I read a fascinating article in the NY Times yesterday about the growing popularity and plight of elephants in the Indian state of Kerala. Elephants in India were traditionally used for practical purposes, but the mechanization of work has relieved them of much of their physical labors. Nowadays they are put to work in religious ceremonies and at temple festivals.
According to the article, the elephants are not always well-treated by their handlers, as you can imagine might be the case when a wild animal is commoditized in a country not known for its strong regulatory enforcement. The story told by the author revolves around the lives and personalities of two men: one, a well-known actor who runs the largest elephant business in the region and the other, a brahmin who has taken it upon himself to be the voice and protector of the elephants.
The former (as is often the case when the lines between politics and business are smudged) was offered and accepted the position of the state’s forest minister, just after a report proposing a ban on the commercial use of elephants was put out by the central government. The latter, a math and accounting tutor, diligently nurtures a group of informants who report on specific incidents of mistreatment and then files reports on behalf of these grand, voiceless creatures.
In what might seem a classic tale of good versus evil, of an underfunded underdog going up against a wealthy and connected patrician, there is an odd and interesting complication. Elephant populations have been on the decline worldwide due to ambitious poachers and real estate developers, except in the two countries – India and Sri Lanka – where they are used for religious festivals. Ergo, stop the commercial use of these creatures and their trajectory toward extinction as a species is likely to accelerate, ceteris paribus.
Talk about being in between a rock and a hard place! Wouldn’t it be ironic if it turned out to be the avarice of religious leaders that saved the mighty elephant from extinction and not the work of animal rights activists? Perhaps so, but if I may anthropomorphize for a moment, I would prefer the opportunity to take my chances in the wild unknown over a life of slavery.
In many ways humanity faces the same predicament. Our children are prepared for life under the big top, that is, they’re taught to be productive citizens (whether conformist or free-thinking) and once trained they are sent off by their parents to new handlers to maintain or advance human society. Man’s obsession with his notions of duty and progress have led him to rationalize, if not praise, this tragic waste of human potential and generation after generation of children are poured into the cauldron of despair.
It must be seen that traditionalists and radicals serve the same cruel master if the driving motivation is self-aggrandizement. These are the rock and the hard place in the human condition. I daresay this is even true of those so-called altruists who sacrifice their lives for the perpetuation of the self-centered world we have come to know and love (or hate). Whether diligently conforming or tenaciously “poking the box” there cannot be freedom from slavery, cruelty, greed or fear unless there is a passionate dedication to love and truth and a bold declaration of that centering in living.
Man’s freedom can neither be bought nor begged for; no church or business can grant liberty to any human being. Man, unlike the magnificent elephant, has a peculiar responsibility and therefore a special privilege: the capacity for free will. He need not be released by an oppressor; he is, as it was put, the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. He alone can chose whether he shall live a slave or freeman, not just in the sense of enjoying full political and civil rights of some humanly devised nation-state, but as a free man or woman living fully, presently and freely in the kingdom of heaven, which is, in fact, at hand.
I, for one, am willing to take my chances in this wild (to my present consciousness) unknown. What about you?