Arjuna’s Choice

A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.

———

As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)

Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.

Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.

Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.

Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.

At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”

His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.

Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.

Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”

Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”

Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.

And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….

To Be Continued….

Source: Chapter 1, the Bhagavad Gita

Story book

Over the years on this blog, and on its predecessor, I’ve published a number of stories for liberal religious kids.

You can now locate these stories using the tag “story book”:
link to “story book” tag on this blog
link to “story book” tag on the old blog

Additional stories for liberal religious kids appear in thre curriculums I’ve written; some of these stories are revised versions of the stories found on my blog:
Greek Myths
From Long Ago
Beginnings

The Useless Tree

Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.

A certain carpenter named Zhih was traveling to the Province of Ch’i. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the Temple of the Earth God. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred yards thick at the trunk, and its trunk went up eighty feet in the air before the first branch came out.

The carpenter’s apprentice looked longingly at the tree. What a huge tree! What an enormous amount of timber could be cut out of it! Why, there would be enough timber in that one tree to make a dozen good-sized boats, or three entire houses.

Crowds stood around the tree, gazing at it in awe, but the carpenter didn’t even bother to turn his head, and kept walking. The apprentice, however, stopped to take a good look, and then had to run to catch up with his master.

“Master, ever since I have handled an adze in your service,” said the apprentice, “I have never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you did not care to stop and look at it?”

“That tree?” said the Master, “It’s not worth talking about. It’s good for nothing. If you cut down that tree and made the wood it into a boat, it would sink. If you took the wood to build a house, the house would break apart and rot. See how crooked its branches are! and see how loose and twisted is its grain! This is wood that has no use at all. Not only that, if you try to taste one of its leaves, it is so bitter that it would have taken the skin off your lips, and the odor of its fruit is enough to make you sick for an hour. It is completely useless, and because it is so useless, the tree has attained a huge size and become very old.”

The carpenter told his apprentice to dismiss the tree from his thoughts, and they continued on their way. They arrived home late at night, and both of them went straight to bed.

———

While the carpenter was asleep, the spirit of the tree came and spoke to him.

“What did you mean when you spoke to your apprentice about me?” said the spirit of the tree. “Of course I am not like the fine-grained wood that you carpenters like best. You carpenters especially like the wood from fruit trees and nut trees — cherry, pear-wood, and walnut.

“But think what happens! As soon as the fruits or nuts of these trees have ripened, you humans treat the trees badly, stripping them of their fruits or nuts. You break their branches, twist and break their twigs. And then you humans cut down the trees in their prime so you can turn them into boards and make them into furniture.

“Those trees destroy themselves by bearing fruits and nuts, and producing beautiful wood,” said the spirit of the tree. “I, on the other hand, do not care if I am beautiful. I only care about being useless.

“Years ago, before I learned how to be useless, I was in constant danger of being cut down. Think! If I had been useful, your great-grandfather, who was also a carpenter, would have cut me down. But because I learned how to be useless, I have grown to a great size and attained a great age.

“Do not criticize me, and I shan’t criticize you,” the spirit of the tree said. “After all, a good-for-nothing fellow like yourself, who will die much sooner than I will — do you have any right to talk about a good-for-nothing tree?”

———

The next morning, the carpenter told his dream to his apprentice.

The apprentice asked, “But if the goal of the tree is to be useless, how did it become sacred tree living in the Temple to the Earth God?”

“Hush!” said the master carpenter. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. And I should never have criticized the tree. The tree is a different kind of being than you and I, and we must judge it by different standards. That’s why it took refuge in the Temple — to escape the abuse of people who didn’t appreciate it.

“A spiritual person should follow the tree’s example, and learn how to be useless.”

 

Source: from Chuang-tzu 1.16, based on translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.

Sayyambhava finds the truth

This story of a Jain elder might wind up as one of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.

Prabhava was one of the great teachers of the Jain religion. He wandered all over the earth teaching people to live a simple life, and to not be distracted by the pleasures of the senses, and to harm no living beings. Prbhava taught that if you could live like that, you could get rid of all your karma and achieve omniscience, so that you could see and know everything.

After Prabhava had been teaching for some time, he began to wonder who could take his place once he died. He thought about all his students and followers, but none of them (so he thought) would be able to take over for him. Then he used his upayoga power, that is, his mental sight, a power which allowed him to see everything in the whole world. He looked and looked until at last he saw someone who could take his place, a man named Sayyambhava.

