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Four Riddles

THERE WAS once a poor woodcutter who owned little in life except a reputation for wisdom and understanding of mysteries. People spoke often about this man with great respect, repeating to each other wise things he had said or done. Even the king heard of him, at first only now and then, and later more often, until he grew annoyed.

"Can this poor woodcutter be as wise and shrewd as people say?" he asked his ministers one day.

"Who can tell?" they answered. "Why don't you put him the test?"

"Tell me about him," the king said.

"There is little to tell," one of the ministers replied. "He is simply a humble man with four sons. But it is said that he can answer any riddle that is known."

The king's curiosity was aroused. "Any riddle that is known?" he repeated. "But what about riddles that are unknown?"

He then sent for the most powerful fakir in the land, a dervish who was able to perform feats of magic. And he instructed him this way

"This woodcutter with the four sons, I want you to devise the most curious and difficult riddles to test him. If he is less wise than people say, he must be silenced, for in that case he is the cause of false rumours. But if he is able to survive the tests you give him, I will see to it that he is less poor than before."

The fakir made the journey to the part of the country where the woodcutter lived. He went to the place where the man usually felled his trees, and there he sat on his rug and waited.

On that day the woodcutter wasn't well, and he sent his eldest son to do his work. The young man came into the woods, and he saw there the fakir, sitting in an attitude of devout contemplation.

"Venerable person," the young man said, "I see that you are wise; Can you foretell what my future will be?"

The fakir replied: "I can foretell it. But first you must explain to me a thing which I will show you."

"I can try," the young man said.

So the fakir called upon the magic powers at his command at caused a strange scene to appear. The woodcutter's son suddenly saw before him a garden of grain, and around the garden was a fence made of sticks. He looked in wonder at this sight. As he watched, however, the sticks which made up the fence changed into reaping knives. They leaped among the grain stalks and cut them all down, until the garden was simply a blighted wasteland. Then the scene faded away, and the young man saw only the trees around him again.

"Well," the fakir said, "explain this thing to me."

"I can't explain it," the woodcutter's son said. "It was a strange sight without meaning to me."

"Now I can reveal what your future will be," the fakir said. "You are destined to be a stone." And he turned the young man into a stone.

When the eldest son failed to return, the woodcutter became anxious. On the following morning, he sent his second son out to find his lost brother. The second son came to the woods and he also saw the fakir sitting there. And he asked him, "Venerable stranger, you seem devout and wise. Can you tell me where my brother is?"

The fakir replied, "I can tell you. First, however, you must be able to explain something that you will see."

He called on his magic powers, and suddenly standing before them in the woods were a cow buffalo and its young calf. But instead of the calf sucking the milk of its mother, it was the other way around. The mother was drinking milk from the calf. Then in a moment the two animals disappeared.

"Can you explain this riddle?" the fakir asked.

The woodcutter's son answered, "How can I interpret it? It was strange and contrary to nature."

"Since you cannot perceive the meaning," the fakir said, "I send you to join your lost brother." And he turned the second son into a stone.

The next day the woodcutter sent his third son to find the other two. This young man also found the fakir sitting in the woods.

"Oh venerable one," he said, "can you tell me where I may find my lost brothers?"

"First," the fakir replied, "tell me the meaning of this thing." And there appeared before them an old man with a huge load of firewood on his back. But though the man was carrying all he could hold, still he stopped to pick up a stick here and a stick there, wherever he saw one. Then the picture disappeared.

"What is the meaning of this riddle?" the fakir asked.

"How can I know?" the third son replied. "It looks quite meaningless to me."

"In that case you may join your brothers," the fakir said. And the third son also was turned into a stone.

The following morning the anxious woodcutter sent his youngest son to find the other three. In the woods the young man encountered the fakir, who presented him with a fourth riddle. There appeared a large pond, and water was flowing from it into smaller ponds. As the youngest son watched, the large pond emptied itself and became dry.

Then the scene vanished and the fakir asked, "What is the meaning?"

"I don't see a deeper meaning," the young man said.

"Then," the fakir declared, "you may join your brothers." And like them the youngest son turned into a stone.

When the youngest son failed to return, the woodcutter arose from his bed and went out into the woods to see what had happened. He came to where the fakir was waiting for him, and he asked, "Learned and devout man, have you seen my four sons?"

"Yes," the fakir said. "In the name of the king I have silenced them, because false rumours of shrewdness in your family have caused too much talk."

He pointed to the four stones standing in a row.

