Masnavi 10

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STORY XVII. The Tree of Life.
The preceding story is followed by a short anecdote of the infants of the
Virgin Mary and the mother of John the Baptist leaping in their mothers' wombs,
1 and in reply to matter of fact cavillers and questioners of this
anecdote, the poet says we must look at its spirit and essential basis rather
than its outward form. This introduces the story of the tree of life. A certain
wise man related that in Hindustan there was a tree of such wonderful virtue
that whosoever ate of its fruit lived forever. Hearing this, a king deputed one
of his courtiers to go in quest of it. The courtier accordingly proceeded to
Hindustan, and traveled all over that country, inquiring of every one he met
where this tree was to be found. Some of these persons professed their entire
ignorance, others joked him, and others gave him false information; and,
finally, he had to return to his country with his mission unaccomplished. He
then, as a last resource, betook himself to the sage who had first spoken of
the tree, and begged for further information about it, and the sage replied to
him as follows:
The Shaikh laughed, and said to him, "O friend,
This is the tree of knowledge, O knowing one;
Very high, very fine, very expansive,
The very water of life from the circumfluent ocean.
Thou hast run after form, O ill-informed one,
Wherefore thou lackest the fruit of the tree of substance.
Sometimes it is named tree, sometimes sun,
Sometimes lake, and sometimes cloud.
'Tis one, though it has thousands of manifestations;
Its least manifestation is eternal life!
Though 'tis one, it has a thousand manifestations,
The names that fit that one are countless.
That one is to thy personality a father,
In regard to another person He may be a son.
In relation to another He may be wrath and vengeance,
In relation to another, mercy and goodness.
He has thousands of names, yet is One,
Answering to all of His descriptions, yet indescribable.
Every one who seeks names, if he is a man of credulity,
Like thee, remains hopeless and frustrated of his aim.
Why cleavest thou to this mere name of tree,
So that thou art utterly balked and disappointed?
Pass over names and look to qualities,
So that qualities may lead thee to essence!
The differences of sects arise from His names;
When they pierce to His essence they find His peace!"
This story is followed by another anecdote illustrative of the same thesis that
attending merely to names and outward forms, rather than to the spirit and
essence of religion, leads men into error and delusion. Four persons, a
Persian, an Arab, a Turk, and a Greek, were traveling together, and received a
present of a dirhem. The Persian said he would buy "angur" with it,
the Arab said he would buy "inab," while the Turk and the Greek were
for buying "uzum" and "astaphil" (staphyle), respectively.
Now all these words mean one and the same thing, viz. "grapes;" but,
owing to their ignorance of each other's languages, they fancied they each
wanted to buy something different, and accordingly a violent quarrel arose
between them. At last a wise man who knew all their languages came up and
explained to them that they were all wishing for one and the same thing.