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How to cross the turbulent River of Worldly Life
When you are traveling on a wide, powerful river, what is the most important knowledge you should possess? You should know how to swim. That comes first; that takes precedence over all other knowledge. If you go on a great river but do not know how to swim, however educated you may be, you run the risk of getting drowned. There is a story for this.
A highly educated scholar had to cross a wide river to attend an important meeting. The wind and the river current were going in opposite directions, so the journey was quite slow that day. Now, pundits have the habit of constantly talking, whether it is to themselves, going on repeating verses from the scriptures, or whether it is to anyone within easy earshot. On this particular day the boatman was quietly concentrating on steering the boat in the river. This pundit, who was the only passenger traveling in the boat, had no one else to speak to, so he started a conversation with the boatman.
"Do you know how to read and write?" the pundit asked. The boatman answered, "No, I don't know reading and writing."
"You seem to be quite a strange person," the pundit said, "In these days in every village the government has established schools, and you should know at least a little bit of reading and writing."
Just to while away the time, this pundit continued speaking to the boatman. Next he asked him, "Do you play any musical instruments?" The boatman answered, "Swami, I've had no chance to learn an instrument." "Well, do you know any of the latest popular songs?" asked the scholar. "No, I don't even know that," replied the boatman.
"What a strange person you are. In every street there is a movie house, and there are loud-speakers all around it playing the latest hits. And the radio broadcasts are filled with all the current pop recordings. Shouldn't you at least take a little of your income to buy a cheap transistor radio and listen to music?"
The boatman confessed, "I do not even know what a transistor is."
The pundit replied, "If in this modern age you don't even know about a transistor, you have wasted much of your life; at least a quarter of your life has been dumped into the water."
He asked the boatman another question, "Do you have a newspaper with you?" The boatman replied, "I don't have any education at all; what is the use of my having a newspaper, Swami?" The pundit went on, "Without having an education and without being able to read a newspaper, you've wasted even more of your life. At least half of your life has been dumped into the water."
After a few minutes the pundit asked again, "Do you have a watch? Can you tell me what time it is?" "Swami, the truth is I don't even know how to tell time. Then what is the use of my having a watch?" the boatman answered. The pundit rejoined, "Look at how much of your life has been wasted. If you don't have a radio to enjoy music, and you can't read a newspaper to find out what is going on, and you don't even know what time it is, then three fourths of your life has been dumped into the water."
Meanwhile a strong wind came up and it quickly turned into a powerful gale. The boat started swinging from side to side and the river was soon in full flood. The boatman could no longer maintain control of the boat. He asked the pundit, "Swami, do you know how to swim?" The pundit replied, "No, I never learned how to swim."
As he was about to go overboard, the boatman said to the pundit, "O Swami, what a pity! What a waste! You don't know how to swim? Now your whole life will be dumped into the water."
When you are traveling across a turbulent river, you should know how to swim. Without knowing how to swim, all your other knowledge of philosophy, physics, chemistry, botany, commerce, mathematics, political science, etc., will be of no use to you. In the journey of life, you are traveling on a rushing, unpredictable river, and you should know how to stay afloat and cross that river. To swim safely across the river of life, you must have the knowledge of the atma, and you must develop a strong power of discrimination, to know that which is useful and that which is useless for crossing this river. If you have not developed a capacity along these lines there will be no way for you to find fulfillment in life. You will drown in the river of worldly life.