"Why do you mistreat the innocent?" the woodcutter asked. "Have they boasted or made trouble?"

"They are of your family," the fakir said, "and they could not answer the riddles. Had they been able to do so I would have left them as they were. Yet if you yourself can answer the riddles I will bring back your sons."

"I will try," the woodcutter said. So the fakir called up the scene of the garden with the fence of sticks. The sticks turned into reaping knives and destroyed the grain.

When the scene ended, the woodcutter said: "This picture depicts a person in whose care some money has been placed; and when the rightful owner asks for it the guardian of the money spends it so that he won't have to give it back."

As he finished speaking these words, one of the stones disappeared, and in its place was the woodcutter's eldest son.

The fakir then called up the scene of the buffalo cow and calf, and again the calf was giving milk to its mother.

"This reminds me of a lazy woman who lives off the work of her daughter," the woodcutter said.

And instantly another stone disappeared, and in its place stood the second son.

Then came the scene of the old man with a great load of wood on his back. As before, the man kept gathering and gathering, though he had more than plenty.

"Isn't this the picture of people who are never satisfied with what they have?" the woodcutter said. "They go on and on, accumulating wealth far beyond their needs."

As he said this another stone disappeared, and in its place stood the third son.

The fakir then called up the last scene, with the large pond emptying itself into smaller ponds until it was dry.

"This is the unfortunate way of the world," the woodcutter said. "Often it is that a person gives all he has to help others and gets nothing in return."

The fourth stone too disappeared, and all four sons were there with their father.

The fakir said to the woodcutter, "Now, in truth, I can foretell something of the future. Had you failed to answer the riddles, there would be five stones here for future generations of woodcutters to sharpen their axes on. As it turned out, the king is pleased to have so shrewd a man as one of his subjects. Your future is to be less poor than before."

And so it was, for when the king heard about the woodcutter's infallible answers to the riddles, he sent him a bag of gold.

[From Pakistan]

NOTE. A figurative scene may be understood in many different ways. In some traditions special things have become symbolic. For example, the large and small ponds may be taken to mean something else in the field of learning (next).

The tale above is a synthesis of two variants. In one of the variants, the man who answers the riddles is a king whose four sons have been turned into stone. The variant on which this treatment is based, heard in Karachi, has as its hero a humble workman, but the actual riddles are taken from a version which appears in FolkTales of Kashmir, by J. Hinton Knowles, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, 1893, under the title "Four Princes Turned into Stone."

The Pool of Water

ANECDOTE THE US PHILOSOPHER and educator Irwin Edman of Columbia University had access to the swimming pool of a book-publishing friend, Bob Haas. Once Dr. Edman bathed alone there. Still in his wet bathing suit, he walked into Haas's living room. There he spotted a volume of Thucydides and sat down to read a few pages. Later, after he had left, Mrs. Haas came home to find a pool of water in the middle of her living room.

"It is that dog again." she cried. The French maid quickly put her right:

"No, madame, the professor."

Cheerful Edwards

ANECDOTE WHEN THEY reached Bolt Court Edwards said to the lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84):

"You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried, too, in my time, to be a philosopher. But I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in."

The Well-Known Rabbi's even Better-Known Son

SOLA THE WELL-KNOWN rabbi Someone of There-and-then got a son who became one of the rabbis who had many ardent followers. On every Sabbath this rabbi didn't expound the law of Moses or the Torah in the midst of followers. He cracked jokes, and diverted them with merry tales, and everybody, even the greybeards, laughed heartily.

A visitor got surprised. "How can a holy teacher and his followers behave in such an outrageous way? Celebrating the Sabbath with nonsense, funny stories and jest! Rabbi, be ashamed: read the Torah!"

"Torah," exclaimed the rabbi. "What do you suppose I've been expounding here?" Sacred truth is found in all stories and jests!" [From A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, Ato 264, retold].

Who's a hero? Could it be the one who suppresses the urge to tell a sad joke?

Unhappy in Marriage

ANECDOTE A GENTLEMAN who had been very unhappy in marriage married a second time, right after his first wife died. The lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson said of him:

"His conduct was the triumph of hope over experience."

Must I Live?

ANECDOTE A MAN that Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) reproved for following a useless and demoralizing business, said:

"Doctor, you know I must live."

Dr. Johnson replied that "he did not see the least necessity for that."

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Yogi stories, yoga tales, etc., LITERATURE  

Ato: Ausubel, Nathan. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: The Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs. New York: Crown, 1948.

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