Touching the Elephant

In the state of Meghalaya, Khasi priests have an ancient tradition that involves breaking an egg and calling a person’s name to the gods to determine their fortune. The egg is dropped on the ground, facing the East. The person’s fate is predicted by factors such as how far the egg spreads, whether the yolk is intact, or whether the shell covers the yolk.

I think of this at breakfast, watching the hired help scramble eggs into something called “rumble tumble” and toast.  Pamu sits at the table reading his newspaper, as a stray cat wanders in through the open door. I look at Pamu, but he just glances at the cat and shrugs. The cat meanders around the room, gives us a bored look, then saunters out the open door. Two children come to the door begging for food and Sarah quietly gives them something to eat.

Later that morning, I visit another regional Shillong landmark, Elephant Falls, with Pamu’s sister-in-law. On our way to the falls, the streets are bumper to bumper with black or gray vehicles with 1960s-style, unfiltered exhaust pipes. The chauffeur cracks the front windows and I watch the smoke stream in front of the headlights like clouds of fog. After being in traffic for several minutes, my sinuses are aching, and I have to reach for a scarf to cover my nose and mouth.

A dump truck passes us on the right, its bumper simply reading, GOOD LUCK.

Not very far outside the city limits of Shillong, the hillside quickly changes to lush green foliage and the rural setting of The Jungle Book. There is a peaceful, serene lake and yellow flowers resembling sun flowers that grow on trees. Houses of sticks with straw roofs and bamboo fences line the side of the road, as well as the occasional palm tree. Stray white or black goats cheerfully oblivious to the traffic nibble at the weeds.

I notice women washing clothes in the stream with the classic red dot in the middle of their forehead and ask what it means. The bindi, often referred to as the “third eye,” is worn by women between the eyebrows, which is thought to be a place of hidden wisdom. Classic bindis are applied using vermillion powder to make a simple red dot, although nowadays bindis can take the form of jewels, glitter or other stick-on shapes for fashion.

We arrive at Elephant Falls and a brief walk down the trail reveals a two-step cascading waterfall framed by ferns. The waterfall was named after “Elephant Rock,” after a large elephant-shaped rock, which stood intact until an earthquake in 1897.

The elephant is significant in India for many reasons. An ancient animal, it was used as a regional beast of burden. One of the most popular Hindu gods, Ganesh, the god of wisdom and prosperity, also has the head of an elephant. A poem from one of my childhood books rushes to the front of my mind:

It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant, (though all of them were blind),
That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant, and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl,
“God bless me! But the elephant is very like a wall.”

The second, feeling of the tusk, cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? To me ’tis mighty clear, 
This wonder of an Elephant, is very like a spear!” 

The third man touches the trunk and concludes and elephant must be like a snake. The fourth, the knee – that an elephant is like a tree. The fifth the ear, that an elephant is like a fan, and the sixth the tail, that an elephant is like a rope.

…And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

The country of India is a great place for touching the elephant. The primary religion is Hinduism, which has been called “religion of a thousand gods” – a seemingly endless array of gods, sacred texts, legends and customs. The primary concepts of Hinduism are centered around reincarnation – the concept of one’s personal karma (virtuous actions), and upon death, being reborn into a higher earthly incarnation. Hindu tradition states that an individual is born into a specific caste that stipulates their profession and social status.

The four main castes are:

Brahmans – priests and philosophers
Kshatriyas – government
Vaishyas – merchants, traders
Shudras – agriculturalists

There is also a bottom layer to the system known as the “untouchables” or Dalits, considered unclean by the other four castes. They are largely responsible for despised civic duties such as sweeping streets and cleaning latrines.

The main objective in the Hindu caste cycle is moksha, or freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. According to Hinduism, other worthy pursuits of earthly life are considered to be dharma, artha and kama (virtue, prosperity and pleasure, respectively). Hindus celebrate four main seasons of life – the learner, the householder, detachment (“empty nester”) and the final state of renunciation or spiritual devotion, where an individual hopefully prepares for moksha.

Unlike the West’s upwardly mobile philosophy, the Hindu castes are fixed with no moving about in one lifetime. Hindu tradition believes in reincarnation, being comforted by the thought that if you live a good life in the caste you are born into, you will be re-born at a higher level in your next life. Conversely, it is believed that those who live a wicked life will be reborn into a lower caste.  Unlike Christianity, Hinduism doesn’t recognize one specific manuscript. Rather, there are many texts considered to be holy or divine, some of the more commonly known texts being the Four Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

The analogy of the elephant in the poem was meant to describe the religions of the world – it could certainly describe Hinduism – but I think of how easily it could describe Christianity as well. I think of the ways we all reach out for God, placing our hand on its broadside. Each denomination drives its stake into the ground, declaring they alone know what the elephant looks like. To Catholics, he is accessible through saints and priests, to Assemblies of God, tongues of the Holy Spirit, to Churches of Christ, baptism by immersion, to Methodists, baptism by sprinkling, to Baptists, a simple prayer.

We all stroke the elephant’s tail with one hand, the Bible in the other, declaring:

God is good. God is wrathful.

God is a judge. God is mercy.

God is a friend. God is holy.

God is a father.  God is a son.

God is jealous. God is forgiving.

God is a mystery.

God is love.

We argue in books, songs, blogs and articles over and over and over about the eternal qualities of God – whose voice is like a mighty wind and rushing water. A booming thunder clap and a quiet, small voice, all the same.

I think of how, compared to Hinduism, Christianity is a fairly simple religion, and yet mysterious at the same time. There are concepts like grace, truth and justice that are an elephant within themselves, bottomless and deep. The Bible itself says the word is like a healing balm – and a sword, and I believe it. Becoming a believer is a place of rest and a call to action at the same time.

It seems appropriate somehow, to be standing here in Shillong at Elephant Falls, 10,000 miles from home, listening to the sound of the falls, thinking of of all this.

God is living water, after all.

An “elephant”…and a rock.



Read Next: The Glowing Cross

Or start at the beginning: read the full journey here.