The King and the Handmaiden, Mathnawi, Book I
Prose adaptation and image collage by the idiotplayers
The story of the king’s falling in love with a handmaiden
There was once a king who had both material and spiritual power. By chance one day he rode out with his courtiers to the hunt. On the king’s highway the king’s gaze fell upon a young woman, a handmaiden. The soul of the king was enthralled by her, deeply so. His soul fluttered in his chest like a bird.
He took her as his own. She returned with him back to his palace whereupon he won her to his desire. It was not by the accident of fate, but through divine destiny that she soon after became quite ill.
Is this as it is meant to be? A man has an ass but no saddle and as soon as he gets a saddle a wolf carries off his ass to the slaughter? A woman has a pitcher but there is no water to be found and as soon as she finds water, the pitcher falls and breaks? What is fate, what is destiny?
The king got together all of his doctors and starred at them in silence until he said, “Both of our lives, this woman’s and my own, are in your hands. My life is nothing without her. She is the life of my life. I am wounded and she is my surgeon. I will open my bank accounts to whomever heals her. You will be rich.”
They all fell over themselves to say in chorus with one another, “We will stop at nothing. Our science is a great science of healing. We have knowledge and intelligence and can see down to the very smallest fibers of the cells of the body. We can direct our healing substances with fine precision to the most pernicious of ailments. We wear white as a sign of purity, and we each speak for a whole team of white-robed experts who cannot fail to expunge the toxin from this patient.”
Yet, not one of these white-robed experts of the medical craft felt in his heart the faintest shudder of conscience at making these bold claims. Not one called upon the source of all healing without whose intervention medicine is but an empty cup.
Their therapies and cures brought nothing but deeper illness.
The king cried tears of blood as the young woman become as thin as a hair.
The king sees that the doctors cannot cure; the king turns to prayerful meditation and dreams of a wise healer.
The king saw clearly that the doctors were powerless. Bare-footed, he entered his private room and fell upon his knees in prayer. His tears soaked his prayer carpet and he fell away from himself entirely. Upon coming again to himself after this flood of ecstasy, he spoke in praise and said, “You whose least gift is the materiality of this world, what can we say? You know all things hidden in the heart. We are always seeking refuge in You in times of trouble. Again, here we are, having missed the way. Even still, the flute is not silent but cries out so that what is unseen may become heard and known.”
At this, the king cried out from the depth of his soul so that the ocean of bounty began to surge. He entered a deep place of rest and dreamed that an old man appeared to him and said, “Blessings and good tidings, my friend. Your prayers have opened the way. If tomorrow a stranger comes for you, he comes from me. He is a skilled physician whose magic is absolute. He brings the force of the universal action which is like to no other.”
The next day the sun rose in the east and the stars evaporated from the sky. The king went out fully confident in encountering that which had been shown to him in the dream.
From afar the king saw one approaching like the new moon, slender and radiant. His outer form was but a shell through which one looked into the uncreated world from which all form comes. How is it that all we perceive and know enters the world of perception from the unseen? How is it that the pendulum turns around a hidden axis, an invisible thread descending from the center of that which we cannot trace? This stranger-friend approached, more than a ghost and less than a body of flesh.
The king went to greet this guest, and in his presence he understood that their souls were knit together, yet without any sewing marks. They were sailors who had jumped ship and learned to swim in the timeless ocean. The king said, “Now I understand that it is you who is my Beloved. You are the universal gift of returning from whence I have come.
In the world of bodies it works that from A comes B, and from B comes C. Yet there is also a deeper form to this. My pain for her has brought me to you. You are the messenger of the path, and I am now prepared to serve you.”
Continue to pray to the source of all Help to aid us in seeing ourselves as we are in all circumstances.
Though we appear separate in the world of bodies, we are connected to each other and to all. When we move without wakefulness, as sleep walkers, we harm not only ourselves, but we set the whole house on fire; no more, the whole world is set ablaze.
