Rumi on Change

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The Elephant and the Travellers


retold by Zayn Kassamimages (1)

There was once a sage in India who saw a party of friends. They had travelled far and were hungry and tired. He said to them that he knew how tired they were, but had some advice for them. He knew that on their path they were going to encounter young elephants who were weak and tender and deliciously plump, whose mother was lying hidden, overcome with grief. She had been searching in vain for her children and was moaning and making lament. So the sage said to the party of friends, “Beware of hurting her cherished children! Be content with the herbage and leaves you have and do not hunt down the young elephants. I tell you this to save you from fruitless repentance. Beware, and don’t be overtaken by greed! So saying, he parted.

The travellers went on their way, growing ever hungrier. Suddenly, in the direction of the highway, they saw a young elephant, newly born. They fell upon it like hungry wolves and ate it up, and then cleaned their hands. One of the travellers did not eat it, reminding the others of the warning of the sage. The other travellers did not heed him, and ate the roasted flesh. Having satisfied their hunger, they all fell asleep, all save the one who had not eaten, and he was awake in the night.

Since he was awake, he saw a frightful elephant approaching. She came to him, who was keeping guard, and smelt his mouth three times, and no disagreeable smell came from it. She circled him several times, but did not harm him. She smelt the lips of every sleeper, and the smell of her young one’s flesh came to her from each of those sleeping men. Each man had eaten the roasted flesh of the young elephant. With no compunction, she tossed each one of them into the air, so that their bones were broken as they fell back to earth.


The elephant is God. This parable may be understood on various levels. On the first level, her children are the abdal, that is, the perfect saints. They are separated from their mother as a trial and a probation. However, God is secretly their friend and protector, for they have spiritual ears and know the secrets of the divine, whereas human beings have only their physical ears and do not hear what is said to them. In order to hear the truth, they must escape from their own imperfections. The Prophet Muhammad is entirely ear and eye, and he nurses [human beings] like a mother, while human beings are like infants.

On the second level, the young elephants are the righteous and innocent, who have been “mothered” by the prophets and the saints.

Remember that the mother elephant will come to seek vengeance for the young elephant whose flesh you ate, for the mother elephant knows the smell of her child.

Rumi says: “0 taker of bribes! You ate the young elephant, from you, too, the Master of the elephant will wring the breath (that is, will kill you).” For if Muhammad was able to smell the aroma of the divine presence from distant Yaman, then why would he not perceive the smell of falsehood from you? Muhammad smells it, but he conceals that he does from us, and meanwhile the good and bad smells go up to heaven.

While you sleep [the sleep of ignorance], the smell of your unlawful deeds is going up to the examiners in the celestial sphere. The odor of pride and greed and concupiscence will become, in speaking, like the smell of onions, that is, these qualities will appear in your speech. Even if you swear that you have not eaten onions, your breath will betray you. Many prayers are rejected because of the accompanying smell, for the corrupt heart shows up in the tongue.



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