The story of the Merchant and the Parrot, like all stories in Rumi's Masnavi, is full of deep meanings illuminated by his mystical thoughts.
In general, Rumi is not a story teller but he recounts stories from different sources, changing them as he needs for the higher purpose of expressing his mystical states. It is important to keep this in mind so that his stories could be considered not merely as entertaining stories, but as vessels containing deep spiritual realities and their relationship with human beings.
These apparently ordinary stories provide the context for his prolific teachings
which open into horizons of various spiritual levels. Some people just receive and enjoy the stories as they first appear to their senses and minds, or perhaps they receive one level beyond that, whereas some are able to receive a much higher level of meaning from these spiritual gems scattered throughout. The level of that which is received has to do with one's awareness of reality and how much spiritual work one has done on his or her self.
For example, the 'parrot' in this story represents human beings and specifically the life of humans in this world. In every part of this story that is about a parrot, the reader should not think of it as an ordinary parrot living in a cage, and in the intervals throughout the story when Rumi himself has been taken away to higher levels, the veil drops and it becomes more clear that it is Rumi who is talking or teaching through the character of the story.
Because Rumi's writings are expressions of the unfolding states within him, instead of simply following a normal narrative arc, he follows what comes to his heart, which means that the simple narrative of the parrot is repeatedly submerged under teachings of divine wisdom, outpourings of love in one moment, then turning into instructions on the spiritual path to his readers the next moment. Often Rumi, following these inspirations, takes off and it is only after these 'divine inspirations' recede that we are able to pick up the story where we left off, usually some pages later. These moments where Rumi 'takes off' from the story are very important, they hold much of his higher level teachings. This story of the parrot is no exception. There is hardly a phrase or verse that should be overlooked in this beautiful story or in fact in all the stories of his Masnavi, as it is so replete with spiritual teachings. However, we have chosen only some verses of the story and have made some commentary in keeping within the scope of this article.
The story begins with the merchant preparing to go to India and as was customary in the old days, he asks his servants as well as the parrot what they would like as a gift to bring back. Each one of his servants 'tell him some object of his desire', however the parrot doesn't ask for a gift, rather she has a very particular request.
There was a merchant, and he had a parrot imprisoned in a cage, a pretty parrot.
When the merchant made ready for travel and was about to depart to India,
(As was the custom in the old days) he said to each male slave and each handmaid, "What shall I bring (home) for you?"
Each one asked him for some object of desire: that good man gave his promise to them all.
He said to the parrot, "What present would you like me to bring for you from the land of India?"
Masnavi I: 1547-51
In Persian mystical literature, India was the symbol of the world of meaning and soul. The parrot is the symbol of the human soul that is imprisoned in this cage of the body.
The parrot said to him, "When thou see the parrots there, explain my plight (and say),
'Such and such a parrot, who is longing for you, is in my prison by the destiny of Heaven.'"
Masnavi I: 1552-3
The parrot asks the merchant to tell the free parrots, (who symbolize the souls of those who are freed from the prison of the material world, that is, the mystics and saints) that this parrot longs for freedom but is trapped in a cage.
"She salutes you and asks for justice and desires (to learn) from you the means and way of being rightly guided."
She says, "Is it fair that I in yearning (after you) should give up hope and die here in separation?
Is this right - (that) I (should be) in grievous bondage, you are now on green plants, now on trees?
Is this the faith kept by friends? - I in this prison and you in the rose-garden?
O ye noble ones, call to mind this piteous bird, (and drink in memory of me) a morning-draught amongst the meadows!"
Masnavi I: 1554-8
"O you who consort with your charming and adored one, I am drinking cups filled with my own blood."
Masnavi I: 1560
"Oh, where, I wonder, is that covenant and oath? Where are the promises of that lip like candy?
If the separation of the servant is due to being a bad servant, if Thou do ill to the ill-doer then what is the difference between us?"
Masnavi I: 1563-4
At this point, Rumi is engaging in an intimate conversation with God (munajat) and has moved away from the story. He says from the tongue of the parrot: You were not supposed to leave us alone in this prison, You have made sweet promises to Your servants, if You deprive us due to our bad servanthood, if You treat a servant like me badly, then what is the difference between me and You?
Then immediately the voice of the lover part of him takes over.
Oh, the ill Thou doest in wrath and quarrel is more delightful than music and the sound of the harp.
Oh, Thy suffering is better than felicity, and Thy vengeance dearer than life.
If Your fire is like this, what must be Your light, if Your mourning is like this, what would be Your festivity?
In respect of the sweetnesses which Thy wrath hath, and in respect of Thy beauty, no one gets to the bottom of Thee.
I complain, and (yet) I fear that He'd believe me and due to kindness make that suffering less.
I am in love with His wrath and His kindness. How amazing that I am in love with both these contraries.
Masnavi I: 1565-70
In telling these stories Rumi recounts not only his state but the state of all humanity. Only great human beings who are beyond their time and space have such an ability because their concerns have become existential concerns. Their pains and concerns relates to the concerns of the human race. This is the very reason for the permanence and immortality of great human beings.
In these verses, and many more, Rumi continues praying and talking to God and speaks of the contradiction that a lover faces. On the one hand, he complains about the fire of hardship, and on the other hand, he fears that God may reduce this fire. The lover is the one who is happy with the Beloved's anger and considers this as a sign of the Beloved's attention and guidance. Rumi says: I love God in both faces of His opposite attributes, when He smiles at me with His Beauty (Jamal) and when He is angry through His Majesty (Jalal). The lover not only tolerates the pain, but relates to the sweet tasting kindness (lotf) present in the wrath and punishment of the Beloved.
This experience of the lover loving God's opposite attributes is why Rumi speaks of the lover as one who loves the totality. In fact, the lover is like a part who wants his whole and wants to return to his whole. In other words, he loves himself because he does not see God apart from himself and in the depths of his being there is nothing but God. So, whoever steps on this path, seeks to find himself. He seeks to find his own truth and Reality. As the Prophet said: he who wants to know God must know himself.
He is a lover of the Universal, and he himself is the Universal: he is in love with himself and seeking his own love.
Masnavi I: 1574
As mentioned earlier, many times Rumi 'takes off' transcending into higher levels as he does at this juncture of the story. At a certain point in his mystical state he realises that he is saying too many of the things that he should not be saying, as it is beyond the comprehension of many. He addresses himself:
Cut short the explanation of this and avert thy face from it: do not breathe a word (more) - and God knows best what is right.
Masnavi I: 1584
In the next part of the story the merchant travels to India and conveys the parrot's message to those parrots of India. We will continue this story and commentary in Part Two coming soon.