Monday, April 11, 2011

The Sweetness of Bitter Melons

another selection from the Mathnawi: Rumi's Tales from the Silk Road

Though Luqman was a slave, he was a master himself because he was free of anger, lust, resentment, greed, and pride. His enlightened king, Hamid, who could discern the difference between chaff and grain, appearance and truth, had seen through Luqman's role as slave to his inner state and loved him dearly Kind Hamid was quite weary of the constricting role of master, and found great joy in humble service to his slave and beloved, Luqman.

King Hamid would have set Luqman free a long time ago, but Luqman, who liked being slave to a king such as Hamid, did not want to be free. Whenever the king went to a place where he was not known, he would place Luqman on his own horse, and travel behind him on an ass, like a slave. King Hamid would put his own clothes on Luqman, wear the latter's clothes, and serve him. When the king's cooks prepared feasts for him, or when his friends and subjects brought him delicacies from all over the world, he would feed Luqman with his own hands before partaking of it himself. His greatest delight was eating Luqman's leftovers. If Luqman did not eat, the master would also forego his food. Such was his love for his slave.

One day, King Hamid received a basket of the best melons from the Punjab in India. They were reputed to be the sweetest in the world, and when cut, showed the brightest saffron. Before tasting any himself, King Hamid sent for Luqman, and when he arrived, seated him on a cushion on his own chair. When the master cut a slice and gave it to Luqman on his own gold plate, Luqman ate it with such relish, such slurping of its juices, that everyone present craved a slice, too. The master gave him another slice, and Luqman ate it in the same way. The master continued to offer him slices, and Luqman continued to eat them with great pleasure. When Luqman was surfeited, King Hamid decided to eat some himself.

As soon as the king bit into it, however, his face puckered up with distaste and he spat the melon out. His tongue was blistered and his throat was burned with its bitterness. He threw his hands up in pain and distraction, and cried out to his slave:

"Oh, how did you eat this again and again? Why didn't you complain? How did you turn so much poison to sweetness?"

"From your generous hand and bounty, O my master," Luqman replied, "I have received so many gifts. Tell me, how can I complain about one bitter thing? Bitter or sweet, I am content to eat whatever you delight in giving me, my master."

"But how could you endure the bitterness of slice after slice?" the master asked.

"By love, my master, bitter things become sweet. By love, iron becomes gold, pain becomes healing, the hungry man content, the dead man living," Luqman replied.

"And a burdened king a joyous slave," said King Hamid, bowing before Luqman and kissing his feet.

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