Friday, 2 December 2011


Ignorance, Misunderstanding
and the 'trouble' with point of view

After WWII, BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) interviewed Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who became the Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico – the program that developed the first Atomic Bombs later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Dr Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer was considered one of the world’s greatest geniuses’ and one of the pre-eminent scientists of his day. To begin the interview of this highly intelligent man, BBC started with a little ‘small talk’. 

‘Dr Oppenheimer, you are considered to be one of the most intelligent men of the twentieth century. We noticed as we came into your office that you have a horseshoe above your door. Do you believe that horseshoes bring good luck?’ 
'Of course not’ replied Oppenheimer, ‘But whether you believe in them or not, they work.’


All ancient cultures observed a correspondence of events in nature with specific outcomes in life. This developed over time, into the elaborate and comprehensive sciences of omens and ‘signs’. 

In India, signs and omens have been studied, used and developed for longer than any other culture in history. Astrology (Jyotish), Palmistry (Hasta Samudrika), 

Nadi (astrological readings done lifetimes before a person was born, that are written on palm leaf manuscripts and read to you when you arrive: See: The Nadi Readers about my experience with this: http://www.petermalakoff.com/nadi_readers.html

There are the movements of various animals, dream images, moles on the body, reading your shadow and face reading, to name but a few of the better known.  

In addition to the observation of omens and signs, many cultures, also had a tradition of Oracles. In the West, the most famous was the Delphic Oracle in Greece. In Tibet, there is the Nechung Oracle, which the Dalai Lama, regularly consults, as he did before it told him to flee from Chinese occupied Tibet. 

                   Nechung Oracle

What does our modern Western culture think of all of this? Not much. We simply don’t have ‘much’ to think about. We are stupendously un-informed and completely unsophisticated about all of it. Most of us think that the weekly horoscope presented in our local newspaper is the near-useless flower of these ancient cultures. That is far from the truth. It is like confusing rocket science and airplane schedules while wondering why a plane would not fly. Nevertheless, in spite of knowing almost nothing about it, or, one could say, because of knowing nothing about it, the whole field of astrology and its use has been dismissed as superstitious and primitive thinking and . 

Very few Westerners have researched the topic or the vast amount of testing over time. Deprived of consideration, lacking in paradox and study of how to employ these different systems or how or why to use them. We are unfamiliar with their long history of incredible accuracy and dismiss them as so much silliness. Even so, it seems that amongst some of our greatest minds, openness to such things persisted.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

I believe that a lack of appreciation of how signs, omens and oracles can be mis-understood played the largest role in what led to their abandonment in the past, and what leads to their dismissal from the mind of modern man in the modern world. People are unaware of the subtle importance of interpretation and they subsequently threw out the messenger as well the way he got the message.

Even if one heard an oracle clearly, the interpretation could simply be ‘wrong’. Amazingly, the whole field of interpretation has been overlooked and forgotten, as if we think that everybody who reads the Bible would get the same thing our of it. 

As we will see, the ‘problem’ of interpretation of signs and omens holds the exact same interpretive crises that we find in modern science, medicine, economics, philosophy, religion and every aspect of our daily lives. 

So let us begin by looking at some of the more famous examples of mis-understanding, for it is only when we realize we are wrong, that we would ever think of correcting our course.
The King and the Gardener

A well-known omen in many cultures, regards the face of the first person you see when you first wake up in the morning. It is said that depending on the first face you see in the morning, the nature of your experience and quality of your day will be determined.
A story is told of a king and his gardener . . .

A king went out very early into his garden for an early morning walk. As he was peacefully strolling, he came around a corner of some bushes and saw his gardener, who had also come out early into the garden to work. As the king glanced at the gardener, the king stumbled and fell, breaking his arm. Bruised and upset, he immediately ordered the gardener to be killed. The gardener pleaded with his ruler, “Please Sir, Noble Lord, have mercy and do not kill me. Perform just acts. For what would you have me killed?” 

The King replied, “When I saw your face this morning, I stumbled, fell and broke my arm. Your face is cursed” 

The gardener replied, “O noble king, by seeing my face, you only fell and broke your arm. By my seeing your face, I am now about to be killed. Whose face is more cursed?”

We are told that the king saw the ‘truth’ and spared the life of the gardener.

The King blamed his own injury on the ‘quality’ or ‘nature’ of his gardener’s face. As far as he was concerned, he had located the cause of his own misfortune in the other mans ‘cursed’ face – it was the face of the gardener that brought about his broken arm. When the poor gardener, his life under threat of execution, pleaded with the king, comparing the relative ‘curse’ that proceeded from each of their faces, the king immediately understood that not only was his own face ‘cursed’, but, for the gardener, the kings face represented a far more terrible curse than the gardeners face had been to the king. 

The king in this story could be said to represent the ego, the ‘I’. This is the supreme principle around which our world revolves. In some sense, we are all ‘kings’. The mistake of the king is the common mistake that all egos make – we interpret the world as if it revolves around us, as if  ‘I’ is what it is all about and we fail to recognize others and their point of view. 

