THE GOOD BRAHMIN
DOES HAPPINESS RESULT FROM IGNORANCE OR FROM KNOWLEDGE?
In my travels I once happened to meet with
an aged Brahmin. This man had a great share
of understanding and prudence, and was very
learned. He was also very rich, and his riches
added greatly to his popularity; for, wanting
nothing that wealth could procure, he had no
desire to defraud anyone. His family was
admirably managed by three handsome wives,
who always studied to please him; and when
he was weary of their society, he had recourse
to the study of philosophy.
Not far from his house, which was handsome,
well-furnished and embellished with delightful
gardens, dwelt an old Indian woman who was a
great bigot, ignorant, and withal very poor.
"I wish," said the Brahmin to me one day, "I
had never been born!"
"Why so?" said I.
"Because," replied he, "I have been studying
these forty years, and I find it has been so
much time lost. While I teach others I know
nothing myself. The sense of my condition is
so humiliating, it makes all things so
distasteful to me, that life has become a
burden. I have been born, and I exist in time,
without knowing what time is. I am placed,
as our wise men say, in the confines between
two eternities, and yet I have no idea of
eternity. I am composed of matter, I think,
but have never been able to satisfy myself
what it is that produces thought. I even am
ignorant whether my understanding is a simple
faculty I possess, like that of walking and
digesting, or if I think with my head in the
same manner as I take hold of a thing with
my hands. I am not only thus in the dark with
relation to the principles of thought, but
the principles of my motions are entirely
unknown to me. I do not know why I exist,
and yet I am applied to every day for a
solution of the enigma. I must return an
answer, but can say nothing satisfactory on
the the subject. I talk a great deal, and
when I have done speaking remain confounded
and ashamed of what I have said."
"I am in still greater perplexity when I
am asked if Brahma was produced by Vishnu,
or if they have both existed from eternity.
God is my judge that I know nothing of the
matter, as plainly appears by my answers.
'Reverend father,' says one, 'be pleased to
inform me how evil is spread over the face
of the earth.' I am as much at a loss as
those who ask the question. Sometimes I
tell them that every thing is for the best;
but those who have the gout or the stone --
those who have lost their fortunes or their
limbs in the wars -- believe as little of
this assertion as I do myself. I retire to
my own house full of curiosity, and endeavor
to enlighten my ignorance by consulting the
writings of our ancient sages, but they only
serve to bewilder me the more. When I talk
with my brethren upon this subject, some
tell me we ought to make the most of life
and laugh at the world. Others think they
know something, and lose themselves in vain
and chimerical hypotheses. Every effort I
make to solve the mystery adds to the load
I feel. Sometimes I am ready to fall into
despair when I reflect that, after all my
researches, I neither know from whence I
came, what I am, whither I shall go, or what
is to become of me."
The condition in which I saw this good man
gave me real concern. No one could be more
rational, no one more open and honest. It
appeared to me that the force of his
understanding and the sensibility of his
heart were the causes of his misery.
The same day I had a conversation with the
old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she
had ever been unhappy for not understanding
how her soul was made? She did not even
comprehend my question. She had not, for
the briefest moment in her life, had a
thought about these subjects with which
the good Brahmin had so tormented himself.
She believed from the bottom of her heart
in the metamorphoses of her god Vishnu, and,
provided she could get some of the sacred
water of the Ganges in which to make her
ablutions, she thought herself the happiest
Struck with the happiness of this poor
creature, I returned to my philosopher,
whom I thus addressed:
"Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable
when, not fifty yards from you, there is
an old automaton who thinks of nothing and
"You are right," he replied. "I have said
to myself a thousand times that I should
be happy if I were but as ignorant as my
old neighbor, and yet it is a happiness I
do not desire."
This reply of the Brahmin made a greater
impression on me than anything that had
passed. I consulted my own heart and found
that I myself should not wish to be happy
on condition of being ignorant.
I submitted this matter to some philosophers,
and they were all of my opinion: and yet,
said I, there is something very contradictory
in this manner of thinking; for, after all,
what is the question? Is it not to be happy?
What signifies it then whether we have
understandings or whether we are fools?
Besides, there is this to be said: those
who are contented with their condition are
sure of that content; while those who have
the faculty of reasoning are not always
sure of reasoning right. It is evident then,
I continued, that we ought rather to wish
not to have common sense, if that common
sense contributes to our being either
miserable or wicked.
They were all of my opinion, and yet not
one of them could be found to accept of
happiness on the terms of being ignorant.
From hence I concluded, that although we
may set a great value upon happiness, we
set a still greater upon reason.
But after mature reflection upon this
subject I still thought there was great
madness in preferring reason to happiness.
How is this contradiction to be explained?
Like all other questions, a great deal may
be said about it.