Sunday, January 9, 2011

The King and the Handmaiden and the Doctor

The poem I chose to look at for today's post is rather large so we'll have to look at it in bits! First I'll post it in its entirety then we'll go through it a bit at a time. OK?

a photo I took of rust on a wreck in the bay...

The King and the Handmaiden and the Doctor

Do you know why your soul-mirror does not reflect as clearly as it might?
Because rust has begun to cover it. It needs to be cleaned. Here’s a story about the inner state that’s meant by
In the old days there was a king who was powerful in both kingdoms, the visible as well as the spirit world.
One day as he was riding on the hunt, he saw a girl and was greatly taken with her beauty. As was the custom, he paid her family handsomely and asked that she come to be a servant at the palace. He was in love with her.
The feelings trembled and flapped in his chest like a bird newly put in a cage.
But as soon as she arrived, she fell ill.
He brought doctors together. "You have both our lives in your hands. Her life is my life. Whoever heals her will receive the finest treasure I have, the coral inlaid with pearls, anything!"
So the doctors began, but no matter what they did, the girl got worse.
The king saw that his doctors were helpless. He ran barefooted to the mosque. He knelt on the prayer rug and soaked the point of it with his tears.
He dissolved to an annihilated state. He cried out loud for help, and the ocean of grace surged over him. He slept on the prayer rug in the midst of his weeping.
In his dream an old man appeared. "Good king, tomorrow a stranger will come. He is the physician you can trust. Listen to him."
As dawn rose, the king was sitting up in the belvedere on his roof. He saw someone coming, a person like the dawn.
He ran to meet this guest. Like two swimmers who love the water, their souls knit together without being sewn, no seam. The king said, "You are my beloved,
not the girl!" He opened his arms and held the saintly doctor to him. He kissed his hand and his forehead and asked how his journey had been. He led him to the head table.
"At last, I have found what patience can bring, this one whose face answers any question, who simply by looking can loosen the knot of intellectual discussion."

They talked and ate a spirit-meal. Then the king took the doctor to where the girl lay.
The secret of her pain was opened to him, but he didn’t tell the king. It was love, of course.
Love is the astrolabe that sights into the mysteries of God. Earth-love, spirit-love, any love looks into that yonder, but whatever I try to say
A pen went scribbling along. When it tried to write
If you want to expound on love, take your intellect out and let it lie down in the mud. It’s no help.
Nothing is so strange in this world as the sun. The sun of the soul even more so. You want proof that it exists, so you stay up all night
Finally you sleep as the sun comes up. Look at it!
Word of that sun, Shams, came, and everything hid. Husam touches my arm. He wants me to say more about Shams.
Not now, Husam. I don’t know how to make words make sense, or praise. In the Friend-place nothing true can be said. Let me just be here.
But Husam begs, "Feed me. Hurry! Time is a sharp downstroke. A Sufi is supposed to be a child of the moment! Don’t say
explaining love is embarrassing! love, it broke. talking about it. tomorrow or later." I reply,
"It’s better that the way of the Friend  
be concealed in a story. Let the mystery come through what people say around the lovers, not from what lovers say to each other."
"No! I want this as naked and true as it can be. I don’t wear a shirt when I lie down with my beloved."
"Husam! If the Friend came to you naked, your chest could not stand it. Ask for what you want, but within some limits!" This has no end.
Go back to the beginning, the end of the story of the king and the lovesick maiden and the holy doctor, who said,
"Leave me alone with the girl." He quietly began, "Where are you from? Who are your relatives? Who else are you close to in that region?"
He held her hand to feel the pulse. She told many stories mentioning many names. He would say the names again to test the response of her pulse.
Finally he asked, "When you visit other towns, where are you most likely to go?" She mentioned one town and another, where she bought bread and where salt,
until he happened to say
"Where exactly does he live?" "At the head of the bridge on Ghatafar Street." "Now I can heal you."
Samarkand! The dear city sweet as candy. She blushed. Her breath caught. Oh, she loves a goldsmith in Samarkand! She misses him so.