One day, I was driving into San Francisco from Marin County and had just passed through the Waldo Tunnel which goes through the side of a large hill just before opening up on a hillside far above the Golden Gate Bridge The fog had come in below the tunnel and as I left the tunnel and began to descend down towards the bridge, I ran into stopped traffic, hidden in the dense fog. I slammed on the brakes and came to a stop, skidding very close to the car in front of me. Then, a few seconds later, the car following me, hit me from behind and shoved me into the car in front of me. The guy whose car I had now hit (in front of me), jumped out the door of his car, angrily ran up to my window and started screaming at me. It was a classic case of someone not recognizing that the world does not revolve around what had just happened to them. All he could see was that I had hit his car. The full scope of what had just happened escaped him. Nonetheless, he was in full reaction mode. 

When we are blinded by our own point of view, we fail to recognize the ‘truth’ of our situation and project the ‘blame’ or cause out onto another.

There is a story from India about this:
What the Pigeon Sees

A teacher had two disciples. One day, he gave them each a pigeon and told them to go deep into the forest, to a place where no one else could see them. Then, they were to kill the pigeon and bring its dead body back to the teacher as proof.

Each disciple went off in a different direction and after a short while, one of the disciples, found a quiet and secluded spot with no one around and killed the pigeon. He quickly brought back its lifeless body to the teacher. 

Together with his Guru, they waited for the other disciple to return. 

After a while, when the other disciple did not show up, they went searching and eventually found him deep in the forest with the pigeon still alive. The teacher asked him why he had not carried out his instructions. “I couldn’t, said the second disciple. Wherever I went, the pigeon was looking at me.”

The first disciple was like the king in our story. He looked, saw and thought, only from his own point of view. The second disciple certainly saw from his own point of view, but, also, from that of the pigeon. This, ‘more expanded’ point of view is what the king awoke to after being questioned by his gardener. It is what the guy whose car I was pushed into, did not see.

To have an experience or to see a sign or an omen is one thing. To use it properly, to understand that sign in a ‘right’ or appropriate way, is something else entirely. This is true not only regarding signs and omens, but, in each and every field of life. Let me give you a recent example: 

We are teetering on the edge of a financial disaster. Ben Bernanke is the current chairman of the Federal Reserve and the person primarily responsible for guiding the large ship of finance in the United States. People say about him: ‘He completed his PhD Thesis on the Great Depression. He must know how to properly evaluate and respond to the great financial crisis going on now”. 

Ben Bernanke

Actually, his so-called ‘expertise’ in the field, may mean just the opposite – he may be particularly and exactly the wrong person to properly interpret what is going on now.  Let me explain . . .

There are many opinions about what should of been done at the time of the Great Depression and there are even more opinions on how to interpret what happened. It is still not settled. But, doesn’t someone who has studied the subject know more about it than someone who has not? 

It is a well documented, but, little recognized phenomenon, that when an educated person becomes specialized in a given field, he or she will become particularly unable and unwilling to even consider the alternative interpretations that are opposed to the conclusions and opinions he himself now holds. More than someone who is not an expert, he becomes ‘set in his ways’. His ‘focus and specialization’, become the very things that blind him to a fixed and sometimes incorrect view of the same reality. Let me tell you a true story that took place nearly 200 years ago in the field of Western medicine:

Ignazs Semmelweis

Ignazs Semmelweis was a doctor in early 19th century Vienna, a European city at the forefront of the scientific learning and knowledge of that day. He was in charge of the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, what was thought to be a very advanced type of hospital. It had a ‘lying-in’ hospital specializing in childbirth. During his time there, the rates of women dying from puerperal fever or childbirth fever, were so high, that local women feared going to his hospital to give birth. But, this was not limited to his hospital alone. Throughout Western European hospitals, death rates were often 20-25% and sometimes there were spikes when nearly 100% of all women giving birth in a certain hospital would die. 

Pained that the death rates in his hospital were higher than in home births or even in other obstetric clinics that were run by nurses without doctors, Semmelweis, distraught over his inability to help his patients, was driven to investigate. For a long time, he came up with nothing. 

Then, one day, he had a breakthrough. His best friend, Jakob Kolletschka, a doctor in his same hospital, came down with puerperal fever and died. This happened after Kolletschka was cut on the finger with a scalpel, while performing an autopsy on one of the women who had died of puerperal fever. Semmelweis thought he had found the answer to the high rate of death of the mothers in his hospital and others. He thought that there was a substance in corpses that caused the disease. 

At Semmelweis’ Lying-in hospital, there was a morgue in the basement,. This was common in many hospitals all over Western Europe. There, doctors would perform autopsies on recently expired bodies, studying the physiological changes of disease, while waiting to attend to new childbirths. 

