The Pool of Enchantment, or the Riddle Contest

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from the Mahabharata. Adapted from The Indian Story Book: Containing Tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Other Early Sources, by Richard Wilson (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914).

One day, near the end of their long exile in the forest, King Yudhisthira and his four brothers were searching for a mysterious deer which had stolen the wooden blocks which a Brahmin needed so he could light the sacred fire. The king and his brothers wandered deeper and deeper into the forest trying to find the deer. They grew more and more thirsty, but they were unable to find water. At last they all sat down, exhausted, beneath a tall tree.

“If we do not find water soon, we shall surely die,” said Yudhisthira He turned to his brother Nakula. “Brother,” he said, “climb the tree for us and see if you can spot water nearby.”

Nakula quickly climbed the tree, and in a few moments called down, “I see trees which only grow near running water, and there I hear the sound of cranes, birds which love the water.”

“Take your quiver,” said Yudhisthira. “Go fill it with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”

Nakula set out, and quickly found a small stream which widened into a pool of clear water with a crane standing on the far side.

A Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone). Public domain image.

Nakula knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink. Suddenly a stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Nakula was so thirsty he ignored the Voice, and drank eagerly from the cool water. In a few moments he lay dead at the edge of the pool.

The other four brothers waited patiently Nakula’s return. At last Yudhisthira said, “Where can our brother be? Go, Sahadeva, find your brother, and return with a quiver full of water.”

Sahadeva walked off through the forest. Soon he found Nakula lying dead at the edge of the pool. But he was so thirsty that he did not stop, but knelt down at the pool to drink.

The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

But Sahadeva had already drunk from the water, and lay dead at the edge of the pool.


Once again the remaining brothers waited patiently. At last Yudhisthira spoke to his brother Arjuna, the mighty archer. “Go, Arjuna,” he said, “find our brothers, and return to us with a quiver full of water.”

Arjuna slung his bow over his shoulder, and with his sword at his side walked to the pool. When he saw his brothers lying dead among the reeds, he fitted an arrow to his bow while his keen eyes pierced the darkness of the forest searching for the enemy who had killed them. Seeing neither human nor wild beast, at last he knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink.

The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Prince Arjuna looked about him. “Come out,” he cried, “and fight with me.” He shot arrows in all directions, but the Voice only laughed at him, and repeated its command.

But Arjuna ignored the Voice, knelt and drank, and soon lay dead at the edge of the pool.


Yudhisthira waited patiently, but when Arjuna did not return, the king turned to Bhima. “Go,” he said, “find our brothers, and return with them and a quiver full of water.”

Bhima silently rose, walked to the pool, and found his brothers lying dead. “What evil demon has killed my brothers,” he thought to himself, looking around. But he was so thirsty he knelt to drink.

Again the stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Bhima had not heard the Voice, and so he lay dead next to his brothers.


Yudhisthira waited for a time, then went himself to find water.

When he came to the pool, he stood for a moment looking at it. He saw clear water shining in the sunlight, lotus flowers floating in the water, and a crane stalking along the edge of the pool. And there were his four brothers lying dead at the edge of the pool.

Even though he was terribly weak and thirsty, he stopped and spoke aloud the name of each of his brothers, and told of the great deeds each had done. He spoke out loud his sorrow for the death of each one.

“This must be the work of some evil spirit,” he thought to himself. “Their bodies show no wounds, nor is there any sign of human footprints. The water is clear and fresh, and I can see no signs that they have been poisoned. But I am so thirsty, I will kneel down to drink.”

Yudhisthira and the crane (public domain image)

As King Yudhisthira knelt down, the Voice took the shape of a Baka, or crane, a gray bird with long legs and a red head. The Baka spoke to him in a stern voice, saying:

“Do not drink, O King, until you have answered my questions.”

“Who are you?” said Yudhisthira boldly. “Tell me what you want.”

“I am not a bird,” said the Baka, “but a Yaksha!” And Yudhisthira saw the vague outlines of a huge being above crane, towering above the lofty trees, glowing like an evening cloud.

“It seems I must obey, and not drink before I answer your questions,” said the king. “Ask me what you will, and I will use what wisdom I have to answer you.”

So the questioning began:


The Yaksha said: “Who makes the Sun rise? Who moves the Sun around the sky? Who makes the Sun set? What is the true nature of the Sun?”

