The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Doctor Knowall

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2019]

This fairy tale is about a really big question that is already pointed out in the heading: What is omniscience? To do this, we should first ask: What is knowledge? Knowledge plays a large, if not the largest role in our lives and has a lot to do with who and what we are. Therefore, this fairy tale begins with a short but highly ingenious and memorable symbolism that is very fitting for our natural being:

There was once on a time a poor peasant called Crab, who drove with two oxen a load of wood to the town, and sold it to a doctor for two thalers.

Our body is pulled by our will like an ox cart. This will is often divided into two parts and shaped by worldly contradictions. Therefore, it talks of two oxen pulling us here. Of course, it goes best if both pull in the same direction. With regard to the division, one can speak of a higher and a lower will. The lower will can harden into a heavy ego, and one often says: “You are as stubborn as an ox!” And the higher will follows the higher reason and over time makes us light and free, heavenly, so to speak.

And what do these oxen pull? A cart full of firewood. If the car is our body, then the firewood could be our karma, the potential in the form of merit and sin that we accumulate in life and carry around with us. This is also very closely related to our knowledge. The yogis try to burn this firewood in a steadily calm flame in order to get rid of it and not to accumulate new one. For us, under the rule of the lower will, it usually becomes the fire of passion, and we diligently gather more and more firewood. Then we drive our cartload to the world’s marketplace for trading.

And who is trading with it? A poor farmer named Crab. Here we could see our strange self-consciousness, which often feels very poor, full of dissatisfaction and is therefore always looking to gain more and more in action. That, in turn, has a lot to do with our knowledge. In simplified terms, one could say: Consciousness is active or effective knowledge. And self-consciousness is locally and temporally ego-bound knowledge, whereby a corporeal being with its life story arises or gets effected. Just as the farmer tills his field and scatters the seeds in order to harvest much fruit, so the self-consciousness works in the field of the world. This field can be seen very broadly and profoundly. In practice, it is shapeable nature, and meanwhile some scientists even speak of the subtle, morphogenetic, information field, matrix-, zero point or psi field and rely primarily on the findings of quantum physics. The symbolism of the farmer is not limited to the field of agriculture. There are also others who, for example, care more about animals, such as the shepherd, whom we often find in the Bible (for example in the Song of Songs), or Krishna as a cowherd in the Indian Puranas.

And why is he called Crab? Perhaps one thought of the large crabs that defend and feed themselves with their powerful claws. But it is also said that the element of a crab is water, the primordial element of life, which symbolically stands for the eternal source of life. With regard to this source of life one also speaks of eternal consciousness, which only appears to be perishable insofar as it is personally bound to perishable things, identifies with them and becomes self-consciousness. The Crab could thus also symbolize the ego-consciousness up to the hardened ego.

Today, when we think of crab*, we think primarily of the dreaded disease that is so deadly to us (*There is one word in German for Cancer and Crab: Krebs). Interestingly, here, too, individual body cells play an important role, which no longer want to serve the entire organism and which multiply independently and unrestrained. This is also a kind of egoism when individual cells only think of themselves and no longer work for the benefit of the whole organism.

And what does our poor peasant, the self-consciousness, sell himself for to the world? For “two thalers”, which again remind of the worldly dualities or opposites. Above all, this includes the duality of happiness and suffering, and our ego still hopes at some point to have one side of the coin without the other. In this way we are bound to the world of opposites, where the ego fights for “its personal survival”, just like the farmer for his livelihood.

Finally, there is still the question: To whom does the “I” sell? To “a doctor”, a particularly intelligent being who becomes a teacher for us. Moreover, who is our teacher in life? You can also see that very far and deeply. Some even say: “The whole world is our teacher.” And just as Crab becomes the key to knowledge in the fairy tale, so the doctor becomes the way there.

Now one could say: What an imagination! Is this all hidden in the sentence: “Once upon a time there was a poor peasant named Crab, who drove a load of wood into town with two oxen and sold it to a doctor for two thalers.”? Yes, this sentence at the beginning of the fairy tale is a wonderful example of the symbolic language of earlier times, with which one expressed the deepest knowledge about spirit and nature. It’s a shame that today we can hardly imagine how much profound knowledge is behind the symbolism of such simple, but often ingenious stories, because today we think in different ways. If you had written E = mc² on the board back then, they would probably have looked just as incomprehensible as we see their stories as primitive children’s fairy tales today. Strangely enough, we believe that people today are far more intelligent than they were a few thousand years ago, which cannot be justified genetically, physically or in the light of our behaviour on earth. In the past, people certainly looked intensively for knowledge and pursued science, only with different goals and correspondingly also with other means, in order to formulate and pass on knowledge in an understandable language.

By the way: A similar symbolism of the body cart pulled by two oxen can also be found in the ancient Indian collection of fables “Panchatantra”, where even a crab plays its part. In general, this whole fairy tale has a very strong relation to Indian tradition, as we shall see later.

When the money was being counted out to him, it so happened that the doctor was sitting at table, and when the peasant saw how daintily he ate and drank, his heart desired what he saw, and he would willingly have been a doctor too. So he remained standing a while, and at length inquired if he too could not be a doctor. “Oh, yes,” said the doctor, “that is soon managed.” “What must I do?” asked the peasant. “In the first place, buy thyself an A B C book of the kind which has a cock on the frontispiece; in the second, turn thy cart and thy two oxen into money, and get thyself some clothes, and whatsoever else pertains to medicine; thirdly, have a sign painted for thyself with the words, “I am Doctor Knowall,” and have that nailed up above thy house- door.”

This beautifully describes the task of envy in this world. You see something as good, desire it, want to own it too and are ready to make sacrifices for it. That is the natural essence of self-consciousness. Moreover, the whole thing always has to do with knowledge. If you look at it more deeply, even our whole world consists only of knowledge, or to put it more up-to-date, information. Above all, our ego is based on knowledge and knows: Knowledge promises power, wealth and prosperity. The title “Doctor” is the epitome of a person full of knowledge - not only in our fairy tale. It is therefore exactly what our poor farmer wants to be. We usually go for this to school for many long years, study and pass numerous exams.

However, the advice in our fairy tale seems a bit mocking at first sight. First, buy yourself knowledge that makes you proud like a rooster. Second, sell your will to the world and acquire the typical image of a doctor. Third, be confident, have a title and proclaim it everywhere. - Well, it is said that this still works today... Only with “Doctor Knowall” one must be more careful today, because mankind has now accumulated so much knowledge that the universal scholars have practically died out for over 100 years, and even in the individual disciplines such as mathematics or physics there are hardly any scholars who have mastered the entire knowledge of their subject.

But how can such a “bought doctor” work? Any sensible person should know whether someone is telling the truth or just speaking blah-blah. However, it does not seem to be that easy in practice. Why?

Well, this brings us closer to the core of the fairy tale, the question of the truth of knowledge. Knowing everything or omniscience would mean being able to truthfully answer any question on any subject. However, who decides whether the answer is true or false? And that raises the delicate question: Is there absolutely true knowledge at all? If you examine it more deeply, you will find that our worldly knowledge is always only relatively true, relative to a certain goal or point of view, a certain model, a certain person or worldview. Let us think, for example, of the great dispute over the heliocentric view of the world. Today we know that neither the earth nor the sun is in the centre. The Big Bang Theory even says that there is no centre anywhere in the universe. On the other hand, let’s think of the example of our classical physics, which has managed to build a world view in which the power of the spirit simply no longer exists. Yet it is the most important force in our everyday life experience with which every scientist works. Even so, classical physics still works in practical life because it is relatively true and useful. But it is not absolutely true, as confirmed by quantum physics and the theory of relativity, but they cannot answer all questions either. String theory was next developed, and so it will probably go on forever...

To be honest: If there really were absolute knowledge in this form, humankind would certainly have found it after many millions of years, because there has never been a lack of ingenious people. It is not for nothing that our language has two terms for it, namely belief and knowledge. In higher things, one should speak of belief and always be aware that all worldly knowledge is only relatively true. As soon as one imagines absolute knowledge, one is stuck in a certain point of view and a higher development towards the whole is blocked. That ends quickly in the knowledge of letters in the clever ABC books for proud roosters. This is dangerous, because absolute knowledge makes you proud, and pride makes you blind. This can become so absurd that rational people argue about a “true belief or faith” and even wage terrible wars for it. Who comes up with such ideas? Faith is a path that should lead to the highest summit. And as we know, there are always many paths that lead to the summit. Every culture has its own ways, and maybe even every human being. And rarely do these paths lead directly to the goal. It’s not for nothing that our earth is round, and that’s how everyone arrives at some point.

By the way, Hans Christian Andersen also wonderfully portrayed the topic of the knowledge of letters from ABC books for the proud rooster in his fairy tale “The ABC Book”.

The peasant did everything that he had been told to do. When he had doctored people awhile, but not long, a rich and great lord had some money stolen. Then he was told about Doctor Knowall who lived in such and such a village, and must know what had become of the money. So the lord had the horses put in his carriage, drove out to the village, and asked Crabb if he were Doctor Knowall? Yes, he was, he said. Then he was to go with him and bring back the stolen money. “Oh, yes, but Grethe, my wife, must go too.”

He had not doctored much. This is important, and we assume he hasn’t sold much knowledge yet. Is it good to sell knowledge? At least in the ancient Indian scriptures it was a great sin to sell the Vedas, that is, to get paid as a teacher or doctor. The ancient shamans also supposedly did not heal for money. For us today it is completely normal that you can buy and sell everything. Those doctors, who feel bound by their Hippocratic Oath, are dying out, and one can no longer be sure how far it is about the patient or the business. Authorized signatories instead of chief physicians are increasingly ruling even our hospitals. Moreover, it has long been normal to sell knowledge in science. These are strange views, because scientists and medical professionals have learned most of their knowledge from others. Nevertheless, some are of the firm opinion that they own their knowledge personally, like the rich nobleman his money in our fairy tale. This is also a form of absolute knowledge that the self-consciousness imagines, and the bigger the ego, the harder this imagination...

However, why is it important here that our poor farmer has not yet done a lot of work? He still takes his feminine side with him. That means: He still has a connection to nature, so he is not completely “overly intellectual” or trapped in his imagination.

The lord was willing, and let both of them have a seat in the carriage, and they all drove away together. When they came to the nobleman’s castle, the table was spread, and Crabb was told to sit down and eat. “Yes, but my wife, Grethe, too,” said he, and he seated himself with her at the table. And when the first servant came with a dish of delicate fare, the peasant nudged his wife, and said, “Grethe, that was the first,” meaning that was the servant who brought the first dish. The servant, however, thought he intended by that to say, “That is the first thief,” and as he actually was so, he was terrified, and said to his comrade outside, “The doctor knows all: we shall fare ill, he said I was the first.” The second did not want to go in at all, but was forced. So when he went in with his dish, the peasant nudged his wife, and said, “Grethe, that is the second.” This servant was just as much alarmed, and he got out. The third did not fare better, for the peasant again said, “Grethe, that is the third.”

Sure, on a first level one could say: whoever commits injustice reaps a guilty conscience that haunts him, so that he has to live in constant fear and at some point has to reveal himself. That is already good news to ponder.

In addition, a deeper and most wonderful symbolism appears. Who are these servants who steal personal property? We would suspect that the usual principles of nature are meant again here: the four servants as symbols for the four elements of medieval alchemy, namely earth, water, fire and wind. The comparison with the food that the sensory organs serve us from the elements is also ingenious. Because everything that the self-consciousness grasps as wealth or nourishment in nature comes in principle from these elements and goes back into them, so that we first feel gifted and then again deprived. And what are they robbing us? This fairy tale is about money that reminds us of our merits, with which we can fulfil our wishes. In other versions of the story it is also gold, which indicates the loss of truth, or a precious ring, which reminds of the loss of unity. Nature can give us all this, but it can also take it away. The more holistically we recognize nature, the more we gain these three riches. The more our self-consciousness grows into an ego that only wants to keep, and the further we separate ourselves from nature, the more we have to fear the loss. Goethe also has his Mephisto say in [Faust II]:

In every way shall ye be stranded
The elements with us are banded,
And ruin is the certain fate.

Recognizing these principles of nature was considered great knowledge, and so it is also stated in [Faust I]:

Who knows not their sense
(These elements),
Their properties
And power not sees,
No mastery he inherits
Over the Spirits.

However, how does our poor peasant recognize the elements of nature? In a completely different way than we are used to with conceptual or rational knowledge. He has his feminine side with him. He is connected with nature and with the whole field around him, this mystical field that we mentioned at the beginning. In this way he speaks to nature, and the field answers indirectly, as if by itself, intuitively, so to speak. This is the big advantage when you are still connected to the whole and not only live in your own limited head.

The human being in the play of the four elements - [Petrarca 1532]
(Water and earth are shaky, wind drifts and fire draws)

On a deeper level one can even recognize the principle of how the self-consciousness in the form of the farmer interacts with the material elements in the form of the servants through its connection with nature in the form of his wife. The self-consciousness means its nourishment, and the material elements feel addressed and react in a kind of resonance. Wow! Here, in a symbolic way, a really big question is addressed: How can consciousness move matter? How can a thought move our arms or legs? And the fairy tale even says that this interaction is actually based on a misunderstanding, which reminds us of the ancient Indian idea that our view of this world is primarily dominated by illusion (in Sanskrit “Maya”). This also underlines that our knowledge is always only relatively true, so that human development is like a learning process of trial and error, which everyone can observe in himself, but in any case in others, or as the saying goes: “To err is human!” In Goethe’s [Faust I], even God himself proclaims:

While Man’s desires and aspirations stir,
He cannot choose but err.

The fourth had to carry in a dish (with crabs) that was covered, and the lord told the doctor that he was to show his skill, and guess what was beneath the cover. The doctor looked at the dish, had no idea what to say, and cried, “Ah, poor Crab.” When the lord heard that, he cried, “There! he knows it, (so) he (also) knows who has the money!”

With the fourth element, the task becomes even more complicated, and the big question arises as to the life that is hidden in this element. Our farmer feels that he cannot solve this riddle with his own knowledge, from the ABC book of a thousand terms, so to speak. He becomes aware of his inability, can no longer help himself, admits his personal need and says: “Ah, poor Crab!” Yes, that is the big answer: It is me, the crab as a symbol for that self-awareness that brings the elements to life. This is especially true of water, the element of life that is our fourth servant. Goethe already sang a song of praise to this wonderful insight in [Faust II]:

Hail! All hail! with newer voices;
How my spirit rejoices,
By the True and the Beautiful penetrated
From Water was everything first created
Water doth everything still sustain!
Ocean, grant us thine endless reign!

Similarly, one finds the parable of Jesus walking on water in the Bible. Again, it is probably not about the material element, but about trust in life as our spiritual basis. Also the use of water for Christian baptism certainly has a lot to do with it.

On this the servant looked terribly uneasy, and made a sign to the doctor that he wished him to step outside for a moment. When therefore he went out, all four of them confessed to him that they had stolen the money, and said that they would willingly restore it and give him a heavy sum into the bargain, if he would not denounce them, for if he did they would be hanged. They led him to the spot where the money was concealed.

Now something happens that is probably a very great achievement on the spiritual path. The power of the natural elements falters; they ask us out and allow us, so to speak, a look behind the scenes. Those who can look at nature “from the outside” in this way, even if it is only for a short moment, have already gained a lot and recognize where the real wealth lies. And of course, you can’t reveal much about it, because what could you say about that which is outside of nature? That is why it is also called the unformed. Furthermore, as the fairy tale says, it would be a stupid “denunciation” to blame the principles of nature for our suffering if we lose what we imagine to be our “personal possessions”.

Wanderer at the edge of the world - [Flammarion 1888]
(on the left the circling spheres of the four elements)

In Buddhism one speaks in this regard of emptiness, the great characteristic of everything. Goethe also felt this unformed and called it the realm of the mothers, which can also be described as the sea of causes and practically corresponds to the mystical field of the formable nature that we mentioned at the beginning. With this idea of emptiness, the secular Doctor Faust also changed inwardly into a spiritual priest, and it says in [Faust II]:

And hadst thou swum to farthest verge of ocean
And there the boundless space beheld,
Still hadst thou seen wave after wave in motion,
Even though impending doom thy fear compelled.
Thou hadst seen something, in the beryl dim
Of peace-lulled seas the sportive dolphins swim;
Hadst seen the flying clouds, sun, moon, and star:
Naught shalt thou see in endless Void afar,
Not hear thy footstep fall, nor meet
A stable spot to rest thy feet…

…Escape from the Created
To shapeless forms in liberated spaces!
Enjoy what long ere this was dissipated!
There whirls the press, like clouds on clouds unfolding;
Then with stretched arm swing high the key thou’rt holding!

At last a blazing tripod tells thee this,
That there the utterly deepest bottom is.
Its light to thee will then the Mothers show,
Some in their seats, the others stand or go,
At their own will : Formation, Transformation,
The Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation,
Forms of all creatures, there are floating free.
They’ll see thee not; for only wraiths they see.

With this vision of emptiness, Goethe can even question transience and death, and writes at the end of [Faust II]:

Tis past!
Past! Stupid word.
If past, then why?
Past and pure Naught, complete monotony!
What good for us, this endlessly creating,
What is created then annihilating?
“And now tis past!” Why read a page so twisted
Tis just the same as if it ne’er existed,
Yet goes in circles round as if it had, however:
I’d rather choose, instead, the Void for ever.

This “pure nothing” or “eternal emptiness” was also known in Christianity. Meister Eckhart says, for example: “All creatures are pure nothing. I am not saying that they are of little value or anything at all: they are nothing. What has no being is nothing. All creatures have no being because their being depends on the presence of God. If God turned away from all creatures for a moment, they would be annihilated. [Eckhart, Sermon 4]”

With this the doctor was satisfied, and returned to the hall, sat down to the table, and said, “My lord, now will I search in my book where the gold is hidden.” The fifth servant, however, crept into the stove to hear if the doctor knew still more. The Doctor, however, sat still and opened his A B C book, turned the pages backwards and forwards, and looked for the cock. As he could not find it immediately he said, “I know you are there, so you had better show yourself.” Then the fellow in the stove thought that the doctor meant him, and full of terror, sprang out, crying, “That man knows everything!”

In alchemy, too, there was a fifth element above the four material elements, namely the quintessence of the spirit, from which our self-consciousness also arises. To recognize this, it was good that he could no longer find the proud rooster in the ABC book. Because a proud ego cannot and never wants to recognize its true nature, i.e. its true origin. It is always reflecting in the elements of nature and loves the illusion of personal identification and personal possession. It is in there, like in an oven (because our body is like a furnace of spiritual and material food), in which the fire of passion burns with the accumulated firewood, and yet it has to get out at some point. And it is said that whoever recognizes this spiritual quintessence of everything and thus himself, achieves true omniscience. Therefore, omniscience does not mean to accumulate more and more knowledge, but to recognize the essential quintessence from which all knowledge arises.

Interestingly, this would mean that our modern natural science moves further and further away from omniscience, insofar as it only looks at the small part of external nature and ignores the spiritual. Scientists slowly become aware of how small this proportion is when, for example, they admit that they only know 4% of the material universe so far. The rest of 96% they refer to as dark matter and dark energy, where their seizable knowledge ends. In ancient Indian cosmology, the proportion of the material or visible world in the universe is only half a percent and the rest consists of spiritual worlds (see e.g. Vayu Purana 2.39).

Goethe already suspected that it is doubtful to want to know nature without spirit and wrote in [Faust I]:

Truly the fabric of mental fleece
Resembles a weaver’s masterpiece,
Where a thousand threads one treadle throw,
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither,
Unseen the threads are knit together,
And an infinite combination grows.
Then, the philosopher steps in
And shows, no otherwise it could have been:
The first was so, the second so,
Therefore the third and fourth are so;
Were not the first and second, then
The third and fourth had never been.
The scholars are everywhere believers,
But never succeed in being weavers.
He who would study organic existence,
First drives out the soul with rigid persistence.
Then the parts in his hand he may hold and class,
But the spiritual link is lost, alas!
Encheiresin natures*, this Chemistry names,
Nor knows how herself she banters and blames.
(*Seizing Nature)

But back to the fairy tale: Who is this mighty gentleman, for whom our poor peasant has so much respect? In other versions of this fairy tale, it’s even a king, and cheating on a king back then was not just a matter of honour, but a matter of life and death. Therefore, we want to shed a little more light on this figure. He is perhaps even the most important figure when it comes to the question of knowledge because he is testing us. If knowledge is not tested, we could actually imagine everything, as it is possible in a dream, where even the ordinary natural laws with their constraints of cause and effect no longer apply.

It is usually a seductive idea to dream ourselves in such a world where everything happens that we desire. That is probably the ego’s great dream. If the ego could dream forever, it would never want to wake up from this illusion. One would almost like to claim that it is the task of nature to challenge this self-consciousness again and again until it awakens from its illusion bubble, first from the dreamlike sleep and then from the dreamlike waking state, which we call the reality of the world. And how is it shaken up? With the hammer blows of opposites such as happiness and suffering, gain and loss, healthy and sick, life and death, which we experience through nature. From this point of view, nature would be our best friend because it tests how true our knowledge is. Goethe’s Doctor Faust also accepts this challenge from nature and speaks:

Canst thou with lying flattery rule me,
Until, self-pleased, myself I see,
Canst thou with rich enjoyment fool me,
Let that day be the last for me!
The bet I offer.

This is probably why the old sages liked to withdraw into the rough nature and renounced sensual pleasures in order to accept the challenge and to recognize the perfect truth. We like to go the other direction and try to bribe or rape nature so that we can deceive ourselves in sensual enjoyment as we wish. Just as it says in [Faust II]:

This masquerade resembles quite
As everywhere a dance of appetite.
I sought a lovely masked procession,
And caught such things, I stood aghast.
I’d give myself a false impression,
If this would only longer last…

Then Dr. Knowall showed the count where the money was, but did not say who had stolen it, and received from both sides much money in reward, and became a renowned man.

It used to be known: this omniscience or self-knowledge is the greatest wealth that can be found on earth. That is the true fame and eternal richness of both sides, spirit and nature, which no one can steal. This omniscience is not a worldly knowledge that distinguishes things and is getting more and more how the sweet porridge. It is the knowledge of unity or the great and impartial love with which the ego is released from its madness of personal possession. Or as Goethe says at the end of [Faust II]:

When every element
The mind’s high forces
Have seized, subdued, and blent
No Angel divorces
Twin -natures single grown,
That inly mate them:
Eternal Love, alone,
Can separate them.

It is extremely astonishing how this short fairy tale, which at first only seems like a stupid swaying, can unfold in a human head if one ponders on it for a long time. And it has surely not yet been found out everything here. This wonderful essence of fairy tales fascinates us over and over. It can already do a lot of good in the children’s minds. So we think, this fairy tale, too, motivates a child to learn from the ABC book in order to become something great in life and to earn wealth. But it also prepares the children that their knowledge will be tested, as here by a powerful lord who in other versions also appears as king, which makes this test even harder. And a child who is not yet aware of the principle of intuition could recognize with this fairy tale that it is better not to brag about imagined omniscience, but to learn reliable knowledge and attend secular school diligently. But the little person continues to develop, step by step a higher reason awakens, and at some point also the doubt about the meaning and reliability of our worldly knowledge. Or as it says in Goethe in [Faust I]:

I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine,
And even, alas! Theology,
From end to end, with labour keen;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before:
I’m Magister yea, Doctor hight,
And straight or cross-wise, wrong or right,
These ten years long, with many woes,
I’ve led my scholars by the nose,
And see, that nothing can be known!
That knowledge cuts me to the bone.

How big the question of the nature of knowledge was in the past is shown in the widespread use of this fairy tale theme. A lot of information can be found in the notes on House Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm’s, such as a reference to a very interesting twin fairy tale, which is said to have been recorded in India as early as the 1st or 2nd century. It can be found today in the 11th century work Kathasaritsagara. There is an English translation from the Sanskrit by Charles Henry Tawney of 1880. And because we are big fans of the old Indian texts, we will of course provide it here:

Story of the Brahman Harisarman

There was a certain Brahman in a certain village, named Harisarman (“protected by Vishnu”). He was poor and foolish and in evil ease for want of employment, and he had very many children, that he might reap the fruit of his misdeeds in a former life. He wandered about begging with his family, and at last he reached a certain city, and entered the service of a rich householder called Sthuladatta (“gift of body”). He made his sons keepers of this householder’s cows and other possessions, and his wife a servant to him, and he himself lived near his house, performing the duty of an attendant. One day there was a feast on account of the marriage of the daughter of Sthuladatta, largely attended by many friends of the bridegroom, and merry-makers. And then Harisarman entertained a hope that he would be able to fill himself up to the throat with ghee and flesh and other dainties, together with his family, in the house of his patron. While he was anxiously expecting that occasion, no one thought of him. Then he was distressed at getting nothing to eat, and he said to his wife at night; “It is owing to my poverty and stupidity that I am treated with such disrespect here: so I will display by means of an artifice an assumed knowledge, in order that I may become an object of respect to this Sthuladatta, and when you get an opportunity, tell him that I possess supernatural knowledge.” He said this to her, and after turning the matter over in his mind, while people were asleep he took away from the house of Sthuladatta a horse on which his son-in-law rode. He placed it in concealment at some distance, and in the morning the friends of the bridegroom could not find the horse, though they searched in every direction. Then, while Sthuladatta was distressed at the evil omen, and searching for the thieves who had carried off the horse, the wife of Harisarman came and said to him - “My husband is a wise man, skilled in astrology and sciences of that kind; and he will procure for you the horse; why do you not ask him?” When Sthuladatta heard that, he called that Harisarman, who said, “Yesterday I was forgotten, but to-day, now the horse is stolen, I am called to mind,” and Sthuladatta then propitiated the Brahman with these words - “I forgot you, forgive me” - and asked him to tell him who had taken away their horse? Then Harisarman drew all kinds of pretended diagrams and said, - “The horse has been placed by thieves on the boundary line south from this place. It is concealed there, and before it is carried off to a distance, as it will be at close of day, quickly go and bring it.” When they heard that, many men ran and brought the horse quickly, praising the discernment of Harisarman. Then Harisarman was honoured by all men as a sage, and dwelt there in happiness, honoured by Sthuladatta. Then, as days went on, much wealth consisting of gold and jewels was carried off by a thief from the palace of the king. As the thief was not known, the king quickly summoned Harisarman on account of his reputation for supernatural knowledge. And he, when summoned, tried to gain time, and said “I will tell you to-morrow,” and then he was placed in a chamber by the king, and carefully guarded. And he was despondent about his pretended knowledge. Now in that palace there was a maid named Jihva (“tongue”), who, with the assistance of her brother had carried off that wealth from the interior of the palace: she, being alarmed at Harisarman’s knowledge, went at night and applied her ear to the door of that chamber in order to find out what he was about. And Harisarman, who was alone inside, was at that very moment blaming his own tongue, that had made a vain assumption of knowledge. He said - “O Tongue, what is this that you have done, through desire of enjoyment? Ill-conducted one, endure now punishment in this place.” When Jihva heard this, she thought in her terror, that she had been discovered by this wise man, and by an artifice she managed to get in where he was, and falling at his feet, she said to that supposed sage; - “Brahman, here I am, that Jihva whom you have discovered to be the thief of the wealth, and after I took it, I buried it in the earth in a garden behind the palace, under a pomegranate tree. So spare me, and receive the small quantity of gold which is in my possession.” When Harisarman heard that, he said to her proudly, “Depart, I know all this; I know the past, present and future: but I will not denounce you, being a miserable creature that has implored my protection. But whatever gold is in your possession you must give back to me.” When he said this to the maid, she consented and departed quickly. But Harisarman reflected in his astonishment; “Fate, if propitious, brings about, as if in sport, a thing that cannot be accomplished, for in this matter when calamity was near, success has unexpectedly been attained by me. While I was blaming my tongue (jihva), the thief Jihva suddenly flung herself at my feet. Secret crimes I see, manifest themselves by means of fear.” In these reflections he passed the night happily in the chamber. And in the morning he brought the king by some skillful parade of pretended knowledge into the garden, and led him up to the treasure, which was buried there and he said that the thief had escaped with a part of it. Then the king was pleased and proceeded to give him villages. But the minister, named Devajnanin (“god knows”), whispered in the king’s ear, “How can a man possess such knowledge unattainable by men, without having studied treatises; so you may be certain that this is a specimen of the way he makes a dishonest livelihood, by having a secret intelligence with thieves. So it will be better to test him by some new artifice.” Then the king of his own accord brought a new covered pitcher into which he had thrown a frog, and said to that Harisarman - “Brahman, if you can guess what there is in this pitcher, I will do you great honour to-day.” When the Brahman Harisarman heard that, he thought that his last hour had come, and he called to mind the pet name of frog which his father had given him in his childhood in sport, and impelled by the deity he apostrophized himself by it, lamenting his hard fate, and suddenly exclaimed there - “This is a fine pitcher for you, frog, since suddenly it has become the swift destroyer of your helpless self in this place.” The people there, when they heard that, made a tumult of applause, because his speech chimed in so well with the object presented to him, and murmured, - “Ah! a great sage, he knows even about the frog!” Then the king, thinking that this was all due to knowledge of divination, was highly delighted, and gave Harisarman villages with gold, umbrella, and vehicles of all kinds. And immediately Harisarman became like a feudal chief.

The similarity with our German fairy tale is extremely astonishing, and especially the key scene with the symbolic water animal in the bowl is practically identical. Sometimes a snake is also used here, for example in the fairy tale of the “White Snake”, and a similar symbolism can be found in the fairy tale of the “Frog King” or the “Ghost in a Glass”. Finding the living being in the nature of the apparently dead elements is also considered the peak of knowledge here.

In addition, we find many common symbols in this Indian fairy tale, such as daughter and son-in-law, which remind of nature and spirit and of the mystical wedding, where our Brahman was ignored, the horse of the spirit that sounds like reason, which can carry us to the great goal, and also the king as ruler.

The symbolism of the servant called “tongue” as a sense organ probably also refers to the water element, which is indicated here as her brother. In ancient Indian philosophy there are not just four, but five major elements, which are assigned to the five sense organs as follows:

Earth - nose - smell
Water - tongue - taste
Fire - eye - visibility
Wind - feeling - tactility
Space - ear - sound

The ego-consciousness with the thoughts stands above these five elements, above them the universal intelligence with the higher reason and finally above all the unformed or sea of causes, which is reminiscent of the mystical field that we mentioned at the beginning. These are the eight principal levels of nature, which are often symbolized in circles, whereby the lower is always contained in the higher. And the Supreme Spirit or the pure self rules over everything (see e.g. Markandeya Purana, chapter 45). To recognize this self as the basic principle of life in everything leads to mystical self-knowledge. Whoever recognizes this quintessence knows everything, so that one can speak of true omniscience.

In this regard, three basic levels of knowledge can also be recognized in this Indian version of the fairy tale:

1) rational and conceptual knowledge
2) intuitive and symbolic knowledge
3) omniscience and self-knowledge

Rational knowledge is like finding the horse that you have hidden yourself, in the south, which was the direction of the realm of the dead in ancient India. In principle, this corresponds to our materialistic-scientific approach, the ABC knowledge or knowledge of the letters of dead concepts. We divide the entirety of nature with thousands of terms and are then proud to reassemble the terms into artificial systems. Our market economy is also based on this rational principle and knows that one must first generate a demand in order to sell something at a profit. For this, our ancient naturopathic medicine had to disappear first, so that scientific medicine could be recognized and artificially sell what it previously hid, just like the Brahman hid the horse. Wonderful symbolism! It was similar with the spirit in modern science, which was practically deleted from the worldview so that one could sell the rule over nature. And at some point science will also rediscover the spirit and uncover what it had previously covered in order to sell it for profit. The age-old belief in God did not fare any better, which for millennia could give us humans the confidence in something higher than material possessions. These are at least the dark sides of rational knowledge.

When one begins to doubt it, intuitive knowledge awakens in harmony with nature. A knowledge that, like the guilty servant in our fairy tale, reveals spontaneously. Nature begins to speak to us. We can hardly imagine that today, because our modern worldview has largely degraded nature to mindless or dead matter. Even animals are denied a consciousness that resembles the human one, not to mention plants or stones. Therefore, modern man is accordingly arrogant with nature. However, when the intuition awakens, everything around us can come alive and speak to us. In Zen Buddhism there is a beautiful saying for this:

The wooden man begins to sing.
The stone woman begins to dance.
Rational knowledge cannot do that.

And the more the narrow-minded ego dissolves, the larger dimensions open up to the omniscience of self-knowledge. This knowledge is no longer based on sense organs and thoughts, and one recognizes what one cannot recognize through the senses, such as the frog in a covered bowl or the living in matter.

Now some readers of this fairy tale may ask: “This dubious path of the simple-minded farmer is supposed to be the path to omniscience?” Well, that is basically our big problem, that we are always looking for something spectacular, some special knowledge that the physical ego can possess and with a swell of pride rise on the throne of truth. But what do we expect when we look behind the scenes of nature? What do we expect of the great truth that we can receive here? Omniscience is an essential knowledge that was formerly also called knowledge of God. Meister Eckhart speaks about it: “God is neither this nor that. And a master says: Whoever believes that he has known God and would thereby know something does not know God.” [Eckhart, Sermon 10]

It is astonishing that these three levels of knowledge, which can also be called conceptual, symbolic and divine, appear to us to be almost even more strong and clear in the German version of the fairy tale than in the Indian one. From this one could conclude that various motifs and symbols travelled from India to Europe, met with a profound understanding here, got adapted to the local culture and were even alive in the people for a long time. One could of course also imagine that the symbolism has migrated from Europe to India, because deep stories were loved there too. How the fairy tales really spread in the world is still a great mystery, for which there are various theories. A brief overview of this topic can be found, for example, in the article “The Origin and Character of the Folk Tale” by [Karl Ernst Maier].


... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...
The Seven Ravens - (topic: The seven principles of nature)
Little Snow-White and the seven dwarfs - (topic: Ego and passion)
The Six Servants - (topic: Supernatural abilities)
The Poor Man and the Rich Man - (topic: the curse of wealth)
Gambling Hansel - (topic: Delicate game with the world and nature)
Clever Grethel - (topic: Uncontrollable passion)
The Wolf and The Seven Little Kids - (topic: desire)
The Valiant Little Tailor - (topic: a healing way)
The Wise Servant - (topic: Search for wisdom, Reformation)
Fundevogel - (topic: path to liberation, spiritual values)
Doctor Knowall (topic: Science, Spirit)

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[Eckhart] Meister Eckhart, Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, Diogenes 1979
[Faust I] Faust Part 1, translated by Bayard Taylor, 1870/71
[Faust II] Faust Part 2, translated by Bayard Taylor
[Karl Ernst Maier] Jugendliteratur: Formen, Inhalte, pädagogische Bedeutung, Klinkhardt 1993
[Petrarca] Von der Artzney bayder Glück, des guten und widerwertigen, 1532, www.petrarca.pushpak.de
[2019] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de