          -Model of the autopsy of woman from the Semmelweis Museum/ Vienna

When labor started, they would be called upstairs, arriving with their hands still 
coated with bodily fluids from the corpses. They simply wiped their hands on their 
hospital gowns and proceeded to attend to new childbirths.

Semmelweis speculated that the hands of the doctors had been carrying a ‘cadaverous poisoning’ from the corpses of the women below, to the women in    childbirth on the upper floors. He conducted an experiment: Semmelweis ordered 
    that all the doctors in his hospital, wash their hands in chlorinated lime after they          performed an autopsy downstairs, before they attended to the women upstairs 
about to give birth. Semmelweis decided upon ‘chlorinated lime’, not because it 
kills germs, which it does, but, because it was best thing he knew of to remove 
the putrid smell of the corpses. 

Semmelweis overseeing the washing of doctor’s hands

In a very short period of time, the death rate of women dying from puerperal fever at his hospital had dropped tremendously. Several weeks later, after he decided to wash the surgical instruments as well, (those that were being used upstairs, in the rooms where children were being born and downstairs in the autopsy rooms), the rate of puerperal fever fell to nearly zero. Semmelweis wrote up his findings and excitedly shared his discovery with the doctors of Vienna and all over Western Europe. Expecting an overwhelmingly positive reception, what he received, instead, was intense scorn and disdain. 

Whereas he thought that his results spoke for themselves, all his well- documented reports and good news were quickly dismissed as not being accurate, wrongly reported, or due to other factors. According to doctors all over Europe, there was ‘something’ that Semmelweis was just not seeing and what he was saying was ‘just not true’! Moreover, this dismissal of his work and suggestions took place with an attitude of heightened and aggressive criticism, like a witch-hunt. He and his work were not only dismissed, he was scorned and ostracized.

All over Europe, physicians were offended that anyone would actually suggest that a DOCTOR could cause such death and suffering. After all, these were professional men who stood at the very pinnacle of Western Science and certainly could not be guilty of the repeated and ongoing murder of hundreds of thousands of women due to ignorance on their part. They had dedicated themselves to the saving of lives. They strongly condemned anyone who inferred this was not so and would not consider even any 'facts' that undermined this assumption. 

When we look back at this, we may ask ourselves, how could these doctors have been so stupid? Looking back, we could say that these doctors were ‘murderers.’ Not, purposefully, but, because of their willful and arrogant ignorance. They showed themselves to be more committed to their own status and social standing, than to truth. . . even to finding out the truth.  They were not genuinely investigating the facts and they performed a literal dis-service to the very people they were supposed to serve. They directly contributed to the avoidable deaths of thousands of people. Remember, they did this in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In spite of all his documented facts and positive results, Semmelweis’ findings were criticized and dismissed. He was hounded out of his position at his hospital and eventually out of Vienna. Nearly every doctor in the field of medicine and all over Europe, took an antagonistic position towards the ‘facts’ of Semmelweis’ discoveries. While each physician voiced his resistance in a different way, based on a wide range of reasons, it all came down to one thing – how they felt about his findings. I say, ‘felt’, because obviously, if they had put his suggestions into actual practice, if they had tested them, Semmelweis would have been proved right. 

Most doctors simply went along with what other professionals were saying about Semmelweis. Each was afraid of opposing the herd. Obviously, not only did they dismiss the findings of Semmelweis, nearly every single one of them refused to test it himself. It was not until 30 years later, when Louis Pasteur discovered bacteria and proposed the ‘germ theory of disease’ that Semmelweis was shown to be correct. Sadly, to this day in history books, the curing of puerperal fever is accredited to Pasteur and not to Semmelweis and this whole terrible chapter is hardly remembered.

Homage to Pasteur by Scabert

Although Semmelweis did not ‘accurately’ describe ‘why’; what he did, worked,   he had discovered something that virtually stopped puerperal fever. Although he did not know exactly what it was that chlorinated lime did (it was the chlorine that killed bacteria and germs), he found it prevented the infection of puerperal fever from being transmitted and nearly eliminated that disease as a cause of mortality among birthing mothers.

Today, we tell the story of the ‘germ theory of disease’. But, in effect, in actuality, in his time, culture and in the language of the 19th century, Semmelweis, with his theory of 'cadaverous poisoning' and treatment of chlorinated lime, was absolutely and effectively, correct. If his discovery would of been accepted, if it would of been tested and followed, hundreds of thousands of women and children lives could of been saved over the three decades it took to be finally accepted. The suffering it would of alleviated would be the equivalent of avoiding a whole war. It was completely easy to do. It was the right thing to do. It was obvious, but, it was not done. It was a terrible shame and it was a crime against humanity.

This ‘phenomenon, although forgotten by our western culture, remains with us today in what is called the ‘Semmelweis Effect’. It refers to the tendency of so-called experts in a particular field to reject new evidence that contradicts an established paradigm which they hold. It does not matter if the old way of doing things is false and the new evidence is true and has been proven. It is not even about money, which is heavily involved with the modern day version of this story regarding Cancer and Doctor Stanislaus Burzynski which I will briefly discuss below.