The King replied: “The god Brahma makes the sun rise. The gods and goddesses move the Sun around the sky. The Dharma sets the Sun. Truth is the true nature of the Sun.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is heavier than the earth? What is higher than the heavens? What is faster than the wind? What is there more of than there are blades of grass?”

The King replied: “The love of parents is both heavier than earth and higher than the heavens. A person’s thoughts are faster than the wind. There are more sorrows than there are blades of grass.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is it, that when you cast is aside, makes you lovable? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you happy? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you wealthy?”

The King replied: “When you cast aside pride, you become lovable. When you cast aside greed, you become happy. When you cast aside desire, you become wealthy.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is the most difficult enemy to conquer? What disease lasts as long as life itself? What sort of person is most noble? What sort of person is most wicked?”

The King replied: “Anger is the most difficult enemy to conquer. Greed is the disease that can last as long as life. The person who desires the well-being of all creatures is most noble. The person who has no mercy is most wicked.”


The questions went on and on, but Yudhisthira was able to answer them all, wisely and well.

At last the Yaksah stopped asking questions, and revealed its true nature: the Yaksha was none other than Yama-Dharma, the god of death, and the father of Yudhisthira.

Yama-Dharma said, “It was I who took on the shape of a deer and stole the wooden blocks so the Brahmin could not light the sacred fire.

“Now you may drink of this fair water, Yudhisthira! And you may choose which of your four brothers shall be returned to life.”

“Let Nakula live,” said Yudhisthira.

“Why not Bhima or Arjuna or Sahadeva?” said Yama-Dharma.

“My brother Nakula is the son of Madri,” said the King, “while Arjuna, Bhima, Sahadeva and I are the sons of Kunthi. If Nakula returns to life, then both my mothers, both Madri and Kunthi, will have a living child. Therefore, let Nakula live.”

Then Yama-Dharma spoke kindly as he faded away. “Truly you are called ‘The Just,” he said. “Noblest of kings and wisest of all persons, for your wisdom and your love and your sense of justice, I shall return all of your brothers to life.”


More riddles — Here are two dozen more of the riddles that Yama-Dharma asked of Yudhisthira:

1. How may a person become secure? — A person becomes secure through courage.
2. How may a person become wise? — A person gains wisdom by living with people who are wise
3. What is best for the Brahmans (those who pursue learning as their life’s work)? — Studying the Vedas, the holy books, is best for the Brahmans.
4. What is best for the Kshathriyas (those who are the warriors and defenders)? Weapons are best for the Kshathriyas.
5. What is best for farmers? — Rain is best for farmers.
6. Who does not close their eyes when sleeping? — Fish do not close their eyes when sleeping.
7. What does not move even after birth? — Eggs do not move even after birth.
8. What does not have a heart? — A stone does not have a heart.
9. What grow as it goes? — A river grows as it goes to the sea.
10. Who is the guest who is welcome to all? — Fire is the guest who is welcome to all.
11. Who travels alone? — The Sun travels alone.
12. Who is born again and again? — The Moon is born again and again.
13. What container can contain everything? — The Earth can contain everything.
14. Out of all things, what is best? — Out of all things, knowledge gained from wise people is best.
15. Out of all blessings, what is best? — Out of all blessings, good health is best.
16. Out of all pleasures, what is best? — Out of all pleasures, being contented is best.
17. Out of all just actions, which is best? — Out of all just actions, non-violence is best.
18. What must a person control in order to never be sad? — A person must control their mind in order to never be sad.
19. What will a person never be sad to leave behind? — A person will never be sad to leave behind anger.
20. What should a person leave behind to become rich? — A person should leave behind desire in order to become rich.
21. What should a person leave behind to be have a happy life? — A person should leave behind selfishness to have a happy life.
22. By what is the world covered? — The world is covered by ignorance.
23. Why doesn’t the world shine brightly? — Bad behavior keeps the world from shining brightly.
24. What is surprising? — It is surprising that we think of ourselves as stable and permanent, when every day we see beings dying.

Illustrations are from the following public domain sources (accessed through the Internet Archive):
Sarus Crane, H. E. Dresser, “A History of the Birds of Europe,” London: 1871-1881.
Yudhistira and the crane, Mahabharata, Gorakhpur, India: Geeta Press, n.d.

Risk Reduction Resource Kit

Alex, a friend who works at Health Initiatives for Youth (HI4Y) in San Francisco, told me about their Risk Reduction Resource Kits. These kits contain resources to help teens teens learn about sexuality and safer sex. Alex knows about the OWL comprehensive sexuality education program, and has heard me describe our youth programs, and based on that he encouraged me to put in an application for the last remaining Risk Resource Reduction Kit, and Carol and I went in to JI4Y’s offices to pick up the kit on Monday.

