In the Footsteps of Wisdom: A Journey Through Said Nursi’s Eighth Word

“Ideology is the marriage of the truth with the apocryphal whereas wisdom is the distinction of the former from the others,” (1) says Cemil Meriç, a prominent Turkish intellectual figure, philosopher, and influencer of twentieth century Turkey. Wisdom is the property of West and East together; it's the private garden of all humanity, a shared ocean of advancement for the sons and daughters of Adam. The profound knowledge leading to wisdom is a bowl which is uniting rather than segregating, a line drawn to encompass, not to dissect. A short glimpse across the flipped pages of history is enough to come across a handful of people who lived as light-houses, illuminating the way to wisdom, despite using various languages and separate tools.

The tradition of storytelling

Stories are as old as humanity. They are vessels across the ocean of wisdom. Storytelling was used by Buddha in his Jatakas, Rumi in the Masnawi, Bidpai in Kalilah and Dimnah. Many children of the West prefer to embrace novels. (2) On the other hand, old wise masters of the East used allegories and parables. They preferred to describe an elephant as a water spout (trunk) (3), a fan (ear) (4), a pillar (leg) (5), or a throne (back) (6). They knew understanding an elephant's entire being would be beyond the limits of comprehension for a majority of people. Whence Prophet Muhammad had been asked about the content of the scrolls sent down to Abraham, peace be upon both, he replied, “It was full of parables” (7).

Bidpai (from Sanskrit Vidya-pati, meaning chief scholar) was a wise man of India. He lived in the 3rd century BC,[i] and he decided to correct the oppression and wrongdoings of a young Indian Emperor of his time, Dabshalim by teaching him wisdom he collected from the ancient times (8). Though the main sources of the stories are not known to us, they were still being told a millennium later. In 570 AD, the ruler of Persia, Khosroes Noushirawan, after having received the information of that book, sent Barzouyeh, court physician, on a mission to India to translate the book into Persian (more precisely into Pahlavi, i.e. Middle Persian). These stories were translated into Arabic two centuries later, and into Hebrew from Arabic – and possibly from its Sanskrit originals (9). And this lineage of translations gave fruit to more than two hundred versions of the book in about fifty different languages.

Said Nursi

Said Nursi is another man of wisdom, one of recent history. Being born into life in an Eastern Anatolian village in 1877, until he passed in 1960, he lived through the collapse of an empire and the rebuilding of a country as a republic. He experienced the reigns of constitutional monarchy, oppression, military coups, and democracy. He dedicated his life to the survival of religious and ethical connections, in contrast to many of his contemporaries. During the last half of his life, he focused on extolling the virtues of education and belief to the extent that he did not bother at all about the developments of the World War II, which was basically destroying the world.

Nursi diagnosed society’s problems as falling under three categories: ignorance, poverty and dissension. His Risale-i Nur (the Collection of Epistles of Light) was a cure to these ills. He authored this collection of several thousand pages under the harsh conditions of captivity, exile, imprisonment, and surveillance.

Before writing his Risale, Said Nursi preached his wisdom to the villagers living around him, in the desolate places of Anatolia. He used the same method as Bidpai, i.e. via parables and allegories. Skimming through his primary epistles in “the Short Words” is sufficient enough to catch a glimpse of the profound wisdom woven through his stories.

I want to focus on one of Said Nursi’s parables. It is from the first treatise of the collection, “Nur'un İlk Kapısı” (the First Gate of the Light). The second lesson is reiterated in his masterpiece as “Mesnevi-i Nuriye” (the Seedbed of Light), and later in “Eighth Word” in a slightly different and more detailed form. It is the story of a desert-dweller jumping into a well when threatened by a lion (10).

The story

A person (actually Nursi talks about two brothers in order to compare positive and negative responses to the mystery of the universe) finds himself in a desolate wilderness. He suddenly hears a terrifying sound and sees that a great lion is about to attack him. While he is fleeing, he comes across a waterless well sixty yards deep, and in his fear jumps into it. After falling halfway down the well, his hands meet a tree growing out of the wall. He clings to it. He soon sees two animals gnawing through the tree's two roots. Then he looks up and sees the lion waiting, and when he looks down with frustration he sees a dragon, its mouth as big as the mouth of the well. Then he looks back at the tree and notices with surprise that even though it is a fig-tree, it is bearing the fruits of thousands of trees, including some looking fancy and delicious but ultimately intoxicating and poisonous.

