Clinical psychologist and author Sheldon Kopp was born in New York City in 1929 and practiced psychotherapy in Washington, D.C., for thirty-five years. He wrote eighteen books, many of which address self-esteem and advise readers on how to find and bolster meaning in their lives. He’s best known for his book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!, which emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge and self-governance. Kopp died in 1999 at the age of seventy. In the tale below, the holy man Narada, an adherent of the bhakti yoga tradition — which emphasizes loving and surrendering to God — seeks liberation. The following is excerpted from What Took You So Long? An Assortment of Life’s Everyday Ironies, by Sheldon Kopp. Copyright © 1979 by Sheldon Kopp. It appears here by permission of Science and Behavior Books, Inc.
In India, old, old stories still are told of a Hindu holy man named Narada who devoted his life to attaining the spiritual liberation of nirvana. Tied to the slowly turning wheel of samsara, he had been trapped too long in the unending cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. He wanted only to free himself from attachment to maya, the illusion that is life, so that at last he might be released from the bondage of everyday existence.
In seeking nirvana, Narada chose bhakti yoga as his personal path. He had set himself a difficult task, but there is no easy way to attain nirvana. In order to find union with God, Narada went to live simply and alone on a mountaintop, where he could devote himself to uninterrupted meditation on the Divine Being. After years of austere and reverent concentration, the holy man had attained so high a level of spiritual liberation that he invited the fond attention of one of the three aspects of the Universal Lord.
And so it was that one day in that remote and barren hermitage, before the dedicated old man’s eyes there appeared the object of his devotion, Vishnu, the Preserver and Sustainer of the Universe. Delighted with Narada’s fulfillment of his many vows, Vishnu said to him: “I have come to grant you a boon. Ask of me whatever you wish, and it will be yours.”
Joyfully Narada replied: “O Lord, if you are so pleased with me, there is one favor I would ask. I would like you to explain to me the secret of the power of maya, the illusion by which at the same time you both reveal and conceal the nature of the universe.”
Vishnu responded more gravely: “Good Narada, other holy men before you have asked to be granted that same boon. Believe me, it never works out very well. What would you do with comprehension of my maya anyway? Why not ask for something else? You can have anything you like.”
But Narada insisted that nothing would do but that he should come to learn the power of maya so that he would forever after understand the secret of how attachment to illusion creates needless suffering.
“Very well, then,” answered Vishnu. “Have it your own way.” An ambiguous smile played along his beautifully curved lips. “Come with me to the place where you will learn the power of maya.”
Together they left the pleasant coolness of the sheltering hermitage roof, descended the steep wooded slope, and headed out beyond the valley. Under a mercilessly scorching sun, Vishnu led Narada across a barren stretch of desert. It was many hours before they came to a place of shade. Vishnu stretched out on a cool spot on the sand, saying: “It is here that you will learn the power of maya.”
Narada was about to sit at the Lord’s feet to be instructed when Vishnu said: “I am so thirsty. Before we begin, I would like you to take this cup and go fetch me some cool water.”
Always ready to serve his master, Narada took the empty cup and went off over a rise in search of water. Just beyond that dune, unexpectedly the holy man came upon a fertile valley. At the near edge of the abundantly cultivated fields was a small, tree-shaded cottage. Beside it was a well. Delighted at his good fortune, Narada knocked at the cottage door to ask permission to fill his cup from the well.
But the door was opened by a maiden so beautiful that the old man immediately became enthralled. Lost in the enchantment of her eyes, he stood there too dazed to remember why he had come to the cottage in the first place.
But no matter. She seemed as taken with him as he with her. Inviting him to enter with a voice so compelling that he could not refuse, the maiden made him welcome. Introducing him to the rest of her family, she insisted that he stay for dinner. Though he had just arrived as a stranger, Narada soon felt as if he were at home among good and trusted friends. Easily transformed from unbidden visitor to houseguest, he stayed on as one comfortable day followed another. Inevitably, the holy man and the maiden fell in love, and after a time they married.
Twelve years passed. When his wife’s father died, Narada took over the farm. The crops were more abundant each season, and during those years three beautiful children were born to this loving couple. Narada had everything that anyone might want. This was the happiest time of his entire life.
The twelfth year turned out to be a time of natural disasters. An extraordinarily violent rainy season resulted in flooding that destroyed the crops and swept away the thatched huts. One night the farmhands fled. The next morning the torrents rose until even the high ground of Narada’s own cottage had to be abandoned.
Their youngest child perched on his shoulder, one hand supporting his wife while with the other he led his two older children, Narada waded out into the swirling, thigh-high waters. Losing his footing in the slippery mud, he lurched forward, pitching the smallest child from his shoulder headlong into the swelling stream. In a desperate grab to try to save the baby, Narada released his hold on his wife and their other children. The baby was swept away in the rushing waters, and the others along with him.
None could be saved. All were gone. How could it be? Narada had been the happiest of men. He had had a lovely wife and three wonderful children. Now all were drowned. He had become the most successful farmer in the whole valley, and now the crops were gone, as were his friends and his home.
Weeping in bewilderment and feeling more sorrow than he had experienced in all of his life, Narada stood dazedly amid the waters swirling up above his knees. Alone and devastated, he knew that everything and everyone he cared about were lost to him forever.
And then all at once the swirling currents were gone. Looking down at the dry sand beneath his feet, Narada saw that the only water that remained filled a small cup that had unaccountably appeared in his hand. He was startled to hear a familiar voice. Looking up, just ahead of him he saw Vishnu stretched out in a shady spot on this barren desert. Smiling serenely, Vishnu asked teasingly: “Sweet Narada, what took you so long?”