Saturday, April 2, 2011

What's true and what's not?

I read this article in the Straits Times, and reading it, reflecting back on myself today, hm. Bad bad girl. Would love to have scanned it for you guys, but my scanner's too puny to do that.

I've a lot of guilty things to confess, but i'll do it another day. I promise I will!

What's True and What's Not by Gary Hayden
The Straits Times, 31 March 2011

I love myths, legends and parables. Recently, I came across a wonderful old tale which originated in India and has become part of the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sufi religious traditions.

Here is how it goes:
Many years ago, there lived six blind men. One day, they heard that an elephant had wandered into their village.
As none of them had any idea what an elephant was, they decided to investigate.

One of them touched the beast's leg and declared: "Hey, an elephant is like a pillar!"

Another touched its ear and said: "No, it is like an enormous hand-fan."

The next man felt the animal's torso and insisted: "You're both wrong. An elephant is like a wall."

The others also examined the elephant and each formed a different opinion.

"An elephant is like a spear, " said the fourth man, running his hands over a tusk.

"Nonsence! It's like a huge snake," said the fifth man, feeling the trunk.

"You're all crazy! An elephant is like a rope, " exclaimed the sixth man, who had grasped the tail.

The argument grew heated. Luckily, before they came to blows, a wise man appeared along.
He explained that each of them had felt a different part of the beast and each had spoken the truth from his own perspective.

The parable has many interpretations.

The Hindu sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used it to warn against religious dogmatism, declaring: "In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else."

The Buddha compared the blind men in the story to those preachers and scholars who, blinded by their ignorance and arrogance, will only ever see one side of a thing.

I like both of these interpretations.

But, to me, the parable speaks most strongly about everyday concerns. In particular, the tendency we all have, in any situation, to think that we are right and everyone else is wrong.

I am right, You are wrong.
I remember, in the early days of my marriage, being often surprised and sometimes irritated by my wife's inability to see when she was in the wrong.

Even when-- it had seemed to me-- she was clearing in wrong.

It is difficult, after all this time, to remember details.

But say, for example, she had become angry with me for watching TV when i had promised to clean the kitchen.

I patiently explained to her that I had worked very hard all week; that i was feeling exhausted; and that I really needed to relax.

Yet still, against all justice and reason, she persisted in being annoyed.

At the time, I felt sure that truth was on my side; that any impartial referee would judge the matter in my favour; that I was right and she was wrong.

It wook me years to learn that there is no simple truth in such matters; that human interactions are complex and multifaceted; and that my view of things, however right it may seem, will always be limited and incomplete.

All this brings to me yet another interpretation of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

This one comes from Jainism, an ancient religious tradition from India.

Vardhamma, a Jain philosopher, taught that all viewpoints are partial.
Whatever world view we adopt, we ought to bear this in mind and should therefore precede our statements with a "Maybe".

That is, we should start our sentences with:
"Maybe this is the way it is..."

This idea is known as syadvada, which is very important in Jainism.

It is used to illustrate the concept of syadvada and to teach that there may be some truth to what someone else says, even if we cannot see it ourselves.

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