Appointment with Death
There is a well known and ancient tale that illustrates the bracing truth that we can never escape our destiny. The story first appears in the Jewish Talmud, written in Babylonia (Mesopotamia) about 1500 years ago. It also appears in Muslim Sufi literature. Called “When Death Came to Baghdad,” the story was included in the collected tales of Al-Fuḍayl ibn ʻIyāḍ, who was a ninth-century reformed bandit, turned Sufi sage. Today it comes down to us through the writings of the Sufi teacher Idries Shah, in his Tales of the Dervishes.1 Some details change from version to version but it’s the same story; just the location and names are changed. Owing to its universal nature and the appeal of its inevitable truth, it has persisted in the world’s folklore. The story was even adapted by the British writer Somerset Maugham in 1931, under the title “Appointment in Samarra.”
In most of Hazur Maharaj Ji’s Punjabi satsangs, of which video recordings have been made available over the past few months, the Master often says that the saints’ teachings are meant for everyone. He quotes Guru Nanak saying that the teachings of Nam are meant for all the four castes, meaning that they apply to all humanity. This is because all humanity faces the same challenge – how to meet death when it comes for us, how to live with total faith in God. And that is probably why this story has been told and retold in many cultures and contexts, by many saints and teachers. It proves the principle that the saints’ teachings are meant for everyone.
In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is natural that people’s minds turn to destiny and death. It is good to remember that although we may try to protect ourselves, ultimately death may come when we least expect it and we cannot avoid our destiny. As the Talmudic saying makes clear: “A man's feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.” Here is the story.
Appointment in Samarra
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions, and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Death that had jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop, he went.
Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw Death disguised as a woman standing in the crowd, and he came to her and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” “That was not a threatening gesture,” the woman said. “It was only an expression of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”2
So what does this mean for us on a day-to-day level? Should we just give up and wait for our karmas to unfold? For death to meet us in the marketplace? Sometimes we have to force ourselves to remember what life and death are about, as we forget so easily. We need to realize that our karmas and their results are unfolding before us all the time and that we need to prepare ourselves by attending to our meditation and keeping simran in our mind continually. We have to be ready. Hazur Maharaj Ji presents an example of the need for constant focus in a letter he wrote to a friend, reproduced in Treasure Beyond Measure:
You will be sorry to know that at Ludhiana I met with a serious accident, but by Maharaj Ji's grace, Damodar (the driver) and myself both escaped.
At Ludhiana railway crossing, when we were waiting for the railway gate to open, suddenly, on opening the gate, a cart full of iron bars about six inches round and thirty-five feet in length pierced the front windscreen, just passing by Damodar, and reaching where I was sitting on the back seat. When the bars were just one inch away from my head, the cart stopped. There were three to four thousand people there and everybody was surprised how we had escaped death.
By Maharaj Ji's grace, I was so calm and cool that I even laughed when all was over. The iron bars went six feet inside the car and they were spread about three feet apart…. At the time of the accident, I was doing simran as a matter of habit.
Hazur Maharaj Ji’s example underscores the importance of constant awareness for all of us. So let’s double-down on our efforts – that will help us maintain our faith and dedication.
To sum up, Great Master advised that by adhering to the process, to the practice, a certain “spiritual force” awakens our love and faith:
The willpower becomes strong by repetition and concentration, and spiritual force is created, which awakens love and faith within, and that leads to personal magnetism which is present in a small or large degree in every human being and even in animals. This spiritual force is within every one of us but is awakened only by spiritual practice. Only those whose internal eye is open can feel it.3
So, yes, we have to accept and adapt to the reality that death may be just around the corner. But in the meantime, we can live in the atmosphere of meditation by being assiduous in our practice, by showing up regularly and punctually, and “just sitting,” as Hazur Maharaj Ji used to say, whether the mind obeys or not.
And we can always be thankful. After all, his advice is for our benefit.
The Master often reminds us that a shopkeeper has to open his shop and spend the entire day waiting for customers, even if no one comes. But if he doesn’t wait, he won’t be present when a good customer does come, ready to buy.
- Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes (London: Octagon Press, 1993), p. 191
- Epigraph by W. Somerset Maugham to John O’Hara’s 1934 book of the same name
- Spiritual Gems, Letter 202