Monday, April 11, 2011

Blind Men, Blind Elephants

In the comments to my previous post, Steve Caldwell refers to a joke over at his blog that parodies the famed Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant -- a parable about the ineffable nature of the divine.

(A digression: Writing that I was reminded of seeing a blog whose motto was "effing the ineffable..." -- which led me to Google that phrase and see it attributed to, among others, Alan Watts...)

In God Is Not One, Prothero also makes reference to the blind-men-and-the-elephant story, and how it is usually interpreted: "No one has the whole truth, but each is touching the elephant" -- a single, unified God perceivable through all religions. He then turns that favorite ecumenical* interpretation on its head:

But this folk tale also demonstrates how different religions are, since it has been told in various ways and put to various uses by various religious groups.
For Buddhists, it is about how metaphysical speculation is pointless and merely induces suffering. For Hindus, it is about the ability to reach God through many paths. For Sufis, it is about using the heart rather than the mind to perceive God. For the satirist John Godfrey Saxe, the British poet who arguably introduced the story to the west, it's about the stupidity of all theology.

Now, I've always liked the story's message about the necessity of humility for anyone who seeks to privilege his or her own faith perspective, so I suppose the Hindu interpretation (or the Jain one, evidently) is most appealing to me. But I smiled in rueful recognition when I read Prothero's take on it.

As Steve notes on his blog, one lesson from the parady is about the hazards of appropriating other religious traditions and rituals:
Like the blind elephants, we may accidentally transform and even distort another's religion into a form wildly different from the original through our exploration.

A point well taken. But I'll say this: In reading Prothero it's fascinating to see how many religious traditions have borrowed from and been influenced by each other over the centuries. This seems especially true in Asia, as Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism all influenced each other (and where it's not uncommon for people to in fact worship in all three traditions interchangeably), but it is not limited to that part of the world or to those faiths by any means.

I've always been inclined to a more laissez-faire attitude toward the issue of appropriation. So long as what is borrowed is borrowed respectfully, and so long as its authenticity is not misrepresented, I'm inclined to give a lot of what some people criticize as appropriation a pass.

Reading Prothero just reinforced my point of view on the matter.

*By coincidence, I just now read this post pointing out that "ecumenical" is not the same as "interfaith". Taking that message to heart, I've edited the passage accordingly, and decided I didn't really need an alternative adjective.

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely, DSD! Using things from unrelated sources and then interpreting them in ways that suit our own ways of being, thinking, feeling, and doing is the very nature of human culture. We need not use something the way the original maker intended (as if there even were such a thing in cultures) to avoid being cultural goons. Honesty and transparency are what is needed.


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