The whole point of the kit is that it’s supposed to be placed where teens can access it without adult supervision, to encourage them to explore the materials on their own. The kit was designed to accompany a sexuality education curriculum developed by HI4Y, but be accessible both to teens taking the curriculum and other teens. So for our congregation, it’s a prefect accompaniment to the OWL unit for gr. 10-12; for those taking OWL the kit will reinforce the curriculum; and it can also serve as an educational resource for those not taking OWL.

The Curriculum Subcommittee of our congregation met the day after I picked up the kit, and we devoted the meeting to talking about the kit. The Curriculum Subcommittee has been exploring ways to be more intentional about our congregation’s implicit curriculum, asking ourselves: How can we structure intentional learning opportunities that are not part of the explicit curriculum, the formal educational programs? We agreed that the kit is a solid addition to our implicit curriculum: Not only does it educate teens about specific sexuality topics, it provides a larger lesson that information about sexuality should be easily accessible and shared without shame or guilt.

Beyond educational theory, we also talked about how best to implement this aspect of our implicit curriculum. Alex had warned us that sometimes the kits get forgotten, and stowed in some obscure corner. So we’re going to provide orientation to the kit for key adults (youth advisors, OWL leaders, ministers, and others) to increase the chance that adults will remember to make the kit accessible. In addition, we’re also going to provide a brief orientation to the kit to teens — both to youth group members, and participants in OWL gr. 10-12 — showing them what’s in the kit, and telling them where it will be located. (When we offer OWL for gr. 7-9 next year, we’ll do another orientation.)

But the real strength of the kit is what it contains. HI4Y came up with some excellent youth-friendly resources, including comics, zines, books, and samples — I’m putting a complete list of what’s in the kit below. The materials are housed in a wheeled nylon case, like airline luggage (actually, it’s a scrapbooking case HI4Y bought from Michael’s art supply). A highlight of the kit is contraceptives samples that youth can examine: condoms of course, but also dental dams, female condoms, and lubricant; HI4Y even has some grant money left to replenish samples when they get depleted. There’s both a penis model (made of wood, not plastic!) for trying condoms, and a vulva/vagina model for trying female condoms. We were able to add one very important thing to this kit: our congregation has a ten thousand dollar bequest that we can use to put books in the hands of children and teens, so we are able to provide copies of the book “S.E.X.” by Heather Corinna that youth can take for their own.

We would not have been able to afford to put this kit together ourselves, and we are grateful to HI4Y for writing the grant and assembling the kit, and to the federal government for providing the grant money. Just in case your UU congregation can find the funding, I’m going to provide a complete list of all the resources in the kit below; at the very least, this list of resources might spark ideas for you.

The Risk Reduction Resource Kit (we added the sign at top).

Here’s what’s in the kit:

Birth control samples and examples:
Dental dam samples
Female condom samples
Female Contraceptive Model (to practice inserting female condoms)
Lubricants samples
Male condom samples
Penis model (to practice with male condoms)
IUD model
The Ring model
The Pill model
The Implant info card
Plan B info card
Birth Control Patch info card
“How Well Does Birth Control Work” info card

Home test kits:
Pregnancy test kits
HIV Home Test Kit information (actual kit is stored separately, per instructions from Health Initiatives for Youth)

Handouts and Miscellaneous:
“Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis” handout
Individual Drug Fact Cards (handouts)
Drug Fact Cards set
Chlamydia Plush Toy
HIV Plush Toy
Youth Clinic Youth Guide to San Francisco and Silicon Valley (list of local clinics that serve youth; includes 1-page summary of California law on youth’s right to treatment)
(We also added handouts from the nearest Planned Parenthood Health Center)

Publications:
“Dr. Rad’s Queer Health Show: Self Exams & Check-Ups” zine by Rad Remedy and Isabella Rotman
“You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STIs” comic zine by Isabella Rotman
“Not on My Watch: Bystander’s Handbook for Prevention of Sexual Violence” comic zine by Isabella Rotman
“100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents” book by Elisabeth Henderson and Nancy Armstrong
“S.E.X.” book by Heather Corinna
“LGBTQ: The Survival Guide” book by Kelly Huegel Madrone
“Birth Control Top Picks” magazine by Bedsider.org

More coloring pages

In response to my recent post about creating coloring pages, Carol sent me a link to “Color Our Collections,” an initiative hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM). For the past three years, libraries, archives, and museums in North America and Europe have created coloring pages based on items in their collections, and NYAM shares them at library.nyam.org/colorourcollections . Most of these collections of coloring pages are really aimed at adults, but there are dozens of collections to look through. I’m going to be able to use at least some coloring pages from the collections created by the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design; the Biodiversity Heritage Library; the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park; Berkeley Library at the University of California; and maybe one or two others.

