How the Reed tells its tale9 min read

There is a story told by the Sufis of Islam. It is said that one day the Prophet called Ali to him alone, and revealed to him all the spiritual mysteries, placing him under a vow not to divulge them to anyone not qualified to receive them.

Ali was overawed by what he had been told. For forty days he kept it to himself, but then he could bear it no longer. Rushing off by himself he travelled far from the haunts of men, seeking a place where he could tell what he had heard, without revealing it to the uninitiated. At length he came upon a well, sunk deep in the sands, and, putting his head as far down into the shaft as he could, he disburdened his heart of all the mysteries, one by one, and shared them with his own echo.

Some days later, a single reed sprang up, and grew in the well. A shepherd, finding it when he went to drink, cut it down and bored holes into it, fashioning it into a reed pipe. As he played on the pipe, the music seemed to possess a strange enchantment ; the animals came from miles around and stopped grazing to listen to its haunting melody. Both men and animals fell under its mysterious power, as soon as its sounds fell upon their ears. Gradually the fame of the music spread, and the Arab nomads came from far and wide to hear it.

Eventually, the news came to the ears of the Prophet himself, who commanded the shepherd to be brought before him. The flute player was summoned, and played before Mohammed in the Assembly. All the disciples present were transported by the sound, and burst forth into tears and cries of ecstasy ; many of them lost all empirical consciousness as they listened to the melody.

When the shepherd had finished playing, the Prophet declared that the music of the flute was an interpretation of the mysteries which he had revealed to Ali, and that only one who had acquired the sincere devotion and selflessness of the flute, would be able to receive and understand the spiritual truth in its naked purity.

This story, told by Aflaki in his Acts of the Adepts, is one which must have been particularly attractive to Rumi. Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, was the most mystical of his immediate disciples, and the tradition is that Mohammed transmitted the esoteric teachings of Islam through him. He was Mohammed’s favourite disciple and when the Prophet came to appoint a successor, it was Ali whom he nominated, although his choice was overridden by a council of the other near disciples after Mohammed’s death.

The reed, which having hollowed itself out becomes merely a channel for the music of the flute-player, is a symbol of the mystic, who, having sacrificed all empirical self-hood at the altar of Truth, lives in single-minded devotion, as an instrument of God.

The Indian tradition uses the same picture in depicting the Lord Hari as the divine Flute Player of Brindavan, the Flute representing the Creative Power, Maya, which is at once bewitching and the source of all empirical attraction. Maya creates the world as a servant of the Lord. There is a great significance in the figure of Shri Hari playing the flute. The divine music is the empirical expression of the song of the Lord. Its originally unheard melody, spontaneously issuing from the divine lips, becomes audible through the medium of the flute. We have to emulate the flute of Shri Hari to become a hollow and selfless instrument in His hands. It is His melody which we want to give out and not any song of our own.

In one of his poems Sur Das lets the flute tell its own tale : The flute says :—

“ O Gopis, do not blame me
Ask Shri Hari of my love for Him,

You will then know
The secret of my companionship,
How long did I not suffer the pangs of separation,
From birth I practised renunciation
Giving up family, home and friends.

Alone day and night, in heat and cold,
I remained merged in His contemplation,
Giving up root, leaves and sap,
I was dried in the scorching sun
In loving preparation for His coming.
When placed in fire I did not flinch,
Nay, I still meditated on Him.
O Gopis, what prevents you from tasting the nectar of Shri Hari’s lips ?
Follow my example and Shri Hari will be yours.”

Rumi himself often uses the flute in this allegorical sense,and he begins the Masnavi with a eulogy of its tender and plaintive music.

“ Listen to the reed how it tells a tale,
Complaining of separation.”

Its lament at its separation from the reed-bed is the lament of all those who are separated from their source ; it awakens an echo in the human soul, which has been separated from the knowledge of God.

“ ’Tis the fire of Love that is in the reed,
’tis the fervour of Love that is in the wine.

The reed is the comrade of everyone who has been parted from a friend;
its strains pierced our hearts ….

Were I joined to the lip of one in accord with me,
I too, like the reed, would tell all that may be told,

But whoever is parted from one who speaks his language
becomes dumb, though he have a hundred songs.    ~

When the rose is gone and the garden faded,
thou wilt hear no more the nightingale’s story.”

