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Learning from the Mulla
A guest post from community member and Substack writer Terry Freedman
Something to make you think in the realm of Yoga Culture!
Mulla Nasrudin appears in many variations from a variety of cultures. My own understanding is that he is a folk hero in Persian tales. But whether or not he really existed, or where he was from and what he was like if he did, are questions which need not detain us. The point is, whether he is portrayed as a fool, a spiritual leader, or just an ordinary (and poor) person, he is able to amuse us and teach us even today. In this article I’ll give a few example of his adventures, with my own comments. I’m not a Nasrudin expert, so please feel free to disagree with me in the comments!1
For want of time
Nasrudin kept a donkey, and thought he’d save some money by reducing the donkey’s rations by a little bit every day. Eventually, the donkey collapsed and died from malnutrition.
“What a pity”, said Nasrudin. “I just needed a bit more time to get him used to eating nothing at all.”
Having worked as a teacher and in other educational settings I’ve often thought that the powers-that-be have the same outlook as Nasrudin. If you could take on just one extra task, but with no extra time allocated for it, and no extra money, I could get you used to having no breaks at all2. Of course you won’t decide to vote with your feet and get a different job – assuming you don’t collapse from exhaustion first.
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Every week, Nasrudin crossed the border with a donkey laden with goods, and returned laden with goods. The customs officer was convinced that Nasrudin was a smuggler, but could never prove it. Years later, the now-retired customs officer said to Nasrudin, “I know you were smuggling something. Come on, what was it? You can tell me now.”
“Donkeys”, answered Nasrudin.
I love that story because it’s a perfect example of the subterfuge of hiding something in plain sight. For an excellent example of this, read The Purloined Letter, by Edgar Allan Poe.
A different time scale
Nasrudin went to a Turkish bath. The attendants, perceiving him to be quite poor, treated him somewhat shoddily. They gave him a scrap of soap and a threadbare towel. At the end of the session Nasrudin thanked them and gave them a gold coin each as a tip.
The following week, Nasrudin went again. This time, no doubt imagining what sort of tip they would be given if they treated Nasrudin properly, gave him the works: perfume, scented oils, massage and so on. At the end of the session, Nasrudin gave each of them a penny.
“This is for last time”, he explained. “The gold coins were for this time.”
We often think in terms of revenge when we’re mistreated, and we all know the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. But what I like about this story is that Nasrudin doesn’t get his own back, so to speak – he teaches the attendants a lesson. Or two lessons: don’t judge by appearances, and don’t treat people badly. There’s also a lesson for us: patience!
One day everyone had gathered in the village café to hear the wise words of a scholar who was passing through. At one point, someone asked him a question about a point he made. The scholar pulled a book out of his bag and banged it on the table.
“Here’s my proof”, he thundered. “And I wrote it myself.”
A few days later Nasrudin wandered into the café. “Does anyone here want to buy my house?”, he asked.
The villagers asked him to tell them more about the house. Nasrudin pulled a brick out his bag and threw it on the table.
“Here’s my evidence!”, he shouted. “And I built the house myself.”
I think this is a very good example of the importance of insisting on independent evidence. And for critical thinking. One of the things I’ve noticed in education, and I’m sure it must happen in other fields too, is that something becomes a “thing”, and the only evidence that it’s actually useful is that the person has written a paper on it and given a talk. But as soon as you start to question it, the whole thing collapses, like a house of cards. Eventually.
The books I’ve used for source material for these stories are The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, and The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, both by Idries Shah. Despite the fact that these stories are hundreds of years old, like Shakespeare’s plays they encapsulate many aspects of the human condition, which seems fundamentally to not change very much! Through their gentle humour, they provide an alternative way of thinking about things, and provide useful lessons for us.
Please join the conversation —
Please note that I’ve recounted the stories in my own words, but kept as true to the originals as possible. Also, I have used quotes/extracts in accordance with Fair Dealing.
As an example, a couple of years ago in England politicians were talking seriously about lengthening the school day to cram in more learning time, despite the fact that both children and teachers are wiped out by the end of the day, and there is a teacher retention and recruitment crisis that’s been going on for years.