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Best of Hitopadesha (Part 1): Knowledge – Highest Wealth
Articles by Satyanarayana Dasa Philosophy

Best of Hitopadesha (Part 1): Knowledge – Highest Wealth

Knowledge—Highest Form of Wealth

The Backdrop


bout 1,500 years ago the King of Iran got hold of a book that contained the secret of how to raise the dead by means of rasayana, an elixir of life. The book explained the procedure to extract the elixir from herbs and trees growing on the high mountains of India. Eager to sample this elixir, the King sent his chief minister on a quest for the prescribed herbs and trees.

In India, the minister was well-received and aided by the sages. He scoured the mountains for the herbs and trees to make the elixir. No mixture he made, however, could bring the dead back to life. Finally, the disappointed minister concluded that the information was false.

Greatly distressed about returning empty-handed and disappointing his king, the minister asked his hosts what to do. They led him to a famous philosopher, who once searched in vain for the same elixir, and in the end discovered that the elixir was actually a book.

The philosopher explained that the story about the elixir was allegorical. The high mountains in the story represented the wise and learned men of lofty intellect; the trees and herbs, which are the products of the mountains, indicated the various writings of those sages; the elixir itself denoted the wisdom extracted from the sages’ writings, which revived the dead intelligence and buried thoughts of ignorant materialistic men.

Relieved and elated, the minister begged a copy of the book from the philosopher, translated it, and returned to his king. That book we know today is a variant of the book of Hitopadesha.

The Hitopadesha

The origins of this book are a little less known. Study of old hand-written manuscripts, however, reveals that Narayana Pandit, who lived in the fourteenth century Bengal province of India, wrote the book on the request of King Dhavalchandra. Traditionally, it was taught to the initiated students in gurukula (ancient Hindu residential school in India).

Hitopadesha, or “Good Instructions”, is famous for its wisdom and is one of the most popular books on ethics and polity. It uses the story-within-a-story format, with animals as the main characters. It is popular with children because of the fables, in which characters of animals are used to personify certain traits found in humans. I am happy to have been able to translate this book from its original Sanskrit couplets. This will surely expand the reach of Hitopadesha and help children and grown-ups alike
by  being a tool while taking decisions. It will also inspire them to overcome their daily problems.

Below is an extract taken from the first chapter of Hitopadesha. I have selected the fourth couplet from this chapter. This is the first write-up of a series of total three articles that will be published in future.

“The best wealth is knowledge—it cannot be stolen, it is priceless and imperishable.”

The original couplet puts forward the three reasons why vidya (knowledge) is the best wealth.

Aharyatvat—Knowledge cannot be stolen
A rich man is always anxious that his wealth may be plundered or embezzled, lost in speculative business or gambling, or that he or his relatives may be held for ransom. Today’s rich man can easily become tomorrow’s pauper. As depicted in the epic Mahabharata, Yudhisthira lost his entire kingdom in a day and Dhritarashtra lost all his sons in eighteen days along with the kingdom they had acquired by intrigue against their cousins, the Pandavas. Here, material wealth and happiness is compared with the instability of a drop of water on a lotus leaf. The short story that follows illustrates the precarious nature of riches.

Once, two brothers left their village to seek their fortune. One brother entered a gurukula and studied. The other became an apprentice to a rich merchant. After some years they decided to visit their parents and offer whatever they had earned. On the way, dacoits attacked and seized all the wealth of the brother who was the merchant’s apprentice. The other brother, who was only carrying wealth in the form of knowledge from books in his mind, was left untouched.

Knowledge cannot be snatched or taken away. It is permanent, never burdensome to carry, and causes no anxiety. Instead, it alleviates one’s anxiety. Therefore, knowledge is the most stable form of wealth. Furthermore, spiritual knowledge is never lost, even after the demise of the body. It is a permanent asset.

Anarghatvat—Education is priceless

Although worldly affluence is limited, vidya is unlimited, for no one can estimate the extent or value of one’s knowledge. With knowledge, one can earn any amount of wealth. Consultants in different fields earn millions, while their knowledge remains intact; in fact it increases with time and experience. Knowledge is also priceless in the sense that it cannot be purchased like other commodities; it has to be earned by individual effort.

Aksayatvat—Education is imperishable

Worldly riches diminish when distributed. As a result, most people are not enthusiastic about indulging in charity. Vidya, however, increases when shared with others.

This is especially true with spiritual knowledge. A man enriched with transcendental knowledge can distribute his wealth unlimitedly, yet his wealth of realisation will only increase. This can be practically tested when one tries to explain the philosophy of Vedic literature, which presents the path of pure devotional service to Lord Krishna as the true culmination of all knowledge. The more one talks about the Vedic teachings, the more one’s store of transcendental knowledge increases. This experience is available to anyone who does not adulterate the true spirit and intent of the Lord’s instruction to Arjuna.

In this connection, there is a story about a proud king who was attached to worldly opulence. A saintly person once called on him, and noticing the king’s strong attachment to mercenary objects, suddenly became very serious. “Why have you become so grave?” asked the King.

“I can foresee,” replied the saint, “that very soon you will die; but don’t worry. Your pious deeds will elevate you to the heavenly sphere. However, there is one problem! Your heavenly palace will be infested with mosquitoes, and though you will have a nice mosquito net, it will have a hole through which the mosquitoes will enter and bite you.”

Though the king liked the saint’s message, the bit about the mosquitoes disturbed him. For, he hated them. However, he assured the saint that he would simply have the net mended.

The saint replied, “That’s alright, except for the fact that in heaven there are no needles. So when you die, be sure to take a needle with you.”

“But how can I take a needle with me?”

“I have no idea,” said the saint, “but if you cannot even take a needle with you, then why are you so proud of your earthly opulence?”

Hearing this, the king realised the futility of his attachment and forsook his false pride.

Therefore, knowledge is the highest form of wealth.

To sum up, here, I quote Shri Shukracharya, who says, “Vidya is superior to material wealth as it is the cause of earning all other wealth; it always increases when given in charity; it is never burdensome to carry; and no one can ever forcibly take it away.”Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “In this endeavour there is no loss or diminution.” When one dies, his worldly wealth is left behind, but spiritual knowledge is never lost. It is carried with his subtle body to his next life. In this way, spiritual knowledge is superior to worldly opulence.

by Satya Narayana Dasa

Get your copy of Hitopadesha here!