Akbar came to the throne when he was only thirteen years old. In the years that followed, he built on of the greatest empires of his time. He lived in unimaginable splendor. He was surrounded by courtiers who agreed with every word he said, who flattered him and treated him as if he were a god. Perhaps it was not surprising that Emperor Akbar was sometimes arrogant and behaved as if the whole world belonged to him.
One day, Birbal decided to make the great emperor stop and think about life.
That evening as the emperor was going towards his palace, he noticed a Sadhu lying in the centre of his garden. He could not believe his eyes. A strange Sadhu, in ragged clothes, right in the middle of the palace garden? The guards would have to be punished for this, thought the emperor furiously as he walked over to that Sadhu and prodded him with the tip of his embroidered slipper.
“Here, fellow!” he cried. “What are you doing here? Get up and go away at once!”
That Sadhu opened his eyes. Then he sat up slowly. “Huzoor,” he said in a sleepy voice. “Is this your garden, then?”
“Yes!” cried the Emperor. “This garden those rose bushes, the fountain beyond that, the courtyard, the palace, this fort, this empire, it all belongs to me!”
Slowly that Sadhu stood up. “And the river, Huzoor? And the city? And this country?”
“Yes, yes, it’s all mine”, said the emperor. “Now get out!”
“Ah”, said the Sadhu. “And before you, Huzoor. Who did the garden and fort and city belong to then?”
“My father, of course”, said the emperor. In spite of his irritation, he was beginning to get interested in the Sadhu’s questions. He loved philosophical discussions and he could tell, from his manner of speaking, that the Sadhu was a learned man.
“And who was here before him?” the Sadhu asked quietly.
“His father, my father’s father, as you know.”
“Ah”, said the Sadhu. So this garden, those rose bushes, the palace and the fort all this has only belonged to you for your lifetime. Before that they belonged to your father, am I right? And after yours time they will belong to your son, and then to his son?
“Yes”, said the Emperor Akbar wonderingly.
“So each one stays here for a time and then goes on his ways?”
“Like a dharmashala?” the Sadhu asked. “No one owns a dharmashala. Or the shade of a tree on the side of a road. We stop and rest for a while and then go on. And someone has always been there before us and someone will always come after we have gone. Is that not so?”
“It is”, Emperor Akbar quietly.
“So your garden, your palace, your fort, your empire… these are only places you will stay in for a time, for the span of your lifetime. When you die, they will no longer belong to you. You will go, leaving them in the possession of someone else, just as your father did and his father before him.”
Emperor Akbar nodded. “The whole world is a dharmashala”, he said slowly, thinking very hard. “In which we mortals rest awhile. That’s what you are telling me, isn’t it? Nothing on this earth can ever belong to a single person, because each person is only passing through the earth and must die one day?”
The Sadhu nodded solemnly. Then, bowing to the ground, he removed his white beard and saffron turban and his voice changed. “Jahanpanah, forgive me!” he said, in his normal voice. “It was my way of asking you to think about…”
“Birbal, oh, Birbal!” the emperor exclaimed. “You are wiser than any philosopher. Come, come at once to the royal chamber and let us discuss this further. Even emperors are but wayfarers on the path of life, it is clear!”