Philosophy of Proverbs


Sri Swami Sivananda

This article is a chapter from the book Essence of Vedanta.

Very often we run after the shadow, discarding the substance in the background. In the spiritual sense, this theory is the very root of bondage. Instead of seeking God and realising his oneness with Him, man runs after His shadow, the world. This is the cause of all misery on earth.

Even in the case of the meaning of the word ‘God’ itself we more often than not understand the ‘shadow’ rather than the real ‘substance’ that is God. We concentrate so much on this unreal thing that in course of time we lose consciousness of the existence of the real. In our admiration of the tree, we miss the grand spectacle of the wood!

This is true of our understanding of the scriptures, too. How often have not reformers had to thunder forth to antagonistic millions the true significance of the teachings of the Prophets and Saints and dispel the darkness of wrong notions that had covered up the essence! The origin of most of the religions of the world could be traced out to this sort of renaissance. The source was only one religion. In course of time, people of deluded understanding began to interpret its tenets variously and started forming parties. They split themselves into opposing camps, each owning to be the sole votaries of the real purport of the ancients’ utterances. Then will arise a star who will dive deeper into the ocean of wisdom and bring out the pearl of Truth. Some will follow him; others will still strike the discordant note. The new Seer will get together a band of followers to propagate his teachings; and these will establish a new religion. And, so the game has gone on for ages!

Besides the scriptural teachings, all religions have had the ‘sayings’ of their prophets. These are also classed under proverbs, though these include other ideas. Those of the proverbs which have such a spiritual background have as much of deep, secret and mystical meaning as the scriptural utterances themselves. This makes the real idea which they wish to convey to be misconstrued by posterity; and often some nonsensical notes are sounded in a futile attempt to give a true rendering of this sublime music!

Let us take a few examples from the Tamil literature. There is a beautiful (and amusing as it has become nowadays) proverb which means: “When you see (the) dog, there is no stone; when you see (the) stone, there is no dog.” This has come to be regarded as a remark made by someone in a light vein, or at least not in a very serious mood. The proverb is taken to convey what it literally does. A man is passing along the road in a village. Several dogs stroll about him. “What a pity!” he is made to think, “There are so many dogs all about me. How I wish there was a stone near at hand so that I could enjoy a throw at them!” During a pilgrimage the same man looks at beautiful, well-polished stones lining the banks of the Ganga; then he thinks, “What a pity, again! Here there are any number of the most lovely stones. But, not a dog to hit them with!” This is the interpretation of the vulgar proverb. Even the serious amongst humanity nowadays will at best interpret it to man that this proverb merely restates an old idea regarding earthly fortunes. Where money is most needed, it is usually absent; where it is already superfluous, it is found in more and more abundance. Few care to stop to think what the proverb really has to convey.

Before we proceed to examine the underlying sense of this proverb let us divert our attention to ‘God’ vis-a-vis the world. What is this world and what is God? “Brahma satyam jaganmithya jivo brahmaiva na aparah”, roared the ancient seers. God alone is truth; the world does not exist at all, they said. But, we see it?—posed the uninitiated.

Yes, we see it as we see snake in the rope; as we see water in the mirage; as we see silver in the mother-of-pearl. A man comes home from his office, tired and exhausted and as he steps into his house, he feels that he has trodden a snake. He is not able to examine the thing in the darkness. In that weakened state, his reasoning fails him. His head reels; he is in the grip of fear. He imagines that he has been badly bitten by this snake. He staggers into the house and collapses into the nearest bed. At once a hue and cry—the man has been bitten by the snake! He almost loses consciousness. Crowds of people surrounded his cot. Weeping and wailing; praying and prattling; pandemonium prevails in the house. A seasoned man with flowing grey hairs of wisdom enters and shouts: “Leave the way, let me examine the patient.” He gets nearer the bed, and calmly examines the man. Unable to detect any signs of snake-bite, he thinks, his hands combing the long beard, “No, this can’t be.” He is determined! “Let me see,” he says, “Where did the snake bite you?” The dying man feebly answers: “Four yards away from the entrance.” With a lantern in hand, the old man sets out on his errand. Of course, the snake if it had bitten him would not be stationary, still. Exactly on the spot mentioned by the patient, there was “the snake”. But the flash of light has turned it into an old garland of flowers! Triumphantly, with that garland-snake in hand, the old man returns to the deathbed and with a sagacious twitch playing on his lips, he exhibits the snake to the astounded audience. “This is, my dear man, the snake that bit you. It has no poison-fangs. So, wake up. Change your shirt which is wet with perspiration.” The dying man is at once electrified and the pain and fear leave him. Brightly he gets up, embraces his saviour and bids goodbye to the crowd!

That is what the world is. It is a superimposition on Brahman. In essence, it is not there; at least, as what it seems to be. So long as you see it in darkness, it appears as the snake. Light the lamp of wisdom and in its effulgence, the world as such will disappear, and you will perceive the Essence (Brahman in all Its grandeur). Several Tamil saints have conveyed this idea in very beautiful and sublime verses. He who sees God, does not perceive the world made up of the five elements; and who is engrossed in the play of the elements is blinded to the vision of God.

To arrive at the real purport of the proverbs, we should know the context in which that proverb took its birth. Only then can we understand the sense which the letters wish to convey.

A sculptor moves around an old temple, with every one of his senses and the mind absorbed in the beauty of the carvings on the walls of the temple. He feels the tail of a cat; ah, how beautiful it is! There, the mouth of that lion with that stone-ball inside! So, he moves from one carving to another. He takes a turn. “Lo! That huge dog! If only it jumps on me! Look at its sharp teeth; and its bloodthirsty tongue flowing out of its mouth! It is looking directly at me. O my God, what am I to do now?” Perplexed, he closes his eyes. One minute passes, two, three, four. Still the dog is hesitant. “Why, probably it is chained.” He throws a small stone at it. It does not move. He goes nearer. Still it stands where it was, staring at him all the time. “Why, it does not even wag its tail. Peculiar dog it must be.” He goes yet nearer and touches its tail. His whole body rocks with laughter at his own idiotic behaviour. It is made of stone! Yet, such was the workmanship, the colouring and the art that it actually looks like a living dog. This is what was meant by the poet who said, “When there is the dog, there is no stone; when there is the stone, there is no dog.” When you see the dog, there was no idea that it was of stone. When you realise it is made of stone, the idea of dog vanishes! What travesty of truth it is to superimpose all sorts of ludicrous ideas on this proverb which conveys the highest truth! When you see the diversity, Unity disappears; and vice versa. When you realise God, world disappears; when you lose yourself in the world, you cannot realise God!

This idea is beautifully expressed in many a couplet in Tamil literature. One says: “The elephant screened the wood; and in the wood disappeared the elephant.” It sounds mystic! Take an instance. A young child has an elephant made of mango-wood which he got as a present from his fond parent. A carpenter is working on the verandah. It runs to him and shows the elephant to him. “See, how big are his legs. Look at his winnow-like ears. Booh! The tusks will pierce your chest.” The child plays with it as if it were an elephant in reality. The carpenter takes the doll in his hand and examines it. “Why, child, it is not a good one.” “What, my elephant?” “Yes. It is made of mango-wood. It will get spoiled soon.” To the carpenter, it is not an elephant; but a piece of wood! Such is the difference in the attitude towards the world between the worldly man and a saint. The worldly man sees the world as a diversity, as a mixture of pleasure and pain, as a conglomeration of objects; the saint perceives the one Hidden Essence which pervades the whole universe—to him it is an ‘Abhasa’ of that Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute, Brahman.

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