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The Guru & The Cat

Guru & Cat 

Once upon a time in a certain village in India there lived a guru.  Every evening the guru would sit on his seat and deliver a lecture to the public. It so happened that the guru had a cat, and just at the time of giving the lecture the cat would create a big disturbance.

Being greatly annoyed by the cat, the guru decided to tie the cat to a tree before starting his lecture. So doing, the guru then delivered the lecture without disturbance. It worked so well that the guru regularly tied the cat to the tree before beginning his discourse.

 After some years the guru died. His disciples carried on the guru’s program. They also continued tying the cat to the tree.  When the cat died, they bought another cat and thus the ritual of tying a cat to a tree continued generation after generation.

In the fifth generation that followed the guru, one of the renowned followers wrote an elaborate treatise on the spiritual significance of tying a cat to a tree before beginning one’s studies of the scriptures.

“For the current of our spiritual life creeds, rituals and channels that may thwart or help, according to their fixity or openness. When a symbol or spiritual idea becomes rigidly elaborate in its construction, it supplants the idea which it should support.” Rabindranath Tagore

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September 9, 2006 - Posted by | As It Is, Hare Krishna, Humor, India

8 Comments »

  1. That’s funny story!!
    And base of all rituals…I believe, behind every rituals there is such story ..

    Comment by shashi | September 9, 2006 | Reply

  2. The Origin of Dogmatic Fundamentalism

    Comment by Madhava Gosh | September 10, 2006 | Reply

  3. When I first read this story in As It Is, I thought it was quite thought-provoking – in the sense that it seemed like a bit of a critique on some of our own Vaishnava ritualistic practices. However, that was before I got a degree in Philosophy. Now, when I read the story, I see some problems with it.

    The main problem is that the scenario that is created is very unlikely. The guru’s cat? How many gurus have a cat? Not only do our gurus not have cats, but we have the story about a renunciate becoming attached to a deer and needing to come back as a deer. So for this reason, the example does not seem relevant to us.

    Then, besides the unlikely cat ownership, the cat just happens to start freaking out right when the guru gives class? No reason? Do cats often just start freaking out for no reason, and causing major disturbance? Not that I’ve ever seen. Generally, they come and sit in someone’s lap and purr and try to get petted. So the story that is being set up seems rather unreal.

    Then, the solution is to tie the cat to a tree. Hmmmm. Anyone ever seen a cat tied to a tree before? A somewhat unusual solution.

    Alright, then they keep on tying the cat after the guru dies, although one would think they would get rid of the pesky creature. But then they get another cat when the original one dies?! Come on! This is too much! Is anyone really that stupid?

    And then there is the elaborate treatise on spiritual significance some generations later. Once again, it’s a real stretch. If there is some simple reason for a tradition, I think that it is generally known what it is, and there is no need for any elaborate treatises.

    This story is supposed to suggest that there are similar completely ridiculous reasons for our own spiritual practices. So let’s cut to the chase. What ritualistic practices that we perform have any similarity to this cat story? If someone has one, spit it out and let’s take a look at it.

    I will tell a quickie about how traditions get formed right from reality. I just happened to attend a Architecture graduation ceremony a few months ago. Now there was a noticeable peculiarity that was explained. All the graduates were wearing construction hats instead of the normal graduation hats; and the reason was that construction on the School of Architecture was not quite finished at the time of the first ever graduation ceremony, and all the graduates were required to wear hard hats. And so it became a tradition. Furthermore, it is especially appropriate because architects spend a lot of time on construction sites. So that was the story.

    Is there a problem with this? Is it stupid or meaningless like the cat story seems to be? Are they making up crazy reasons why it specially important to wear a hard hat instead of the normal graduation cap? No. It’s really quite clear. It’s actually kind of cool. It gives the school some special character.

    So I think most of our Vaishnava traditions have actually formed in the way I’ve described. When we look at an example from reality, it seems entirely different, and not unreasonable at all. Rather, it seems cool.

    I also took a look at Madhava Ghosh’s monkey story on Dogmatic Fundamentalism. Again, there are a few problems.

    The first is that although the monkeys may be dogmatic, they are right. Inotherwords, they believe something is harmful without knowing for sure for themselves, but they are right about it being harmful. So actually they are intelligent. It is said that those who accept knowledge from authorities without having to to learn from their own regretful experiences have the first-class intelligence.

