Recently, in a post of a poem by Kabir, the name of Supach appeared, a ‘seer’ who was a ‘scavenger’, or a member of the lowest caste, the so-called untouchables. This is a name with which westerners may be unfamiliar, but there is wisdom in the story, as we shall see.
One of the central elements of Hindu culture and mythology is the epic struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, told in the monumental work, the Mahabharata, considered by some to be the longest poem ever written. (The great Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, by the way, is contained in the Mahabharata; it is essentially teaching given by Krishna to Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, just as the decisive battle between the two sides was about to begin.) When the great war was over, Krishna advised the victorious Pandavas that they should hold a special sacrificial feast, called an Ashvamedh Yag, to atone for all the killing that had taken place. He told them that their sacrifice would be considered complete if, and only if a divine bell rang in the empty sky at the conclusion of the feast.
Accordingly the Pandavas made preparations, and invited every person of merit they could find in the kingdom–warriors and nobly born, but also rishis, learned pandits, brahmins and saintly munis. Then they offered the feast, but even after Lord Krishna himself partook of it, no bell rang.
The Pandavas were perplexed, and asked Krishna to look within and tell them what could be the reason their sacrifice was not accepted. By his inner sight, Krishna revealed to them that there was a low caste holy man, Supach, living in a nearby forest, who had been there meditating year after year, and who ate no more than leaves when he became hungry. “He must come and partake of the sacrifice,” Krishna told them. “Until he has done so, the sacrifice will not be complete.”
The Pandava brothers, full of kingly pride, thought that perhaps the news of their great sacrifice had not reached Supach, or that he had kept away because he was of such low caste, so they sent a servant to find him, and tell him that there was free food available at the feast. But the hermit paid no attention.
Seeing that Supach did not come, the Pandavas then decided they must go themselves and invite him. When they arrived, with all the ceremony of five kings in procession, and invited him to the feast, Supach told them that he would only come if they would give him the virtue of 101 Ashvamedh Yags. (It was a tradition that if one could perform 100 of these very special sacrifices, one would attain to the state of Indra, the king of the gods. The demand of Supach, therefore, was that he should be elevated beyond the divine.) Hearing this, the Pandavas felt very downcast; they had not yet succeeded in performing one such sacrifice, so how could they secure the virtue of 101 of them?
Then Draupadi, the virtuous wife of the five Pandavas, prepared special dishes for the feast with her own hands, and went herself on foot to the place where Supach was sitting in meditation, to invite him to the sacrifice. The hermit repeated his condition that he receive the virtue of 101 sacrifices, to which Draupadi replied, “I have heard from holy beings such as yourself that if one goes with love and faith to visit a holy sage, the merit of every step is that of an Ashvamedh Yag. Therefore I offer you the merit of 101 of my steps here this day if you will only come to the sacrifice.” Then Supach agreed, and came with her to the sacrifice.
When they served the sage with the dishes Draupadi had prepared, he mixed the food all together and then began to eat. Seeing this, Draupadi thought to herself, “Well, he is of a low caste, what can one expect? He does not know how to appreciate these dishes.” But when Supach had finished eating, to the consternation of everyone there, there was still no sound of a bell. Then the Pandavas again begged Krishna to tell them how their sacrifice had failed to find merit.
Krishna said, “You may ask Draupadi, for it is her thought which has prevented the feast from being completed. When a sage mixes the food together, as Supach has done, it is neither from ignorance nor from a desire to improve the taste. Preparing to eat, a sage may mix foods together, or he may draw his mind upward toward perfection, so that whether the food is sweet or salty, sour or bitter, he need not pay attention to the taste, and remains above the limitations of the food.”
Hearing this, Draupadi was humbled, and prayed for forgiveness for her pride and ignorance. At that moment, the sound of a bell rang from the empty sky!
With joy, Draupadi said, “O Krishna, thank you for this precious lesson. Truly, humility is the pathway to the Lord!”