bushy top of the tree, telling him, “It was so conscientious of you to scare those fellows away. I have lived in this tree for a hundred years. I will leave it tonight, at an auspicious hour. I don’t mind if they cut it down tomorrow-which, of course they would do once having selected it. But had they hacked it now, I would have felt harassed.”
“Who are you, please?” the merchant, still in a state of mind sleep, asked the speaker.
“I am a being, a spirit. That is all. But I have some power and I wish to reward you. Soon a small fruit of this tree shall fall on your head. The period of time between the sunset and midnight is auspicious. Hold the fruit in your palms, put your forehead on it and ask for the reward. You have two options. You may ask for Vidya that will make you wiser than you are. That is to say, you would develop greater faith in Providence, which, in turn, would give you peace. Alternatively, you can choose Avidya which will fulfil any three wishes for tangible gains.”
The voice stopped and the merchant woke up. Lo and behold, a tiny fruit fell on his head, quite softly, and leaped onto his lap. He picked it up and was thrilled at the prospect of receiving a reward.
His manager came to inform him that the lunch was ready. He pocketed the fruit.
After eating and resting for a while, they resumed their journey. The merchant reached home soon after the sunset.
He let the first quarter of the night pass. When all the members of the family, after their dinner, retired for the night, he smiled mysteriously and showed the precious fruit to his wife and told her about the benefit it is likely to bring him.
“What do you propose to choose?” asked the lady.
“I will like to be wiser.”
“What nonsense do you speak!” said the lady. Are you not the most successful merchant in an area of one hundred villages? Could a fool have achieved such a position? You have enough wisdom with you. More of that stuff will be only a burden. Let’s go for something tangible,” advised the lady.
“All these years I have regretted the awkward shape of my nose as well as that of yours. I have overheard people referring to us by the peculiarity of our noses. Since we can ask for three boons, let us have, to begin with, beautiful noses!” suggested the lady.
The merchant held the fruit in his palms, brought his head down to touch it and muttered, “Let’s have beautiful noses!”
Alas, a hundred noses-all beautiful, sprouted all over their various limbs. Four noses each decorated their foreheads, two each on their cheeks, a dozen on their backs and so on and so forth.
“What are we going to do with so many beautiful noses? No doubt we can inhale plenty of clean air depriving others of it around us, but we would become wonderful exhibits for the public and that would be far more awkward than our old awkward noses!” observed the merchant in disgust.
“Why are you wasting time instead of praying for disappearance of these things?” said his impatient wife.
“Let our noses disappear!” the merchant told the fruit.
And all their noses, including the original ones, were gone!
“O our bad luck! Let’s immediately have our old good noses back!” cried out the lady.
The merchant conveyed his last prayer to the fruit accordingly. Of course, they had their old noses back with which they sighed-at once, sighs of relief as well as despair.
Of the several versions of this story, this one is closest to the one narrated by Swami Vivekananda. The significance is deep: Freedom of choice sans wisdom is totally meaningless.
There seems to be nothing more left to say after this. Except maybe to repeat the last line of the story — Freedom of choice sans wisdom is totally meaningless.
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