Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Our Story So Far

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

This blog began with a 19th century American adaptation of a Jain poem about the near impossibility of communicating across different assumptions.  That cross-cultural communication is possible is admirably exemplified by John Godfrey Saxe’s adaptation of the parable from a religion that scarcely anyone in America has ever heard of.

A symbol of Jainism

The reason the Jain religion is little understood in America is that the Jain themselves were rather masters of assimilation.  Jainist beliefs underlie Hindu and Buddhist ideals of non-violence and respect for all life.  The concept of samsara, the illusion of temporal existence and reincarnation based on karma, stems from Jain beliefs.   Vedic Hinduism and Jainism lived side by side in ancient and medieval India (1500BCE to 500 AD) until they nearly merged.  Modern Jains comprise .4% of the Indian population, Hindus over 80%.  Saxe never visited India, but the parable is one of the exports of the British Raj.  The integration of Vedic rituals and Jain philosophy seems to have been accomplished through a great deal more scholarship and much less violence than the later Mughal and British colonizations.  With respect to the integration of Hinduism and Jainism, the blind men somehow thrashed it out without resorting to violence.

I then proceeded to suggest that studying kink was something like the epistemological puzzle posed in the poem:  that the different sexual variations themselves proceeded from a lot of different desires and abilities, experiences and epistemologies, and that studying them from the viewpoint of a therapist might be systematically different from being a participant, let alone an ardent enthusiast.  Kinky folk themselves might have had no small difficulties agreeing on a PR campaign!  Not only are the worlds of kink and therapy differing in many of their underlying assumptions, but language, goals, and expectations are often not shared.  In my discussion of consent, I contrasted the sexual freedom and sexual health agendas, and found areas of commonality.  In the last 4 posts, I have explored the differing epistemologies within the psychotherapy community regarding the field’s diagnostic manual. There is clearly plenty of disagreement about how we therapists know health when we see it, how we know sexual freedom when we see it, and when we think those two values are aligned.

Perhaps Saxe was a bit pessimistic.  He was a great lover of rail travel, and following a head injury, he struggled with depression.  In the Jain version of this parable, the six blind men visit the elephant in their various ways, and return to tell the king of their experiences.  The king affirms how they are right in their own ways; that the elephant is all these things and more.  The Jain version ends in harmony and peace rather than cacophony.
As it is with the elephant, so it is with the parable!  We will next turn to thinkers who believe that social reality is all about synthesis.

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