This Sayyambhava was a priest of the Vedic religion, and when Prabhava saw him, Sayyambhava was in the city of Rajagriha, about to kill a goat as a sacrifice. Even though Sayyambhava was a priest in a religion that killed other living beings, because of his power of omniscience, Prabhava knew that he would make a good successor. “The beautiful lotus flower grows in the mud,” Prabhava said to himself, “so if you want a lotus flower you have to look in the mud.”

Prabhava went to Rajagriha to meet Sayyambhava. He sent two Jain monks ahead of him, and told them to go to the place where Sayyambhava was about to sacrifice the goat. “When you get there,” Prabhava told the two monks, “beg for food.” (Jain monks made their living by begging food from others.) “If the Vedic priests give you nothing, turn and walk away, and as you walk away, say in a loud voice, ‘Ah, it is too bad you do not know the Truth.'”

The monks got to the place where the sacrifice was about to take place, asked for alms, and when the Vedic priests refused to give them anything, they turned and walked away, saying in loud voices, “Ah, it is too bad you do not know the Truth.”

When Sayyambhava heard this strange remark, his mind became unsettled. Did these two monks know something that he didn’t know? Was his religion not the Truth? Instead of sacrificing the goat, he turned to his spiritual master, his guru, and asked, “Are the Vedas true — or not? Is our religion the path to the Truth — or not?”

His guru shrugged his shoulders.

Growing angry, Sayyambhava continued in a loud voice, “Those were holy monks, who obviously tell no lies. You’re not a true teacher, you’ve been lying to me all this time!” He took the dagger which he had been going to use to kill the goat. “Tell me the truth! If you don’t, I’ll cut off your head.”

Seeing that his life was in danger, the guru said, “I have not been telling you the truth. It is pointless to memorize the Vedas.” (The Vedas were the holy scriptures of the Vedic religion.) “Not only that,” the guru said, “but a statue of one of the Jain deities — a Jina, one of the highest Jain deities — is buried at the foot of the post where we tie to goats we are about to sacrifice.”

Jina (modified Wikimedia Commons public domain image)The guru pulled the sacrificial post out of the ground, and Sayyambhava looked down into the hole, where he saw a statue of a Jain deity. The guru went on, “There, that is a statue of the true religion. The only reason we do sacrifices is because we get to keep the meat afterwards. It’s an easy way to make a living. But what good is a religion that kills innocent animals? It is no good at all.

“Yes, I have been lying to you all these years,” said the guru to Sayyambhava. “Lying just so I could fill my stomach with easy food. But you are too good for that. Leave me, so that you can follow the true religion. If you do, I know that you will become all-seeing, and all-knowing.”

But Sayyambhava said, “You are still my teacher because in the end you told me the real truth.” Then Sayyambhava bid his guru a fond farewell, and went in search of the two Jain monks….

To be continued….

 

This story is from Canto 5:1-37 of The Lives of the Jain Elders, by Hemachandra (1098-1172). I used the following sources:

Sthaviravali Charita, or Parisishtaparvan, Being an Appendix of the Trishashtisalaka Purisha Charita by Hemachandra. Ed. by Herman Jacobi (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1891), pp. 39-41.

Hemacandra, The Lives of the Jain Elders, trans. R. C. C. Fynes (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 117-119.

The image of the Jina is a modified Wikimedia Commons public domain image.

How the rabbi missed Yom Kippur services

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.

This is a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, who lived in Lithuania in the 1800s:

It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. All the people had gathered in the synagogue to wait for Rabbi Israel to lead them in reciting the Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur. But Rabbi Israel didn’t come. After waiting a long time, the people in the synagogue recited the Kol Nidre without the rabbi, hoping he would appear. Still he didn’t come. The people continued to wait for Rabbi israel, though by now he was so late they began to worry that he would not arrive until after the service was over.

Finally the rabbi came into the synagogue. The people looked at him in amazement: they saw down stuck in his hair and his beard, and his clothing was wrinkled and messy. But Rabbi Israel walked in as if nothing were wrong, as if he were not horribly late. He put on a prayer shawl, and began to recite his prayers. When he had finished praying, he at last explained to the congregation why he was so late:

He had been walking to the synagogue [he said], with plenty of time to spare, when he heard crying inside a house he was walking past. He went into the house, and there was a baby lying in its cradle, with a six year old girl fast asleep nearby. A bottle of milk stood above the cradle, just beyond where the baby could reach it. The rabbi could see what had happened: the mother had gone off to the Yom Kippur service, telling her six year old daughter (who was too young to go to the service) to give the baby its bottle if it started crying. But the girl had fallen asleep, and she did not hear the baby crying. So Rabbi Israel fed the baby. When the baby finished the milk, the rabbi tucked it in the cradle and watched it fall asleep.

