Elephant-mind Perspectives

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by Bhupinder Singh

When we read Bhagat Kabir's words in Shri Guru Granth Sahib we find that the use of metaphor elephant mind has been frequently employed to describe the state of mind. First, let us explore the reason for the use of this metaphor and then we will see if the reasons have been scientifically substantiated with modern research. In other words with this metaphor let us try to connect science with spirituality. When Kabir explains the elephant-mind metaphor it is relating to three marked characteristics:

  • Elephants’ enormously huge size and ego. Huge because it can reach anywhere instantly.

  • Elephants’ conduct, which resembles that of a drunkard being.

  • Elephants’ lustful urges.

Now let us first explore these three characteristics. The first characteristic of being egoistic is portrayed in these words:

Mun taou maigal hoe rehaa nikasiaa kio kar jaae.”
–(SGGS, Pg. No. 509)

The mind has become as big as an elephant; how can it pass through this gate?

In order to relate to this metaphor let us imagine that we are hoisted on an elephant approaching a steep downhill. This frightening landscape, coupled with the panic setting in paints a grim picture of the precariousness of the situation. Such is the condition of our mind which has become a huge elephant of egocentric tendencies.

The second characteristic of a drunkard has been captured by Kabir as:

Kabir kaaeiaa kajalee ban bhaeiaa mun kunchar maye munt.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No.1376)

Kabir, the body is (like) a Kajali forest (full of banana trees), and the mind is an intoxicated elephant (there).

Here Kabir is comparing the mind to an elephant in Kajli forest full of bananas close to Haridwar; there the elephants were going berserk and wreaking havoc. In a subtle way, Kabir is informing us that by indulging in egoistic tendencies we wreck our body.

The third characteristic of mind that Kabir has touched upon is the lustful nature of the mind. Kabir describes the scenario in these words:

Kaalabooth kee hasthanee mun bouraa
  rae chalat rachiou jagdeesh.
 Kaam suaae gaj bas parae mun bouraa
  rae ankas sehiou sees
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 335)

Like the straw figure of a female elephant, fashioned to trap the male elephant, O crazy mind, the Lord of the Universe has staged the drama of this world. Attracted by the lure of sexual desire, the elephant is captured, O crazy mind, and now it is subjected to the blows of the halter on the head.

Again, this aspect of elephant is not in our daily observation today, as the elephants are not trapped nowadays for use as mode of transportation. In those days straw figures of female elephants were employed as a decoy and wild male elephants were lured and thus captured. Then once the male elephant was captured he was tamed and trained overtime. Then once the male elephant was captured he was tamed overtime, trained to follow the commands of rider. Kabir uses this metaphor to compare it to the lustful nature of mind. Because of the lure of lust, the elephant loses its world and freedom, similarly, the deluded ego-mind is enticed by material world of appearance.

Now let’s try to see if the modern psychology offers us any proof of these tendencies of mind.

The first Characteristic of egocentric, in which we see the metaphor of elephant / rider, was employed by Jonathan Haidt in 1990s, now a professor at New York University Stern School of Business in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. For 16 years he taught psychology at the University of Virginia where he coined the term to describe that there are two minds - one, where most mental processes happen automatically and two where controlled processing takes place on a limited scale. He compared these mental processes to a small rider and large elephant. The rider is our conscious thoughts (and emotions). The elephant is our unconscious emotions (and thoughts).

According to him the elephant includes gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions. The second controlled processing is limited and we can think consciously about one thing at a time only compared to automatic process that runs in parallel and can handle multiple tasks simultaneously. It is for this reason Haidt compares them to a small rider and a large elephant. Like the rider, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control on what the elephant does. The elephant often does things for reasons the rider knows nothing about, the rider − the brain’s interpreter module − is adept at “conflation”. When queried, it simply makes up a plausible (but possibly quite misleading) explanation for our behavior or our attitudes. And in this, of course, we con ourselves as much as we con others.

Next, let us talk about the book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman a psychologist (Nobel Prize in Economic, 2002 for his Prospect Theory), where the theme of the book is human irrationality. In this book Kahneman uses the terms System 1 or Intuitive Thinking to describe thinking that operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and a sense of voluntary control. In his book System 2 or Slow Thinking allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. He adds that System 2 (like the Haidt’s rider) believes itself to be where the action is, but actually automatic System 1 (like the elephant) is the hero of the book. According to him flaws of System 1 are that it “does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have” and “it cannot be turned off”. Kahneman says that there is large enough body of scientific findings that “disbelief is not an option”. So, how does the elephant part operate? It operates in terms of I need, I want, I desire, I should, I could, I would etc. coupled with failures of self-control.

