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The Elephant

December 7, 2010

The passage below from Dharmapada, has always fascinated me in the simple beauty of how the words progress. The imagery of the elephant as strong, patient, wise and resilient to adversity — to the point of leaving all things behind to be alone in a forest for the sake and love of objective truth — is profound. What is the price of truth that unveils reality?

My favorite passage are verses 329-330:

Chapter XXIII
The Elephant

320. Silently shall I endure abuse as the elephant in battle endures
the arrow sent from the bow: for the world is ill-natured.

321. They lead a tamed elephant to battle, the king mounts a tamed
elephant; the tamed is the best among men, he who silently endures

322. Mules are good, if tamed, and noble Sindhu horses, and elephants
with large tusks; but he who tames himself is better still.

323. For with these animals does no man reach the untrodden country
(Nirvana), where a tamed man goes on a tamed animal, viz. on his own
well-tamed self.

324. The elephant called Dhanapalaka, his temples running with sap,
and difficult to hold, does not eat a morsel when bound; the elephant
longs for the elephant grove.

325. If a man becomes fat and a great eater, if he is sleepy and rolls
himself about, that fool, like a hog fed on wash, is born again and

326. This mind of mine went formerly wandering about as it liked, as
it listed, as it pleased; but I shall now hold it in thoroughly, as
the rider who holds the hook holds in the furious elephant.

327. Be not thoughtless, watch your thoughts! Draw yourself out of
the evil way, like an elephant sunk in mud.

328. If a man find a prudent companion who walks with him, is wise,
and lives soberly, he may walk with him, overcoming all dangers,
happy, but considerate.

329. If a man find no prudent companion who walks with him, is wise,
and lives soberly, let him walk alone, like a king who has left his
conquered country behind,–like an elephant in the forest.

330. It is better to live alone, there is no companionship with a
fool; let a man walk alone, let him commit no sin, with few wishes,
like an elephant in the forest.

331. If an occasion arises, friends are pleasant; enjoyment is
pleasant, whatever be the cause; a good work is pleasant in the hour
of death; the giving up of all grief is pleasant.

332. Pleasant in the world is the state of a mother, pleasant the
state of a father, pleasant the state of a Samana, pleasant the state
of a Brahmana.

333. Pleasant is virtue lasting to old age, pleasant is a faith firmly
rooted; pleasant is attainment of intelligence, pleasant is avoiding
of sins.

The passage is similar to that found in the beautiful Proverbs 3:1-34:

1  My son, forget not my teaching, keep in mind my commands;

2 For many days, and years of life, and peace, will they bring you.

3 Let not kindness and fidelity leave you; bind them around your neck;

4 Then will you win favor and good esteem before God and man.

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not;

6 In all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make straight your paths.

7 Be not wise in your own eyes, fear the LORD and turn away from evil;

8 This will mean health for your flesh and vigor for your bones.

9 Honor the LORD with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce;

10 Then will your barns be filled with grain, with new wine your vats will overflow.

11 The discipline of the LORD, my son, disdain not; spurn not his reproof;

12 For whom the LORD loves he reproves, and he chastises the son he favors.

13 Happy the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding!

14 For her profit is better than profit in silver, and better than gold is her revenue;

15 She is more precious than corals, and none of your choice possessions can compare with her.

16 Long life is in her right hand, in her left are riches and honor;

17 Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace;

18 She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and he is happy who holds her fast.

19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, established the heavens by understanding;

20 By his knowledge the depths break open, and the clouds drop down dew.

21 My son, let not these slip out of your sight: keep advice and counsel in view;

22 So will they be life to your soul, and an adornment for your neck.

23 Then you may securely go your way; your foot will never stumble;

24 When you lie down, you need not be afraid, when you rest, your sleep will be sweet.

25 Be not afraid of sudden terror, of the ruin of the wicked when it comes;

26For the LORD will be your confidence, and will keep your foot from the snare.

27 Refuse no one the good on which he has a claim when it is in your power to do it for him.

28 Say not to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give,” when you can give at once.

29 Plot no evil against your neighbor, against him who lives at peace with you.

30 Quarrel not with a man without cause, with one who has done you no harm.

31 Envy not the lawless man and choose none of his ways:

32 To the LORD the perverse man is an abomination, but with the upright is his friendship.

33 The curse of the LORD is on the house of the wicked, but the dwelling of the just he blesses;

34 When he is dealing with the arrogant, he is stern, but to the humble he shows kindness.

35 Honor is the possession of wise men, but fools inherit shame.

Both passages continuously  rise to the occasion when I go through trials of the soul. They put my heart at rest, a balm to my lips, and shield from the arrows. However, Proverbs 3:1-35 leads us to the objective truth, that Dharmapada (Ch.23), half-way there, fails to do. The former directs man away from himself by stripping away self-ego and to instead be charitable toward his neighbor, to  “refuse no one the good which he has claim” (cf. Proverbs 3:27-30). This culminates in a full circle found in the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus Christ to love the poor, the down trodden, and those who cannot speak for themselves against injustice. Man is able to know and love God because heaven and earth are imprinted with the Word [logos] (cf. Proverbs 3:19-20). It is by following God’s commandments, that man is able to attain salvation, to live and love and find reason for his existence. Man is consoled in objective truth– found in Jesus Christ who died for our sins–no longer alone in the forest.


Whenever I look at the morning dew on the grass, glistening like small diamonds,  the sun rising higher and higher, birds chirping their first notes of the day, the world unveils before my eyes. I gaze at creation, and  I come to understand a little bit more than yesterday, that God is always the center of objective reality, and though I may stumble, His grace will catch me.

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