It was just then [said the rabbi] that the little girl awakened. She was afraid to be home alone, and begged him to stay with her. The rabbi looked around, and saw that the candles the mother had left were burning low; here was a good reason not to leave the child alone. So he stayed until the children’s mother got back from the synagogue. He concluded his story by saying he was very glad that he had a chance to do such a good deed on the most holy day of the year.

The people in his congregation stared at him. One of them asked: You mean you didn’t say the Kol Nidre, you were absent for the Yom Kippur services, you missed the most important moment of the whole year, all this just because a baby was crying? You, the greatest intellect, the smartest person of our time, you missed being here because of a baby? Rabbi, what were you thinking?

The rabbi scolded them all, saying: Don’t you know that there are reasons why we Jews are allowed to skip prayers, reasons why we are even allowed to break the laws of the Sabbath? If there is the slightest chance of saving a life, we are allowed to — no, we must skip prayers and break the Sabbath. Then too, don’t you know that our families, our children, are central to Jewish life?

This silenced the people. They realized that it didn’t matter that Rabbi Israel had humbled himself by taking care of a mere baby. As he said, there could nothing more important.

Source: This story is from Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., The Golden Tradition (Syracuse University Press, 1996), pp. 173-174; the story is quoted and interpreted in Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 124-125; I am indebted to Batnitzky’s interpretation of the story.

King Usinara and the Huge Hound

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this is a Jataka tale, shortened and altered to make it suitable for middle elementary children. Sophia Fahs included her version of this story in the classic curriculum From Long Ago and Many Lands. Fahs heavily altered the story, however. More about that in the notes at the end of the story. Now, here’s the story:

One day, the followers of Buddha were sitting in the Hall of Truth talking with one another.

“Isn’t it amazing,” one of them said, “that the Buddha gave up a beautiful home, and now lives only for the good of the world?”

“Yes,” said another, “isn’t it amazing that he has attained supreme wisdom, yet rather than making himself rich, he goes about teaching goodness?”

Buddha came into the Hall and heard them talking. “Yes, it is true,” said the Buddha. “Even in my previous lives, even then when I had not attained supreme wisdom, I still always tried to live for the good of the world. Let me tell you the story of one of my previous lives.”

And this is the story the Buddha told:

 

Once upon a time, there reigned a king named Usinara. In the land of this king, the people had given up doing good, given up all religion, and instead they followed the paths of evil-doing. Sakka, the ruler of all the gods, looked upon this, and saw that people were suffering because they did evil.

“What shall I do, now?” he said to himself. “Ah, I have it! I will scare and terrify humankind. And when I see they are terrified, I will comfort them, I will tell them the universal Law of life, I will restore the religion which has decayed!” Continue reading “King Usinara and the Huge Hound”

Diné bahané, part two

2. The Second World

Because of the strife in the First World, First Man, First Woman, the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water, and the Coyote called First Angry, followed by all the others, climbed up from the First World, the World of Darkness and Dampness, to the Second World, Ni’hodotl’ish, or the Blue World.

When they came to the Second World, they found a number of people already living there: Bluebirds, Blue Hawks, Blue Jays, Blue Herons, and all the blue-feathered beings.

The powerful Swallow People lived there also, and these people made the Second World unpleasant for those who had come from the First World. There was fighting and killing.

The First Four found an opening in the World of Blue Haze; and they climbed through this and led the people up into the Third or Yellow World.

Dine Bahane: First Angry Coyote

Above: Illustration of First Angry Coyote, drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school after seeing images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

3. Arriving in the Third World

The Bluebird was the first to reach the Third or Yellow World. After him came the First Four and all the others.

A great river crossed this land from north to south. It was the Female River.

There was another river crossing it from east to West, it was the Male River. This Male River flowed through the Female River and on; and the name of this place is Tqo alna’osdli, the Crossing of the Waters. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part two”

Diné bahané, part one

Here’s the first installment of an abridged version of the Diné bahané, or Navajo creation story, that I put together for a small class of 5th and 6th graders a couple of years ago. This version of the Diné bahané is adapted from a public domain source edited by Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, (1956), pp. 1-13. (It’s in the public domain because it is a U.S. government document.)

