Vairagya and Viveka: The Story of the Caged Elephant


Vairagya & Viveka

Vairagya is non-attachment to wordly desires. Viveka is the ability to discriminate between what is real and unreal.

Often people feel trapped in circumstances or the monotonous routine of life. The story of the caged elephant in the scripture “Yoga Vasistha” explains this feeling of bondage and the concepts of Viveka and Vairagya.

The Story of the Caged Elephant: Vairagya & Viveka

In a forest, there was an elephant which was extremely strong and possessed a powerful pair of tusks. It used to roam freely in the forest without any kind of bondage.

One day, a thin and lean man came and lured the elephant into a cage. The elephant became trapped in the cage. The man used to repeatedly stab the elephant with a spiked stick.

Soon the elephant became conditioned to the reality that there were only two kinds of experiences in life: pain when it was poked with the stick, and pleasure in the absence of being poked with the stick.

Thus the man was able to tame the elephant by limiting its reality and became known as the rider of the elephant. After some time, the elephant forgot that there was an alternate reality, in which it had roamed free in the forest, without any fear, remaining all powerful with the help of its tusks.

One day, when the rider was away, the elephant struggled to free itself. It struggled hard, and after days of intense effort, was able to shatter the cage. The elephant ran towards its freedom. The rider returned as the elephant was trying to escape. In an attempt to stop the elephant’s escape, the rider climbed a tree and  jumped down, planning to land on the elephant’s back and hence subdue him once again. The rider missed and landed right in front of the elephant.

The elephant saw his tormentor in front of him, but instead of killing  the rider, the elephant made his escape into the forest.

The rider got up again. He was weak from the fall but not dead. He recovered and began a search for the elephant once again. Sure enough, the rider spotted the elephant standing near a lake one day. He sought the help from other elephant tamers, and dug a huge pit. He covered it with grass and shrubs, camouflaging the hole underneath. The elephant stepped on the grass covering the pit, and fell down in the pit.

The rider again caged the  elephant, repeatedly poking it with spiked stick. The elephant again got conditioned to the two kinds of realities, becoming subjugated to the will of the rider.

The elephant still stands in that pit today, conditioned by the reality that the stick determines its pain and pleasure.

Interpretation of the Story: Vairagya and Viveka

The elephant represents each  one of us on this earth.

Like the elephant in the story, each one of us possesses two powerful tusks in the form of viveka (discrimination between real and unreal) and vairagya (dispassion or non-attachment towards sensual objects).

The rider in the story is the ignorant mind. Though we are extremely powerful like the elephant, once ignorance in the form of a rider takes control, the mind conditions us to forget everything and only perceive life in terms of pleasure and pain.

The cage of the elephant is the cage of desires that we build around our selves. An iron cage rusts with time, but the cage of desires only gets stronger with time.

Like the elephant broke out of the cage, there are times in our life when we will get a glimpse of the truth and make an effort to seek a higher and liberated way of living.

Just as the rider lay helpless before the elephant when it did break free, the mind is at our disposal at those times when we are inspired to make efforts and break free from the shackles of a mundane life to inquire into higher truths.

At that time ignorance is weakened, and it is the ideal time to kill it. Although, ignorance is wounded, it is extremely resilient. The other elephant tamers are the past memories (residual memories or vasanas) of the times that we have experienced bodily pleasures and pains.

Ignorance clouds our mind with these residual memories and we again get tempted to indulge  in vain worldly matters.

The wise sages have said  that every-one is born powerful and possesses the two qualities of Viveka and Vairagya. Once ignorance renders both these qualities useless, then you remain imprisoned in the forest that you call your world