“We don’t see reality, we interpret what we see and call it reality; and we base our behaviour on what we perceive as reality, rather than reality itself” [Langton, 2007]. India has always been conscious of this human trait, as is evident from the Vedic (1700-1100) statement “Yatha Drishti Tatha Srishti” — meaning “as you perceive, so is the world you create”. To educate the masses of this human failing, the Indian seers evolved the story ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’; which has been used by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and the Sufis for centuries, and continues to be popular in
the modern world. Drawn by its universal appeal, John Godfrey Saxe the 19th century
American poet poeticized it in English as below2.
It was six men of Indostan, To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant, (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation, Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant, And happening to fall, Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl:
«God bless me! but the Elephant, Is very like a WALL!».
The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried, «Ho, what have we here, So very round and smooth and sharp? To me 'tis mighty clear: This wonder of an Elephant, Is very like a SPEAR!»
The Third approached the animal, And happening to take,
The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake:
«I see,» quoth he, «the Elephant, Is very like a SNAKE!»
The Fourth reached out an eager hand, And felt about the knee
«What most this wondrous beast is like, Is mighty plain,» quoth he:
«'Tis clear enough the Elephant, Is very like a TREE!»
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: «E'en the blindest man Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can:
This marvel of an Elephant, Is very like a FAN!»
The Sixth no sooner had begun, About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail, That fell within his scope:
«I see,» quoth he, «the Elephant Is very like a ROPE!»
And so these men of Indostan, Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion, Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!
The story brings out four important learning — (i) man possesses a compulsive tendency to interpret rather than investigate; (ii) what man experiences or interprets is the only truth for him; (iii) anything short of absolute truth has the propensity to create divisions, confusion and crisis; and (iv) collective thinking and action is the solution to confusion and crisis. While the first three learning are apparent, let us look at the fourth. The fundamental law of nature is ‘mutuality and harmony’ and is the crux of all sustainable human evolution and growth. Had the blind men recognizing their challenge of sight, agreed to perceive the elephant collaboratively, their understanding of the elephant would have been more complete with no dispute amongst them. Thus, collective thinking and action (collectivism) leads to coherence and harmony in society, whereas individual thinking and action (individualism) creates a situation of confusion, conflict and crisis. Highlighting the importance of collective thinking and action, Albert Einstein says “When we survey our lives and endeavours, we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires is bound up with the existence of other human beings. The individual, if left alone from birth, would remain primitive and beastlike in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive”.
2 John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887); see http://www.constitution.org/col/blind_men.htm
We live in two worlds simultaneously — the internal world of thoughts, values, aspirations and experiences, and the external world of action and material gratification. Both these worlds are intricately connected and they need to grow and evolve in unison. Unfortunately, in the last two centuries or so, our external world has developed leaps and bound, while our internal world has failed to grow correspondingly. This imbalance has led to the erosion of human values from all dimensions of life (social, political, economic or environmental) with scientism and materialism dominating our thinking and actions. Thinkers like Tawney, Sorokin, Schumacher, Carrel, Toynbee, Rifkin, Bohm repeatedly warned us of the disastrous consequences of this trend, but we chose to look the other way. Thus it is not surprising that our lower nature got unleashed — desire (kama), anger (krodh), attachment (moha), greed (lobha) and ego (ahankar). These are human weaknesses, which if left unchecked, makes us an island unto ourself.
Let us briefly look at the genesis of the present day culture. Traditionally the creation was viewed as an ‘integrated whole system’ (‘idealistic’ view) with the material world as a sub-system. However, with the advent of modern science, the material world started being viewed as ‘whole system’ in itself on account of modern science professing that material reality is the only reality. This soon turned into a worldview and the subjective world (God, spirituality, consciousness) was declared as a figment of human imagination, therefore of no relevance to human life. The ancient wisdom about time, space, matter, and causality was systematically assaulted, and the concept of God, justice, love, power, and beauty redefined [Toffler, 1981: p.110]. Influenced by scientism and materialism, we first alienated natural philosophy (material laws) from philosophy (universal laws). Gradually we removed all references to subjective human requirements from all disciplines of education. Neoclassical economics removed the value quotient from economic and business decision making process. Medical research reduced human consciousness to a function of the neurons in the brain. Educational institutions became a factory to produce educated workforce to meet the demands of industrialization (material growth) and religion a tool in the hands of the politicians to manipulate society for vote purposes. Relationships became contractual and a socio- economic culture evolved in which co-existence got replaced by competition. The ‘We- Us-Ours’ got pushed out by ‘I-Me-My’. In simple words, mater started dominating the spirit, leading to a crisis of character in ourselves and society.