Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Salt of the earth

One of the joys of being in a small college (though I'm sure this joy can be found elsewhere too) is conversations with people who do very different kinds of work, and discovering unexpected and tantalizing affinities. A colleague of mine who is an economist - her work specializes in understanding the economics of disasters - has been interested in my work on Job for a while. Today I gave a faculty seminar on Job's friends (I argued that understanding Job as about "man and God" overlooks the important horizontal relationship between Job and his friends - a difficult relationship, but the first thing to be restored at the end) and she came. She asked some interesting questions but her real interest is in Job's encounter with God; she was intrigued by Aquinas' view (as I'd reported it) that Job was a friend of God.

Her own view, she explained, was well described by a story told by Ramakrishna, "one of our poets" (she's from Bengal):

Once a salt doll went to measure the depth of the ocean. It wanted to tell others how deep the water was. But this it could never do, for no sooner did it get into the water than it dissolved. Now, who was there to report the ocean's depth? What Brahman is cannot be described. In samadhi one attains the knowledge of Brahman -- one realises Brahman. In that state reasoning stops altogether, and man becomes mute. He has no power to describe the nature of Brahman.


Online I found a few other versions of the story. Here's one recorded by a Germaine Hornsby, who heard it from a Sandeep Chatterjee, who had heard it at Gangotri in the Himalayas:

A salt doll journeyed for thousand of miles and stopped at the edge of the sea. It was fascinated by this moving liquid mass, so unlike anything it had seen before. "What are you" asked the salt doll. "Come in and see" replied the sea with a smile. So the salt doll waded in. The further it went, the more it dissolved till there was only a pinch of it left. Before the last bit dissolved the doll exclaimed in wonder, "Now I know what I am."


elisamaza76 said...

What a great parallel (I think). The idea that one has no power to describe the nature of Brahman seems like a great way to express at part of what I've always gotten from Job. For me, though, the difference is in Brahman as the sea into which the salt dissolves and Job's God as the whirlwind that out-thunders him and, rather than absorbing, reinforces a separation. I don't know - it just feels different to me.

mark said...

I hear you. Is having the God experience for Job rougher than being dissolved by the sea? Hard do say! It certainly seems like a difference that two have become one in the story of the salt doll, while two seem to have become even more two in Job. Unless, of course, Job really does see - if God in some way invites Job into his creator's understanding of the world, unfathomable though that is to an uninitiated creation. That's what Maimonides and some other interpreters think...