From Python to Prostitute: Learning from the Guru in Each

Article of the Month - Jul 2007

This article by Nitin Kumar.

(Viewed 37208 times since Jul 2007)

Once upon a time there lived in the city of Mithila a prostitute named Pingala. One night as usual, she decorated her beauty to the utmost and waited outside her gate, intending to entice a passerby to partake of her charms.

She imagined each successive man to be a wealthy client who would give her plentiful money in return for her body. When many passed by and did not stop, she became restless and lost all sleep, impatiently going in and out of her door until it was well past midnight.

Her hope of earning money thus thwarted, she soon became frustrated and her mouth went dry with dejection. Suddenly however, the same despondency caused by her anxiety became the cause of a happiness which she felt seeping through her body. Out of this supreme emotion, she sang an inspired song:

Alas, do look at my delusion immense,
I am but a slave of the organs of sense.

Expecting fulfillment of desires did I cherish,
Men who are transitory and will but perish.

Ignoring my ever proximate eternal lover,
The indwelling soul I never did uncover.

Of true love wealth the One and only giver,
Instead I courted men who couldn’t deliver.
Who cannot quench any desire became my lover,
Rather, only misery grief on me did they confer.

Selling myself uselessly afflicting my soul,
To lusty men, contemptible on the whole.

Pillared on crooked bones a shaky frame,
The human body is its famous name.

Stretched over with skin, nails and hair,
It has nine doors, regularly from where,
Pours out impurity stored inside there.

Now will I sell myself only for the price of god,
Sporting with him like Lakshmi and her lord.

Truly with me is happy Vishnu the Lord,
Perhaps of some past merit is this reward,
Inside my heart with vicious hope abroad.
He gave me disenchantment which is the sword,
Which cuts away asunder the attachment cord.

Thus giving voice to her emotion, Pingala, doing away with all hope, closed her door, went to bed and slept peacefully.

Truly is it said:

Asha hi paramam dukham,
Nairashyam paramam sukham.

Hope indeed is misery greatest,

Hopelessness a bliss above the rest. (Shrimad Bhagavata Purana: 11.8.44)

The Srimad Bhagavata Purana (Set of 18 Volumes): Sanskrit Text, Word-to-Word Meaning, Telugu Translation and Detailed Explanation

The above episode forms a part of a narrative expounded by none other than Lord Krishna himself. He was replying to a question put by one of his beloved devotees, who, speaking for all of us, wanted to know the easiest way to liberation, conducive for all, caught up as we are in our web of daily life full of attachments and aversions. Krishna answered with these immortal words:

"Those who investigate the nature of this world with their own efforts manage to lift themselves up even without the help of a guru. The self (atma) is one’s real guru and guide, and man is fully capable of arriving at his own good by both direct perception and inference." (Shrimad Bhagavata Purana: 11.7.20)

This echoes the message of the Bhagavad Gita:

"Raise yourself by your own self" (6.5)

Lord Dattatreya

Towards this end, Krishna narrates the observations of the accomplished master Dattatreya, who advanced spiritually by learning from twenty-four different gurus in nature, stressing that an alert person can learn valuable lessons from whatever he sees and wherever he goes.

Dattatreya enumerates his gurus as following; explaining in his own words what he learned from each:

1). The Earth:

From the earth I have learnt the vow of forbearance and forgiveness. People trod all over the earth, subjecting her to all kinds of exploitation, but she remains undisturbed, realizing that her oppressors are themselves operating under the will of providence.

The Biological History of Earth

Compelled by our own needs we sometimes plough the earth for cultivation, bury our waste in it, or drill wells to quench our thirst. Consider however the scenario of a mosquito drilling through our own bodies to extract the red water that is its natural nourishment. It does not know that a sentient being exists beyond the form he is digging into. Like we consider the earth to be insentient, the mosquito too thinks of our body as insentient. Truly, the mosquito has as much right to violate our body, as we have for the earth.

2). Wind (Air):

The vital air controlling the body (prana), expects food and water for subsistence only, and not for taste etc. Similarly, a person should be satisfied with the bare necessities of life and not crave for gratification of the senses. He should take in only that much which does not cloud his faculties or distract his mind.

Vishnu Dashavatara Wind Chime

Just as the wind visits many places, but does not get attached or stop anywhere, i.e. it does not accept the qualities or defects of the diverse areas it visits, similarly should a seeker, even though indulging in objects of various characteristics, should remain aloof and unattached to them.

3). The Sky:

A seeker should comprehend that his soul, though invested with the physical body, is identical with Brahman (The Supreme Soul), and as such interpenetrates and permeates all mobile or immobile creation – all pervading like the sky.

Beyond the Sky (Prapanchan): A Novel about Pondicherry - Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award

4). Water:

Like water, a seeker should be transparent, soft by nature, sweet and capable of purifying other people.

Brass Water Pot with a Lid

5). Fire:

I learnt from fire to have no other vessel than my belly (for keeping food, i.e. completely devoid of all belongings). Fire consumes everything offered to itself, but is uncontaminated by any impurity inherent therein. Similarly, one who is brilliantly aflame with spiritual knowledge, even though he indulges his senses as the situation arises, does not let any impure residue contaminate him.