The doctor went to the king and told him only part of the story. "On some pretext we must bring a certain goldsmith from Samarkand."
The king’s messengers went and easily persuaded the man to leave his town for a while. He arrived, and the doctor said,
"Marry the girl to this man and she will be completely cured." It was done, and for six months those two loved and made love and completely satisfied themselves with each other. The girl was restored to perfect health.
Then the physician gave the goldsmith a potion, so that he began to sicken. His handsomeness faded. He became sunken-cheeked and jaundiced and ugly.
The girl stopped loving him. Any love based on physical beauty is not the deepest love. Choose to love what does not die. The generous one is not hard to find.
But what about the doctor’s poisoning the poor goldsmith! It was not done for his friend the king’s sake.
The reason is a mystery, like Khidr’s cutting the boy’s throat. When someone is killed by a doctor like this one, it’s a blessing, even though it might not seem so.
Such a doctor is part of a larger generosity. Don’t judge his actions. You are not living so completely within the truth as he is.

commentary: First of all - this is a slightly shorter and different version than in the Essential Rumi but it is still a translation by Bark.
Can you understand my dilemma? This is a very complicated poem and really I don't much love it when I read it. Even as I sat with this story in my mind it seemed a trick - a story about a King who has to have someone they've fixated on - someone who like Dante's Beatrice they've had a glimpse of - so they buy that person, essentially. The girl does not love the King back, she pines for someone she's met once. The King calls for a wise doctor,  the doctor comes and WHAT? The King falls in love with the doctor but still needs to go through with the farce of making the woman well so she can love him. Huh? The doctor, being all wise, figures out that the girl is in love with someone she's probably glimpsed once - that person is brought (bought) and married to the girl. Like slaves would be treated fundamentally. OK - so I'm looking at this within the wrong context. I am not understanding that these things stand for other things - this is poetry - these are metaphors! The Handmaiden perhaps stands for the material world. In order to fix the fixation on the material world, the King asks for spiritual healing - the spiritual healer, the doctor, indulges the King and in fact intensifies the desire to own this person. But then we see that trying to grasp our passion makes the passion itself wither and die. I wish I could get away from the story of this but I am struggling. I will try again tonight. Sorry this is so blathery but I'm trying to be honest here. What do you Rumi folks think? I couldn't believe all the stuff on the net about this poem being an anthem for gay guys. Hmmm...

I'm just going up to meditate and I'm going to try to meditate just on the first bit. Please be patient with me:

Do you know why your soul-mirror
does not reflect as clearly as it might?

Because rust has begun to cover it.
It needs to be cleaned.
                           Here's a story
about the inner state that's meant by soul-mirror.


  1. Dear Jan
    All this poem is dealing with is the embodied soul, attached to the attractions of the world and the liberation by a saint, for attaining godhead. So we all are a part of God, the creating power and only due to our devided attention onto this material region our souls have a thick layer of rust, so they cannot radiant their light.

  2. we've been asked to respond to this poem for class tmw, and I would like to share my understanding of it with you. yes you're right about the handmaiden and the doctor being metaphors for something greater. its about a love that is so great, so pure, so intense that it transcends the need for physical union. The love of the King for the girl was far greater than the love of the girl for the man from Samarkand. Once his physical beauty diminished, she lost interest in him - meaning her love was a PHYSICAL one. The king, however, despite the fact that the girl becomes thin and shrivelled during her initial sickness, does not stop loving her, and to make her happy, even weds her to another man. His love was a transcendental one, one that can be equated with a love for God. To give up everything in complete devotion for the one beloved is the highest form of love. This story too, is not about the ordinary mundane love of physical attraction, but about a spiritual love that has no boundaries. It would be useful to relate this to the metaphysical poetry of John Donne :)

    1. Hi Ferva and Vegie - thanks for your responses. As you may have noticed I have not written on this blog for a very long time. I did do further work on this poem by meditating and writing. I do understand that the love discussed here is like the Christian early mystic poets -comparing the love that happens in the relative sense to that of absolute love. I'm not any sort of theist so must make sense of this in a slightly different way than if I were. I think the line that is of the most help is this one "If you want to expound on love, take your intellect out and let it lie down in the mud. It’s no help."
      Perhaps I will come back to my meditations on Rumi but at the present thank you for drawing me back in!