One might say regarding Semmelweis, 'That was 200 years ago. Now, we are much more sophisticated and educated. Well, the exact same thing is happening in America today with the most effective cure for cancer ever discovered (in the 1970's) by Stanislaus Burzynski. This is an even more insidious case, for there are huge sums of money involved, approximately a trillion dollar a year industry . . . I am referring to Cancer and the search for a cure for cancer which are a serious business (Please view the documentary: Cancer: A serious Business, by Eric Merola). Dr Burzynski discovered the most effective (according to FDA testing) treatment ever discovered for many cancers and without any negative side effects at all. Why have we never heard of him? For the same reason that no one ever heard of Semmelweis and his chlorinated lime treatments for women in childbirth.

Much has changed between now and then . . . in addition to the resistance of the medical profession, and they have dramatically opposed him like they did Semmelweis, Burzynski also has to deal with the Pharmaceutical Industry. Think of it – in the time of Semmelweis, there was no money to be gained or lost in whether someone washed their hands or not. But, if chemotherapy and radiation are shown to be unecessary, (they already have shown themselves to be harmful and ineffective in the long run) a trillion dollars of income a year could disappear and literally destroy the huge businesses that produce and carry out these treatments. Even the National Cancer Institute has been trying to block what Burzynski is doing! Apparently there is much more money in searching for a cure for cancer than in having one in hand. It is the modern expression of a very ancient prejudice. It is an extremely primitive form of denial and arrogance that is still with us. It is outrageous. It is exactly what happened to Semmelweis.

So, this is why I say that Ben Bernanke, like the European doctors of the time of Semmelweis, or, the Modern day medical profession or the National Cancer Institute, or specialists in economics, may be exactly the wrong person to ask about the great depression. 

Bernanke may be closed off to the one thing or type of things that actually works. Even if it has worked in other places around the earth, he may not pay it any attention. Even if what he is proposing has been shown to not work, he closes his eyes to its failure.  If it is not what he has studied, learned, done or practiced all his life, he may very well refuse to even entertain the idea.  It is not that he is dumb or stupid. Remember the great doctors of Vienna? He is just blind to any consideration on the subject, just like the king with his gardener, just like the man who was blind to the eye of the dove and like the cancer doctors regarding Burzynski.

Ask one of the families whose wife or Mother died during the time of Semmelweis when their doctor refused to wash his hands, if being an ‘expert’ in the field, was 'enough'. Of course they will say, 'Obviously not!'

"The inertia of the human mind and its resistance to innovation are most clearly demonstrated, not, as one might expect, by the ignorant mass- which is easily swayed once its imagination is caught- but by professionals with a vested interest in tradition and in the monopoly of learning. Innovation is a twofold threat to academic mediocrities: it endangers their oracular authority, and it evokes the deeper fear that their whole, laboriously constructed intellectual edifice might collapse. The academic backwoodsmen have been the curse of genius from Aristarchus to Darwin and Freud; they stretch, a solid and hostile phalanx of pedantic mediocrities, across the centuries."
– Arthur Koestler, 'The Nightwalkers'

Repression of Astrology, Oracles, Omens and the Gods

Although the Semmelweis effect occured in science and medicine, we did not throw out all medical practice. People wrongly interpreted numbers, but we did not reject mathematics. However, in the West, we have a repression of the ancient sciences of omens and astrology. These ancient practices, represented a world-view and spoke in a language that is little used today. ‘Modern’ science, speaks in the rational language of scientific causation. Omens and signs talk in metaphors and poetry, the flight of birds and lines on hands, the rising of a star or planet at the time of birth and the eclipses of the moon or sun. They use the stories of myths as nouns and adjectives, noting correlations, as well as causation; and their images, like any and all data and information, need to be interpreted. All these ancient techniques are rooted in more than data alone. They include bridges of interpretation to morality,  taste of the realm of ‘good and bad’. They are full of value judgements and cognizant of a great mystery inherent in all of life. 

Over the past seven years, in my practice as an Ayurvedic consultant, I looked at a Vedic Astrological chart for almost every one of the  patients that came to me. Nearly every single time, that chart has been amazingly accurate. It gave a broader context to our consideration of physical symptoms and state of health. It gave information on general prognosis, timing and the nature of events and indicated the general direction to proceed. The astrology ‘chart’ looked out over the horizon of time and space, beyond what could be told with my observation of the body, function and pulse in the person in front of me. 

There were certainly times I found no great insight into the matter at hand. But, that was by far the exception. Taken as a whole, the chart showed there were forces that lay outside a person’s conscious choice, control or responsibility in this life. Imagine a person suffering from head and body aches for several years and then finding out that a high frequency cell phone transmission tower had been put up near their house, just around the time they began to suffer from these very symptoms. That would be a very important thing to know and would lend itself to cause and effect interpretation.

Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, and the person from whom all Western medical doctors take the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ said, “No one should call himself a doctor unless he or she was also an a astrologer”. Hippocrates knew that no complete diagnosis could be made without the help of astrological information on the patient. Hippocrates said that astrology would help a doctor to, "Declare the past, diagnose the present and foretell the future”. He went on to encourage doctors to “Practice these arts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things — to help, or at least to do no harm."
– Hippocrates in Epidemics. 

To ‘declare the past’ was of great value, because the type of medicine Hippocrates practiced was based on 'removing the cause' and for that, it was necessary to clearly understand the etiology or cause of things, which often lay in an un-remembered and thus un-recognized past. Looking into past causes with an astrology chart would allow a doctor to consider relationships to present symptoms.

The importance Hippocrates gave to ‘foretelling the future,’ was similar to getting a weather forecast if you are a sailor out at sea . . . it is necessary and important to 'foretell the future' so that we can plan and arrange our lives for the qualities that future may bring. The science of astrology that Hippocrates practiced was not fatalistic. It recognized both fate and free will: A farmer can plant the seeds, but unless it rains those seeds will never grow. To use free will intelligently, it was critical to see what the weather was going to be and what the road looked like ahead and for that you needed to look out over the horizon.

It is obvious how far we have fallen from this kind of consideration in Western medicine today. We neither study astrology nor do our medical professionals adhere to the doctrine of, ‘Do no harm’. Far from it, in fact, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, iatrogenic disease, or ‘treatment by a doctor’, is the third leading cause of death in America today! Not only do we not 'declare the past', we are not much concerned with 'cause,' I am constantly surprised at how western doctors and their analysis of a disease fail to take into account and neither remove or change the causative factors in the disease which are food, digestion and lifestyle in the case in the vast number of diseases that I see. Western Medicine is a relatively new and distinct form of medical practice that seeks  primarily to alleviate symptoms. The method of thinking in Western Medicine today, often treats symptoms as if they were the cause and that if we eliminate or remove the symptoms we effectively treat the disease. This is like driving down the road in a car and the oil light goes on. Western medicine reaches underneath the seat, grabs a hammer and smashes the oil light . . . problem fixed. Ayurveda says that we must do something about the oil and proceeds to do so.

We have seen how the problems of interpretation are not limited to the ancient practices that we call ‘superstitions,' today, such as astrology and omens. Rather, the necessity and problem of interpretation is a universal phenomenon that has never left us and remains alive and well today. Interpretation lies underneath the surface of the ancient sciences and all the modern-day sciences as well. For that matter, it is a fundamental principle and always pertinent necessity in every aspect of life.

Now, let us travel back even further into ancient times and consider the true story of a man who attempted to go further than anyone else in determining the veracity of the oracles of his day (there were several oracles in his world) in an attempt to eliminate all doubt from his use of an oracle.

King Croesus

About 550BC, there was a powerful king of the ancient Middle East who needed extremely important information, information on which his life and the existence of his whole kingdom depended. Here is his story:

His name was King Croesus and he ruled Lydia, the ancient land of Anatolia or Turkey (dark blue).

He was said to be the richest man of his age and it is he who is referred to by the more modern saying, "He is a rich as Croesus." The capital of his kingdom, Sardis, was situated on the Pactolus River, the very same river in which King Midas had upstream and long ago, washed off his ‘golden touch’. A tremendous amount of gold was later discovered in this river, which allowed Croesus to become the richest man in all of Asia. He became the first man in the world to mint gold coins as currency. 

Lydian Gold Coin or ‘Stater’

Croesus was very aware of the great political empires of his time and especially of Persia (Yellow), a neighboring country to his, which lay directly to the East of Lydia across the river Halys. Croesus had heard that Cyrus the Great, the emperor of Persia at the time, 

Cyrus the Great of Persia

was planning to invade his (Croesus’) kingdom, kill him, enslave his people and take away all that he owned. However, Croesus could not be sure whether this was true or not.

Croesus met with his generals and they considered all the different strategies of what they might do. It came down to two main options: One, the more conservative, was to set up strong, impregnable, defensive positions on the Lydian side of the river Halys and wait, seeing if the Persians would cross the river, invade and come to them. If the Persians were not planning to attack, this would clearly be the better approach to take. 

The second option, was to strike at the Persians first, surprise them where and when they least expected in a bold offensive move. This would involve making a first and aggressive move against a formidable opponent in the midst of uncertainty as to whether the Persians were actually plotting against him. If Croesus did this, he needed to cross the river Halys and invade the Persian empire. 