The song of the mystic, which is the spontaneous expression of his own deep experience of truth, is not the truth itself. It is but the chant of joy and praise, the expression of love, which the truth has inspired. The real mystery cannot be revealed, it is indescribable. Yet the expression is genuine and spontaneous. It is the Lord Himself speaking through his saints. The flute itself has no music of its own, it is an instrument through which is transmitted the music of the divine Flute-player.

Maya, the music of the flute, is both that which reveals and that which conceals. It is the veil of relativity put on by the Absolute, in all its myriad forms. But in certain aspects or modes, the veil is thinned, and it allows a glimpse into the Absolute beyond. In this way, even words and ideas, although they exist in the realm of duality and relativity, can at times express to a receptive and prepared mind which has been attuned by long discipline to the understanding of the spiritual truth, that which is beyond all relativity.

Speaking of his own great mystical poem, which contains the quintessence of Sufi mysticism, Jellaluddin Rumi says:

“ This Masnavi is only the wailful music that he has uttered;
as for that which is kept hidden within him, have mercy, O Lord ! (do not reveal it).

We have two vocal mouths like the reed, one mouth is hidden in his lips,
One mouth is wailing unto you; it lets many a shrill note fall on the air.

But everyone who has insight knows that the lamentation issuing at this end is inspired from that end
The noise of this reed is from his breaths; the Spirit’s outcry is from his outcry.

If the reed had no converse with his lip,
the reed would not fill the world with music sweet as sugar.”


To look only on the flute and forget the Flute-player is the great spiritual error. To remember that all attraction, all beauty, all joy, all rapture comes from Him, and Him alone, is real wisdom. Whatever attracts the soul is God Himself, appearing as partially manifest in that form. Does not the Lord in the Gita say :

“ Howsoever men approach Me, even so do I reward them ; My path do men follow in all things ”. He is the supreme magnet of all hearts. To His divine music, the whole world is in thrall.

“ The divine Grace is dancing ; all things join in the dance.”

Says Sur Das :—

“ Listen, listen, O companions.
Shri Hari is playing His flute.
The devas and beings in all the spheres Are charmed by the music.
The women of Vraj run wildly towards the sound,
The water of the Yamuna is stilled,
The birds, the deer and the fishes are motionless,
Like pictures on a canvas.”

The true mystic is ever seeking one to whom he can reveal the mysteries. But they cannot be revealed to each and everyone, the immature mind will not understand them, the ignorant will be confounded by them.

Continually Rumi laments the lack of a hearer qualified to receive the spiritual truths, continually he pines for one to whom he can tell forth the divine Beauty and Majesty of the Saint of God, the Teacher, by whom the Truth is revealed.

“ For one familiar as I am with Thy manhood, where is a Rustam that I might tell him a single barleycorn thereof, out of thy hundred stacks ?
“ When I wish to sigh forth Thy secrets, like Ali, I put my head down into a well.
“ Since his brethren have vindictive hearts, the bottom of the well is the best place for my Joseph
“ I have become intoxicated, I will set about making a row: what of the well ? I will pitch my tent in the open plain.
“ Put the fiery wine in my hand, and then behold the pomp and glory that is enjoyed by the drunken ! ”

What is the secret that the mystic has to tell ? Partly it is that the ordinary man has fallen into the error of forgetting his own divine nature. He thinks himself only the puny individual, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage of Time. But it is not so. His personality is a phenomenal fragment of the divine Self, a wave upon the face of the Ocean. He sells himself too cheaply in the market of the sense-world, where all the buyers are dishonest and the currency worthless. The senses offer false notes, promising permanent joy and satisfaction to the bearer, but the promises are not honoured. The real home of the soul is not in this Vanity Fair, but in the spiritual world of reality from which it has sprung forth.

“ Thou art not rubbish—far be it from thee ! Thou art an object of envy to the pearl, thou hast the best right to dwell amidst the waves and the sea.
“ ’Tis the Sea of Unity; there is no fellow and consort; its pearls and fishes are not other than its waves.
” Oh, absurd, absurd, to make aught its partner. Far be it from that sea and its pure waves !
“ In the sea there is no partnership or perplexity, but what can I say to him that sees double ? Nothing, nothing.
“ Since we are the mates of those who see double, O idolater, ’tis necessary to speak in the fashion of him who attributes a partner to God.
“ That Unity is beyond description and condition ; nothing comes into the domain of speech except duality.”

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