Paramartha Guru and his students - an illustration
Snapshot
  • The eccentric adventures of Paramartha Guru and his disciples aim to ignite the spirit of self-worth and independent inquiry, but it was stealthily usurped by the Christian missionary to serve its own heinous end.

Once upon a time there was a ‘guru’ who was a fool. But his name, ironically, was ‘Paramartha Guru’. He had five disciples. They were Matti (dull-head), Madayan (fool), Pethai (ignoramus), Moodan (moron) and Milechan (lowly dull-wit). They lived in a monastery and were quite rich.

Once, during a journey they had to cross a river, but they were afraid that it would swallow them. So, wishing to test if the river was awake or asleep they, initially, used a burning stick to touch the water, and on hearing the ‘hissing’ sound, waited for the river to fall asleep. When they again used the stick, now wet, they heard no sound. So, deciding that the river was asleep, they crossed it.

After crossing the river, they got a doubt if they all are alive. So they did a head count. The person who counted, each time left himself out, so, naturally one was always missing. They started lamenting, and cursed the river for swallowing a pious mendicant. At that time, a wayfarer saw them lamenting and asked what the reason was. After listening to what they said, he understood that they were fools. He told them that he knew how to bring people back to life, and they should reward him for that. They agreed. Now he asked all of them to stand and took a cane. He said that when he strikes each of them with a cane, they should tell their name. He first hit the guru strongly, who said, “I am the guru" and the wayfarer counted aloud, "one". He did the same with the rest of them and demonstrated that all the six of them were alive. The guru and his students became happy and gave him all the money they had brought with them.

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Many Tamils will readily recognise this story they read as children. The above is an excerpt from the Adventures of Guru Paramartha and his Disciples written by Jesuit missionary Constantine Joseph Beschi (1680-1742) who was appointed by the Pope for the East India mission. He arrived in 1700 at the city of Goa and then headed to south India where he started working for Chanda Saheb, who was then only a local nawab. When the Marathas defeated Chanda Saheb, Beschi fled further south. That’s when he compiled the collection of foolish deeds and attributed them to a Hindu guru belonging to a monastery. It became quite popular among the unsuspecting Tamils as a pioneering prose in humour in literature particularly aimed at children. Even today, the name ‘Paramartha Guru’ is synonymous with a fool.

The foolish adventures of Paramartha Guru and his disciples were not the original imagination of Beschi. Benjamin Babington, an official with the East India Company, translated these tales to English in 1822. In his analysis of the story, he arrives at a source for these stories:

This story bears so close a resemblance to the 10th of “the Merry Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham,” that we cannot but conclude, either that it was borrowed from that Tale, or what is more probable, that both had their origin in some commonly current story.     
Benjamin Babington, East India Company official

The particular part of the story in the tales of the Wise Men of Gotham runs thus:

Said the courtier, ‘tell how many there be of you’;one of them said, ‘eleven’, and he did not tell himself. ‘Well’, said the courtier,’what will you give me, and I will find the twelfth man.’ ‘Sir’, said they, ‘all the money we have got.’ ‘Give me the money’ ,said the courtier, and began with the first, and gave him a stroke over the shoulders with his whip, which made him groan, saying, here is one: and so served them all, and they all groaned at the matter. When he came to the last, he paid him well, saying, ‘here is the twelfth man.’ ‘God’s blessing on thy heart’, said they, ‘for thus finding our dear brother’. 

The case for borrowing/adaptation by Beschi is definitely reasonably established. The story of the Wise men of Gotham is derived from the resistance of Gotham city folks to a new approach road that a thirteenth century king of England tried to construct to their city. Later folk traditions say that the city men feigned madness. As madness was considered as contagious by Christians then, the king stopped the project. Their ‘mad deeds’ became popular and it was in 1540 they were made into a book. The author of the collection was the traveller and physician Andrew Boorde (1490-1549). Clearly, the literary attestation of this tale cannot go back beyond the sixteenth century.

The origin of this particular anecdote, however, may not be Europe at all. It may be from India. A comparison of the way this tale was used in Hindu spiritual literature and in the literature of Christendom also reveals something about the value systems of the two civilisations.

Panchadasi is an Advaitic Vedantic treatise written by 12th jagadguru of the Sringeri Sarada Pitham, Sri Vidyaranya and his successor Sri Bharati Tirtha. It was written between 1386 and 1391 CE. The book is called Panchadasi because it has 15 chapters or prakaranas. Each prakarana takes a particular aspect of the darshana that the text supports and explains it in a way it is easier for the students to understand. The seventh prakarana of panchadasi is called 'Triptidipa Prakaranam'. It deals with the supreme satisfaction or fulfillment that arises on the realisation of the true nature of the self. Of all the prakaranas in the text, this is the largest with 298 shlokas. They are meant to explain one shloka of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.12). It is in this chapter the anecdote of the 10 travellers crossing a river and then lamenting the death of the tenth person, is described.