Even though they considered all the information available in weeks of counsel meetings, Croesus and his generals were not able to arrive at a conclusive decision. Thus, in the midst of this overwhelmingly critical conundrum, he decided to consult an oracle. But, which one? He knew that literally ‘everything’ was riding on a ‘correct’ answer. Croesus decided that before he took any advice from any oracle, he first needed to determine if the oracle was accurate. Only then would he take what he had heard as valid and act upon it 

There were seven great oracles available to him, including those in Greece, Libya and Egypt- Amphiarius, Trophonis, Dodona, Phocis, Branchidae, Delphi and Ammon; and Croesus had the intellectual acuity, money, power and the wherewithal to test them all. If he could determine an oracle was accurate and thus see clearly see what could not be seen any other way, only then, would Croesus ask that oracle, ‘What to do regarding Cyrus and the Persian empire.’ Being the richest man in the world at that time, he set up an elaborate and what we would call today, ‘scientific’ test:

On a particular day, Croesus sent out seven envoys bearing gifts to each of the oracles and instructed each man to count 100 days from the day of his departure. On that 100th day, each envoy was to consult his respective oracle with a specific question determined in advance: Each of the seven envoys was to ask their oracle, ‘What is it, that King Croesus of Lydia is doing on that day?’  They were instructed to write down the answer and to bring it back to King Croesus immediately. On that particular day, Croesus said he would be engaged in a very unique and rare action in his own palace, an action he did not divulge to anyone, in fact, it is said that he had not even conceived of the act, himself, before he sent his envoys out. 

The envoys departed and on the 100th day, each asked the question of their respective oracle. The answers were then written down and hurriedly brought back to Croesus. When all the scrolls were opened and read, only the Delphic Oracle was correct. 

Delphic Oracle, by John Godward 1899

The Oracle said this:

I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean; I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth; Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell-covered tortoise, Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron-Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it. 

What Croesus had done on that day was to kill a lamb and a turtle and cook them together in the same brass pot. The king was now thoroughly convinced. His doubts had been answered. How could an oracle with this type of amazing ‘knowledge’ be wrong? Now, he could ask his ‘all-important’ question, the question on which the fate of his whole empire, as well as his very life, rested. He felt assured that the answer he received would be correct. 

Croesus sent a huge amount of gold and other gifts back to the Oracle at Delphi with his envoy. It was the greatest single gifting of wealth that was ever given to the Delphic oracle. He told his envoy to ask the Pythia (the woman who was possessed by the voice of Apollo and was the ‘mouth’ of the Delphic Oracle) ‘Whether King Croesus should attack the Persians across the river Halys?’

The oracle replied that ‘If Croesus crossed the river he would destroy an empire.’ Croesus was overjoyed to receive this clear, direct answer of the Delphic Oracle. He quickly assembled his troops and his army set out to conquer Persia. The Lydians crossed the river Halys was crossed and the Persians were attacked. However, things did not turn out as Croesus expected. One thing led to another and Croesus was defeated by Cyrus and Croesus' empire was destroyed.

Cyrus, the Persian victor, intended to burn Croesus alive. He tied him to a chair and placed him on a pyre of wood.

After the burning pyre had been lit, Herodotus writes that through a ‘miraculous’ event, favorable to Croesus, the skies let loose and it poured down rain and the fire was put out. 

Croesus on the burning pyre

Cyrus, took that as an omen of the Gods intending to save the defeated king and he set Croesus free. Then, they sat down together, now as friends. 

Cyrus said, "Tell me, CrÅ“sus, what man persuaded thee to lead thy army against my land, and to make me thine enemy, having been before thy friend?" 

Croesus told him that he had heard from his spies that Cyrus had wished to defeat him. "But," he continued, "most of all, I was encouraged by the Greek God- Apollo, the God who had spoken to me at Delphi through the oracle."  "That Oracle was wrong," replied Cyrus.

Croesus then asked of Cyrus a favor. He requested ofthe Persian emperor if he could ask the God at Delphi ‘Why he had been told to do such a thing?’ 

Cyrus gave his approval and Croesus sent a small group of Lydians back to Delphi, carrying the actual chains that had bound their king as a captive. Herodotus then tells us what these men asked the Delphic Oracle on behalf of Croesus. They said: 

“Are you not ashamed at having encouraged Croesus as the destined-destroyer of the empire of Cyrus, to begin a war with Persia of which these were the first fruits? (At this point they were to point to the chains of Croesus and further inquire). Is it the way of the Greek Gods to be ungrateful?”

The oracle replied, 

‘It is not possible even for a god to escape the decree of destiny. . . . It was the God-Apollo who saved Croesus from being burned to death. Nor has Croesus any right to complain with respect to the oracular answer which he received. For when the god told him that ‘If he crossed the river Halys and attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire’, he ought, if he had been wise, to have sent to the oracle again and enquired which empire was meant, that of Cyrus or of his own, but, if he neither understood what was said, nor took the trouble to seek for clarification, he has only himself to blame for the result.”
Herodotus, Histories

It is said that when Croesus heard the answer of the oracle, he admitted that it was he that had erred and not the oracle. This event was well documented in Greek history and offers yet another way of how something may be true, but may not be properly understood. 

