The Carpenters Story

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACarpenter’s Malady and Cognitive Consonance –
Rajarajeswari Srinivasan

I would like to start this discussion,with a Tamil verse ascribed to an ancient scripture called ‘Thirumanthiram’ attributed to ‘Thirumular’, considered a yogi who came from the north of India to the south. It is said that this work, consisting of more than 3000 verses formed the basis for the Saiva Siddhantha that developed in Tamilnadu. Only the verse has been taken from the text. A story has been added by me, for explanation.

There was a carpenter in a village, who specialized in making wooden toys. He had a son aged four. One day, the carpenter took his son to the temple. The little boy took a strong liking to the temple elephant and wanted to take it home. The carpenter convinced the adamant boy that it was not possible. But over the next few days he made a wooden elephant of reasonable size using a high quality wood and gifted it to his son. By this time, the child had forgotten his passion for the live elephant, and was very happy to possess a toy elephant and started playing with it, imagining it to be a real one. The carpenter’s father who was watching everything, said in Tamil, “marathai marraithathu maamadha yaanai” (“மரத்தை மறைத்தது மாமத யானை”), meaning, ‘the elephant (image) masks the wood’, i.e., “the elephant is perceived and not the wood”.

As the boy grew, he did not need the toy elephant and it was put away in the loft. The boy also took up his family profession and became a carpenter specializing in toy-making. He got married and was blessed with a son. He also made a toy elephant for his son, but he made it using wood of only a reasonably good quality. He made an artistically superior image and the wooden elephant had a mount on it with very fine decorative carvings. The toy also had an image of the temple deity mounted on it. His son was very happy to receive it.

As chance would have it, the old wooden elephant was found while cleaning out the loft. The young carpenter seeing both toys together realized that the old toy was made of better wood and became unhappy that he had not used superior wood. He did not give much importance to the artistic superiority of the toy he had made. His grand father who was observing everything, said in Tamil, “marathin marrainthathu mamadha yanai” (“மரத்தின் மறைந்தது மாமத யானை”), meaning, ‘the elephant has disappeared in the wood’, i.e., the wood is perceived and not the elephant.

The wise man added,
Parathai marraithathu paarmudhar bhutham.
Parathin marrainthathu parmudhar bhuthame

(“பரத்தை மறைத்தது பார்முதற் பூதம் பரத்தின் மறைந்தது பார்முதற் பூதமே”)

Translated, it means that the Five Elements, viz., Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether (space) cover the reality of the Ultimate (Self). When the reality of the sense-perceived Universe made of the Five Elements is given importance, the reality of the Self is not emphasized. When the Self is prioritized, the Universe of Five Elements loses its given importance. The Five Elements disappear in the Ultimate when the Ultimate is realized.

In the Indian tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the Ultimate Reality is referred to as ‘Brahman’ or ‘Parama’. In the Tamil verse, the word ‘param’ means Ultimate Reality. Natural expectation is that it is present in and covers all animate and inanimate things in the material Universe and there is no exception. Even though it is present everywhere, its presence is actively manifest as sentience in the animal kingdom.

Man (the most evolved of the sentient beings) takes being sentient in a body capable of receiving sensory impressions and perceiving things external to it and keeping record of such experiences and recalling them when required, as the unequivocal proof of his separate existence. As he experiences an impression of free will, he wants recognition as a separate entity. As there are many such separate entities demanding recognition, the world of relativity ensues and there is a history of the world of relativity due to the power of human beings in keeping a record in memory. Certain common rules of the game are framed to be observed in the relative world. The rules are to be accepted by cognitive processes and implemented. Over a period of time, there develop differences in the degree of observance of the rules. Due to increasing slackness in observance, the gap between what is expected under the rules and what is practised increases and creates dissonance. There arises a need for liberation from the feeling of helplessness, desperation and discomfort. Some people start giving serious importance to peace of mind.

When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, there must be a change either in the belief or in the behavior to eliminate or reduce the discomfort created. This is not something that cannot be theoretically understood by a rational and eloquent human being.

Nevertheless, when it comes to translating it into practice, one finds it exceedingly difficult. This causes a dilemma when one wants to change. Neither belief nor behavior is easily changeable. There is another level of cognitive dissonance causing mental discomfort.

One cannot appreciate the bliss of the Self, if one considers the sense-perceived material Universe as more important and a more valid reality. If one can understand that happiness is one’s essential nature (as the Self), the world or even the physical Universe will stop bothering one cognitively, as the botheration is about one’s physical and mental existence and well-being which occurs due to one’s perception of a body-mind mechanism as oneself.

When you start giving importance to the Self, you will start identifying yourself (you, as a separate entity) with the Self. As you appreciate the bliss of the Self, you get the peace of mind which you always wanted. This does not mean that one has to neglect one’s duties in the relative world. It means: to bear in mind simultaneously the ephemeral nature of what attracts you or bothers you in the material (phenomenal) universe and the eternal bliss of the Ultimate Self which you always are, without one set of thoughts opposing the other.

The wise man in our carpenter’s story meant, perhaps, that the young carpenter’s unhappiness due to the comparison of the quality of the wood was on account of the sense-perceived Universe being given greater importance and the status of a more valid reality, in his perception. There was distress because of this perception. The distress should vanish if the young man accepts and perceives the Self as the greater reality (or Ultimate Reality) because it is truly so.