Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle-God Momma: the mahout's cry

yp_elephant3God is not always far away.  In some parts of the world, God is everywhere all the time.  Not as in we are surrounded by God’s creation, but as in everything is God.  Alan Watts characterized the world as God playing hide and seek with Itself.  God is a masterful player of hide and seek, so good, in fact, that It manages to forget the game entirely and become wholly enveloped in the world.  That  would be you: God forgetting Itself.  And so in India, the classic Hindu greeting is to place the hands together as in prayer and bow to the other.  The bow is a recognition of God within the other person.  Not, of course, the other person’s earthly ego but the Self (Atman).

Heady stuff.  The bow is ritualized and Indians clearly do not all go around contemplating that they are the ultimate ground of being.  It is metaphor pointing the way to the idea that the kingdom of heaven is within; recognizing God in others leads to seeing that the kingdom of heaven is also without.

Actually practicing such belief is the task of mystics.  Some spend 40 days in the desert, communing with the Self.  Others attach themselves to a teacher, who has the task not only of building the mystic but also breaking down the ego that ensnares God…the Self.

Joseph Campbell was a marvelous story teller, and one of his favorite stories follows below.  It deals not only with the aspirant’s path, but also the role, and limitations, of the teacher.  In the end, the spiritual quest is inward pointing because without experiencing It there can only be belief.  Belief is simply the experience ritualized and turned into metaphor; it can be mistaken for the experience in ritualized conduct, leaving God farther away than ever.  When the experience is real, it is as profound as being knocked around by an elephant.

There is a popular Indian fable that Ramakrishna used to like to tell, to illustrate the difficulty of holding in mind the two conscious planes simultaneously, of the multiple and the transcendent.  It is of a young aspirant whose guru had just brought home to him the realization of himself as identical in essence with the power that supports the universe and which in theological thinking we personify as “God.”  The youth, profoundly moved, exalted in the notion of himself as at one with the Lord and Being of the Universe, walked away in a state of profound absorption; and when he had passed in that state through the village and out onto the road beyond it, he beheld, coming in his direction, a great elephant bearing a howdah on its back and with the mahout, the driver, riding –as they do–high on its neck, above its head.  And the young candidate for sainthood, meditating on the proposition “I am God; all things are God,” on perceiving that mighty elephant coming toward him, added the obvious corollary, “The elephant also is God.”  The animal, with its bells jingling to the majestic rhythm of its stately approach, was steadily coming on, and the mahout above its head began shouting, “Clear the way! Clear the way, you idiot!”  The youth, in his rapture, was thinking still, “I am God; that elephant is God.”  And, hearing the shouts of the mahout, he added, “Should God be afraid of God?  Should God get out of the way of God?”  The phenomenon came steadily on with driver at its head still shouting at him, and the youth, in undistracted meditation, held both to his place on the road and to his transcendental insight, until the moment of truth arrived and the elephant, simply wrappings its great trunk around the lunatic, tossed him aside, off the road.

Physically shocked, spiritually stunned, the youth landed all in a heap, not greatly bruised but altogether undone; and rising, not even adjusting his clothes, he returned, disordered, to his guru, to require an explanation.  “You told me,” he said, when he had explained himself, “you told me that I was God.”  “Yes,” said the guru, “you are God.”  “You told me that all things are God.”  “That elephant, then, was God?”  “So it was.  That elephant was God.  But why didn’t you listen to the voice of God, shouting from the elephant’s head, to get out of the way?”*

Can you imagine a lesson like this being taught in Sunday school?  Paul, preaching to merchants in the Levant, established an economic structure in Christianity.  It all boils down to a credit crisis of the soul with a heavy accent on obedience to authority.  The Orient’s path to an experience of identity with God is not only absent, it is the heresy of heresies.  That possibility was realized just once in the person of Jesus Christ.  The relationship to God is defined by social inclusion in the supernatural group of believers, which leaves all others exiled from their maker and sets group members apart, as well as above, the rest of humanity.  The problem of ego becomes enlarged rather than solved.  Reconciliation with God gets turned outward, and the zealous believer attempts to clear the world rather than his own soul.

In the East, the idea of man being true God and true man is no one off miracle.  Everyone is both true God and true man…the guru, the aspirant, the mahout, even the elephant.  The trick is to awaken to the most common of miracles.

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*Myths to Live By (pp. 149-151)

1 reply »

  1. “Credit crisis of the soul.” Gonna use that.

    Alan Watts also observes that according to traditional Christianity, all we can hope for is to be children of God by adoption, not true children.

    This post clarifies the very meaning of Incarnation. If someone as “untouchable” as Jesus (conceived to an unmarried mother? in the society of 1st century Palestine? If we know that now, you can be sure everyone then did.) can be the Son of God, we ALL are children of god.