The Wise Man’s Skull
The following post is based on a story I heard from Swami Adiswarananda, the Spiritual Minister of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York from 1973 to 2007. This story is not funny, but it has an excellent message.
Let us go back in the past when in India walking was the only way of transportation. People had to go from one village or town to another on foot, and most of the time, they had to go through forests.
At that time, the environment was not disturbed and one could breathe fresh air, but they had to go through the dangers of being killed by animals and sometimes by the highway men. When someone walked through the forests, the relatives of the person would not know for many days whether their family member was killed or reached the destination. If someone survived out of a group of people who were attacked, then only would their family receive the news about the killing.
This is how one group of people found out that in one particular forest there was a crazy giant. If anyone passed by the forest, he would stop the person and ask a question. If the person did not give a satisfactory answer, then he would kill the person. So, people avoided that forest.
One day a wandering monk came to a town near that forest. In the past, in India, wandering monks devoted their mind on God. They would not live at a place for more than three days. Wherever they went, they would guide people to take the name of God and live a decent human life. They helped people solve their personal problems and would try to remove their miseries. In return, people would take care of their basic needs like food and shelter. This monk helped many people of the town and he was ready to move on. When people found out that the monk was planning to go through the forest where the crazy giant lived, they all requested him not to go through that forest as the giant had killed many people. The monk said that he was completely dependent on God and was ready to take on the challenge of the crazy giant. The monk told people not to worry about him. He started walking on the road going through the forest. All people said “goodbye” to him with a heavy heart. They all prayed for him.
The fearless monk was walking through the thick forest. The track was less travelled. So, he had a hard time finding the track, which would hopefully lead him to the next town. Various kinds of birds were chirping. Everything was green and beautiful. He was enjoying the beauty of the nature. He heard some wild animals. As the monk was completely dependent on God, he continued his journey without any fear, repeating God’s name.
After some time, the road broadened and on the sides of the road, he saw a few bodies of people who were killed savagely. The monk remembered the story told by the people of a crazy guy living in this forest and killing people.
The monk continued and thought “Whatever is God’s wish is what will happen.” Within a few minutes he saw a huge, terrible-looking guy standing in the middle of the road laughing.
As the monk went closer to him, the crazy guy said, “Ah! After a long time I found a victim.” And then he again laughed loudly. Anyone else would have died by this laughter, but the monk was fearless. The monk asked him why he was killing innocent people. The crazy guy said, “Well! I want an answer to my question. If a person cannot answer my question, he or she has to die. Your fate is not different from them.”
Again, he laughed for a long time. The monk asked, “What is your question?” The crazy guy said, “The question is very simple. Here are three skulls of three people. Can you tell me which skull is of a wise person? If you cannot give me a satisfactory answer, then you will die.”
The monk was calm. He smiled and went to the three skulls. He took a small pebble and put into the ear-hole of one of the skulls and then he shook it. The pebble came out from the other ear-hole. Then, he took the second skull and did the same thing. The pebble came out from the mouth-hole. The crazy man sat on his knees and start watching the whole thing. Finally, the monk put the pebble in the third skull’s ear-hole and shook it. The pebble did not come out! The monk smiled and handed the third skull in the hands of the crazy guy and said, “This is the wise man’s skull.” The crazy guy said that he should explain why this was the wise man’s skull.
The monk said that the first man heard a good thing from his one ear, but it all went out from the other. The good things did not retain in the head. The second man heard good things, but these good things came out from his mouth. After listening, he gave lectures to others and did not practice them himself. But, the third person whatever good things he heard, he practiced them and assimilated them into his life.
The crazy guy bowed down to the monk. He got up, laughed again and with a great speed ran away. The monk had a sigh of relief and he continued his journey.
I am sure you must have guessed the message after the monk examined the three skulls.
In our scriptures, the following three spiritual practices have been described for a seeker of the Highest Knowledge:
(1) Shravana: The word means to listen to scriptures from a realized person or a person who is committed to realize the Atman (our True Divine Identity lying within) and who is sincerely making all attempts for the realization. This person must have understood the essence of the scriptures. Listening to scriptures from such a person is far better than reading the scriptures by ourselves because by listening we easily get the essence of the scriptures. Shri Shankaracharya says that the scriptures are like deep forests and people easily get lost in them. It means that there are various teachings in the scriptures, many of which look contradictory and many may not be applicable to our situations. Thus, listening to scriptures is a very important spiritual practice for a sincere seeker of Truth.
(2) Manana: This word means reflecting upon what we had listened to and had read from the scriptures. The real thing to hear from the scriptures is about our True Divine Identity lying within ourselves. This is also described as Atman in Vedanta philosophy. This Atman is eternal. That is why It is without birth and death. It does not change. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita says that weapons cannot cut the Atman, fire cannot burn It, wind cannot blow It away, and water cannot drown It. This Atman is the support of our existence and because of It our body and mind function. Its nature is Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence-Knowledge-Bliss absolute). When we go closer to It through reflections and meditation, we feel the divine bliss within, acquire the knowledge of our True identity, and become fearless by realizing Its eternal nature. By realizing Atman, we know our minds (and thereby, all other minds) in and out. We become free from all bondages which tie us with our little selves, consisting our body and mind. We have to reflect upon the nature of Atman and also reflect upon our imaginary identity of body and mind. The body and mind are constantly changing. They have a beginning and an end. The constantly changing body and mind cannot be our True Identity.
Atman is a part of Brahman, which is the Ultimate Reality of the universe. There is only one Existence which Vedanta describes as Brahman. From Brahman the universe has come. Brahman nourishes the universe and the universe dissolves in Brahman. Also, what is in the universe is in an atom, just as a whole tree lies within a seed. Thus, Atman is nothing but Brahman.
(3) Nididhyasana: This means we have to make efforts to realize this Atman within. The realization of Atman is not an intellectual knowledge. We have to feel within that our true nature or identity is the Atman and our body-mind are like clothes that the Atman is wearing. Once we realize Atman, we find that it is the same Atman residing in all beings, animals, and all the things of the universe. With this awareness of unity, we love all and hate none. We always are ready to serve all with unselfish love, without expecting anything in return. We feel that the purpose of our life is fulfilled and all our doubts go away from our mind. Once we attain the Highest Knowledge, we feel that all the basic questions of life have found their answers. Sages and saints are great because they have attained this knowledge.
Thus, the message of the story is to listen to scriptures, reflect upon the essence of the scriptures, practice the essence of the scriptures, and realize our True Identity (Atman).
(Thanks to Radha Dhar for editing and Pamela C. Beniwal for providing an illustration.)