Sri Ramakrishna would often speak about Advaita as the Ultimate Knowledge. But he would also warn the devotees that unless it is understood properly, one might be misled into a false sense of perception. He used to narrate a story to illustrate this point.
A king was once taught by his Guru the sacred doctrine of Advaita, which declares that the whole universe is Brahman. The king was very much pleased by this doctrine. He told his queen that there was no distinction between her and her maidservant and that the latter would be his queen from then onwards. The queen was dumbstruck by this mad proposal of her husband. She went to the king’s guru and complained to him how his teachings had led his disciple to take a disastrous decision. The guru consoled her and asked her to keep a pot of cowdung alongwith other delicacies when she serves dinner to the king that night. Who could imagine the anger of the king when he saw the dish of cowdung served for his meal along with cooked rice? Seeing this, the guru calmly told him that he was well versed in the knowledge of Advaita and how could he see any distinction between cowdung and rice. The king became exasperated and challenged the guru to eat the cowdung if he could since the guru prided himself about his knowledge of Advaita. Without a moment’s hesitation the guru swallowed the cowdung. The king became extremely ashamed and understood where he went wrong. He realised that his disastrous proposal to make the maidservant his queen was due to his wrong understanding of the idea of Advaita.
Thus Sri Ramakrishna would say, understanding Advaita intellectually was one thing and realizing the truth of Advaita was altogether a different thing. The latter is possible only through intense Sadhana consisting of Tyaga and Viveka, namely renunciation and discrimination.
– by Swami Shantatmananda, published in the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ column, Sunday Guardian, 26th Oct 2013