When in the presence of the heavenly food being passed down to us as a gift at every moment we react without inner sight and urgently choose this over that, complaining when the food arrives that we had instead ordered garlic and lentils, in this we cut ourselves off from the more worthy food that is given to us. Instead of accepting what is offered as a gift, we now toil in the field of liking and disliking with a hoe and a scythe.
Many teachers and messengers have come to show the path of acceptance whereby we can see ourselves more deeply by placing a control over our subjective wants. To show suspicion and greed at the table of Majesty is ingratitude. It is from failing to see and to understand what is before us and within us that illness and destruction enters the world.
Our level of being attracts our life. Whatever we are front of is food for our being. When we refuse the dish, we thereby attract refusal. It is in the discipline of being present to ourselves as we are that we learn to let go of misery and misfortune and to allow light into our being. Egoism is always looking for what it has to gain and never for what is needed.
The king meets with the divine physician whose coming has been announced in a dream.
The king opened his arms and clasped the friend to his breast and received him, like Love, into his heart and soul. Kissing his hand and his brow, the king carefully inquired about his home and the journey that had brought him here. With question after question the king led the physician to the dias.
“At last,” said the king, “I have found a treasure by being patient. Truly patience is the key to joy. In your very presence hard knots are loosed without a single word. You interpret our hearts directly and give a hand to every one who is sinking in the muck.
Welcome! Even if you vanish altogether from our sight, surely you are near and Destiny will come to lengthen the room that is now only wide. You are the protector of the people. Whomever desires you will not be lost.” At this the king leapt from the page of the story and vanished into ecstasy.
The king leads the physician to the beside of the sick woman so that he might see her condition.
When the bounteous sharing of spiritual food was over, the king took the physician’s hand and conducted him to the private chamber where the young woman lay. The king rehearsed the story of her illness as they walked. When they arrived at the chamber, he seated the physician beside the sick woman.
The physician observed the colour of her face, felt her pulse, inspected her urine. He heard from the king both the initial symptoms and the progress of the illness.
The physician then said, “None of the remedies that the others applied have helped at all. If fact, they have only worsened her condition. They were ignorant of the inward state of the woman. I seek refuge with God from that which they invent.”
He saw in his feeling the pain of the woman, and the secret became open to him. Yet, he kept it to himself and did not reveal it to the king.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. From her grief he perceived that she was heart-sick, and there’s no sickness like heart-sickness. The lover’s ailment is in a class all by itself, for Love is the astrolabe of the mysteries of God. It does not matter if the love be an earthly love or a heavenly love. In the end, love leads us to the beyond.
* * *
Look, regardless of whatever I say to set the stage in explanation of Love, when it comes to Love itself, I am ashamed of all this explanation. Although speech makes things clear, yet speechless love is clearer. While the pen is writing furiously of everything else, the ink simply bleeds onto the page in a wordless gush as soon as it comes to Love. In expounding upon Love, the thinking mind lays down helplessly like an ass in the muck. It is Love alone that utters the mysteries of lover and Beloved.
The proof of the sun is the sun itself. Just look into the sky if you need proof. Yet, there is nothing in the world so wonderously strange as the sun. Even still, the Sun of the spirit is everlasting; it has no yesterday. Even though the sun in the sky is unique, it is still possible to imagine something resembling it. The spiritual Sun beyond the quanta of measure has no peer, neither in mind nor in matter. Where is there room in the imagination for the Unfathomable Essence that the likeness should enter into the imagination?
Yet, here I am in the midst of telling this tale where even the mention of this spiritual Sun begins to transport me beyond myself. How can I continue to speak of this subject when I am passing away from myself and “me” and “mine” have no meaning, where my perceptions have become blunted and dull and not even a vein of mine is sensible in the presence of the true Friend.