Agni - The Sacred Fire

Also fire, even though it has no form of its own, seems to assume the shape and size of the fuel it burns in; likewise, even though the same all-pervading reality permeates each and every form, it appears to take on the form of the body it has entered, i.e. all manifested existence in this world is underlined by the same divine presence.

6). The Moon:

The moon appears to wax and wane during the bright and dark fortnights, but actually speaking, it remains unaffected, similarly so the various stages beginning with birth and ending with death, brought about by the subtle passage of time, leave the soul unaltered.

Silver Crescent Moon Design Dangling Earrings with Coral from Nepal

7). The Sun:

The sun draws up water from the earth through its rays, and again casts it down as rain in the proper season; so does the seeker indulges his senses, but lets go of the objects when the situation arises, i.e. does not hold on to them.

Lord Surya (Sun) Large Pendant

Just as the sun, reflected in water-filled vessels, seems different in each, so does the Supreme Soul, though one, appear as many in the various forms inhabiting this universe.

8) A Pigeon Family:

I learned from a pigeon family that one should never court over-attachment or over-association with anyone. If we do so, we will come to grief like the pigeon in the following legend.

A pair of pigeons built their nest in a tree, breeding their children with deep affection and love. Once, when the couple was out collecting food for their extended family, a hunter came along. He spread out his net and caught the young ones.

Birds In Sanskrit Literature (An Old and Rare Book)

On return, seeing their children’s plight, the mother lost her bearings and rushed out to them, and in the process, got caught herself. The male pigeon, unable to bear separation from his dear family, even though he knew he couldn’t do anything to save them, jumped into the net too. The ruthless hunter, seeing the householder dove caught with his family, happily made off with his catch.

Maintaining his family in the aforesaid manner, any householder, who, with an unquiet mind (ashanta), indulges in the pairs of opposites (joys and sorrows), and is attached to the pleasures of the senses, goes to ruin along with all that he is trying to maintain (due to the ruthless nature of time).

This human body is but an open door to Nirvana. One who, even after obtaining such an exalted birth is still caught up in the routine of the household, is regarded by the wise as a person fallen down from his eminent position.

9). The Python:

Even though beings do not desire pain and try their utmost to prevent it, they do experience it; similarly, whatever pleasure lies in store for us, is bound to happen. Therefore, the wise person who knows the essence of pleasure and pain should not desire either of the two, nor make any efforts towards them.

Like the python, one should eat food obtained without any special effort, whether it be tasty or tasteless, more or less, sweet or bitter. If no food reaches you, then like the python you should go without it, making no effort to obtain it. Though endowed with a body full of physical strength and mental energy, one should lie down actionless yet sleepless, believing that it is fate which provides us with food.

10). The Sea:

Like the limitless, unfathomable, unperturbable and clear sea, the yogi should be quiet, absorbed in meditation, unviolable, inscrutable and undisturbed by passions.

One should feel neither elated when one’s desires are fulfilled, nor be depressed when faced with disappointments, just like the sea, which ever remains the same - not swelling when rivers flow into it nor drying when they do not do so.

The Bhagavad Gita says:

‘He attains peace, who is like the sea, into which enter various waters. The different passions likewise merge into him, leaving him undisturbed.’ (2.70)

11). The Moth:

Just as a moth, attracted by fire rushes into it, similarly a person of uncontrolled senses, tempted by the outward, physical beauty of women, their dresses, ornaments etc, which are but a manifestation of the lord’s maya, meets his ruin.

12). The Bee:

Like the bee collecting honey from many flowers, a discriminating person should gather the essence from various scriptures, whether great or small.

Set of Five Zardosi Honey Bees Patch with Sequins

13). The Elephant:

The elephant is highly infatuated with the sense of touch. In a particular season their passion is so inflamed that even while walking with their herd, they continuously rub their bodies against female elephants. Hunters knowledgeable of this fact dig a large pit and make stand over it an imitation of a she-elephant. When the male goes near her to rub his body, he falls into the hole and is caught.

The Elephant Pair

Thus one should no let any sensual infatuation become an obsession, overriding one’s own better sense of judgment and discrimination. Otherwise, there is the real danger of falling into a pit, lured on by the hunter called Time (Kala).

14). The Honey-Gatherer:

Wealth hoarded painstakingly by us, neither enjoyed nor given away in charity, is partaken of by somebody else like the honey-gatherer, who makes off with the fruits of the efforts put in by the honey-bees.

15). The Deer:

The deer, enchanted by the sensual music played by hunter, falls into the latter’s trap. Thus, one should not listen to songs which inflame and augment passions.

The Young Heroine Feeding a Deer

16). The Fish:

The fish, allured by the tempting bait meets its end. Likewise, enraptured by a love of taste, one who is the slave of his tongue falls prey to his end.

