This is a story about King Janaka, the ruler of Mithila, and the father of Sita Devi, who became the wife of the avatar Lord Rama. Janaka was known to be honest, completely devoted to the dharma, and very scrupulous in all his affairs.
Once a brahmin was brought before Janaka to be judged for committing some offence. Janaka declared that a brahmin who could not behave properly must leave his kingdom, and so the punishment was exile.
The brahmin bowed in acquiescence, and then asked, “O king, as you esteem correct behaviour, please advise me, where is the border of your kingdom, so that I may know when I am no longer in your domain. How far does your rule extend?”
Janaka began to think. Courtiers intent on praising the king would commonly say he was the ruler of the world, but how could he rule what he did not know? As no one knew the limits of the wide world, there were lands far beyond his knowledge and control. Obviously, he was not the ruler of the world.
Then he must be the ruler of Mithila, he thought. But then he considered that he could not command the mountains and the forests – he could not tell a lake to become the sea, nor a desert to become a forest. So how could he call himself the ruler of Mithila?
Then, perhaps he was the ruler of the palace, he thought, until he realised that here too his command was small. He saw the throne-room where he sat at the moment, but there were parts of the palace where he never went. And even if he were able to see into every room at every moment, which he could not, his power was very limited.
Then I am the ruler of my body, thought Janaka – until he considered that by his decree he could not make himself taller or smaller, and that someday his body would fall and never rise again, no matter what he commanded. How could he call himself the ruler of his body?
And my mind? Janaka asked himself. Am I ruler of my mind? Not even that, he thought, for thoughts come unbidden and memories leave although I want to keep them. In the end, he concluded I can call myself the ruler of nothing.
“Brahmin,” Janaka said, “you are free, for although I sit upon a throne, in fact I rule over nothing at all.”