The Dawn: Oct 10, 2014

Burning house parable!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Have you heard of the Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House? Here is the brief version. A great man had a big house. The house being old was in a state of collapse and was filled with all sorts of filth and thus was a haunt of poisonous insects and malignant birds and beasts.

One day, a fire broke out in the house. The householder watching the house in flames heard someone say that his children were inside. The great man shouted at his children inside the burning house, asking them to flee. But, the children were absorbed in their games and did not heed his warning, though the house was being consumed by raging fire. Then, the great man devised a stratagem to lure away the children from the burning house. Knowing that the children were fond of interesting playthings, he called out to them, “Listen! Outside the gate are the carts that you have always wanted: carts pulled by goats, carts pulled by deer, and carts pulled by oxen. Why don’t you come out and play with them?” The great man knew that these things would be irresistible to his children. The children, eager to play with these new toys rushed out of the house.

Can the parable help us grasp the reality of our contemporary social life? Let us try. To put it simply, the house is the society, filthy and in a state of collapse, the children in the house are the people and the father evokes the image of a leader or saviour that is supposedly destined to save the people from the impending disaster. The cart is the promise that the leader holds out in order to lead the slobs to a much desired but hitherto unknown world of collective Nirvana. Why people continue to live in the house that is infested with sickening muck and is likely to crumble over their head? Why are they oblivious to the danger it poses? The house is rotten simply because it has not been taken care of by the leader of the household. He has moved to safer environs, away from the reach of infectious air though without relinquishing his rights over its old property. What worries him is not the way the people slither and slobber in his old property. The prospect of their death is the nightmare that haunts him. With their annihilation he stands to lose everything; the property already being in shambles will come to have zero value as it will be impossible to house the new ones. So his ostensible effort to save the people from the flames is in fact to save the world he owns.

But why the people though miserable are resigned to be what they have been reduced to? Why do they while away their time on this earth trapped in a socially created dungeon? The answer is not simple. Ours is one of the most ancient societies evolved along the class and caste lines. Class and caste are generally interlinked. Class status initially created caste status. There is ample evidence that after the Aryan conquest the upper crust of Dravidian (Harappa people) were accepted into Aryan fold after meeting certain conditions which were not difficult to fulfill. At the opposite end, the poorest sections of Aryans were gradually reduced to the status of Shudra. That’s why you can come across certain individuals among the aboriginal/nomadic tribes with blond hair and bluish eyes, the unmistakable sign of their Aryan origins. The overwhelming number of the people having low status in terms of class and caste in their false consciousness has consented, no doubt through relentless and subtly coercive ideological and socio-political persuasion, to be treated as children and being led by the nose. That is the reason why the Lord Buddha used children as a metaphor in his parable. Even today you can hear the poor people addressing the high and mighty as ‘Mai Baap’(parents) implying unqualified submission before the perceived parental authority.

And the father? The father in our context is the leader in the guise of a messiah who appears every few years on our socio-political stage urging the people, his supposed children, to come out of the burning house. He has discovered a better place for them, he proclaims, a place that is free of filth and misery where all will be equal, no distinction between the rich and the poor, job for all and bread for all. The people, gullible as they are, come out believing the promise. Before they settle down the leader has already slunk away having established his proprietary rights not only over the place they left but also over the new place they entered. When people realise that the promised land is an empty space they feel cheated and their first response is to rush back to the old house. But the old house has already been occupied by the other homeless. So the people have to be content with the empty space, their new abode which in no time starts stinking like their old house with the life detritus. They put up with all the mucky nothingness and wait for the new messiah to descend with the expectation to be led to somewhere which is in fact nowhere. Thus their historical journey to an imagined Nirvana continues. —

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