When I presented the Diné bahané to the 5th and 6th graders, they were fascinated. They quickly noticed this story is very different from the two creation stories most familiar to Western culture, the creation story in the Bible where God creates the universe in seven days, or the creation story of ancient Greece in which the universe comes into being from Xaos (Chaos). They also noticed the story has a different understanding of gender roles, particularly in light of the character of Turquoise Boy, who is of ambiguous gender (who will appear in a later installment). They also noticed that this story does not assume such a strong distinction between humans and other animals, as do the Western creation stories. Reading such a different creation story helps us to reflect on the dominant stories in our own culture.

Here, then, is my abridged version of the Diné bahané:

Introduction

The Diné bahané is the traditional Navajo creation story. This long story has never been written down by the Navajos, even though it is as long as a book. Instead, there are people who have memorized the story, and who retell it to others. This version of the Navajo creation story that you’re about to read came to be as follows:

These stories were told to Sandoval, Hastin Tlo’tsi hee, by his grandmother, Esdzan Hosh kige. Her ancestor was Esdzanata’, the medicine woman who had the Calendar Stone in her keeping. Sandoval told these stories to Aileen O’Bryan at Mesa Verde in 1928, and she wrote them down. Here are the stories of the Four Worlds that had no sun, and of the Fifth, the world we live in, which some call the Changeable World.

Dine Bahane: First Man and First Woman

Above: Illustration of First Man and First Woman drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school, after having seen images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

1. The First World

The First World, Ni’hodilqil, — which was also called Red Earth, One Speech, Floating Land, and One Tree — was black as black wool. It had four corners, and over these appeared four clouds. These four clouds contained within themselves the elements of the First World. They were in color, black, white, blue, and yellow.

The Black Cloud represented the Female Being. For as a child sleeps when being nursed, so life slept in the darkness of the Female Being. The White Cloud represented the Male Being or Substance. He was the Dawn, the Light-Which-Awakens, of the First World. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part one”

Epilogue: Demeter and Triptolemus

When Persephone returned to her mother from the underworld, and Demeter grew happy once more, she came back to Eleusis.

First Demeter showed Triptolemus and others how to conduct religious rites in her honor, and she taught them her mysteries. These mysteries filled mortal humans with awe when they were initiated into the cult of Demeter. And any one who was initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis ever told about them, for deep awe of Demeter and the other gods and goddesses stopped them from speaking. Happy is the mortal among all humans on earth who has seen these mysteries; and those who are initiated into the religion may hope for better things when they finally die and go the underworld with Hades. As for those who were never initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis — once they die, they could count on having nothing good down in the darkness and gloom of the underworld.2

Then Demeter had Triptolemus bring wheat to all humankind. She went to the stable where she kept her pair of dragons, also known as the Sacred Serpents. She harnessed them to her chariot, and drove from the stable back to Triptolemus. Demeter gave him seed to scatter all over the world, telling him to sow the seed partly in land that had never been farmed before, and partly in farm fields that had been lying fallow since the beginning of the famine.

Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone

Above: Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone (l-r) celebrating the Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter hands Triptolemus the sheaves of wheat, while Persephone blesses them. A 19th century drawing of a marble relief from 5th C. B.C.E. Continue reading “Epilogue: Demeter and Triptolemus”

Persephone and Demeter Meet Again

The fourth and final installment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.

Rich-haired Demeter still sat apart from all the blessed gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter Persephone. She caused a most dreadful and cruel year for humankind all over the earth.

The farmers and their oxen plowed the fields in vain. Farmers sowed seeds of the white barley, but the ground would not let the seed sprout. It seemed that Demeter would destroy the whole human race with cruel famine. And without humankind, the gods and goddesses who dwell on Mount Olympus would no longer receive the gifts and sacrifices that meant so much to them.

Zeus knew he must do something. First he called for golden-winged Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to bring Demeter to Mount Olympus. Iris sped with swift feet to Eleusis, and found dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple.

“Demeter,” said Iris, “father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods. Come and do not ignore the command of Zeus, who rules over all the gods and goddesses.”

But Demeter’s heart was not moved, and she refused to go with Iris.

Then Zeus sent forth each of the gods and goddesses. They went to Demeter one after the other, offering many beautiful gifts, and godly rights and privileges.

But Demeter was still full of anger, and none of them could persuade her to go to Mount Olympus. Demeter said she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus, nor would she let food grow from the ground, until she saw her daughter again.

When all-seeing Zeus heard this, he called for Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of trickery and travelers and thieves. Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, to convince Hades with soft words to allow Persephone come up from the misty gloom of the underworld, so that her mother Demeter might see her with her own eyes.

Hermes straightaway flew down to the underworld. He found Hades in his house, seated upon a couch, and his shy wife Persephone with him. Continue reading “Persephone and Demeter Meet Again”