Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Making distinctions where distinctions should be made

Is there a universal method for avoiding mistakes? Some people favour the use of check-lists, while others place their trust on higher education. One may wonder however if a simpler system would not do just as well. Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point.

Although every philosopher has disciples, Krishna would have preferred not to have any. "Life is barely long enough to learn what is what," he often told himself. "Man's days are too few to be wasted teaching those who cannot be taught."

Nevertheless, out of kindness and love for humanity, Krishna did talk to Nadu from time to time. Have other philosophers been luckier in their choice of disciples? Would Krishna have become wiser if he had avoided Nadu altogether? All this, we don't know, but it is difficult to say no.

One summer day, Krishna woke up at dawn, walked out of his castle, crossed the forest, arrived at the river, and sat down under a banyan tree to meditate. Five hours later, when the sun was high in the sky, Krishna felt Nadu's shadow at his side.

"Long live the wise, Krishna," saluted Nadu with a smile. "I have a question for you." Krishna opened his eyes and took in a deep breath. "You know what I have told you, Nadu," he replied. "Those who are curious enough to ask questions are also able to figure out the answers themselves."

If we trust tradition, Nadu was not stupid and his vices were those of an average man, but don't we all wish to learn without effort and know without understanding? Nadu pointed at the stones by the river and asked "How come that every stone is different? Why are they not all the same?"

Krishna looked at the stones and shook his head. What a silly question, he thought, the answer is so obvious that even a child would know it. "Each stone is different in order to avoid mistakes," Krishna explained calmly. The response seemed to puzzle Nadu, who stared at the river, totally confused.

Mistakes? What mistakes was Krishna talking about? After a long while, Nadu turned again to Krishna. "I cannot see what you mean," Nadu confessed timidly. "How can stones err if they never make decisions? Doesn't the river alone determine the place of every stone?"

Lesser philosophers would have been exasperated by Nadu's inability to grasp simple truths, but not Krishna. With infinite patience, he stood up, walked up to Nadu, and pointed at the stones. "Tell me, Nadu, what would happen if all stones looked the same?" inquired Krishna.

"Then they wouldn't be stones," reasoned Nadu. "Then they would be bricks." Krishna nodded encouragingly, but Nadu was unable to finish his own chain of thought. "But tell me, Nadu," went on Krishna, "what would happen if you found bricks in the river?"

Perplexed, Nadu looked again at the stones, wondering where Krishna's questions were leading to. "That would be a mistake," Nadu acknowledged hesitatingly. "Bricks are meant for building houses and no sane man throws his bricks into the river." Then Krishna bent over, picked up a stone, weighed it in his hand, turned to Nadu, and said "if things possess a different shape, colour, and weight, is it not to prevent men from making mistakes?"


[Image by Kenneth Hynek under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]