* * *
Alas, please understand that the best that can be done is to speak in symbols and in stories and to allow these to convey something of the inner content of the spiritual reality, lest in appearing to speak plainly I should introduce obscurity. For everything that is said by one who is lost to the self and has not returned to self awareness will land upon the ears as sounding either constrained or boastful. The experience simply does not fit into words. Thus, listen closely to the contents of the tale for in this disguise there is something of the lover’s secret.
The saintly physician demands to be alone with the young woman for the purpose of discerning her malady.
The physician said to the king, “Empty the house entirely. Send everyone away so that there will be no one listening in the halls and closets. I need to be alone with the young woman so that I may ask certain things of her.”
The king made it so, and the house was left empty except for the physician and the sick woman.
Very gently he said to her, “Where were you born, for much depends on the place of your arising as the energies from each locale indicate the treatment suitable for the people of that place.” Furthermore he asked in a similarly gentle way, “To whom are you related? Who are your kinsfolk?” He laid his hand on her to sense and feel her pulse as he asked these questions, one by one, about the injustices of heaven.
Surely when one gets a splinter in the foot, one sets about with a needle to probe for the splinter, wetting the spot with saliva to better see the source of the pain. Indeed, a thorn in the foot is difficult to find. How then is it with a thorn in the heart? Answer that.
If it were easy, then any old idiot would be able to set things right and lost would be the occasion for the pain and sorrow to gain the upper hand over one.
The donkey gets a thorn in the back-side. The donkey does not know how to get rid of it, but, my-o-my he starts to jumping. But alas, as he jumps and tussles with himself the thorn gets more deeply lodged.
It takes intelligence to remove a thorn, and the thorn-removing physician was an expert. Laying hands on one spot after another, he tested each with questions and by way of friendly narrative she disclosed many circumstances touching her home and former masters and fellow-townsfolk. He listened closely to her pulse watching for the point at which the heart would begin to throb with the mention of such-and-such’s name. With this he would know that this person is the object of her soul’s desire in the world of bodies.
He asked, “When you left your hometown where did you travel to?” She mentioned town after town and still there was no change in her pulse. She told stories of many a town and many a house without even the slightest quiver in her veins, until she came to mention the name of the town as sweet as candy, Samarcand. With this mention her pulse jumped, and her face went both red and pale, by turns. She had been parted from a man from Samarcand, a certain goldsmith, as he found out. Inquiring further he asked, “Where does this goldsmith live in Samarcand?” She replied, “At the Bridgehead where it meets Ghátafar street.”
He then relaxed his inquiry and said, “Dear child I know your illness, and I will at once display the arts of magic in delivering you from it. Relax and have no fear. I will do for you what the rain does for the meadow. Let me worry from here on in, not you. I have a father’s care for you. However, do not tell this secret of ours to anyone, even to the king. For when the heart becomes the grave of your secret, resting in silence from all other influence, that desire of yours will be gained more quickly. Do you know that when seeds are hidden in the earth, their inward secret becomes the green plants of the garden? If gold and silver were not hidden, how would they transform and collect into a preciousness?”
The promises and soothing words of the physician made the sick woman free from fear. True promises bring peace to the heart, whereas false promises bring unease.
The saintly physician reveals the cause of the illness to the king.
The physician then arose and went to see the king where he acquainted him with only a portion of the matter. After which we said, “The best plan is that we should bring the man here for the sake of curing this malady. Summon the goldsmith from that far country. Tell him his fortune awaits him at your court as a royal goldsmith.”
The king sends messengers to Samarcand to fetch the goldsmith.
The king sent one or two messengers, clever men, competent and just. When they arrived in Samarcand they found the goldsmith utterly engaged in the trivial details of his shop, making order where there was none to be made and planning his work with undue ceremony and pomp well beyond what was needed. In short, the goldsmith was a fop.
They said to him, “O fine master, perfect in knowledge, your perfection in the craft of goldsmithing is famous throughout all of the king’s lands. The king, therefore, requests that your talents be given their rightful place within the court where your skill will be best used. In addition to access to the king, you will have access to all the best people. Surely you will find wealth and power and your name will be etched in eminence over your place of work.”
