346 – Mowgli, science, and religion

Posted on October 26, 2015 by

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Rearranging books hoping to create a cranny for new acquisitions, I came across a 1917 pocketbook edition of Rudyard KIPLING’s Jungle Book. Time had frayed the back of the red leather binding, but the gold on the edges of the pages was still crisp and inviting.

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I got lost in the first story: Mowgli’s Brothers.

Father Wolf taught him his business, and the meaning of things in the jungle, till every rustle in the grass, every breath of warm night air, every note of the owls above his head, every scratch of a bat’s claws as it roosted for a while in a tree, and every splash of every little fish jumping in a pool, meant just as much to him as the work of his office means to a business man.

Mowgli learned the meaning of everything in the jungle, and this made him a scientist. For, meaning goes well beyond the instrumental and practicalities of personal surviving and is driven by humans’ deepest urge – curiosity. Contrary to other animals in the jungle, who only speak their “language,” Mowgli’s curiosity mastered them all and was thus everyone’s friend – from hawk to Kaa, the python. In the story, Mowgli is portrayed as forever being “without fear.” Fearlessness is not a (manly?) virtue as much as it is the readiness to confront the unknown and find a way to adapt to the predicament.

In the ensuing tale: Tiger, tiger, Mowgli now lives among the humans in the village. He uses his cunning and knowledge to kill Shere Khan, the despised lame tiger. His wolf brothers and Akela, the deposed leader of the Free People, help him split the herd of buffalos first in order to surround Shere Khan. The bulls stampeded the beast.

As he went about the business of skinning the dead brute, Buldeo, the village hunter, arrives, and looks on, uncomprehending. He should have killed the tiger, on which the government had set a bounty of 100 rupees. He preferred to sit under a great fig tree and spin heart-chilling or fanciful yarns.

Wonderful tales of gods and men and ghosts; and Buldeo told even more wonderful ones of the ways of beasts in the jungle…

(…)

Mowgli rose to go. ‘All the evening I have lain here listening, and, except once or twice, Buldeo has not said one word of truth concerning the jungle, which is at his very doors. How, then, shall I believe the tales of ghosts and goblins which he says he has seen?

Buldeo tries to appropriate the skin and get the bounty. Mowgli asks Akela to chase away the intruder. Buldeo runs back into the village:

It was sorcery, magic of the worst kind, and he wondered whether the amulet round his neck would protect him.

When Buldeo got to the village, he told a tale of magic and enchantment and sorcery that made the priest look very grave.

The news of the killing of Shere Khan spreads:

When they got near the village, Mowgli saw lights and heard the conches and bells in the temple blowing and banging. (…) As a shower of stones whistled about his ears, the villagers shouted: Sorcerer! Wolf’s brat! Jungle-demon! Go away!

Mowgli, the scientist, has used his knowledge of the jungle to free the village of the tiger’s scourge. He is rejected. The village prefers to hear Buldeo’s tales:

The horrified villagers saw Mowgli, with two wolves at his heels and a bundle on his head, trotting across at the steady wolf’s trot that eats up the long miles like fire. Then they banged the temple bells and blew the conches louder than ever; and Buldeo embroidered the story of his adventures in the jungle…

Curiosity and story-telling are both part of the human make-up. Science defers to the material context, and in so doing, conquers it – it is a hard and subtle, humbling slog. Unbridled imagination too gives a warming feeling of conquest. At least in our dreams and tales we tell ourselves of omnipotence. The traits are uneasy partners. Curiosity needs a spark of imagination to ignite the process. In the end, however, we often prefer the bonfire of our imagination to the slog of observation. Meanwhile, we gladly make use of knowledge, even as we decry its “truth.”

A small cautionary tale for our future nestles in Kipling’s tale. When the gap between knowledge and story-telling yawns excessively, knowledge is rejected, for it threatens the social identity of the onlookers. It is not surprising that the country where science has done so many strides is also the country where the backlash against science is so strong. Knowledge and belief are locked in a struggle in the US.

Can we improve the situation? To me, the core issue is the threat of science to our identity. Soothing this fear cannot be achieved in adversarial proceedings where “truth” and “falsehood” joust against each other. Mowgli brings Shere Khan’s skin to the meeting place of the Free People, and his experience brings a closure – of sorts.

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