11 November 2005

Turtles All The Way Down

More and more these days I'm finding wisdom in Hindu mythology. And I thought it was the Chinese Buddhists who were supposed to have it all figured out.

In Hindu mythology, the first turtle created was Chukwa. She was an enormous turtle, and on her back she supported the first elephant, Maha-pudma. Maha-pudma, in turn, supported on his back the entire world.

The Indians tell a story about an Englishman living in their country during the colonial era. He was fascinated by Hinduism but was a skeptic like any good Anglican. When told of the story of Chukwa and Maha-pudma, he asked, reasonably, what Chukwa stood on. Though it's not part of the myth, the response to the Englishman's question was, another turtle. And after that?

Ah, after that, it's turtles all the way down.

This myth has been transcribed into a story about a scientist and a little old lady, which is probably how most readers have heard of it, if indeed you've ever heard of it. But I like the Indian version much better. When it's a scientist, it's a story about the absurdity of the woman's belief against the obvious validity of science. That story's been told a thousand times.

But when it's a story about the Indian and the Englishman, it seems a little deeper to me. And while the "turtles all the way down" are not part of the original Hindu myth, what I know about Hinduism leads me to believe the Indian in the story was trying to be instructive nonetheless. He's telling the Englishman that, frankly, you'll never know everything. Or, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz summed up the story, "you'll never get to the bottom of things." It's rather wittier that way, but I can't take the credit.

So, some things we're just not meant to know. I don't know what the turtle is standing on--perhaps a larger planet (the first Men In Black movie played with this idea) in a larger universe. And I don't know what's in store for my career in the next few months.

I know there's a turtle. I don't know what the turtle stands on, but I don't have to know what she's standing on to trust that she will continue to hold up the world. This is not at all a Western point of view; it is very much a south Asian one. And I'm trying to square that against my own situation. I don't have to know what the Air Force is going to do with me (separate me, retrain me, etc). I know that they'll do something, and that regardless, the turtle will continue to hold up my world. I just can't keep my Western point of view out--I have to know what's going to happen.

And so, it seems, does almost everyone else. It's the primary topic I talk and write about to friends and relatives these days because it is, obviously, one of the most important things going on in my life right now. But I think I'm just going to start telling people about the turtles. I won't get fired/married/divorced/pushed out of the service/retrained/admitted to law school/published/engaged/lucky without everyone knowing about it, and if I can rest comfortably on the backs of infinite turtles, than so can everyone else.


Rachel* said...

Very interesting.

Smitty said...

I thought so.

Smitty said...

This post has a somewhat amusing irony in that I have since in fact become a Buddhist. But the philosophy remains intact.