The responses of the two brothers bifurcates in Nursi's narration. The good brother, whose good morals give him good thoughts, and good thoughts showing him the good side of everything, goes ahead with the realization of these strange happenings being connected to someone. He concludes that behind everything are the commands of a hidden ruler, who is watching him and testing him. His fear turns into wonder, and that wonder gives the fruit of love towards that hidden hand, leading him to cry out: “O ruler of this place! I have happened upon you and I take refuge with you. I am your servant and I want to please you. I am searching for you.” After he makes this supplication, the walls of the well suddenly part, and a door opens onto a wonderful, pleasant, quiet garden. Indeed, the dragon's mouth transforms into the door, and both it and the lion take on the forms of two servants, inviting him to enter. The lion even becomes a docile horse for him to ride.

Wisdom of the story

Even while listening to the story for the first time, one can match most of the allegorical details mentioned in the story with real life counterparts. A short reference is provided as Table 1.

 

Allegory

Truth

Two people

Believer and non-believer

Desolate wilderness

Temporal world

Lion

Death

Waterless well

Lifetime of a person in this world

Sixty meters depth

Average lifespan of a person

Dragon

The grave

Two roots of tree branch

Good and evil

Black and white mice

Day and night

Fruits

Samples of God’s eternal blessings

Poisonous/Intoxicating fruits

Forbidden worldly pleasures

Walls of the well

Restriction in present time

Garden behind the walls

Paradise

Table 1. Correspondence between the metaphors used in the parable and the truths behind them.

Beyond these, it's astonishing to realize how perfectly the story simplifies the very essential concerns of each concious individual, such as the purpose of this life, reaching the Creator beyond the veil of creation, the reality of death, the compliance of destiny with the responsibility of actions, and so forth. The story also sets forth answers to the three basic questions asked by all humanity:

“Where are you coming from?”

“What is your destination?”

“What is your task in this world?” (11, 12)

Search for the source of wisdom

The First Station

The clever son of Russian Tsardom, Leo Tolstoy, welcomed me with his deep contemplations on life, death, and religion in the preface of his book, A Confession. Tolstoy was mentioning the “story of wisdom,” but from the perspective of bad-mannered brother:

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveler overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes a twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them (13).

Before journeying towards the next station, the following is how Tolstoy transcribes the story into his case:

So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the inescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. And this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.

While following Tolstoy within his profound yet gloomy commentary on the standing of human “self,” Nursi's voice has shaken my mind again, answering the stated, unanswerable truth, as follows:

Death is not terrifying as it appears to be superficially... for believers, death is to be discharged from the burdensome duties of life. And for them it is a rest from worship, which is the instruction and training in the arena of trial of this world. It is also a means of their rejoining friends and relatives, ninety-nine out of a hundred of whom have already departed for the next world. And it is a means of entering their true homeland and eternal abodes of happiness. It is also an invitation to the gardens of Paradise from the dungeon of this world. And it is the time to receive their wage from the munificence of the Most Compassionate Creator in return for service rendered to Him... Yes, for the people of belief, death is the door to Divine mercy, while for the people of misguidance, it is the pit of everlasting darkness (14).

The Second Station

While skimming through Arabic translation of the book by Abdullah ibn Muqaffa from Barzouyeh's original Persian, I came across Barzouyeh's own version of the “story of wisdom.” His version, which was written thirteen centuries before, was just parallel to Tolstoy’s. It was an allegory of his own search for truth, with the details only slightly altered:

...I therefore compared the human race to a man who, flying from a furious elephant, goes down into a well. He suspends himself from two branches which are at the brim of it whilst his feet rest upon something projecting out of its sides, which prove to be the heads of four serpents appearing out of their holes. At the bottom, he discovers a dragon... (15)

After underlining small yet clear differences between Barzouyeh's version and Tolstoy’s – including the introduction of four serpents and a furious elephant – we can leave the second station. 

The Third Station

After being translated into Greek in the 11th century and into Latin in the 13th by a Christian, John of Capua, the book appeared in Europe in several languages close to the end of 15th century, right after the invention of printing. The rendering of John of Capua's Latin manuscript into Italian by Anton-Francesco Doni fostered the first English translation of the book by Sir Thomas North, in 1568. The title of North's translation was, Fables of Bidpai: The Morall Philosophie of Doni (16).

Swung back to 16th century from ibn Muqaffa's Arabic text, 750 AD, a surprise was waiting for me at the third station. While skimming through North's English translation, I came across the “story of wisdom” in the middle of the book – except this one was apparently not in the Arabic manuscript, save Barzouyeh's preface, as already mentioned above.

