The three questions

There was a young traveller who had been walking for hours and hours. Finally the day was drawing to a close and he was becoming extremely tired. At last he noticed a small hut. Entering the hut, he saw that the owner was cooking something over a fire.

The traveller asked, “Could I please pass the night here with you?”

The owner answered, “Certainly! I am always glad to offer hospitality to travellers. You have come at the right time. I am cooking and I shall soon be able to offer you a most delicious meal. Just wait a little.

“By the way, I shall ask you a few questions. If you can answer them, I shall be very happy. If you cannot answer them to my satisfaction, I tell you, I may not give you shelter and I may not allow you to eat anything. In fact, I may even punish you!”

“I am to be punished?” responded the traveller. “What kind of hospitality is this?”

“The questions will be very simple,” the host assured him.

The traveller said, “All right. If the questions are simple, I shall agree to your condition. It is quite dark outside and I do not know where I shall find another hut to pass the night. And you are tempting me with a most delicious meal. But mind you, the questions have to be very simple and straightforward.”

His host repeated, “Yes, yes, the questions will be so simple, so simple.”

Just as the host was preparing to ask the traveller the first question, the traveller saw that a cat had strolled into the hut. The cat had a bandage on its tail, but this did not seem to bother it at all.

The host pointed at the cat and said, “My first question is: what is this?”

The traveller was deeply relieved to hear such an easy question. He said, “It is just a cat. I feel sorry for it because it is forced to wear a bandage on its tail. Perhaps it is injured.”

The host said, “A cat? How dare you say this is just a cat! This is Agni. I gave it the name Agni, and now you have to say it is just a cat!”

So he gave his guest a very smart slap as the punishment for his wrong answer. Then the host showed the traveller a jug containing water. He asked, “What do you think I have inside the jug?”

The traveller replied, “That is easy! It is water.”

“What an insult!” shouted the host. “You are saying that this is water? No, for me it is life itself that is inside this jug! It can never be mere water.” Again he gave the traveller a smart slap.

Even after punishing the traveller, the host was still exclaiming, “My very life exists inside this jug and he has to call it water!”

Finally the host said, “I have one more question.”

“If your third question is like the first two, then after the third question I will leave,” said the poor traveller.

His host said, “If you can answer the third question, then I will forget your first two deplorable answers. You will be able to stay and eat the most delicious meal that I am preparing and you can spend the night here.”

Then the host indicated the roof of his house and asked, “What is this?”

“It is a roof,” said the traveller.

“Roof!” cried the host. “You fool, I am showing you the height of my house!” For the third time he gave the traveller a very painful slap.

By now the traveller was extremely disgusted and angry. He said, “This is too much, too much! O God, what is happening to me? Why should I endure this for the sake of a meal and a place to spend the night? I do not need these things. I am going away this very moment!”

The traveller gathered his belongings and marched out of the house. At the foot of a large tree nearby, he stopped for a few minutes to recover himself. He lit a cigarette and threw the matchstick on the ground. Then he started smoking. To his astonishment, he noticed that the cat had followed him. The cat went up to investigate the matchstick. Unfortunately the matchstick was still smouldering. Suddenly, the bandage on the cat’s tail caught fire. In a frenzy, the cat ran back to the hut and climbed onto the roof. The roof was made of straw and it was soon consumed with flames.

The owner of the hut rushed out and cried, “What have you done? What have you done?”

The traveller said, “I have not done anything. It was your Agni who did it! Agni is the god of fire. He wanted to show you his true nature. He is revealing himself to you. Agni is like that. He rewards his devotees by showing his power. Now, for God’s sake, take your jug of ‘life’ and save your hut!”

But it was too late. The hut was burned to ashes, and the traveller went on his way. What a bad fellow the owner was!