When I existed

by Ravidas

English version by Nirmal Dass


When I existed,
You did not.
Now You exist
and I do not:
as a storm lifts waves
from water --
still they are water
within water.

O Madho,
how can we describe
this illusion?
What we believe does not exist.

A mighty king sleeps
on his throne
and in his dream
becomes a beggar.
Seeing his kingdom vanish
before him
he greatly mourns --
such is our condition.

Like the tale
of the serpent
and the rope --
I know a little
of the secret.
Seeing many bracelets
we think gold has many forms --
but it is always forever gold.

In all things
exists the Lord,
assuming countless shapes;
in each pore he plays and sports.
Ravi Dass say,
He is nearer than my hand.
All that comes to pass
is by His will alone.

-- from Songs of the Saints from the Adi Granth, Translated by Nirmal Dass

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This poem has several traditional spiritual metaphors: water and waves, a king dreaming he is a beggar, the serpent and the rope, gold taking many shapes without changing its nature. In the poem, these act as a sort of shorthand, the hearer expected to recognize and smile at the references. All tell us something of the variety and connection, the relationship of the individual beings to Being.

Let's take a look at these...

When I existed,
You did not.
Now You exist
and I do not:
as a storm lifts waves
from water --
still they are water
within water.


We tend to see existence as a collection of separated beings and objects. Seeing that way, we imagine we too are objects and separated from everything else, including being separate from a big object called "God."

The metaphor of the water and the wave helps us to see things differently. God, or Reality, is the water, the incomprehensibly vast ocean, and every individual being is a wave in that ocean. The wave rises, becomes distinct, takes on an identity; we can identify it as "a wave" rather than merely an undefined patch on the surface of the ocean. Yet the wave is in no way separate from the ocean. It is not other than the ocean. Though distinct, the wave is still "water within water."

The wave rises from the ocean, exists in the ocean, and merges back into the ocean, never having been anything but the ocean. The wave is the ocean expressing itself.

What about the reference to a "storm"? Within Indian metaphysics, we might say that the storm is the pull of karma. Its tugging, churning motion pulls individual beings into manifestation from the blissful depths of Unity. But, when the storm has spent itself, and serene stillness is restored, the individual settles back into the great Unity that is the natural state.

A mighty king sleeps
on his throne
and in his dream
becomes a beggar.
Seeing his kingdom vanish
before him
he greatly mourns --
such is our condition.


We are, all of us, royalty, sons and daughters of the Divine. This is not just a pretty fantasy, it is who and what we are. Mundane consciousness is like being caught in a dream, and in that dream we tell stories to ourselves, and the stories are often about spiritual poverty, isolation, desperation. In our dream reality we experience dream suffering.

When the king drifted off to sleep, he was a king. When he wakes up, he is a king. And throughout the entire dream, he is yet a king.

Like the tale
of the serpent
and the rope --
I know a little
of the secret.


A farmer enters a darkened hut. In the corner he sees a poisonous snake, coiled and ready to strike. A wise man raises the shutters to let the light in. Only then does the farmer see that the "snake" is a coiled rope. It is not that it was transformed from a snake to a rope; it was always only a rope. Though he felt fear was entirely justified in the moment, once he saw clearly, the fear transformed into laughter.

Seeing many bracelets
we think gold has many forms --
but it is always forever gold.


We enter a goldsmith's workshop, and see his work displayed in front of us. We exclaim in delight and overwhelm at the dazzling variety of rings and bracelets. The old goldsmith laughs at our reaction and shakes his head. All that variety is an illusion. To him, every ring and bangle is the same: they are all gold. He can easily drop a bracelet in the crucible, melt it down, and reform it into something new, a necklace perhaps. It looks different and is used in a different way, yet it has not changed; it is still gold.

In all things
exists the Lord,
assuming countless shapes;
in each pore he plays and sports.
Ravi Dass say,
He is nearer than my hand.
All that comes to pass
is by His will alone.


This bewildering kaleidoscopic world we inhabit -- look more deeply. Look at how you look. Beneath the surface we are connected, all composed of the same God-stuff. And the variety in the world, sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening, is simply the craftman displaying his art.



Recommended Books: Ravidas

Songs of the Saints from the Adi Granth Songs of the Saints of India Sri Guru Granth Sahib Sri Guru Granth Sahib Guru Ravidas: Life and Teachings (Mystics of the East series)





When I existed