Society

The Thief, His Tortoise, Their History, And The Revenge Of Myth

Last month, on March 23rd, a male Aldabra Giant Tortoise by the name of "Adwaitya" died at the Alipore zoo in Calcutta....

The Thief, His Tortoise, Their History, And The Revenge Of Myth
info_icon

Last month, on March 23rd, a male Aldabra Giant Tortoise by the name of"Adwaitya" died at the Alipore zoo in Calcutta. Press reports -- TheTelegraph (Calcutta), BBC News, CNN, New York Times, NDTV [New DelhiTV], The Times (London), among many others -- render "Adwaitya", aform of the Sanskrit advaita, a word of vast import to describe thephilosophical outlook that is known as non-dualism, as "the one and only",and if it is true that "Adwaitya" was 255 years old when he died, one canunderstand why he should have been so named. The oldest documented living animalis a Galapagos tortoise, 176 years old, at a zoo near Brisbane in Australia.Some 80 years older than his nearest rival, who was taken from Isla Santa Cruzby Darwin himself, Adwaitya, should his exact age be verified by carbon dating,would have had an extraordinary innings.

There is perhaps something in the history of these ancient and giganticcreatures that also ties them to larger-than-life figures. Adwaitya became knownas "Clive’s pet", and in reading his obituary one might have been readingabout the death of Clive himself. Said to have been one of four tortoises giftedto Robert Clive, whose triumph at arms at Plassey in eastern India in 1757 isconventionally thought to have gained Britain its jewel in the crown, Adwaityawas transferred to the Calcutta zoo in 1875 and remained there for the rest ofhis life. That innocuous phrase, "rest of his life", means much more than itmight ordinarily, since Adwaitya would have witnessed the birth of the IndianNational Congress (1885), the mass resistance to British rule known as theSwadeshi Movement (1903-08), and the dismantling of the empire that, shall wesay, Clive built. Adwaitya was, then, not a very loyal pet, calmly outliving hismaster and his master’s creation. Perhaps Adwaitya knew all along that the sunwould set on the British empire, and that he would be there to see the sun godown. Luckily, Adwaitya did not see the sun go down on the human race, whichfrom time to time seems bent on a course of self-destruction.

Advaita’s adherents, from the venerable Shankaracharya (c. 780-820 AD) tothe twentieth century advaitin, Ramana Maharshi (1789-1950), otherwiseknown as the Sage of Arunachala after the sacred hill in the vicinity of hisashram, have always claimed that advaita is, in a manner of speaking, theeternal truth, since advaita teaches that the goal of life is to attainself-realization. That supreme awareness comes about when one is able todistinguish the real from the illusory and achieve emancipation fromego-illusion. Clive joined in the plunder of Bengal, but when he was put ontrial in Britain on charges of corruption and bribery, he described how theriches of Bengal had been laid at his feet and yet he had exercised somerestraint. ‘Here I stand, My Lords,’ Clive reminded the jurors, ‘astonishedat my own moderation’. Clive lived only to the age of 49 and reportedly diedan opium addict. Of Adwaitya, say the zookeepers, let it be known that hesustained himself on a diet of wheat bran, carrots, lettuce, soaked gram, grass,and salt. Not only did Adwaitya know of the inestimable benefits conferred by avegetarian diet, which some scientists now assure us is more friendly to theearth, he was evidently intoxicated enough by life to scarcely be in need of anyexternal stimulants. The Pioneer [Delhi], in an article on 6 May 2005,nearly a year before the tortoise’s death, reported that Adwaitya had not seena doctor for 29 years.

Philosophical matters apart, Adwaitya’s longevity and forbearance mightexplain why the tortoise occupies such an honorable place in Indian mythologyand story-telling traditions. Most Hindus are likely to associate the tortoisewith Vishnu’s second of ten incarnations (avatars). As "kurma", or thetortoise, Vishnu descended upon the earth to recover precious items that hadbeen lost in the deluge and had settled at the bottom of the ocean. There isanother story about the tortoise. In the beginning, everywhere was water; therewas nothing to eat. Prajapati, the Creator, became anxious about the fate of hischildren, and was advised that the earth lay trapped under the water. Once hehad rescued the earth goddess (Bhoodevi), he placed her on the back of thetortoise. Thus, as Akupara, the tortoise carries the entire world on its back. 

The nineteenth century Indian mystic, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, put even agreater burden on this slow-moving animal. People who had attained self-control,and in particular mastery over their sense-organs, were likened to the tortoise.Through the uncommon subdual of the sense organs, Ramakrishna discoursed atgatherings (which drew restless young men to him, among them the future SwamiVivekananda), anger, lust and other sentiments, which are destructive ofequanimity, are put in abeyance. ‘Such a man’, says the Gospel of SriRamakrishna, ‘behaves like a tortoise, which, once it has tucked in itslimbs, never puts them out. You cannot make the tortoise put its limbs outagain, though you chop it to pieces with an axe’ (p. 179). Ramakrishna foundin the tortoise a remarkable illustration of the steadfastness with which God’strue devotee goes about her business: even while she moves in the water, herthoughts are always on the bank where her eggs are lying.

Many will read in the story of Adwaitya, "Clive’s pet", the tale of thetortoise and the hare writ large. Eternal tales will surely continue to comedown to us in new incarnations. What other point is there to Vishnu’s avatars?We might even be tempted into seeing in Adwaitya’s story a parable for ourtimes as the lumbering giants of Asia, the Aldabra and Galapagos tortoises ofour times, India and China, make their way past the hares that had all but wonthe race. But one thing is certain: long after the history of the British empirewill have disappeared, the mythical world of tortoises (and hares) will continueto endure.

Tags

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement