Video and Audio

The Philosopher and the Boatman

Brahmachari Prashad
May 19, 2023

Humorous and inspiring song by Swami Kriyananda, recorded at Ananda Village May 19th 2023.


(The way to perfection is narrow and steep.
The by-paths are many, the pitfalls are deep.
By theory alone many think to arrive:
Here’s one who could teach them—if he were alive!)

A philosopher stepped into a boat,
The river to cross would he.
So learned was he, he thought no man
Could be half so clever as he.

Chorus: Singing wise, oh, with his books, oh,
Such a mighty scholar was he!
Singing wise, oh, with his books, oh,
Such a mighty scholar was he!

To the boatman he said, “Good man, pray tell,
Of the German philosophers three,
Schopenhauer, Hegel, and weighty Kant,
Whom you deem the wisest to be?”


“Please excuse me, Sir,” the boatman said,
“I’ve not read your philosophers three.
All day I’m obliged to ply these oars
To support my family and me.”


“In that case, my good man, your wretched life
Is as good as a quarter lost.
Why, without the writings of those three men
Not a shelf of books would I trust!”


“Now then tell me, good man,” the scholar said,
“Have you studied the Frenchman, Descartes?”
“I’ve told you before,” the other cried,
“I’m unschooled. Hard work is my ‘art’!”


“Hard work? What a waste! Sad, foolish man,
Half your life has been thrown away!
Yet—still a fragment might be redeemed:
Memorize one theory a day!”


Of a sudden a storm with raging might
Did lash that river to foam;
Like a drifting petal it tossed their boat
Till it seemed they’d never get home.


Then the boatman cried: “My learned sir,
Our chances are growing dim!
Two questions you’ve asked me so far this trip;
Now I’ll ask you one: Can you swim?”


“I can’t swim a stroke!” the philosopher cried,
As he clung in despair to an oar.
“Then the whole of your life is lost, my friend;
You’ll not need those books anymore!”


The boatman regrets to say his fare
Never reached the opposite bank.
All that ponderous learning inside his head
Gave him weight, you see, and he sank!

Chorus for last verse:
Singing wise, oh, with his books, oh,
Such a weighty scholar was he!
Singing wise, oh, with his books, oh,
Such a weighty scholar was he!

Comments by the composer: "This song is based on a story my Guru loved to tell about a Vedic scholar in India who, while crossing the river Ganges by boat, confronted the boatman with a pedantic question. The story he told concerned the boatman’s ignorance of the four Vedas. The song I’ve written tells essentially the same story, in a Western setting. When singing it, I have given the philosopher a mock German accent, because many of the great Western philosophers were Germans. The song’s message is unchanged: Pedantry is no substitute for experience!"

(From the book “I’ve Passed My Life as a Stranger, Lord” by Swami Kriyananda)