And Matt pointed me to the 2019 coloring and activity book created by Black Lives Matter at School. This is a big book, with 32 pages, and mostly aimed at kids older than my target audience. We won’t be able to use the activity pages that require knowing how to read and write, but I know we’ll be using the coloring pages titled “Diversity,” “Black Families,” “Black Women,” “Queer Affirming,” and “Transgender Affirming.” Both the art and the messages are fabulous.

If any of you have any more tips for great free coloring pages, let me know — I’m especially looking for coloring pages that feature East Asian, South Asian, and Hispanic culture. And some time in March, I’ll set up a coloring pages Web page on my curriculum web site, with links to the best coloring pages.

Coloring pages

Coloring pages are an essential part of how we make space for children in our Palo Alto congregation. When they enter of Main Hall, children and their parents can pick up packets of coloring pages and crayons, to give the children something to keep them engaged while they’re in the worship service.

Now, for years I’ve made special activity books for two of our intergenerational worship services, Easter and Flower Communion; the Easter activity books in particular are designed to have some educational value. But I haven’t put much thought into our regular weekly coloring pages; the Religious Education Assistant just found free coloring pages on the Web, and that’s what we used. The coloring pages may have nothing to do with our faith community, but at least the kids are happy.

But it occurred to me that we were missing an educational opportunity: why not come up with coloring pages that are both fun, and have some educational value? I did a Web search to see if other Unitarian Universalist congregations had produced coloring pages, and found the Alice the Chalice coloring pages by talented religious educator Rev. Amy Friedman — great stuff! But Amy has only provided a half a dozen different coloring pages. We give out packets with 8 or so coloring pages, and ideally I wanted to have a different packet for every month. It looked like I was going to have to make my own.

I began to collect images that I thought would be fun to color in. More importantly, I began to think about what I wanted to teach. Our religious education program does a lot with nature and ecojustice. So it made sense to produce coloring pages of living things; this would show young children and our families that we value non-human organisms, and if the images were of organisms native to California this would show our awareness of the immediate web of life surrounding us. (OK, maybe this is a little above the head of a four year old, but parents and older siblings will be looking at these, too.)

A search for public domain line drawings turned up a good selection of Pacific Coast wildflowers, as well as Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and I was quickly able to assemble 8 coloring pages with California native plants, and 8 coloring pages with butterflies and moths. California mammals would be another obvious category, but I couldn’t find line drawings that would make good coloring pages; I was going to have to draw my own. I’ve started working on mammal coloring pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Townsend’s Chipmunk, a sample page from the California Mammals coloring pages.

What about coloring pages with more explicitly religious content? We Unitarian Universalists are known for being feminists, so why not Goddesses Coloring Pages? I was able to find some public domain line drawings of goddesses, including goddesses from South Asia and the Mediterranean, and East Asia. I’m still looking for public domain images of goddesses from Indigenous America, Africa, and Oceania — and the images of the East Asian goddesses needed to be completely redrawn. Eventually, I’m planning on two packets of Goddesses Coloring Pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Guanyin, a sample page from the Goddesses coloring pages.

You’ll notice that I’ve put copyright notices on the coloring pages; I did so because it’s a big, bad Internet out there, and I don’t want other people to steal my work. But I hereby grant permission for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and other educational nonprofits, to print hard copies of these coloring pages for free distribution in their educational programs.

Eventually, I may put all my coloring pages on my curriculum web site, and if I do so I’ll mention it here on my blog. In the mean time, now you have 4 more coloring pages to add to the Alice the Chalice coloring pages.

Animal ears

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant we do every year requires some kind of minimal costume for the six animals in the manger scene. The vinyl animal noses I’ve been using for the past decade and a half have started to get tacky, and it’s time to stop using them. Nor did I want to purchase new animal noses; the world doesn’t need any more cheap vinyl junk. First I made a chicken hat as a possible replacement for the chicken nose, but this week I decided that making five other animal hats (and finding a place to store them) simply wasn’t practical.