Jane Stevenson writes in her piece in the University of Toronto Quarterly on the manuscript's translation adventure, that Doni's Italian version – compiled of forty-one tales, thirty-four of which are from the Persian manuscript – as a rehashed version. These thirty-four stories are also shared between Bidpai's narrations and Barzouyeh's (17).

Most probably, the courtesy of our “story of wisdom” is given to Barzouyeh due to the preface text appearing in the Arabic version. Yet interestingly, “the story of wisdom” in North's English translation appears more similar to Tolstoy and Nursi's narrations, as it mentions neither a furious elephant nor four serpents. It most resembles Nursi's story, where the traveler comes into a large plain after passing through thick and large woods. Differently in North's version, there are four lions attacking rather than a single one.

The following quote from Thomas North's lesson is significant to exhibit how the core of the “death – lion allegory” is lost through the influence of his contemporary culture: “The foure Lions the foure elements, which feeke ftill to deuour man” (18). This also gives us a hint about the case of Barzouyeh's addition of four serpents. Barzouyeh was saying, “...the four serpents are the four humors in the human body which being disturbed in their mutual action become many deadly poisons...” Medieval medicine believed four faculties in the human body caused illnesses in their mutual discord. Noticeably, both of these allegories, missing in Nursi's text, have been proven wrong/mythical via modern knowledge of science and medicine.

Comparison of differences

The only demanding explanation of the significant differences between Barzouyeh's story and the Medieval European translations would be thinking of a second Hebrew manuscript which parented John of Capua's Latin manuscript. Otherwise assuming the Latin version being translated from Joel's 12th century Hebrew narration of ibn Muqaffa text, would leave the source of the differences in the “story of wisdom” in dark. That second version of 8th century AD text, in Hebrew, was likely compiled under an Abbasid Caliph, as argued by some scholars, and should have been directly translated from Sanskrit originals.

Turkish newspaper columnist and author, Abdullah Aymaz, in a conversation with a Buddhist scholar, Venerable Bup-Hyun,[ii]  throws light onto the issue:

... I narrated him the story told by Said Nursi in the Eighth Word and later asked: ‘Does that story exist in your religious texts?’ He replied, ‘Yes it does, but instead of a lion we have an elephant and also the dragon has four heads. We too have black and white mice and in place of fruits we have a poisonous honey. You can also find it in Jatakas, told by Buddha (19).

If we come to the last main difference between the four versions of the story, the existence of honey inside the well, we see that both Barzouyeh and North are talking about a beehive whereas Tolstoy is mentioning some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig. In contrast to these, Nursi does not mention honey in the story. Rather he talks about numerous types of fruits coming out of fig tree's branch, some of which are poisonous though they look sweet. Nursi’s analogy leads to nourishing pearls of wisdom such as:

  1. “Dissolute, forbidden pleasures of youth are like poisonous honey.” (20).
  2. “As pleasure's disappearance causes pain, pain's disappearance causes pleasure” (21).
  3. “Man's accountability requires opening the door to the reason and not removing the power of choice” (22).
  4. “This world's adornments are meant to rouse our appetite. As they are temporary and give pain upon separation, they are here only to instruct in wisdom, to arouse gratitude, and to encourage us to seek the permanent originals of which they are copies” (23).

Approaching the source as the last station

Although it is hard to historically detect the origin of the “story of wisdom,” and we're not able to trace it beyond Barzouyeh, it is evident from the previous discussion that the very source of the story is not himself. A reasonable scenario would be accepting the story existing in the original compilation of Pañchatantra, in Sanskrit, and in the Jataka stories of Buddha.

Moreover, the inner-consistency of the story and the perfection of allegories give the fragrance of a heavenly wisdom rather than a carnal production. Maybe that is why Nursi summarized the Eighth Word as, “… interpreting an important mystery of the verses on the essence of this world, the essence of the human, and in humanity the meaning of religion, via a beautiful and luminary parable which has its original in the Scriptures of Abraham...” (24).

The Story of Wisdom and the Qur’an

It's worthwhile to mention several tips from the book called “al-Hakim,” which literally means “full of wisdom.”

The scriptures sent to Prophet Abraham are mentioned in the Qur'an at only one place, the ending verses of the Chapter of A'la (the High): “This is surely contained in the former Scrolls: The Scrolls of Abraham and Moses” (25).