    The truth is that we do the same thing by accepting an enormous amount of knowledge just on faith. For example, there are many poisonous substances, plants, vegetables, and so on. Of course, we hardly ever see these things these days. But if we were out in the wild and someone with knowledge told us some species of potato was poisonous, are we being dogmatic if we believe him? No. We are being intelligent. He is the expert. Of course, we could check for ourselves, but then we would die just like the ignorant hiker in Alaska who died a few years ago from eating some poisonous potatoes.

    The other problem with the example is that it does not carry over well to humans. The reason is that we have language, so that, in a similar situation, we would be able to explain why something was harmful. Then this knowledge would be passed on, and it would not be correct to say we were being dogmatic.

    As for the “fundamentalism” aspect, I don’t see where that comes into it. If I am trying really hard to convince you not to eat poisonous potatoes, including physically restraining you, does that make me a fundamentalist? But if someone has a suitable example from our tradition that is analogous to the monkey story, let’s hear it, and we can see if it is truly similar.

    Comment by Aniruddha d.B. Sherbow | September 10, 2006 | Reply

    • Dear Mr.Aniruddha d.B. Sherbow,

      Refer your comments on THE GURU’s CAT (Sept, 10th, 2006).

      Education enlightens some – and causes intellectual indigestion to some (please pardon my spelling mistakes if any. Just get the contents theirin – if POSSIBLE).

      Mom served wonderful food in a cute dish to an extra smart guest. All the while his attention was focussed on the dish; so much that I had to finally remind him that INGREDIENTS had been served to him – not the dish. Whether that improved his vision or not is not important, because whether to accept it or debate upon it lies within himself. I will not ellaborate on that.

      You felt that the GURU’s Cat :
      1. Appeared unrealistic.
      2. Cat messing around – was uncharacteristic to the cat.
      3. Gurus do not tame cats (never heard of)
      4. Tying cat to a tree – unusual solution.

      …….and many such things.

      I am really sorry that Father Anthony Demello’s book reached you. Education gave you enough of information to teach you to look at things from different angles. You selectively chose the wrong angles. What for? I do not know.

      I hope you never thought similarly about Aesop’s fables – or Panchatantra. You would say – “Thats a big joke. Do animals talk? – Does Fox ever eat grapes?…etc” thereby showing the contents to the trash. No! I am not sorry for Aesop or creators of Panchatantra – or Father Anthony D’mello. I am sorry for you. You are looking at the dish rather than the food.

      Yes. The story looks unreal – simply because it is not a true story. You are free to write another realistic story of a rich businessman trying to tame a monkey – who keeps bothering him during meetings, so how he ties him up…and all that kind of thing. The moral will be the same – whether Guru or businessman ; Cat or Monkey. This is my only reply to all the 4 points of yours mentioned above.

      One sincere advise from my side (if I am entitled to it). For a change, try reading these stories from THEIR point of view rather than showing the smart critic inside you. Because the story neverthless does it’s intended job, with millions of readers who know that the characters are unreal. You have no power to ruin the story’s logic. All you successfully did was to get derailed from your own mental growth.

      Want to see the traditions? Have a glimpse at these:

      1. We dont even know why millions pollute tonnes of water dumping the Ganesha in it on the 11th day. No God ever would told us to do that.
      2. Dussera is a great day. When are going to stop chopping those trees to distribute those leaves as a good luck sign.
      3. The latest is Goddess Santoshi Mata. She is suddenly recognised as Ganesha’s daughter. Boss!! When was she born? 19th century??
      – Sir, open your eyes and you will not require me to show you hundreds of such things that equal to tying of the Guru’s cat (or the businessman’s monkey – if you will like it that way).

      – Sir, wake up.

      Comment by Vasant B. Desai | July 18, 2010 | Reply

  4. The story intentionally relates an unrealistic – even absurd – situation so that it becomes funny. It is not meant to be taken literally. In this humorous context we have an opportunity to laugh and contemplate what other areas of life we take for granted without really stopping to understand the reasons “why” we do the things we do.

    Comment by chaitanyamangala | September 11, 2006 | Reply

  5. A flawed metaphor! Then to rationalize it as being a parody. Don’t you know that Big and Serious Devotees of the Philosophy don’t acknowledge humor as a pramana?

    First, in your defense, cats do freak out when company comes, though more typically they vanish.

    To make the metaphor more accurate, ergo, apparently, more acceptable, change the cat to a dog. They commonly create a disturbance when guests arrive and a tied up dog is very credible.

