Long ago in India there lived a great sage named Byasa, the writer of the greatest Hindu Scripture, The Bhagavad Gita. By spiritual power, Byasa invoked a saintly soul to occupy the body of the baby in his wife’s womb, and he taught the unborn child the secrets of the Scriptures through the subconscious mind of the mother.

When born, this baby was named Sukdeva. Because of the training he received while still in his mother’s body, he proved to be a most unusual child. At the age of seven he was well versed in all the difficult Hindu Scriptures and ready to renounce the world and find a true master.

When Sukdeva decided it was time to go in search of his spiritual teacher, his father, Byasa, advised him to go to King Janaka, the ruler of the province. As Sukdeva entered the palace grounds, his eyes caught sight of the king sitting on an emerald and diamond-studded golden throne, smoking a big oriental pipe, surrounded by flatterers. As is the custom in India during the hot season, scantily clad ladies were fanning him with large palm leaves.

Shocked by the sight, Sukdeva turned and walked briskly away from the palace grounds, muttering inwardly: “Shame on my father for sending me to that matter-soaked king. How could that object be my teacher?”

But King Janaka was both a king and a saint. He was in the world, but not of the world. Because he was highly advanced spiritually, he knew the thoughts of the fleeing Sukdeva. So the saint-king sent a messenger after the boy and commanded him to return.

Thus the Master and the devotee met. The king sent all his courtiers away and he and Sukdeva entered into an absorbing discussion of the all-protecting God. After four hours, Sukdeva was getting restless and hungry, but dared not disturb the God-intoxicated king.

Another hour had passed when two messengers came running to the king and exclaimed: “Your Highness, the capital of your kingdom is on fire! The flames threaten to spread to your palace. Won’t you come and supervise the efforts to extinguish the flames?”

The king replied: “I am too busy discussing the all-protecting God with my friend. I have no time. Go and put out the flames yourselves.”

When another hour had passed, the same two messengers came running to the king and cried: “Your Royal Excellency, please flee, for the flames have reached the palace and are fast approaching your chamber.” The king replied indifferently, “Never mind! Don’t disturb me, for I am drinking God with my friend. Go, do the best you can.”

Sukdeva was puzzled at the king’s action. Another hour passed and now two scorched messengers leaped in front of the king, shouting: “Mighty King, behold the flames approaching your throne! Run, before you both are burned to death!”

The king replied: “You run and save yourselves. I am too busy resting in the arms of the all-protecting God to fear the audacity of the destructive flames.” The messengers fled. The flames had nearly reached Sukdeva’s books, piled by his side, but the king sat motionless, indifferent to everything except discussing God.

At last, Sukdeva lost his poise and slapped at the flames to prevent them from burning his precious books. Satisfied, the king waved his hand and the flames disappeared. In a kindly manner, he spoke: “O young son of Byasa, you thought of me as a matter-drenched king, but look at yourself. You forsook the thought of an all-protecting God to protect a pile of books, while I paid no attention to my burning kingdom and palace.

“God worked this miracle to show that you, though a renunciate, are more attached to your books than to God, and that I am not attached to my kingdom, even though I live in the world.”

This humbled the young Sukdeva, who then accepted King Janaka as his guru. The king then began to teach Sukdeva the art of living in the world without misery-making attachment to it.

One day the king gave his new disciple two cup-shaped oil lamps filled to the brim, and said: “Hold a lamp on the palm of each hand and visit all the beautifully furnished rooms of my palace. After you have seen everything, return to me but remember, I will send you home and refuse to train you if you spill a drop of oil on my carpets.”

The king instructed two messengers to accompany Sukdeva and to keep the lamps full of oil as they burned. The king’s assignment proved very difficult for Sukdeva. Nonetheless, after two hours he returned triumphant.  He had not spilled any oil.

Then the king said “Young Sukdeva, tell me in detail what you saw in each chamber of my palace?” Sukdeva replied: “Royal Preceptor, my mind was so concentrated on the thought of not dropping oil that I could not possibly see anything in the rooms.”

The king cried out: “I am disappointed! You have not completely passed my test. My order was that you should see everything in all the chambers of my palace and, at the same time, not drop any oil from the lamps. Go back with the lamps, and remember, no spilling of oil as you look carefully at everything in the palace.”

After ten hours Sukdeva calmly returned, and behold, he had not dropped any oil. Nor was he sweating with excitement as before. And he could answer all the king’s questions about the most minute contents of all the palace chambers.

Then the king gently whispered: “My son, attachment to possessions — not possession — is the source of misery. In this world we do not own anything; we are only given the use of things. Some have more to use than others, but remember, the millionaire and the poor man alike have to leave everything when death comes.

“People must not live one-sided lives, as during your first trip when you concentrated on the oil lamp without seeing my palace. But, on the second trip, you kept your attention principally on the oil lamps without spilling oil, while seeing in minute detail everything in the palace. So also must you keep your main attention on God, without letting a drop slip away, while thoroughly performing your God-given duties of maintaining yourself and those in your charge.”

Excerpted from Praecepta Lessons, 1938


  1. Thank you for this story. The last paragraph a very poignant reminder to us all.

  2. “Attachment to Possessions” is the main theme of our society. We always end up losing it, giving it up or throwing it away. Maybe one day we will mature and realize it is not possessions that bring rewards but love given and received.

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