  3. Dear Jan,

    Thanks for this great post! Just wanted to mention that this story is traditionally interpreted as an allegory but there is actually no direct textual support for this kind of interpretation in the story. This means that any metaphors and any symbols that you choose to interpret in a certain way are completely your own. Rumi never comes out and says, "The King is the Higher Self and the Slave Girl is the Lower Self who is in love with the World which is represented by the Goldsmith who must be killed by the help of the Spiritual Teacher (the Physician) in order to free the Lower Self (The Slave Girl) from its attachments to the World (the Goldsmith)." I'm not saying that this isn't a valid way of interpreting the poem or that it can't be interpreted this way but that the manner that Rumi composes the story is "open" and not "closed". What does "open" mean? It means that Rumi leaves it up to the reader to figure out what he is trying to say. And here finally we get to the heart of the story. If you check out the full version of the story you'll see that in the last section Rumi doesn't explain or explicate any sort of specific meaning for the strange story he has just narrated. Instead what he points out is how far off the reader has been in their judgement and interpretation of the story. Isn't that amazing?! Centuries ago Rumi predicted your reactions to his tale!! He expected that you both won't understand and won't like his story. What all this means is that the central concern of the narrative is not in fact any of the events that happen to the fictional characters that we have been reading about but rather ourselves and our reactions to the narrative. Look at the very last lines and think about how Rumi berates us for attempting to interpret his story on our own - a story that Rumi states we are not in a position to understand yet. Just as Moses was unable to understand Khizr's actions so too is the reader unable to understand Rumi's story. But this leads us to an interesting question. Why would Rumi place a story that he knows we won't like or understand at the beginning of the Masnavi? Wouldn't that turn his readers off? In fact this narrative works as a sort of litmus test for his readers. Rumi wants to see which of his readers will trust him to be their teacher. Which ones despite all their best judgments (after all murder is murder isn't it?) will still stick with him and read on. It also helps Rumi weed out all those who aren't serious about learning from him. After all if you already think you know all the answers, if you already think you can read every story based on your own preconceived notions and personal interpretive frameworks then this is not the place to be and this is not the book you should be reading. What Rumi wants are students who are open to his teachings, students who will not immediately judge his words when they don't understand what he is trying to teach. As he says at the end of this narrative, "Don't fly without wings". We simply just don't yet have the "wings" to understand Rumi this early on in the Masnavi. Luckily however that's what the Masnavi is for, to provide us with such wings.

    Sorry about the rambling reply but this is just a short response to a very complicated narrative (as you can see it is much more complicated than a simple allegory or metaphor - though it can be that as well). I'm actually writing my dissertation on this very story (as well as three others) and I've started a blog about how to read Rumi ( based on my research, which will have a lot better explanations than the one found in this comment.

    1. Thank you so much; I should have read your wonderful words before I made too hasty of a comment below. I worried over this story for two or three days and could not move ahead until today when I read your post. Bless you for making my day... Charis

  4. Sorry google cut out my last paragraph! Here it is:

    So I guess the thing to take away from all this is that whatever story we read in the Masnavi will always be centrally concerned with us, the readers. The Masnavi is telling the story of how we judge and interpret the world around us based on our personal preconceptions and assumptions, and it is trying to show us how to get rid of these preconceptions so that we can see the Masnavi (and hopefully the Beloved too!) as they really are, without our little selves (the selfish soul as Robert Bly calls it) always getting in the way.

  5. I, too have been troubled by this story and have been searching these past two days for some justification within the tale for the murder of the Goldsmith which has nothing to do with my lack of wings or looking through a tarnished mirror. Can/will anyone take the time to explain this problem of the Goldsmith's murder that I have... I want to continue my reading of Rumi but..... Charis