The Great Fish and the Deluge

Indeed, one may have subdued all other senses, but unless one has conquered the sense of taste, one cannot be said to have gained self-control. Truly is it said that all senses get subdued when the sense of taste is conquered (jitam sarvam jite rase).

17). The Prostitute Named Pingala:

The lessons learned from the courtesan named Pingala have been enumerated at the beginning.

18). A Bird of Prey:

Acquisition of whatever we crave for is a certain source of misery. One who realizes this and overcomes the propensity for possession, becoming a have-not, enjoys everlasting happiness. This I learned from a bird of prey I saw flying in the sky. It had in its beak a piece of meat. It was attacked by other more powerful birds, and only when he dropped the food from his mouth did they leave him alone, going after the meat instead.

Birds of Prey

19). A Child:

Like a child I care for neither honor nor dishonor. I have no responsibility of home and family, and wander carefree in this world.

Mother Yashoda Adorns Her Baby Gopala

 20). The Maiden:

In a certain place a maiden herself had to receive some guests who had come to select her as a bride because her parents were not present at home at that time.

Wanting to prepare food for them she set out to pound grain. However, no sooner had she done so than the bangles on her wrist started jingling. The wise girl, feeling much ashamed that the sound would reveal the humble job she was doing, broke her bangles one by one, until only two remained on each wrist. However, even they struck together when she pounded the grain, she therefore broke one more from each arm and only then was there total silence.

I learned the valuable lesson from the maiden that where many dwell together (even if they be of the same ilk, type and family), there is bound to be some friction and conflict. Even if only two stay together there is certainly going to be some conversation. Therefore, one should wander alone in this world like the single bangles on the wrists of the maiden.

21). The Maker of Arrows:

One should give oneself totally to the job at hand, by keeping a steady mind, controlling the breath and keeping a steady pose. I observed this in a person making arrows who was so engrossed in his work that he did not pay any heed to a massive procession of a king passing by. Similarly is the situation of the man who is so totally absorbed in the mediation of the Self (atman) that he does not know anything that is happening outside. The same example was once presented by Gautam Buddha when he was staying at a small town and saw a crowd gathered near his dwelling. He asked a person standing nearby:

"Friend, why are all these people assembled here?"

"Sir, there has been a great storm which has killed two farmers and four oxen. But you my lord, where have you been?"

"I have been right here, friend."

"What did you see my lord?"

"Dear friend, I saw nothing."

"What did you hear?"

"I heard nothing."

"Were you sleeping dear sir?"

"No friend I was not asleep."

"Then sir, were you conscious?"

"Yes, I was conscious."

Even though fully awake, the Buddha neither saw nor heard the great storm raging outside, so absorbed was he within his own self. This is parallel to the ancient Indian ideal of ‘atmaram’, or the contented soul ‘which sports within its own self.’

22). The Snake:

The body of man is but perishable. To go to great lengths to build a house for it is fraught with much trouble and is ultimately fruitless. The serpent takes it easy, spending his time very conveniently, inhabiting holes made by others.

Onyx Serpent Bracelet

Like a serpent the seeker too should wander alone, make very little noise, have no fixed abode, be ever vigilant, and see to it that he is not recognized by outward signs (just like the poisonous or non-poisonous-ness of a snake is not discernible by external means).

23). The Spider:

Just as the spider extends the cobweb through its mouth, sports within it and then swallows it within itself, similarly does god evolve, protect and withdraw the universe from his own self.

The Spider

24). The Human Body:

My body too is my guru, because by realizing that it is subject to birth and decay, and a constant source of afflictions, I gain disenchantment (Vairagya). It really belongs to others (those who have given birth to it, or to the wolves who are going to consume it in the end).

It is with the desire of securing pleasure and comfort for this body that a person, with a great strain on himself, earns money to maintain his wife, children, cattle, servants, houses and relatives. In the end however, like a tree leaving behind its seed for the growth of another tree, he perishes leaving a seed for his next (painful) birth.

Mystery and Excellence of the Human Body: An Exploration

Though he created the different species of beings, like trees, reptiles, animals, birds, fishes etc, the lord was not satisfied. He was however delighted when he created the human being, because, it was capable of realizing the Brahman or Supreme Being.

This human form, obtained after many rebirths in other bodies, though impermanent, is the only one capable of obtaining the permanent state of Moksha (liberation). Mere sensual gratification can be had in any body, therefore, a wise person should at the earliest endeavor to obtain the summum bonum of life, before the hunter called ‘Time’ (Kala) gets hold of him.

Conclusion and Note of Caution:

"You cannot teach anyone, but somebody may learn from you." (Swami Vivekananda)

One who is ready to learn can learn from anywhere. The Sanskrit word for ‘university’ is "Vishva-Vidyalaya", Vishva connoting the world and vidyalaya meaning a temple of knowledge, offering the whole world as a potential teacher before us.

However, don’t try to become a python overnight, but do always keep in mind the highest goal of life – attaining the immortal through the mortal (human body).


We humbly wish our patrons on the auspicious occasion of Guru Purnima ‘The Full Moon Night of the Guru’ falling on 30th July this year.

References and Further Reading:

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