Rumi’s Parable of the Three Fish



Rumi’s Parable of the Three Fish

This is the story of the lake and the three big fish
that were in it, one of them intelligent,
another half-intelligent,
and the third, stupid.

Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake
with their nets. The three fish saw them.

The intelligent fish decided at once to leave,
to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.

He thought,
"I won't consult with these two on this
They will only weaken my resolve, because they love
this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance
will keep them here."

When you're traveling, ask a traveler for advice,
not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place.

Muhammad says,
"Love of one's country
is part of the faith."
But don't take that literally!
Your real "country" is where your heading.
not where you are.
Don't misread that hadith.

In the ritual ablutions, according to tradition,
there's a separate prayer for each body part.
when you snuff water up your nose to cleanse it,
beg for the scent of the spirit. The proper prayer is,
"Lord, wash with me. My hand has washed this part of me,
but my hand can't wash my spirit.
I can wash this skin, but you must wash me.

A certain man used to say the wrong prayer
for the wrong hole. He'd say the nose-prayer
when he splashed his behind. Can the odor of heaven
come from our rumps? Don't be humble with fools.
Don't take pride into the presence of a master.

It's right to love your home place, but first ask,
"Where is that, really?"

The wise fish saw the men and their nets and said,
"I'm leaving."

Ali was told a secret doctrine by Muhammad
and told not to tell it, so he whispered it down
the mouth of a well. Sometimes there's no one to talk to.
You must just set out on your own.

So the intelligent fish made its whole length
a moving footprint and, like a deer the dogs chase,
suffered greatly on its way, but finally made it
to the edgeless safety of the sea.

The half-intelligent fish thought,
"My guide
has gone. I ought to have gone with him,
but I didn't, and now I've lost my chance
to escape.
I wish I'd gone with him."
Don't regret what's happened. If it's in the past,
let it go. Don't even remember it!

A certain man caught a bird in a trap.
The bird says, "Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep
in your life, and you're still hungry. The little bit
of meat in my bones won't satisfy you either.
If you let me go, I'll give you three pieces of wisdom
One I'll say standing on your hand. One on your roof.
And one I'll speak from the limb of that tree."

The man was interested. He freed the bird and let it stand
on his hand.
"Number One: Do not believe an absurdity,
no matter who says it."

The bird flew and lit on the man's roof. "Number Two:
Do not grieve over what is past. It's over.
Never regret what has happened."

"By the way," the bird continued, "in my body there's a huge
pearl weighing as much as ten copper coins. It was meant
to be the inheritance of you and your children,
but now you've lost it. You could have owned
the largest pearl in existence, but evidently
it was not meant to be."

The man started wailing like a woman in childbirth.
The bird: "Didn't I just say, Don't grieve
for what's in the past?
And also, Don't believe
an absurdity?
My entire body doesn't weigh
as much as ten copper coins. How could I have
a pearl that heavy inside me?"

The man came to his senses. "All right.
Tell me Number Three."

"Yes. You've made such good use of the first two!"
Don't give advice to someone who's groggy
and failing asleep. Don't throw seeds on the sand.
Some torn places cannot be patched.

Back to the second fish,
the half-intelligent one.
He mourns the absence of his guide for a while,
and then thinks, "What can I do to save myself
from these men and their nets? Perhaps if I pretend
to be already dead!
I'll be belly up on the surface
and float like weeds float, just giving myself totally
to the water. To die before I die, as Muhammad
said to."
So he did that.

He bobbed up and down, helpless,
within arm's reach of the fisherman.

"Look at this! The best and biggest fish
is dead."
One of the men lifted him by the tail,
spat on him, and threw him up on the ground.

He rolled over and over and slid secretly near
the water, and then, back in.

Meanwhile,
the third fish, the dumb one, was agitatedly
jumping about, trying to escape with his agility
and cleverness.
The net, of course, finally closed
around him, and as he lay in the terrible
frying-pan bed, he thought,
"If I get out of this,
I'll never live again in the limits of a lake.
Next time, the ocean! I'll make
the infinite my home."



