October 25, 2011

The Betel Leaf

Once a well educated botanist approached Kanchi Maha Periyava and out of ignorance, asked ‘Why is betel leaf called ‘Vettrilai’ in Tamizh.

Maha Periyava non-challantly replied, ‘The betel vine does not have flowers, nor does it bear fruits. It has merely leaves (’verum ilai’) and so is the name ‘vettrilai’ !

The botanist hung his head as he did not even realize this simple fact!

Did you read the story? OK, good!

Now…what struck me about this story was the extreme schadenfreude of it. When we see someone learned, or rich, or otherwise endowed with breeding or looks, we seem to take great pleasure in somehow bringing them down. We need to somehow know that they are not as learned or wealthy or handsome or well-bred…that they have their weak points.

But truly…is it possible for everyone to know every thing? Why is it a matter of shame that a “well-educated botanist” does not know the meaning of the name “vettrilai”? After all, he didn’t know, and he asked his spiritual guru about it. What is the shameful thing about this, and why is so pleasing to us that he should hang his head in shame? There may be several (million) “simple facts” that the very learned may not know….is ignorance, by itself, a matter of shame? Does our respect for learning have to be tinged with scorn for not knowing something?

When one does not want to learn, that, I feel, might be a matter for shame or scorn (though I would even disagree with that. I don’t want to learn quantum physics, or the details of grafting plants, for example…and I am not ashamed of this!) ..or if one claims to know something and then displays ignorance of it, perhaps that is shameful…but to crow over the momentary lapse of a noted person is surely, to me, a mark of mean-mindedness and intolerance….a form of a “superiority complex” which places ourselves, for that moment, above the knowledge of that particular learned person, or that plutocrat, or that film star….I am uncomfortable with this need to drag down our eminent people to below our level.

How many people (who are not TamBrams or Tamil Brahmins) know that the “Kanchi Maha Periyava” referred to above, is, to be precise, Shri Chandrashekarendra Saraswathi, erstwhile pontiff of the Kanchipuram Peetam of Shankaracharya? And if they don’t know “even this simple fact”, is it a matter of shame?

Well…what do you think? I feel ignorance, in itself, is NOT a matter of shame. It only means…there is something more to be learnt. And surely that is true for all of us, all the days of our lives.