The goldsmith’s eyes grew large and his chest puffed out. He bid adieu to his town and to his children. Blithely he mounted a fine Arabian horse and let the king’s messengers show the way entirely unaware that the king had formed a design against his life. Little did he know that his robe of honour was purchased at the cost of his own blood. How many fools have mounted the steed of fame which has led them toward an ill fate? The Angel of Death is fond of saying, “Yes that way go. You will get there.”
When the stranger arrived and shook off the road, it was with sweet words that the physician brought him into the presence of the king like a moth into the candle flame. The king beheld him, showed regard and entrusted him with the treasure house of fine gold.
In confidence the physician said to the king, “Sultan, give the young woman to this man. Let her make tryst with him so that the water of union with him may put out the fire of impassioned longing.”
By indirection, the king bestowed on this man the delicate moon-faced one and they quenched their fiery thirst upon each other. They made suit in each other’s arms for six months fully until the young woman was quite restored to health.
The physician then prepared a potion whose gradual imbibing by the goldsmith first had a dwindling effect upon him and then brought about a ravaging illness. His beauty and youth wore away. In the face of the illness his cheeks were drained of colour and of flesh. His breath turned sour. The soul of the young woman grew cold as did her passion. She kept her distance and turned away when he spoke. Alas, many the man who has been slain by his own magnificence and many the golden love that when scratched reveals the base metal beneath the paint.
The goldsmith finally cried out, “I am but the elephant whose blood was shed for the sake of my tusks. I am the fox whose head is cut off for the sake of the fur. Who is my slayer!? Whomever it is has killed me for my beauty, but that beauty is not I. Does he not know that my blood will not sleep until it has gotten revenge! Today the blood lies on me and to-morrow it lies on him. When does the blood of such a one as I go to waste like this?” He laughed a baleful laugh and cried out again, “The wall casts a long shadow, too true. But the shadow eventually turns and sinks upon itself at the end of the day. This world is the mountain, and our actions the shout. The shout echoes and comes back upon itself.”
With these words, he gave up the ghost and died. With his passing away, the handmaiden was purged of pain and earthly love. Love of the dead does not last, and the dead do not return to us. It is the love of the living that is every moment fresher than a bud. It is the love of the living that is fresher in spirit and in sight. Choose the love of that Living One who is everlasting, who gives the wine to drink that increases life. Please, do not make excuses and say, “But I have no access to the king.” Dealings with the generous are not difficult.
The poisoning of the goldsmith was prompted by the Divine Spirit, not by sexual desire or hidden dealings.
Please understand that the slaying of this man by the hand of the physician was not done on account of the two ends of the stick, hope and fear. These are but the horns of dilemma that will turn you around the wheel of fate again and again. The physician did not slay him to win the affection of the king. He did not slay him until the Divine Command and inspiration came. You are thinking that he committed a foul crime. He did not commit that bloodshed because of lust. How is the lentil soup to be made without the hard shell being cooked and softened to the point of bursting whereby the soup is made soup? How is the ore to be melted so that the silver and gold may be separated from the scum? True evolution presents many faces of seeming good and evil. After all, the birth of a child looks like a bloody massacre. To one whose mind and heart are divided, Unity is the deepest of conspiracies. The reality of intelligence is a great challenge to those looking to become more spiritually intelligent. There are only easy answers that appeal to our comforts. Where is the woman who gives birth in comfort?
He was a king and a king who paid heed to what was needed. Who is the goldsmith in each of us? Who is the king? Who is the maiden? Who is the physician? One who is slain by a king like this is led to true fortune. Unless the king had seen the advantage for the goldsmith how should the Mercy of Conscience have consented? A half a life is taken and a hundred lives are given that are beyond the wildest imagination.
When we judge only from our own situation how much is hidden from us? “It is true for me therefore it is true for everyone?” How far will this get us to understanding the truth of who we are, who we were, who we might be? Consider well.