Rumi- Masnavi - IV, 2203-86 - Translated by Coleman Barks The Essential Rumi


Here is Rumi's original verses in Farsi or Persian:

بخش ۸۳ - قصهٔ آن آبگیر و صیادان و آن سه ماهی یکی عاقل و یکی نیم عاقل وان دگر مغرور و ابله مغفل لاشی و عاقبت هر سه

مولوی » مثنوی معنوی » دفتر چهارم

قصهٔ آن آبگیرست ای عنود
که درو سه ماهی اشگرف بود
در کلیله خوانده باشی لیک آن
قشر قصه باشد و این مغز جان
چند صیادی سوی آن آبگیر
برگذشتند و بدیدند آن ضمیر
پس شتابیدند تا دام آورند
ماهیان واقف شدند و هوشمند
آنک عاقل بود عزم راه کرد
عزم راه مشکل ناخواه کرد
گفت با اینها ندارم مشورت
که یقین سستم کنند از مقدرت
مهر زاد و بوم بر جانشان تند
کاهلی و جهلشان بر من زند
مشورت را زنده‌ای باید نکو
که ترا زنده کند وان زنده کو
ای مسافر با مسافر رای زن
زانک پایت لنگ دارد رای زن
از دم حب الوطن بگذر مه‌ایست
که وطن آن سوست جان این سوی نیست
گر وطن خواهی گذر آن سوی شط

این حدیث راست را کم خوان غلط


"This is a story, as Rumi tells us in the prelude (in a passage that Coleman Barks decided not to include in his admirable translation), taken from the Sanskritic Five Principles or Panchatantra (पञ्चतन्त्र) from the third century BCE, a work which sets forth principles for the governance of a small state through a series of tales in which animals are introduced to present different aspects of the human nature. The book has been called a sort of Machiavelli of Indian antiquity by one of its scholars, since its purpose was apparently to teach young princelings in waiting the essential arts of statecraft. The Panchatantra was brought into Persia shortly before the age of Rumi, was translated and accommodated to Islamic ideas and values in some respects, and established itself as an instant classic. In his recounting, Rumi has adapted the fifteenth story from the first book of Kelileh va demneh, the name by which the book goes in Farsi, but he remains faithful to the essential political message of the original.

The major theme of this story is love of home, or patriotism, and its use and abuse by leaders. The story unfolds through the fate of three fish, one wise, one half-wise and the third a fool. (Barks uses the word “intelligent” instead of wise, which is arguable, but not perhaps the best translation.) Rumi does not challenge the notion that one should love his home, but he challenges us to ask, “Where is that actually?”

The foolish fish understands that the lake in which he was spawned and now lives is his home. He comes to the realization that this vision was false, but only too late, as he sits uncomfortably in a frying pan, about to be the meal of the men who have caught him. The foolish fish is bounded by the world of his immediate perceptions and needs. He lacks vision and foresight.

The half-wise fish is far more cunning in avoiding the traps and nets that the fishermen lay before him, so he escapes. But he is incapable of solving the riddle for himself. He needs a guide, which he recognizes is the wise fish. But the wise fish has set busily about saving himself and is gone. The half-wise fish is able enough, but he also is by his nature a follower who requires the guidance or intermediation of a greater one.

The wise fish recognizes that his true home is not the lake in which he has lived his life up to that point, but the boundless and infinite sea of which he has heard, but which he has never seen. The wise fish commits himself therefore to the quest for that true home, and he uses his skills and cunning to achieve that quest. He suffers and endures in the process, and achieves his goal.

Rumi warns us against those leaders who turn humans against humans with appeals to patriotism and love of home. Only a fool will allow this love, which is understandable and natural, to be transformed into hatred of others he does not know. In this way, he becomes the slave of the schemes and machinations of a nature which is clever but also base. Hence the first warning: Do not believe an absurdity, no matter who says it. These absurdities may and often do roll from the lips of persons set in authority above their fellow men. But those who preach hatred, distrust and hostility against other peoples do not merit our trust. They try to ensnare the feeble-minded with their bile. The foolish fish are their prey and they may capture some of the half-wise as well.

The fish, of course, represent human beings at different stages of awareness. (”The men of God are like fishes in the ocean,” Rumi writes elsewhere, “they pop up into view on the surface here and there and everywhere, as they please.”) But what, then is home? First, Rumi condemns as a fool the man who would define his home in terms of a political creation, be it city, state or empire. The true home is a boundless ocean, he writes. Man must think in terms of his species, linked across time and space. Equally he must cherish the planet on which he dwells and must avoid through love for any locality doing harm to the whole. But finally that “home” is something which the wiseman seeks, accepting suffering and loss as he does so. The way home, as Novalis would tell us, is an inward path."

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