Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Tree of Knowledge and The Grapes (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 400 words.

Both of the stories you will find on this page teach the lesson of the unity of all things, beyond the diversity of their different manifestations. Remember the elephant who was a "fan" and a "throne" and a "temple"...? Both of the stories you will read here - the story of the tree, and the story of the grapes - are very similar to that story of the elephant...

A certain wise man related that in Hindustan there was a tree of such wonderful virtues 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 travelled all over that country, inquiring of every one he met where this tree was to be found. Some of these people professed their entire ignorance, others joked with 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 descrptions, 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 difference of sects arise from His names;
When they pierce to His essence they find His peace!"

Four persons, a Persian, an Arab, a Turk, and a Greek, were travelling together, and they 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 "unum" and "astaphil", respectively.

Now all these words mean one and the same thing - "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.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why did the man sent to seek the tree with the fruit of eternal life fail in his quest?
  • what advice does the wise man give him?
  • why did the men argue about angur, inab, unumand astaphil?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM