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Composed in the twelfth century in north-eastern Iran, Attar's great mystical poem is among the most significant of all works of Persian literature. A marvellous, allegorical rendering of the Islamic doctrine of Sufism - an esoteric system concerned with the search for truth through God - it describes the consequences of The conference of the birds of the world when they meet to begin the search for their ideal king...
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Table of Contents
PART 1. THE PARLIAMENT OF THE BIRDS - The Parliament of The Birds
The Princess and The Dervish
A Miser’s Fate
A Handsome King
Story of Shaykh San‘An
PART 2. ON TO THE CITY OF GOD - “On, To The Bound of The Waste, On, To The City of God”
Sultan Mahmud and The Orphan Lad
A Grave-Digger’s Experience
A Saint’s Dream
A King’s Palace
A Father’s Love
Shaykh Ahmed Guri and Sultan Sanjar
A Faithful Infidel and A Deceitful Crusader
The Magic Cup of Joseph
The Advice of Satan
Sultan Mahmud and Ayaz
PART 3. THROUGH THE SEVEN VALLEYS - The Valley of The Quest
Majnun’s Search of Layla
Mahmud and The Rag-Picker
The Valley of Love
A Love-Sick Nobleman
The Valley of Knowledge
The Man of Stone
The Beloved Who Found Her Lover In The Arms of Morpheus
A Love-Sick Sentinel
Sultan Mahmud and The Fanatic
The Valley of Detachment
An Analogy From Astrology
The Fly and The Bee-Hive
The Valley of Unity
Advice Given To A Shaykh By A Woman
The Valley of Bewilderment and Stupefaction
A Mother’s Grief
The Lost Key
The Valley of Poverty and Annihilation
Nasir-Ud-Din Tusi’s Advice To His Disciple
The Assemblage of Butterflies In Search of The Candle
PART 4. RECEPTION AT THE ROYAL COURT
THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS
FARID UD-DIN ATTAR
First digital edition 2018 by Fabio De Angelis
Once upon a time, in the dim old days, all the birds of the world assembled in solemn conclave to consider a momentous question.
Ever since the dawn of Creation the inhabitants of every city had had a king or leader, called Shahryar, or the friend of the city, but these feathered souls had no king to befriend them. Theirs was an army without a general, a position most precarious. How could they be successful in the battle of life without a leader to guide the weak-winged party through the perils of earthly existence? Many an eloquent speaker addressed the assembly, deploring their helpless plight in plaintive terms, bringing tears to the eyes of thetiny ones, and it was unanimously agreed that it was highly desirable, nay, absolutely necessary, that they should place themselves without delay under the protection of a king.
At this stage, full of fervour, leapt forward the Hoopoe (Hud-hud) renowned in the Muslim scriptures for the part she had played as King Solomon’s trusted emissary to Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. She had on her bosom the crest symbolizing her spiritual knowledge and on her head shone the crown of faith.
“Dear birds”, she said, “I have the honour to belong to the Celestial Army. I know the Lord and the secrets of creation. When one carries, as I do, the name of God writ large upon its beak, one may be given the credit of knowing many a secret of the spiritual world.”
In the same vein of exultation, she recounted her physical and mental qualities. She had the gift of divining underground sources of water and had directed the genii to them by pecking the earth. She had gone around the globe in the days of the Deluge and had accompanied Solomon in his journey through dales and deserts. She was the forerunner of his army and his faithful messenger.
“We have a king, my friends,” said she, “I have obtained an indication of His court; but to go alone in quest of Him is beyond my power. If, however, you accompany me, I think we may hope to reach the threshold of His Majesty. Yea, my friends, we have a king, whose name is Simurg, and whose residence is behind Mount Caucasus. He is close by, but we are far away from Him. The road to His throne is bestrewn with obstructions; more than a hundred thousand veils of light and darkness screen the throne. Hundreds of thousands of souls burn with an ardent passion to see Him, but no one is able to find his way to Him. Yet none can afford to do without Him. Supreme manliness, absolute fearlessness and complete self-effacement are needed to overcome those obstacles. If we succeed in getting a glimpse of His face, it will be an achievement indeed. If we do not attempt it, and if we fail to greet the Beloved, this life is not worth living.”
The Hoopoe then described to her winged friends how the Simurg had first made His appearance on earth.
“During the early days of Creation, He passed one midnight in His radiant flight over the land of China. A feather from His wing fell on Chinese soil. Instantly there was great tumult throughout the world. Everyone was seized with a desire to take a picture of that feather, and whoever saw the picture lost his senses. That feather is still in China’s picture-gallery. ‘Seek knowledge, even in China’ points to this.”
On hearing this account of the Simurg, the birds lost all patience and were seized with a longing to set out at once in quest of the Sovereign Bird. They became His friends and their own enemies and wished to go forward in search of Him, but when they were told how long and fearful the road was, they were completely unnerved and brought forward several excuses. These apologies were typical of the personal idiosyncrasies of the different species of the birds.
The first to retrace its steps was the Nightingale, known for his passionate fancy for the Rose and for the rapturous melodies in which he sings of his love. “I am so completely drowned in the ocean of love for my Rose”, said he, “that I have practically no life of my own. How can a tiny thing like me have the fortitude to withstand the splendour of the Simurg? For me the love of the Rose is enough.”
“Oh”, cried the Hoopoe, “ye who stop short at mere appearances, being enamoured of external beauty only, talk no more of Love. Your love for the Rose has merely spread thorns in your way. Such a passion for transient objects brings naught save grief. Give up your fancy for the Rose. It mocks you at every spring and blossoms not for your sake. Your attachment for it is like that of the Dervish in the story I will relate to you.”
A charming princess was the object of universal admiration. One day an ill-starred Dervish (mendicant) happened to pass by. He was so struck with her beauty that the piece of bread he was carrying in his hands slipped from his fingers. Greatly amused, the girl burst into laughter and walked off merrily. The Dervish was, however, so much enamoured of her smile, scornful though it was, that he could thenceforth think of nothing else but that smile. For seven long years, he refused to move from the precincts of her palace. The attendants and servants of the girl were so much annoyed with him that they resolved one day to take his life. The princess, however, did not wish that the unfortunate man should be injured in any way. She, therefore, whispered to him in secret that if he wished to save his life, he had better leave the place forthwith.
“Have I a life that I should think of saving it?” asked the love-sick man. “On the very day on which you favoured me with a smile, my life was sacrificed to you. But pray, tell me why did you smile that day?”
“Oh, you simpleton,” replied the girl. “I laughed because I saw that you had not an iota of sense or reason.”
After the Nightingale, had been thus admonished by the Hoopoe, the Parrot came forward and pleaded his inability to undertake the journey because he had been imprisoned in a cage, a penalty he had to pay for his beauty. The Peacock urged that he was quite unworthy of the Royal Presence because of the part he had played in the expulsion of Adam from Paradise. The Duck could not do without water, nor the Partridge without mountains. The Huma said he was gifted with the power to confer sovereignty on those over whose head he flew. Why should he give up such a lofty privilege? Similarly, the Falcon could not brook the idea of relinquishing his place of honour on the hand of kings. The Heron wished to stay in the lagoons, and the Owl in the ruins of which he was the undisturbed monarch. Last came the Wagtail with his excuses for his weakness and physical disabilities that made it impossible for him to embark on the journey.
The Hoopoe brushed aside all these pretexts and illustrated her precepts by a series of anecdotes and inspiring stories; for instance, in admonishing the owl, she related the following story, illustrating the fate of those who, like the owl, are attached to their worldly possessions.
A miser died, leaving a pot full of coins, buried in a secret place. Sometime after his death, his son saw him in a dream. His appearance was completely metamorphosed, so that he looked like a mouse, and streams of tears were flowing from his eyes. In this state of agony, he was going round and round the place where the treasure lay buried. “My sire,” asked the son, “what has transformed your features thus? Wherefore this deformity?”
“Whosoever’s heart is so attached to riches as was mine,” replied the father, “will have his face deformed like mine. Therefore, beware, my son. Take a lesson from this.”
Sage counsel such as this had its effect. The Hoopoe’s words instilled courage and enthusiasm into the hearts of the birds, and they resolved to embark on the journey, perilous though it was. Before starting, however, they asked her to expound to them their relationship with His Majesty the Simurg, a point that was by no means clear to them.
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