    As to gurus not having cats and dogs, no basis other than supposition is brought forward to support that claim. It is highly likely gurus may have animals like dogs and cats if they live in rural surroundings, as they help control rodents and other harmful critters.

    Within the confines of scripture, we have the story of Sevananda Sena in the Chaitanya Caritamrta who had a dog, and I have heard that Bhaktivinode Thakur had a dog. Wasn’t it Jagannath Goswami who lived with a snake? Now that is something that needs to be tied up if disciples were coming 🙂

    As for the monkeys, the point to consider is that the time and circumstances will change. The monkeys will still prevent anyone from climbing the ladder, even though no one is manning the ladder.

    For a point to consider in our own tradition: Caturmasya. Caturmasya in India is when all the sadhus have to stop traveling, and stay in one place during the monsoon season. In order that they don’t become attached, some austerities of diet are imposed, so they will be happy to leave when they can. In North America, Caturmasya comes during a pleasant time of the year. Doesn’t it seem appropriate that it should be observed during the winter, when traveling is difficult and indoors living is requisite?

    I don’t think Vedic traditions are whimsical or arbitrary. I believe they have a biological basis, and that followers of the Vedas were given a cultural advantage by having received the traditions before science figured them out.

    Time and circumstances change, and attachment to traditions simply on a dogmatic basis, against evidence to the contrary, is still just that, attachment.

    Flawed though the metaphor is, the underlying point is valid.

    Comment by Madhava Gosh | September 11, 2006 | Reply

  6. Ok, to please the assembled vaishnavas, here’s the story adjusted according to time, place and circumstance….

     The Guru and the DOG

    Once upon a time in a certain village in India there lived a guru. Every evening the guru would sit on his seat and deliver a lecture to the public. It so happened that the guru had a dog, and just at the time of giving the lecture the dog would create a big disturbance.

    Being greatly annoyed by the dog, the guru decided to tie the dog to a tree before starting his lecture. So doing, the guru then delivered the lecture without disturbance. It worked so well that the guru regularly tied the dog to the tree before beginning his discourse.

    After some years the guru died. His disciples carried on the guru’s program. They also continued tying the dog to the tree. When the dog died, they bought another dog and thus the ritual of tying a dog to a tree continued generation after generation.

    In the fifth generation that followed the guru, one of the renowned followers wrote an elaborate treatise on the spiritual significance of tying a dog to a tree before beginning one’s studies of the scriptures.

    Comment by chaitanyamangala | September 11, 2006 | Reply

  7. Okay, I will grant that a guru may have a cat or a dog, but purely for utility, rather than out of material attachment (otherwise they would be a bit lacking in the required qualities of renunciation and detachment). That is, the cat is there to manage the rodents, and the dog is there to guard, guide the blind, or whatever. So let’s leave that point behind now if we can.

    It also makes more sense that a dog would make a disturbance, since they are known for barking at strangers (or even attacking them). Since Chaits has even given us the rewritten story with a dog, we should all be good to go on that point too.

    It’s also fine that the dog is tied to the tree. This is indeed not uncommon.

    Now the guru dies, but they continue to tie the dog. Why don’t we accept this as it is not overly important. It was the guru’s dog, it is still performing the useful function of guarding the Bhajan-kutir (shall we say), it still starts wildly barking at the time of the Bhagavatam discussion, and so they still tie it to the tree. Let’s agree on this, if we can, and move forward.

    The dog then dies, but the disciples actually get another dog. Now if the dog was purely a companion to the deceased guru, we have to somehow explain the purchase of another dog. But we have already established that it would be improper for a true guru to have such a pet. Therefore, the reason for purchasing another dog is so that the dog can continue to carry out the needed function of guarding the Bhajan-kutir. I don’t see a problem, thus far. So let’s accept this, if we can, and continue on.

    Finally, in the fifth generation, an renouned follower writes “an elaborate treatise on the spiritual significance of tying a dog to a tree before beginning one’s studies of the scriptures.” So here is the problem, right at the end. We know the reasons for everything: we know the dog has an important function in guarding the Bhajan-kutir, and we know it’s tied to the tree to avoid disturbance during Bhagavatam class. So where does the spiritual significance come into it? How could such a thing be introduced? Most importantly, is there truly anything in our tradition where spiritual significance has been attributed to something that is purely utilitarian? So if anyone has an example, let’s hear it.