Both direct and indirect knowledge as well as knowledge and ignorance, can
exist at the same time in the ever knowing entity similar to the tenth person.

The tenth person because being counted as the nine, even as he sees all the
other nine persons, still being seized by fear he does not recognize himself as
the tenth.

Though being tenth with he declares his inability to find the tenth person
whom he considers as missing. This is the veiling (aavarana) created by the
ignorance.

He laments for the tenth person and cries. This grieving and lamenting caused
by ignorance is called Vikshepa by the wise.

When a person of good intention aiming to help, says to the lamenting person
that the tenth person is not dead, this indirect knowledge he believes that
indirect knowledge.

When he acquires the direct knowledge through counting that he himself is the
tenth, he becomes happy and stops grieving. [verses 22-27]

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Thus, after using this humorous episode to explain lucidly a philosophical problem, the authors of Panchadasi pick up this anecdote again later in the chapter:

Hearing that the tenth man exists is an indirect knowledge is paroksha knowledge (not direct knowledge). But it is not false. Similarly, the Mahavakyas ‘Brahman exists’ is not false. The veiled nature of both the statements due to ignorance is again the same.

Through the statement 'you are the tenth person', the person is led to the path of analysis and through counting he arrives at the truth as his own experienced knowledge (aparoksha gyana). Similarly through the statement 'Self or Atman is Brahman' one through thorough analysis without doubt makes as direct knowledge, 'Self itself is Brahman'.

The knowledge that he is the tenth never gets negated. Whether he arrives at
himself by starting anywhere in the line-up he would always arrive at being
the tenth person and never would again arise the doubt of only nine persons
existing.

The Vedic statement of Brahman alone as the Sat before the emergence of all existence is thus the indirect (paroksha) knowledge of Brahman, which when taken (as a guiding principle) and used for thorough analysis, becomes the direct (aparoksha) knowledge of Brahman in ‘Tat Tvam Asi.’ [verses 57:61]

So, here we have an anecdote that every one, from a child to an adult, can enjoy while going through a process that leads one to self-discovery.

If this story entered Panchadasi at the end of 14th century, it should have been in vogue for quite a long time as a local fable. Probably, with the Vijayanagar empire rising as a great force and started having contact with European merchants in the subsequent centuries, these kind of stories must have reached the West.

Then the story got repackaged two centuries later by Catholic missionary Beschi, but here it was serving altogether a difference purpose. Several reasons have been attributed as to why Beschi (or Veeramamuni as he called himself while he was evangelising Tamils) wrote this book. Benjamin Babington the translator had stated that the Catholic missionary was actually satirising Hindu monks. Endorsing Babington, Prof Kumaran Iswaranatha Pillai of Yaazhpanam University, Sri Lanka, elaborates:

During the time of Beschi the Monasteries stood as great obstacles against the proselyting missions. These monasteries which started getting strengthened right from the time of Chozhas, had established themselves as the centers of religious, economic and academic activities during the Nayak times. Beschi targeted the heads of these monasteries and their disciples through these stories.

While some scholars have said that Beschi could have wanted it to serve as a mere satire without harbouring any other intention, this work which was even introduced into children’s education in the eighteenth century still exerts an influence against Indian culture and institutions. This is because these tales have the ambiguity of not just being creative fiction but also doubling as observations of India made by a foreigner. The story, for example, portrays the religious head and his disciples as superstitious fools and ordinary Indians as dishonest cheats.

John Samuel with the help of the Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai, has been endorsing and promoting the eccentric theory (but now a popular evangelical tool in Tamil Nadu) that it was St Thomas who was responsible for all developments in religious philosophy, literature and art in India after first century CE. In the series on Tamil social history, for which he was the general editor with N Subrahmanian being the author (along with Shu Hikosaka and P Thiagarajan, 2000), it was claimed that though this work by Beschi was a satire, it also showed an “essential truth" as to “how the educational process was in the hands of even such men as the Paramartta Kuru”. Thus one can say Beschi was successful in his mission of making Hindus feel inferior and even negative about their own institutions and religious heads.

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What would a Tamil child learn through the Paramartha Guru story, let us say in the primary school, along with the introduction of the ‘services’ Catholic missionary Beschi extended to the Tamils? It may instil simultaneously two images in the child’s mind - the Catholic missionary enlightening and serving Tamils while the traditional Tamil Hindu monastery heads acting foolishly, but wrongly venerated by masses, who themselves are a dishonest lot. In other words, the story becomes a vehicle for self-flagellation and acquiring a colonial bondage of civilisational inferiority.

The same story, originally part of the Hindu tradition, has not only been used to provide self-knowledge but also to show how the authority with which the story is related withers away when it gradually takes the form of one’s personal experience. The sacred text here is only a guide towards acquiring direct knowledge and discovery of one’s own identity with Brahman. It is thus a parable aimed at igniting the spirit of self-worth and independent inquiry and thinking. This then is also a classic instance of how imparting education and the ultimate aim of education differed substantially in the Christendom and the Hindu nation.

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