Once, a long time ago in India, there was a poor man who lived with his wife in a small cottage deep in a forest. Every day the man would pick up sticks from the forest floor, make them up into bundles then stack them carefully in a circle. Covering them over with earth he would burn them slowly until the wood had charred black. The result was charcoal – a fuel that was very light to carry but excellent for cooking. He made very little money from this trade but was satisfied with what he had. Not many visitors came into the forest because it was filled with wild animals, so sometimes the man and his wife felt lonely, but the forest was peaceful and they were happy.
One afternoon a stranger arrived at the door of the cottage. He was visibly exhausted and his brow was damp with sweat. “Can you help me please?” he asked the man, “I was out hunting and my horse galloped off – I’ve been walking for miles and I’m lost.” The charcoal-maker immediately gave the stranger a place to rest and some water to drink. His wife set about cooking a meal and the stranger began to feel at home, so much so that he fell asleep and spent the night as the guest of the man and his wife.
The next morning the stranger asked to be escorted to the edge of the forest. It was quite a distance to walk, but the charcoal-maker happily obliged. As the dense forest gave way to a path, the stranger revealed his identity. “What I did not tell you, my friend, is that I am actually the king of this region. I could see that you didn’t recognise me, and that all the kind hospitality you offered was from your heart. I am very grateful and I would like to offer you a gift. Please walk another mile with me.”
Walking on, they came to a forest from which came a wonderful fragrance. “This is my sandal-wood grove,” explained the king, “fifty of the oldest and finest trees – and I want you to have it.” The charcoal-maker was astonished that his guest had been the king, and even more surprised that he was being given his own personal wood. He thanked the king profusely and they parted company.
One year later, the king visited the sandalwood grove and discovered, much to his surprise, that all the trees had gone. Not one tree was left standing. Curious, he went deep inside the forest to visit the charcoal-maker. “So I see that you have made good use of the sandal-wood?” he asked the man. “Oh yes,” replied the man, “I made all of the fifty trees into charcoal.”
“But did you not realise,” exclaimed the king, quite aghast, “that just one twig of a single sandal-wood tree can be sold for the price of a hundred bags of charcoal? That the fragrant oil inside the tree is worth much more than the wood that contains it?” “No,” replied the man, “I’m a simple charcoal-maker…”
Moral: In ordinary consciousness we attribute a greater value to the body than the soul within. Not even knowing the value of the soul, we use our body as fuel and burn through it in seventy years, never capitalising on the sweet fragrance that could have been ours. The guru is the teacher who explains the difference between body and soul; then shows us how to obtain the real value of life.