The second Characteristic of drunken wanderer was examined by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University and they published their findings in the journal Science, 2010; 330 (6006): 932 DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439. Their findings are that people spend 46.9 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. They write that; “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” According to Killingsworth; “Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities. This study shows our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.”

In a new study, published online March 14, 2012 in the journal Psychological Science by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, reports that a person’s working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment. “What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources available to deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says. Thus we can say that science has proven about the tendency of mind to wandering off the task like a drunken elephant.

The third characteristic of lust has been studied and published by Leander Van der Meij of University of Groningen in Holland. His study suggests that the increase in testosterone levels after exposure to woman “may be an automatic male response that activates receptors in organs and the nervous system to prepare the human body for mate attraction.” In a separate study Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li and Brown under the title of Defining the Brain Systems of Lust, Romantic Attraction and Attachment have also come up with similar findings. In the study authors say that; “Men tend to be more attracted to partner’s physical appearance – particularly signs of youth and beauty, while women are more inclined to be attracted to men with money, education, and/or position.”

These three characteristics make man blind to his rational mind or in other words System 2 gets side-lined. The inflated ego makes man commit errors of judgment and thwarts the growth of rationality that could lead man on the path of spiritual development. According to David Mutchler; “Ego is not a place or a thing. It is a state of consciousness.” Happiness, Mutchler further explains, is attained by becoming aware of ego, learning more about what it is, where it originates, how to recognize it, and what to do when you find it. He adds; “Think of ego as a great block of ice. When you slug ego, you play by its hurtful and pain-inducing rules. You bruise your knuckles and grow angrier each time you slug it. But when you hug ice, it has no choice: it must gradually disappear. And what remains is the oceanic freedom that is the pinnacle of human existence — the freedom to live, to love, and to be loved. At a personal level it is pure self-love and joy; at a collective level it is a peace that can save our beloved planet and grace all the peoples of the world.”

Kabir is informing us that the mind has become bloated like an elephant, and on top of that it is perverted and its conduct is like that of a drunken alcoholic.

Now let us ask Kabir as to what remedy is offered by him?

He answers by advising that work on getting rid of the ego. Because, old habits and associations die hard and the earlier we start we have more time for corrective action and less time for habits to become our nature. We need to work on undoing egoism and cultivating a sense of discrimination that is able to perceive the imperishable and changeless behind the perishable and changing aspects of the world. In the words of Kabir it is like becoming small as an ant so that one can eat the sweet sugar:

Har hai khaand raeth meh bikharee
  haathhee chunee n jaae.
  Kahe Kabir gur bhalee bujhaaee
  keettee hoe kai khaae
– (SGGS, Pg. No.1377)

The Lord is like sugar, scattered in the sand;
the elephant cannot pick it up.
Says Kabir, the Guru has given me this sublime understanding:
become an ant, and feed on it.

As the ego is driven out the transformation of mind into the Divine Self starts. But what is the final destination? Let us ask Kabir to share with us. In Kabir’s own words:

Ram Kabira aik bhae hai koae n sakai pashhaanee
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 969)

The Lord and Kabir have become one. No one can tell them apart.

Kabir is informing about the pinnacle of human achievement. He is saying that he has completed the objective of human life by merging in the Creator. How does it feel after the accomplishment? Kabir says:

Chandan baas bhaemun baasan tiyag ghattiou abhimanna.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 339)

My mind has become fragrant with the scent of sandalwood; as I have renounced egotistical selfishness and conceit.

Kabir has succinctly defined the human failing, and then he also shares way of overcoming it. In addition he also shares with us his success story, and in the process tells us that this is the area to be worked on. The success is not any worldly accolade or recognition but becoming part of One.

October 29, 2013

Keywords: Elephant mind, Kabir, ant, egoistic, lust, drunkard.


Shri Guru Granth Sahib (all quotations from SGGS and referred with Page No.)
Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis
Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Mapes James. Your Mind: The Elephant and the Rider.
Mind Is a Frequent, but Not Happy, Wanderer
Fisher, Helen. Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment
Male Lust is blind, Research Suggests by Roger Dobson
Mutcher, David. Beyond the Ego
The Sydney Morning Herald; July 26, 2006. The Mind has an Elephant of its own.

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