Karim’s note on the Reflective Narrative tradition of the Himalayan Sadhu
The following is a story based upon the tradition of Classical Sanskrit folklore and mythology which the Sadhus of the Indian Himalayas love to share.
The story is told by utilizing the ancient Indian storytelling technique of the responsive or reflective narrative, beginning with a venerated tale or myth. The narrative of The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram is handcrafted in a way that is meant to add perspective and dimension to the original story.
By engaging in a dialogue, the fishermen illuminate some of the significant tenets and philosophy of Classical Sanskrit folklore and mythology.
This is the storytelling tradition of The Upanishads, some of which go back as far as the 7th Century BCE and were composed by Himalayan Sadhus.
In this case, the original story is the story of how artist Janet Echelman had an inspiration or epiphany, while taking a walk on the beaches of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India. Janet describes this powerful experience in her TED Talk entitled Taking Imagination Seriously and subsequently in my interview with her, entitled Teaching Craft Traditions. Taking Imagination Seriously is the common thread that weaves together the classical traditions of The Two Fishermen and the contemporary sculptures of Janet Echelman’s artwork.
Let us begin this journey to visit The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram on the Beaches of India, by first boarding an airplane to India from Terminal Two at the San Francisco International Airport…
The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram
Once upon a time (in the late 1990′s actually…) there were two fishermen in Mahabalipuram, India, called “fisherman” and “fisherman”. Both fishermen addressed each other in this way. While sitting in their boats one day, about to cast their nets, they saw a young American woman walking forlornly along the beach, looking very disappointed and a touch sad.
“Ah,” said fisherman, “Looks like this Western person has experienced some imperfection.”
“But does she not understand that imperfection is beautiful?”
“No, I don’t think she does – not by the look on her face.”
“Well then, what can we do about it? I mean we can’t buy her an ice cream because we don’t have any rupees.”
“Well, maybe we can go and talk to her and cheer her up?”.
“Don’t be silly – we don’t speak English, remember? Perhaps we can just be…”
“But she doesn’t know what that means – she’s an American!”
“Yes, but I think this one is a little different. I can intuit a sense of awe in her. We just have to see it emerge… So let’s just be. Just be part of the profound universal Creation that we are. Which perceives not wealth or status or position. And let us go about our business. Let’s fish.”
“Yes, yes, fisherman – good idea! Let’s fish. We can just be, and if she is perceptive she will see the awe and wonderment in just simply being.”
And as the fishermen cast their nets they saw the spectacle of the nets billowing in the wind and they talked about Shiva – as they always did:
“Ah god Shiva is really dancing tonight! Look at how he is taking our nets and swaying and playing with the rhythm and ripple of the wind!”
“That is why he is The Lord of Dance. When Shiva becomes the dancer Nataraja, all cobwebs of consciousness are torn to shreds and all clogs and congestion that block the Imagination are released, and fresh inspiration flows free like a river from The Joy of Dance.”
“Look at her – that American lady – look at her now – she is noticing, fisherman, she is looking at our nets and she is noticing what we see everyday…”
“Yes, but it won’t last long, fisherman. She will go back to being sad again.”
“But why do you say that?”
“Because she is a Westerner. They can’t be still and just enjoy the simple awe and wonder of being. It is not good enough for them. They need to do something. Be busy.”
“Well, what do you think she is going to do with the wondrous wind-dance of our nets?”
“She will discover a way to capitalize on it and commoditize it and make it some kind of a successful venture – that’s what these people do, fisherman.”
“Well do you think it will make her happy? I mean all we really want is to see her smile again… She looked so sad when first we set eyes upon her.”
“Oh she will be very happy eventually, but first she must battle through cynicism and all the people that will mock her that her idea is foolish… all the Bali. Yes, Big Big Bali in her way.”
By “Bali” the fisherman was referring to King Bali who, at one point in Sanskrit mythology had taken over the entire world. Like a dictator or a tyrant or a debauched king. Full of toxic cynicism and insatiable greed. And so the people ask Lord Vishnu to go have a little chat with Bali. Bali, who was over 70 feet tall, and Vishnu, who appears as a tiny dwarf not much taller than Bali’s ankles.
Vishnu meekly, in his squeaky little voice, requests that Bali – who now rules over all the earth – kindly allow Vishnu a small territory in the amount of three steps. Three tiny steps of Vishnu’s little legs: a tiny territory indeed. Bali laughs a deafening, big, bombastic, baritone laugh at Vishnu’s request and sneers:
“My dear dwarf, you may have your three tiny steps of territory in my grand kingdom. Why not? I shall grant your stupid wish.”
“That was the power of Lord Vishnu’s Imagination, isn’t it?”
“Yes, fisherman. And if this young lady can feel that same power of Imagination - if she one day learns to take her Imagination seriously – she will tear the cobwebs of cynicism and resistance in the path of her artistic inspiration and she will become a great success.”
“And what do you imagine, fisherman, will be her success? What will she accomplish?”
“Well, I think she will one day have gigantic versions of these tattered and raggedy old fishing nets of ours just hanging around everywhere…”
“Yes. Like in an airport. She will hang fishing nets in an airport – hanging off the ceilings.”
“But why? There are no fish to catch in airports. And from the ceiling? Whatever for?”
“I do not know. I do not understand it either. Bizarre. It makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. But as long as it makes her happy and puts a smile on her face we shall have accomplished our deed for the day and our karma will stay fresh and clean. Unsullied.”
“I agree, fisherman. Our day is now a success. Our being has touched her being. And through no human will, just by being. Purity… Samsara. Hmm… Funny, I have never seen an airport.”
“Nor have I, fisherman. Nor have I. We only see the polluting airplanes flying high above us now and then. Fisherman, do you ever wish we could both fly in one of those airplanes ?”
“No, never, fisherman. Never. Why should we? We have our Imagination. And our Imagination can soar stronger and rise higher than any airplane.”
Samsara, the transmigration of the souls, takes place in one’s own mind.
So let a person’s thoughts remain pure. For what a person thinks, that they become. This is the mystery of Eternity.
– The Upanishads,
As translated from the Sanskrit to English for Penguin Classics by Juan Mascaró (1897–1987)