The story of the good Brahmin
by Voltaire 1752
While on my travels, I met an old Brahmin very wise, full of great spirit and very knowledgeable; in addition, he was rich so all the wiser; because not in need of anything, he did not have to deceive anyone. His family was very well managed by three beautiful women who tried their best to please him; and when he did not play with his wives, he passed his time studying philosophy.
Near his home, which was nicely decorated with charming gardens, lived an old narrow-minded Indian woman, a rather poor simpleton.
One day, the Brahman told me: “I wish I had never been born.” I asked him why. He replied “I have been studying for forty years, these are forty years of waste: I teach others, and I know nothing; this state of mind brings in my soul so much humiliation and disgust that my life has become unbearable. I was born, I live in time and I do not know what Time is; I find myself somewhere between two eternities, as our wise men say, and I have no idea of what Eternity is. I am composed of matter: I think, I never managed to learn what produces my thoughts; I do not know whether my understanding is a simple faculty as it is for walking or digesting, or if I think with my head as I take with my hands. Not only, the reason of my thoughts is unknown to me, the reason of my movements is equally mysterious: I do not know why I exist.
Nevertheless, every day, many ask me questions about all these points; I must reply, but I have nothing worth saying; I talk a lot, and I end up confused and ashamed after talking. “It is even worse when some ask me if Brahma is the produce of Vishnu or if they are both eternal. God is my witness that I know nothing about this and this shows itself in my answers. “Ah! My reverend, “Father, they say to me, tell us why evil floods the earth.” I am as lost as those who question me: sometimes I told them that everything is for the best; but those who have been ruined and mutilated at war do not think so and neither do I; I return home overwhelmed by my curiosity and my ignorance. I read our ancient books, and they cloud my mind even more. I speak to my friends: some told me that we must enjoy life and make fun of mankind; others think they know something and lose themselves in extravagant ideas; all this increases my anguish. I am sometimes close to despair, when I think that after all my seeking I do not know where I came from, nor where I am going, nor what I shall become.”
The state of such a good man hurt me: no one was more reasonable and of good faith than him. I realised that the brighter his understanding and sensitivity, the unhappier he was.
The same day, I saw the old woman who lived nearby: I asked her if she had ever been sad not to know what her soul was made of. She did not even comprehend my question: never in all her life, had she thought a single time about one of the points that tormented the Brahmin; she believed in the metamorphoses of Vishnu with all her heart, and as long as she has been able to get a little of the Ganges’ water to make her ablution, she thought she was the happiest of women.
Amazed by this poor creature’s happiness, I came back to my philosopher, and told him: “Are you not ashamed to feel so miserable when next door, an old automaton who thinks about nothing is very content? – You are right he said; I told myself one hundred times that I should be happy if I was as brainless as my neighbour, yet, I do not want such a bliss.
My Brahmin’s answer made a greater impression on me than all the rest; I reflected on myself and I saw that indeed, I would not want to be happy at the price of being a simpleton.
I presented this point to many philosophers and they all agreed with me. “There is nevertheless, I said, a tremendous contradiction in this way of thinking.” Because, what is the point really? If it is to be happy; does it really matter to be intelligent rather than stupid? But there is more: those who are happy of their lot are certain of their happiness; those who use their reason are not so sure of their reasoning. “It is therefore clear, I said, that we should choose not to have common sense, if it contributes to our discomfort.” Everyone agrees with me again but I found no one willing to accept the bargain to be a simpleton in order to be happy. From this I concluded that even though we dearly seek happiness, reason seems to be more precious.
But after reflection, preferring reason to felicity is certainly senseless. How could we explain such a contradiction? As all the others. It is indeed a matter for much talk.
This story and Voltaire always made me think…it is probably evident that someone who do not question life and its mysteries, lives more happily. I have been learning all my life and though I do not think I wasted my time, I must admit that I learnt very little but I still want to learn more. I read… I read so much that unless my brain has become a computer hard drive, I wonder how I can remember everything… considering that my brain is only human, let us hope that I remember the most important; it is certain that my questioning made me aware of all the suffering in the world since this world exists and that despite all the great philosophers’ and masters’ wisdom, humankind has not yet managed to remove the suffering caused by greed, negligence, hatred, carelessness and all the causes of much misery that could be prevented. But if this knowledge leads to despair, we may give up and this would be very shameful; because, though we may not change the world, we can all make a little difference around us and this is a start at least.
If learning only involves curiosity it is a useless process; as no matter how long we live or could live, we will never be able to know and understand everything especially if we seek proofs.
My dear master Lao Tzu taught me that if curiosity is good, it can also be a curse. It may, as for the good Brahman, be vanity; and he clearly admitted how shameful he was not being able to give the clear answers his friends and followers seek.
The Buddha himself said that it is essential to learn but after much reading, it is useless to seek truth in books or classes. The hardest part is to find it in ourselves. When we learn to ride a bike, it is good to have someone holding us but we must find our own balance to be able to ride.
The good Brahmin is wealthy and if he is as good and wise as Voltaire says, he certainly uses his wealth and knowledge to help others. Though he cannot answer all questions, he should be very happy that at least he is improving the wellbeing of those around him. Voltaire was a great philosopher and a wonderful poet very involved with people by creating jobs, organising charity with amazing play, and defending the poor in court. He had a great respect for human's rights, justice and tolerance. I admire him for his wisdom, courage, and compassion.
Furthermore, we don’t need wealth to help or give joy to others. And for this reason, I am happy to have learnt a little about herbs, about web design, about photoshop, and other things so I can contribute even if it is only in a very small way to others’ well-being.
I also believe that the simpleton in the Brahmin story can teach us a lot; indeed, we do not need much to be happy if we appreciate what we have and do not seek too much. It is consumerism which causes so much problem in our societies. In addition, we should try to focus on beauty rather than misery and sometimes it is better to wear pink glasses than dark ones so long as we still take care of others and do not get lost in our own misery.
It is good to remember the past so we do not make the same mistakes again but regret and guilt only bring sadness; it is good to be ambitious but focusing too much on the future may blur the beauty of the present and prevent us to enjoy life as it is really Now.
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