Even though Croesus sought to make sure that the oracle was accurate. Even though he was very ‘scientific’ about it. Even though the tests he conducted, were as good as any, ‘double blind’ study of today. In the end, he failed to properly understand or question further what the oracle had said. He was blinded by the amazingly accurate oracular description of what he had been doing that 100th day, when he had secretly killed and cooked a tortoise and a lamb in a brass pot. 

This story is, in its own way, another version of what happened with the king and his gardener or Semmelweis or Burzynski or Bernanke. It is an example of the seductive delusion of knowing something, anything, but, only partially and therefore wrongly. Both the King in the garden and Croesus with his elaborate testing of the oracles, were deluded by their point of view. Their delusion was not just because they had a point of view, but, because they were unaware of it as a point of view. They thought it was the ‘Truth’. This is central issue in the problem of interpretation - they were unconscious of their own prejudice.

Knowledge, whether from an oracle or from science, whether from a sign or an oracle, whether from the Bible or someone who holds a University degree in economics, whether in astrology or printed in a textbook, can be misleading. But, that does not mean that we should then blame and burn the textbooks or Bibles, dismiss science, oracles, omens, astrology or the worship of other Gods and other ‘strange’ means of knowing and they are all strange depending on who is judging. 

But, in the history of the Western world, unknown and forgotten to most of us, this is just what happened to many forms of ancient knowing. Just as the king almost had his gardener killed, just as the discovery and wisdom of Semmelweis was discarded and opposed, just as Croesus failed to continue his inquiry, in that same way, the ancient worship of Pagan Gods as well as the practice of the time honored traditions of oracles, signs and omens was suddenly and horrifically destroyed in the West, in a cultural holocaust, inspired by the Christian Church, that sought to destroy all ‘culture, knowledge, books and intelligence’: 

The Destruction of the Ancient World and Worldview
The following quote is from the book- In Defense of Atheism: the case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam , By Michel Onfray

“From the end of the eight century BCE and for the next thousand years, the oracle of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus(on the west coast of Turkey) was second in importance only to Delphi.
Face from ruins of Didyma
 In 303 AD, the emperor Diocletian consulted an oracle to ask why his soothsayers methods were not working. When he sought advice, the gods did not answer. The oracle said that the Christian God was too powerful and was preventing the Roman Gods from communicating. Whereupon Diocletian initiated what was to be the last and greatest persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. 
Ultimately, that sealed Didyma’s fate. Its long history ended abruptly when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and, blaming the oracle for persecutions, retaliated by closing the temple of Apollo at Didyma and executing all the priests.
Didyma was the largest temple in the Mediterranaen
Subsequent emperors followed suit. A text dated February 19 of the year 356 of the edict of Theodosius, decreed the death sentence for persons convicted of worshipping idols or participating in sacrifices:  ‘no mortal man shall have the effrontery to encourage vain hopes by the inspection of entrails, or attempt to learn the future by the detestable consultation of oracles.’
In consequence, Christians in Antioch seized a prophet of Apollo and tortured him. At Scythopolis in Palestine, Domitius Modestus conducted ‘interrogations’ of the top officials and intellectual leaders of Antioch and Alexandria. His aim was to leave no educated man alive. Many Neoplatonist philosophers perished in this ferocious repression. In his Homily on Statues, Saint John Chrysostom, condoned physical violence in certain circumstances and explicitly wrote that Christians are the repositories of public order.”
At Alexandria in 389, Christians attacked the Serapeum (temple of Serapis) 
and the Mithreum (temple of Mithras). 
The idols inside were removed, publicly displayed and mocked. 
The pagan faithful protested (‘particularly the philosophers’, according to contemporary sources), and riots ensued with many deaths on both sides. At Suffectum (Sufes in modern day Shiba, Tunisia) around 401, Christian monks destroyed a statue of Hercules, the patron God of the city and sixty people died in the ensuing riots. Encouraged by the aforesaid John Chrysotom,
John Chrysotom
 bands of monks ransacked the shrines on the Phoenician mountains. All this was the consequence of Paul’s call to 'despise culture, knowledge, books and intelligence'”
Saint Paul

We no longer value these ancient ways of knowing in the West and we hardly know anything about them, today. Many in our culture still despise, ‘culture, knowledge, books and intelligence’. If you think this is not true, look at Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman or Rush Limbaugh. Much of what these people talk about is not even real. They just make things up and then react to them dramatically and emotionally. Interestingly, all of them claim to be  practicing Christians and there is a growing sympathy of the masses with their point of view. I am reminded of an old Chinese proverb: When one dog barks at his own shadow, a hundred bark at his sound. 

But, it is not only Palin, Limbaugh and Bachman.  They are just more extreme and in the public eye. Really, every one of us is like the European doctors at the time of Semmelweis, doctors who were responsible for the deaths hundreds of thousands of women. They did not test what Semmelweis put forward. They just dismissed it. 