So instead I made animal ears mounted on head bands. It turns out that animal ears mounted on head bands are a substantial cottage industry, sold on Etsy (just search for “farm animal ears”) and elsewhere. But I decided to make my own — cow ears, donkey ears, dog ears, pig ears, mouse ears, and a chicken crest — using hair bands, felt, wire for stiffener, and a hot melt glue gun.

It would have been cheaper (once you figure in my time) and easier to purchase the ears available on Etsy. However, having made them I know how to repair them, and I anticipate that these animal ears will last until I finally retire.

Senet, an ancient Egyptian game

Quite a few years ago, when I was visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA), I saw the ancient Egyptian board game Senet made out of faience (a type of pottery) and wood. Scholars and board-game-lovers have invented modern rules for Senet, based both on ancient Egyptian depictions of people playing Senet and on the several surviving copies of the game. I’ve read through several modern reconstructions of the game, but all the modern rules seem overly complicated. I wanted a set of rules that would be easy for school aged children to learn.

This week I came up with a simple set of rules, rules which remain fairly consistent with what is actually known about the game but are easily learned by school-aged children. The rules are below the fold.

The interesting thing about Senet is that it can be understood to represent the journey of the ba (roughly equivalent to soul) after death through the underworld to some kind of eternal life — it’s not just a game, it’s religion! Some day, I’ll write a lesson plan that ties Senet to ancient Egyptian religion. In the mean time, it’s still a fun game.

Above: The game board I made, printed out and trimmed to size. I used whatever I had around the house for playing pieces — 5 light-colored cubes, and 5 coins (mostly old Boston subway tokens). I made throwing sticks out of some pieces of wood I happened to have (popsicle sticks would work better), and I used a rubber stamp to put an Egyptian scarab beetle on one side so each stick has one clear side and one marked side.

Rules for playing Senet follow…. Continue reading “Senet, an ancient Egyptian game”

Updated Sunday school teacher manual

I just completed a major re-write of A Manual for Sunday School Teachers in Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

Among other improvements, I completely rewrote Section 2, “Basics of Teaching and Learning,” based on my observations of what new Sunday school teachers really want to know. On Saturday, I’ll be leading a workshop on “Teaching 101” at Pot of Gold, the district religious education conference, and I’ll base this workshop on the revised Section 2 (with added hands-on activities).

I’ll post the table of contents below the fold.

Above: A Sunday school teacher coaching a middle schooler on how to use a power tool during a Sunday school class at my church. No, this is not your mother’s Sunday school!

Continue reading “Updated Sunday school teacher manual”

Exodus: The Card Game

A few months ago, I wrote about prototyping “Exodus: The Card Game,” a game based on the wanderings of the Israelites. After lots of play with both kids and adults (and lots of changes to the rules), prototyping is finally done. I made 6 decks using the online printer Board Games Maker; the printing quality is excellent, and here’s what a deck looks like:

One of our curriculum goals in our Sunday school is to play more games. “Exodus: The Card Game” is designed to supplement an upper elementary or middle school unit on the Hebrew Bible. Once you learn the rules, play takes about 15-20 minutes, so it fits nicely into a typical Sunday school class time. And the rules are fairly simple and straightforward; I’m including them below the fold so you can get an idea of the game.

The only problem with this game is the price. I bought 6 decks, and the price including shipping and handling came out to just under $25 per deck — pricey for a card game. (If I printed 1000 decks the price would drop to about $6 per deck, but what would I do with 1,000 copies of this game?)

If you’d like to buy a copy of the game, email me and I can get you a single copy for about $27. (There’s a price break at 6 copies, which knocks approximately $2 off the price; next price break is at 30 copies.) If you’re going to the Pot of Gold religious education conference in Sacramento on Sept. 29, I’ll have a few extra copies of the game to sell.

Continue reading “Exodus: The Card Game”

Guide to visiting other faith communities

Here’s a five-minute video I made about what to pay attention to when you visit services at a faith community that’s not your own. Drawing on Ninian Smart‘s seven dimensions of religion, the video suggests that when visiting another faith community it’s most interesting to focus on three of Smart’s seven dimensions: the emotional/experiential, social, and material dimensions.

Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.

I’m in the process of updating our congregation’s “Neighboring Faith Communities” course for middle schoolers (available online here).

The introductory video for this curriculum might be of interest to readers of this blog, so here it is:

I’ll put the script for the video below the fold, as some group leaders might want access to it. Continue reading “Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.”