Preceding verses have a comparison of two people coming up with opposite responses to the advice of the Messenger: the mindful one who stands in awe of the Lord, and the wicked one remaining aloof from God (26). Later on, the punishment due to the latter’s heedlessness is described: “He will neither die therein (to be saved from punishment) nor live” (27). This description is consistent to the case of the man holding the twig inside the well.

The Qur’an’s narrative compares the situation of two persons, which is in line with Nursi’s double-winged narration. Said Nursi emphasizes that the twig which the man holds is a “fig tree.” The Qur'an says, at the beginning of the Chapter of Tin (the Fig): “By the fig and the olive, And Mount Sinai, And this secure City” (28). Some prominent scholars of Tafsir, interpreting these verses, believe that “the fig” refers to Damascus, thus to the mission of Abraham (29); the olives refer to Jerusalem, thus to Jesus; Mount Sinai refers to Egypt, thus to Moses; and “this secure City” to Mecca, thus to Prophet Muhammad (blessings be upon them all) (30).

Notes

  1. Şahiner, N. 2007. Cemil Meriç'le Nur Sohbetleri, Izmir: Isik Publications, p. 106 (in Turkish).
  2. Ibid. pp. 93-95.
  3. Jainism and Buddhism. Udana 68-69: Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant.
  4. Hughes, Marilynn. 2005. The Voice of Prophets, Volume 2, Morrisville, NC, pp. 590-91.
  5. Al-Ghazzali. 1933. Ihya’ `Ulum ad-Din, Volume 4, Cairo, p. 6. (in Arabic).
  6. Jalalu'ddin Rumi. 1930. The Mathnawi. Edited with critical notes, translation, and commentary by Reynold A. Nicholson, Volume 4, Book 3, London, vv. I259-68.
  7. Suyuti. Durr al-Mansur, Volume 6, p. 341. Hakim. Mustadrak, Volume 2, p. 425. (in Arabic).
  8. Bidpai. 1885. Kalilah and Dimnah, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Translated by I.G.N. Keith Falconer, Cambridge University Press.
  9. Bidpai. 1819. Kalila and Dimna. Translated by Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull, London: Oxford Press, pp. 32-46.
  10. Nursi, Said. 2005. The Words, 8th Word, NJ: The Light, Inc.
  11. Nursi. 2005, 10th Word, Introduction, Second Sign, 19th Word, Third Droplet.
  12. Nursi. 2006. The Letters, 19th Letter, First Addendum, NJ: The Light, Inc.
  13. Tolstoy, Leo. 2010. A Confession and Other Religious Writings, Translated by N.H. Dole, L. Maude, Digireads.com Publishing, pp. 13-14.
  14. Nursi. 2006. 1st Letter, Second Question.
  15. Bidpai. 1819. p. 81.
  16. Doni, Anton Francesco. 2003. The Moral Philosophy of Doni: Known as The Fables of Bidpai. Translated by Thomas North, edited by John Anthony Butler, Carmine Di Biase, Canada: Dovehouse Editions. 
  17. Stevenson, Jane. 2004. “The Moral Philosophy of Doni, popularly known as the Fables of Bidpai,” University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 1, Winter 2004/2005, pp. 404-405.
  18. North, Thomas. 1568. The Morall Philosophie of Doni, London: Ballantyne Press, p. 63.
  19. Aymaz, Abdullah. “Güneş doğana kadar yediyüz secde”, July, 18, 2005, Zaman Newspaper (in Turkish).
  20. Nursi. 2005. Thirteenth Word, Second Station.
  21. Nursi. 2005. Tenth Word, Fourth Truth.
  22. Nursi. 2005. Thirty First Word, Addendum.
  23. Nursi. 2005. Tenth Word.
  24. Nursi, Fihrist Risalesi, Sekizinci Söz, İstanbul: Envar Publications (in Ottoman Turkish).
  25. Qur'an, 87/18-19.
  26. Qur'an, 87/10-11.
  27. Qur'an, 87/13.
  28. Qur'an, 95/1-3.
  29. İslamoğlu, Mustafa. Tefsirul Kur'an Te'vil ul Furkan, Tîn Sûresi (in Turkish).
  30. Imam Qurtubi, Tafsir Qurtubi, Chapter 95.

[i]. By his original name, Vishna Sarma is believed to have lived in the Kashmir area about 200 BC and compiled different fables and stories, some dating back to the 13th century BC, into a single book under the name of “Pañchatantra (Five Principles).”

[ii]   Professor at Dongbang Buddhist University, Director of the Korean Buddhist Order Association

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