The elephant's footprints

David R. Israel davidi at
Thu Sep 4 13:07:25 UTC 1997

Mikael Aktor quotes from an essay by Clifford Geertz:

>"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.'

this is spinning out on a small tangent: I should like to point out 
the interesting resonance of this phrase with regard to the important 
surrealist painting by Rene Magritte depicting an ordinary smoking 
pipe, and bearing the caption (in French):  "This is not a pipe."  
The passage from Kalidasa seems to add one further layer to many 
ways of reading / approaching that wry painted text.

Mikael also wrote,

>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.

and George Thompson usefully replied,

> . . . this ref. to 'Sakuntala' . . . 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].

Just to spin out one more -- possibly slightly more apt -- tangent, 
besides the question of origins for the elephant simile, your friend 
might also wish to consider prototypes of the ring episode itself.

I allude here to the well-known, a dramatically crucial episode in 
the Ramayana where Sita -- emprisoned within the walled garden of 
Ravana's palace on Lankha -- hears from aloft the sweet voice of 
Hanuman (whom she had theretofore not acquainted), who claims that he 
is an emissary from her husband Rama.  To prove this claim, he shows 
her the ring from Rama's own finger -- beholding which, Sita is at 
once assured that this is indeed a genuine message from her lord.

(I know this passage based on readings of Rajagopalachari's abridged 
version of the Valmiki classic -- but am sure any number of list 
members could supply a more exact & primary citation, if of use.)

I would assume that Kalidasa probably had that classical episode 
somewhat in mind (i.e., it exists in the background, antecedent, 
albeit transformed); or would, at least, propose that it seems to 
serve as a prototype for the use of the ring in Sakuntala

>"When I saw the ring, I remembered that I had married his daughter.

Interestingly, the roles (& direction of the memory-confirming ring: 
from wife to king rather than from king to wife) are reversed.

   >    david   raphael   israel    <
   >>      washington  d.c.      <<
 |  davidi at   (home)
 |  disrael at       (office)
 |   thy centuries follow each other
 |   perfecting a small wild flower
 |                                       (Tagore)

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