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The Parable of Aladdina
Michael Langford says you should be careful what you ask from a genie, or you might get lamped.
When Aladdin had his famous encounter with the jinn, as described in the Arabian Nights (although with many exaggerations and inaccuracies), he was already in his fifteenth life cycle. The next three cycles were less adventurous, but were marked by increasing virtue, so that by 2006 (Common Era), when preparing for his nineteenth cycle, he was approaching that state where the wheel of birth and rebirth was nearing its end.
The completion of the process of enlightenment could not, of course, be guaranteed, because free will must be exercised at every stage. Even Aladdin’s nineteenth cycle would present challenges – indeed, new challenges, that matched the more advanced nature of Aladdin’s soul. However, the expectation among the higher intelligences was that quite soon his atman – his soul – would be ready for that state of bliss achieved by all those who were faithful to the ideals formulated in the major religions.
Given the tradition in which Aladdin had lived most of his lives, the Hindu higher intelligences interviewed him at the beginning of January 2006 (as measured by those of us on Earth).
Krishna explained the situation: “My dear Aladdin, you have reached a significant stage in your development, just as you have long desired. Until now, following karmic law, each of your new births has been determined by your past lives and what was needed for your soul to be able to move forwards. But you have now reached that stage in which you are mature enough to choose the time and place of your next incarnation. Indeed, the making of this choice is itself part of your path forward. You may view the human world, and then choose who your mother will be. As always, of course, after your birth you will have only a limited memory of what has happened before – which in this case includes the choice you are shortly to make.”
Aladdin thought long and hard. He knew perfectly well that at this late stage in the cycle of births most souls choose a lowly life, often with extreme poverty or disability. However, his last two lives had been exceptionally hard as measured by human standards, so perhaps it was now right to experience again those temptations that go with wealth and rank. Between incarnations there is memory of all lives, and he remembered well how after meeting the jinn he had not handled all the money and power the jinn gave him as well as he should. Perhaps it would be a kind of false modesty to choose a lowly life, knowing that he still needed to develop a character that could resist the blandishments of wealth.
Eventually he compromised. In the later part of his fifteenth cycle, when his incarnation had been within an Islamic culture, he had been introduced to the writings of Aristotle, and he was much impressed by the philosopher’s suggestion that the wise should seek to have a ‘modicum’, so that it would be possible to concentrate on what really mattered – especially philosophical contemplation. So he would be neither rich nor poor. He also decided that this time round he would be a woman, so that there would be a number of difficult decisions to make in which the desires and aspirations of a free spirit would be in tension with the obedience classically expected of women. However, he chose with some reluctance, wondering whether it would not be better for some karmic law to make even this decision.
Once incarnated, the difficulties of choice re-emerged with special force on Aladdina’s twelfth birthday. While on a holiday from school, she joined her family at a resort on India’s southern coast. Already she was a reflective child, and hoped to go to university in New Delhi in a few years, become a doctor, then help others to enjoy life as much as she did. Her overriding ambition was to make the world a better and a happier place.
On this birthday, being in a pensive mood, and wanting to meditate in private, she took a leisurely stroll on a remote beach. She walked the shoreline, enjoying the sea breeze, thankful for the beauty and the many opportunities that life offered. The tide was just on the turn. Suddenly she noticed an old brass lamp lying on the sand, a few feet from the retreating water. It looked vaguely familiar.
She picked it up. It seemed ancient but undamaged. It was light for its size, and evidently the air inside had enabled it to float. There was a brass screw on the side, obviously sealing an opening through which the oil could be poured. Almost automatically she unscrewed it. Immediately there was a rush of smoke from the now open lamp. The smoke grew into a swirling mass just a few feet away, then formed into a strange creature of air and mist with the size and looks of a large man, and a huge red turban on his head.
Memories from the past came surging back. This was Imla the jinn, released once again from his prison! And as before, this was no freak of chance: it was the strange working of karma.
Imla spoke with the same deep voice that Aladdina now remembered well: “Once again”, the jinn said, “you are my liberator, and this time you do not have to trick me so that I return to my prison. Again I grant you three wishes, in thankfulness for my release.” The jinn bowed low.
Aladdina stayed silent for a moment. Her first thoughts recalled a modern version of the old story of Aladdin (a much exaggerated and distorted version of the real story), in which a precocious child faced with the same offer makes his third choice the wish to have three more choices – a process which could then be endlessly repeated. This would not be her way. She wasn’t really sure it would work, and in any case it would be a kind of cheating, a way of not responding in the right spirit to the jinn’s generous offer. She would instead try to do something about the misery of the world – a misery she had long decided was chiefly caused by the way people treated each other.
“Please,” she said, “make everyone be nice to each other.”
The jinn looked surprised. “I am afraid what you ask is beyond my power. I assumed you would ask for something possible; but what you ask for is impossible. Being nice to each other is a result of being good, and even if Allah – or perhaps in this country I should say Brahma – were to make someone good, it would not really be the old person that had been made good, but some newly made being with the same body. Indeed, perhaps it would not be a person at all. Having to choose good, or evil, is part of what it is to be human. Surely you must understand that. I suggest you make sure your second wish is for something I can grant.”
Aladdina’s Lamp © Vicki Nunn 2010
“Please then, make everyone happy, even if they are not good.”
“Again you have asked what is impossible! Indeed it is a pity you have found the lamp again at such a young age, when it is hard to realize how the world works. Happiness is a state of being that can be helped by outside things, but, like true virtue, it has to be achieved, not simply given. Make sure your third wish is more practical.”
“I'm not sure that I understand… but here is my third wish, and surely this is not impossible for you: make everyone in the world have a large pot of gold coins, so that they are rich.”
Once again the jinn looked surprised, but he nodded his head: “It shall be done; but I must warn you that the result may not be quite what you expect.”
With these words the jinn vanished with another rush of air, but this time, one that seemed to be passing by then gradually disappearing in the distance. Aladdina, no longer in pensive mood, ran back to the village where her family were staying. She found the place in uproar, with everyone shouting or singing. About twenty minutes previously, she was told, there had been a rumbling sound, rather like an earthquake, then, beside each man, woman, and child was a clay pot containing two hundred pieces of gold. “There’s one for you too”, said Aladdina's mother, “it appeared right by your bed.”
Within three days Aladdina realized that her idea to make everyone happy had not worked. After an initial euphoria, the poor found that their gold coins were of little value. Indeed quite soon even the poorest families found that they could have cooking pots made of melted-down gold, but that this made little difference to their shortage of food and clean water. Aladdina herself was in a slightly different situation, because unlike all the other pots of gold, the jinn (who must have had a sense of either justice or humor) had filled her pot with ancient and rare gold coins that fetched a large sum at an auction in New Delhi. Her family became rich – but they were not any happier.
Alladina was left wondering, “If I meet the jinn again, what could I ask for that would make any real difference? Perhaps for millions of new schools or hospitals? But who would run them?”
© Prof. Michael Langford 2020
The late Michael Langford was Professor of Philosophy, emeritus, of The Memorial University of Newfoundland. He was also the author of The Tradition of Liberal Theology (2014) and An Introduction to Western Moral Philosophy (2018).