The elephant's footprints

thompson at thompson at
Wed Sep 3 15:04:16 UTC 1997

This passage is also discussed by Jerome Bruner in his _Acts of Meaning_
[Cambridge MA 1991, p.150]. The source for this ref. to 'Sakuntala' is
David Shulman [in a personal communication cited by Bruner]. The exact
reference is Sak. 7.31.

The point of this passage seems to be that just as the elephant's footprint
is an index [a sign] of the elephant, so Sakuntala's ring is an index
[sign] of her, reminding DuSyanta of all that he had forgotten [see the
preceding stanza].

I am aware of two parallal passages from Buddhist sources. The first is the
well-known tale of the elephant and the blind men [UdAna 6.4.66-69]. The
second is a more closely related and more interesting passage from the
Milindapan~ha 5.24.4. Here Nagasena is attempting to persuade the sceptical
Milinda that the existence of the Buddha can be known "by means of
inference" [anumAna]:

"As men seeing the footprint of an elephant-king can judge by inference
'How great his size must be!' So when they see the footprint of the
elephant of men, the Buddha, the wise one, upon the path that men have
trod, they know by inference: 'How glorious the Buddha was!'"

This passage is discussed in _Indo-Iranian Journal_ 38, 1995 [pp.12-13].

Hope this helps,

George Thompson

>Dear list members,
>A collegue of mine has come accross the following passage in one of
>Clifford Geertz' (American anthropologist) latest essays:
>"A sage is squatted before a real elephant that is standing right in
>front of him. The sage is saying, 'This is not an elephant.' Only later,
>as the elephant turns and begins to lumber away, does a doubt begin to
>arise in the sage's mind about whether there might not be an elephant
>around after all. Finally, when the elephant has altogether disappeared
>from view, the sage looks down at the footprints the beast has left
>behind and declares with certainty, 'An elephant was here.'" (Cl. Geertz,
>_After the Fact_, Cambridge 1995, p.167).
>The story is supposed to be taken from an episode in Kalidasa' Sakuntala.
>My colleque refers to the following translation in Barbara S. Miller,
>_Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa_, Columbia University Press:
>New York 1984, p.174, where the king says, among other things:
>"When I saw the ring, I remembered that I had married his daughter. This
>is all so strange! Like one who doubts the existence of an elephant who
>walks in front of him but feels convinced by seeing footprints, my mind
>has taken strange turns."
>Now, what my collegue wants to know is whether this simile of the sage and
>the elephant is a reference to a common known story, which might exist in
>more details in other texts, and in this case, which texts?, or, if it
>only an isolated metaphor in Kalidasa's play.
>Can the Kalidasa experts help?
>Mikael Aktor, research assistent
>New address:
>Study of Religions, University of Aarhus, DK-8000 Århus C, Denmark.
>E-mail: aktor at
>Or private:
>Bangertsgade 9 st tv, DK 2200 Copenhagen N, Denmark.
>E-mail: aktor at

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