Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, Pause for Thought, 2003
Sabal Singh was the washerman’s donkey. One day he died. The washerman was very close to Sabal Singh and had worked with him for years and years, and was very upset. So, as many Indians do during a time of mourning, the washerman shaved his head. With his new haircut and a suitably morose demeanour, he walked into the marketplace and met the sweet vendor, who said, ‘Oh! You’ve shaved your head. Why is that, my good friend?’ The washerman replied, ‘My faithful companion of 35 years, Sabal Singh, has died. I am so unhappy.’ The sweet vendor said, ‘Oh! Your friend has died! I will also shave my head, out of respect for your friend.’ Then the sweet vendor’s regular customers asked him why he had shaved his head. ‘Haven’t you heard? Sabal Singh has died!’ So they thought, ‘Oh! Sabal Singh must be an important person.’ They all shaved their heads. Soon the whole market place had the new haircut. Then, the chief minister of the king wandered through. He saw people beating their breasts and weeping for Sabal Singh, the great Sabal Singh who had died. The minister was so overwhelmed with their devotion that he decided to shave his head too.
Later that day the minister met the king who asked, ‘Oh! What has happened, that you, the chief minister, are in mourning?’ ‘Your Majesty, the great Sabal Singh is dead.’ ‘Oh! Who is Sabal Singh?’ asked the king. The minister was struck, because he realised that he did not know.
So the word went out, through the market place, eventually reaching the sweet vendor, and then the washer man, who explained that Sabal Singh was his donkey, whereupon everyone except the king felt like an ass.
This is an old Indian story, told to promote thoughtfulness, and to highlight the need to question the world around us. The story shows how easy it is to misinterpret the world and follow an unquestioned path. In Indian spirituality, to be thoughtful is considered essential for genuine spiritual life. It is also essential for anyone who wants to act with common sense.
We have to be thoughtful and questioning of spirituality and ritual, but also of our economists, scientists, politicians and teachers. We should question with respect and submission, in order to learn—not to criticize or confuse. Then, like the king, our questions will make a social contribution.
There are answers out there to all of our problems. The only thing is, are we asking the right questions? Or are we mourning for an ass? Hare Krishna.
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