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  • You believe me or the braying of an ass

    Im koskess chess havardar, eshoun zrahloun guh havadas

    Once Hodja Nassrehdine was asked by his neighbor if he could borrow his ass. The neighbor knocked on Hodja’s front door. Hodja opened his window on the second floor and asked what do you want. “Hodja, I want to borrow your ass for the day.” Hodja replied, “The ass is not here.” As Hodja answered, the ass brayed from the backyard stable. The neighbor remarked, “How come the ass is braying in the backyard?” Hodja said, “You believe me or the braying of an ass?”

    Hodja turns life’s normal events upside down so that we question our perception and look more deeply into the meaning of words and deeds. Normally we should not believe the braying of an ass (or the speculative words and promises of politicians, philosophers, scientists, and others). But, in this story, the braying of the ass reveals Hodja’s deceit. Because he doesn’t want to loan his ass to the neighbor, he lies and is caught immediately. It is a good lesson. We should refrain from lying and always speak in a straightforward way.

    Yet, there is a deeper epistemological question. Who should we believe in life? Knowledge is not conveyed by statements in print or in word always. It is only conveyed when one has faith in a person or authority that speaks or writes. The basic requirement for knowledge is faith in the source of knowledge.

    We can hear so many things, but not give any importance to the statements. Once we have faith in the speaker, then we easily accept all the statements and receive knowledge.

    Knowledge can be defined as acceptance of statements considered truthful facts that are subject to verification made by a recognized authority. In this story the question Hodja raises is “Who should you believe: the braying of my ass or me?” The braying ass may not have belonged to the Hodja.

    For example, during the 1950s a new drug named thalidomide was marketed in Europe without a prescription. It was advertised as a safe sedative. Pregnant women bought it on the advice of their doctors because it would lessen nausea and provide a safe aid for sleeping. Within the next three years, 12,000 infants were born in Europe and Canada with serious deformities, including missing or misshapen limbs, spinal cord defects, cleft lip and palate, eye and ear defects, and severe defects of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and digestive systems. By the end of 1961, thalidomide had been identified as the common link in thousands of these birth defects . (In early 1961, thalidomide was licensed for sale in Canada, but it was never approved for sale in the United States.)

    Thalidomide was withdrawn from the market in Europe before the end of 1961, and from the market in Canada by early 1962. For four years, this new drug was wrongly thought to be safe for use by pregnant women. Who should we believe? The drug makers with the permission of their governments promoted this drug. From such experiences we might decide not to believe anyone including ourselves because our senses are also imperfect and we make many mistakes. Receiving knowledge will become impossible.

    It is essential to put our trust in a genuine authority or an expert in a field of knowledge, and then we are in a position to learn. How to recognize that someone is a genuine authority or expert? This is the most fundamental question of life.

    We must put our faith in someone in order to act. Action is impossible without faith. If I purchase an airline ticket and the salesperson confides in me that the plane will certainly crash, do you think I will gladly buy the ticket? I need faith that the plane will arrive at the destination without mishap to buy the ticket. If I have a serious doubt, then I will hesitate and perhaps not go.

    Before I put money in a bank, I need to believe that the bank will return my money when I want it. To do anything, I need faith. Even if I say, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I must believe that I will be alive tomorrow to see you.

    For knowledge, we need faith in the speaker of the knowledge. We also need to verify often through outside sources that the speaker of knowledge is really of good faith. In the Vedic tradition of India, there is a principle of the spiritual triangle of verification for the truth. What is spoken by a person must be confirmed by the statements and personal example of previous recognized saints and the Holy Scriptures, the Vedas. If I can find the same statement in the original Vedic scripture and also in the statements and personal example of recognized saints, then I have a closed triangle of verification. Such saints are recognized because they have lived strictly according to the statements of the Vedas and exemplified those instructions throughout their lives. Their conduct has always been according to the standard instructions of the Vedas without deviation. Therefore, they are “recognized saints” according to the standard Vedic criterion.

    The difference between the Vedic scriptures and any book of knowledge is that the Vedas have been proven right throughout the entire course of history. The Vedic statements have always been correct without need of alteration. Other books of knowledge may be right for a period of time and then need to be revised according to the time and circumstance. Once there is a standard book of knowledge that is not time sensitive, we can refer the statements made by someone to the Vedic triangle of verification and see if it is valid. The quintessential Vedic literature is the Bhagavad-Gita.

    The necessity of the triangle of verification is absolutely required because of the four inherent defects in every person. These defects are:

    1. We make mistakes
    2. Our senses are limited
    3. We are easily illusioned
    4. We have a cheating propensity.

    We need concrete verification outside of ourselves to know if something is true. A classical example in Sanskrit is “Ganga nagara,” which means the town is on the river. There is a problem to understand this phrase. Is the town on one bank of the river? Is it on both banks of the river? Is it on an island in the middle of the river? Is it hovering above the river? We can apply every process of analysis, whether grammatical, syntactical, logical, etc., we will never know for sure the correct answer. We need to meet someone who has seen the town on the river to know for sure how it is situated on the river. We need outside verification because of our inherent four defects to determine if our knowledge is correct.

    There must be an expert whose statements are verifiable (by the Vedic triangle of verification) to convince us of the right understanding.

    Hodja’s remark evokes this fundamental problem of who to believe. Once we accept a person as an authority, his statements must be verifiable by bona fide sources to be sure that the knowledge received is correct. Real knowledge is not time sensitive.

    Published on November 15, 2005 · Filed under: , Ass;
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