    Now if Chaits is saying that this story is solely to illustrate that we do some things without knowing the reason, we can just leave it there. But if he or anyone else thinks that meaningless stuff has been introduced into our Vaishnava tradition that is not really spiritual, then we should hear some specific examples at this point. Now let’s move on to some of Madhava Ghosh’s seperate points.

    With the monkey example, I actually assumed that there was some sort of device that caused the monkeys to be sprayed with water. But fair enough, I suppose an operator is fine too. Now you seem to be saying that even though the operator may have left, the monkeys continue to avoid the ladder, and that this would be “dogmatism.” My understanding of dogmatism is that it would be if the monkeys stayed away from the ladder even though they know that the water operator is gone. If they don’t know if the operator is gone, this doesn’t qualify as dogmatism.

    Here, I’ll give another example. Imagine that South American temple in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember it’s trapped up to the eyeballs with spring-loaded spears, poisoned darts, pits, and a giant rolling ball. So some of the locals investigate the place on various occassions, but none of them ever return. Of course, it comes to be known as “The Place of No Return” or some such thing, and the adventurous teenagers are sternly warned away. However, at some point, those traps are going to cease working – after all, nothing lasts for ever. Now are the wary locals being dogmatic by continuing to avoid the place. No, that’s going a bit far, because they are right to be cautious. Only if they continue to avoid the place even after they somehow find out the traps have all rusted, would they be called dogmatic.

    So the question now is whether there is something in our tradition that we know is not really right or necessary, but we still stick to it out of pure dogmatism. Let’s hear if someone has an example.

    As for giving the example of Caturmasya, I don’t see that it has similarity to either of the stories we have looked at. My understanding is that Caturmasya is really about austerity, rather than about the timing of the rainy season. Inotherwords, I see nothing dogmatic purely about the practice of Caturmasya.

    As for the timing of Caturmasya on the calendar, we know that it is observed during the rainy season (which is the meaning of the word), but we don’t necessarily know why that time is suitable for austerities. There are actually two points to consider here. The first is that there are a couple of different possible starting times for Caturmasya, and they are all considered as bona fide. Srila Prabhupada explains this in his purport to Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya Lila, 4.169:

    “The Caturmasya period begins in the month of Asadha (June-July) from the day of Ekadasi called Sayana-ekadasi, in the fortnight of the waxing moon. The period ends in the month of Kartika (October-November) on the Ekadasi day known as Utthana-ekadasi, in the fortnight of the waxing moon. This four-month period is known as Caturmasya. Some Vaisnavas also observe it from the full-moon day of Asadha until the full-moon day of Kartika. That is also a period of four months. This period, calculated by the lunar months, is called Caturmasya, but others also observe Caturmasya according to the solar month from Sravana to Kartika. The whole period, either lunar or solar, takes place during the rainy season.”

    So what does this mean? It means the time of observance is not actually written in stone as we have three different possible starting times: at the new moon, at the full moon, and according to the solar calendar. Potentially, the door is actually open for observing at a different time.

    The other consideration is whether the rainy season is the sole reason for the calendar placement. There is also a possibility that astrological considerations may have something to with it. Consider that the starting and end points are on lunar or solar phases. It is also a fact that great yajnas are supposed to be performed during Caturmasya, which supports the astrological line, because it seems like lots of rain would only create difficulties for building a big outdoor fire. This requirement has been mentioned by Srila Prabhupada in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam, 4.7.42:

    “As stated in the Upanisads, fire, the altar, the auspicious full moon, the period of four months called caturmasya, the sacrificial animal, and the beverage called soma are necessary requisites, as are the specific hymns mentioned in the Vedas and composed of four letters.”

    Now I am no expert on this subject – but I can indeed tell you where we end up philosophically. There are two possibilities. The first is that the time of observance is somewhat flexible. The second is that the calendar time is not based on the rainy season, but on astrological considerations, which should be valid, one would assume, on all continents. I do not have the expertise to instantly say which answer is correct: it would take some in-depth research. My hunch is that there is an astrological consideration. But either way, we are not insisting on holding Caturmasya during a non-existent rainy season: either we can move Caturmasya, or we are honoring the astrological considerations.

    Inotherwords, is there another example of possible dogmatism that anyone would like to give?

    Comment by Aniruddha d.B. Sherbow | September 14, 2006 | Reply


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