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Chapter 27: The Soul Is a Quest

Again and again he was hammering Dr. Johnson’s head with the same philosophy - that morning it was too much. He was saying, “All these trees and this sun and this sky, all these are ideas.” Enough is enough! Dr. Johnson was a realist, a down-to-earth man. He took a rock from the road and hit hard on the feet of Berkeley. Berkeley screamed in deep pain, blood started oozing out of his feet, and he said, “What are you doing? Have you suddenly gone mad?”

And Dr. Johnson said, “But it is just an idea, this rock. Why are you screaming? Why do you look so angry?”

It is not reported what Berkeley said, but there is a parallel story in Indian history, which takes a beautiful turn.

A Buddhist came to the court of a king. He was a great “mystic,” and belonged to a certain school of Buddhists who preceded Berkeley by at least two thousand years. His was the same idea: it is called vigyanvad - the whole existence is nothing but ideas.

The king must have been a man like Dr. Johnson - very earthbound, very realistic, pragmatic. The philosopher was very argumentative; he defeated the king’s court, all the learned men that the king had gathered around himself. And the king was feeling humiliated, so he said, “Now the last argument, the real argument.”

They had a mad elephant so the mad elephant was brought into the courtyard of the palace. The poor “mystic,” the philosopher, was left alone in the courtyard, and he was trembling.and then the mad elephant was left. The mad elephant rushed towards the philosopher - and you can imagine, what happened to Berkeley was nothing compared to it: he jumped and shouted and cried and begged for his life.

The king was standing on the balcony with the whole court, and they were laughing. So now it was proved that the elephant is not just an idea, it is not just a dream.

The philosopher was crying with folded hands and asking, “Save me, please!” At the last moment he was saved - just at the last moment. Even after he was saved he was trembling for hours, the elephant was so ferocious.

The king said to him, “So now what do you think? Is the elephant real or not?”

He said, “No, sir. It is just an idea.”

The king said, “Then why were you screaming and why were you begging for your life?”

The philosopher said, “That was an idea too. My crying, my effort to be saved, your kindness to save me - all are ideas; they don’t really exist, just figments of the mind.” This is going to the very logical conclusion of it! He said, “Don’t be so happy - because I myself am an idea and nothing else.”

The king said, “Then we will put you back, and we will bring the mad elephant!”

And the philosopher said, “I will beg for my life again! But that doesn’t matter; that doesn’t change my argument and my position. The philosophy remains intact.”

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