Anyway, as our conversation proceeded, I was reminded of this wonderful story I had read years ago in a great collection of oral tales from India, "A Flowering Tree And Other Oral Tales from India". In this delightful book A. K. Ramanujan brings together a great collection of Kannada folktales, which give us a good taste - and leave us wanting more - of the wonderful wit and wisdom hidden in these living treasures from our heritage.
So back to my nephew's conundrum. Why do people pray? Or whom should one pray to? Well, I would let this tale tell the answer...
The Greatest Thing
A devotee spent all his time thinking of God. Not a day passed that he didn't bathe and offer worship to his family gods. One day a mendicant gave him a doll and asked him to worship it. The man asked him, “Is this the greatest thing in the world?”
The mendicant said, “I think so. But if you find anything greater, worship that. ”
So he brought the doll home and started offering it worship. As part of his offering, he would place a banana, peeled and sliced, in front of the doll. Every day a mouse would come and eat the banana. He was very happy to see that the banana was gone every morning and thought that god was personally eating his offerings. So he continued to offer bananas. One day he caught sight of the mouse eating the banana.
“Ah, I didn't realize it. This mouse is greater than that god. He's the real god,” he said, and started worshiping the mouse. One day a cat stalked the mouse, killed it, and ate it. “O, so a cat is greater than a mouse,” he said, and started to worship the cat. He lighted oil lamps and had beautiful ceremonies for the cat. This went on for a while. Meantime his little son acquired a dog, which jumped on the cat one day. The scared cat fled for dear life.
“Ah, the dog is so much greater,” he said and transferred his worship to the dog. One day the dog went into the kitchen and put its snout into a fresh pot of cooked rice and lentils and ate it up. His wife caught it in the act and thrashed it with a stick till its back broke.
Now he knew that his wife was greater than even the dog. So he started worshiping her. Yet he wanted his meals on time every day. When, one day, she was late with them, he got very angry. As she was bringing his plate, he grabbed a stick and beat her.
He stopped smack in the middle of this incident, for he realized that he himself was greater than his wife. And while he was preparing himself to worship himself, he realized that his stomach was what he truly worked for. Everything he ate went into his stomach, and so he began to worship it. What he did next, we don't know.
Got your answer?
Or maybe the point is not to get the answer or even an answer.
The point perhaps is to keep searching for an even deeper question to explore the mystery further. The point perhaps is to realize that whatever we discover is perhaps only a small tip of the iceberg. The storyteller ends the story with "we don't know", perhaps inviting the reader/listener to imagine and tell his or her version of different possibilities that could happen, thereby opening new meanings, new questionings, new lines of inquiry and new degrees of awareness.
The point perhaps is to appreciate and understand that only through seeking will we ever know.
P.S. And before anyone objects to some parts of the story, the point is definitely NOT about wife-beating! Wife-worshiping, maybe :)
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