If you do not think that you walk in their shoes, ask yourself this: Do you think that there is any value in astrology? Do you pay any attention to signs and omens? Whether you agree or do not- Have you ever studied them? Have you ever explored or tested the science of astrology? Do you know of any person who disparages either of these two sciences to have ever truly explored the field? 

These ways of knowing can offer much to our lives today. They are forgotten like the ancient temples and languages and the people that practiced there. We have not only destroyed their buildings, but have burned their books and lost their wisdom of how the world works.

The destruction of the ancient religions and their ‘other ways’ of knowing, is merely road kill on a highway of Western civilization. After we have run over it, we quickly forget about it. It is said that if we do not want to repeat history, we must study and know it. What else will keep us from steering down that same path of stupidity, especially if we think we have never been that way before?  Tens of thousands of people are dying needlessly, because of the suppression of Stanislaus Burzynski’s cancer cure. This is going on right now in America and has been going on for a long time. Where is the outrage?

There is one story in the history of the ancient ways of knowing, that puts forth the picture of a man who did understand what the oracles said. It is a man who the Oracle of Delphi called the ‘wisest of them all’. His approach to oracular wisdom, offers a ‘right’ way to consider or use an oracle, sign or omen. Let me tell you his story: 

Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi

Around 400 BC, the Delphic Oracle famously said, ‘There was no one wiser than Socrates’. Perplexed by this pronouncement, Socrates, the great philosopher of ancient Athens, thought there were certainly many men that were wiser than him. However, knowing the long and incredibly accurate tradition of the Delphic Oracle, he did not just dismiss what had been said, instead, he set out to understand what it meant.  


Socrates went about finding just ‘how’, ‘why’ or ‘in what way’, what the Delphic oracle had said about him, was true. He traveled all around Greece, meeting and interviewing the wisest men of his time. Socrates would talk to them of many subjects and eventually would ask them ‘What was the purpose of life and how to attain it?’

He thought that anyone who knew the answer to this question would certainly be wiser than he was. After doing this ‘research’ for some time and with many famous and celebrated individuals, Socrates came to the conclusion that the oracle was right in this way: 

While he found several men who claimed to know the purpose of life, Socrates felt that they did not. And, whereas they thought they knew, what they actually did not and Socrates knew that he was ignorant in such matters, he determined that it must be his ‘ignorance’ that made him the wisest of all men in Athens. His conscious ignorance was the root of his wisdom, the wisdom of which the Delphic Oracle spoke. ‘He knew that he did not know’; that was what made him the wisest of them all.

Just because ‘truth’ is spoken, does not mean that it is received. Just because someone has read a scripture in the original language does not mean that they understand it. Just because you have heard from an oracle does not mean that you heard it correctly. Just because you have seen a sign does not mean that you know how to interpret it. Just because you are a doctor and know many things, you may still be blind to the one thing that is most essential. It is the humility to know that you do not know and the passion to inquire of life that lay out the limits and depth of our ignorance and it is these limits, when conscious, that make a man wise.

Socrates investigation of the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle, is an example of the attitude and practice of a ‘wise’ man. What makes his story especially fascinating, is that Socrates confirmed the ignorance in which he thought himself to exist. He was ‘wise’ to begin with and humble from the beginning. 

The king in the garden was not humble, he was, on the contrary, full of himself. He saw the ‘curse’, only on the face of his gardener, forgetting what his own face represented to the gardner. Socrates, from the beginning, questioned his own knowledge as well as that of the Oracle. Socrates set out to understand in what way it could be true. All of Greece, knew the story of Croesus and Socrates certainly must of  heard it. While the approach of Croesus is similar to Socrates as far as investigating what was true, Croesus, although he questioned others, never questioned himself or what had been told to him by the oracle. 

By the grace of Google, we can now quickly gather a vast amount of information on nearly any topic. This is a wonderful thing and a ‘first’ in history. But, ‘information’ is not the whole picture of any thing. We must recognize the context in which everything we know or learn exists. The question we ask to begin with and what we make of the answer we receive, are different things altogether. Any statistician can tell you how easy it is to mislead people with facts. It is the interpretation of ‘facts’ that I am focusing on in this consideration. 

We have looked at several oracular pronouncements and omens. We have seen that information is open to subjective interpretations that are often just plain wrong. We have considered the 'Semmelweis phenomenon' in which medical men of science, refused to consider proven facts that cost hundreds of thousands of women their lives. (If you read the footnote to that phenomenon you will see that being repeated today relative to Stanislaus Burzynski and his incredible treatment for cancer). This ‘consideration’ is not about signs, ancient oracles and two-centuries-ago medicine. It is about a phenomenon that is alive and well today!

Not every one of us is wise. There is a hierarchy of wisdom in the world. There is a great difference between a great philosopher and a great saint. We need to understand the difference between the two of them. 

When I was in college, I studied Hermeneutics, the philosophy of understanding. It seems that someone read in the Bible that Jonah lived in the whale for several weeks. Everyone knew that was not true. So, was it a symbol or an allegory? If that was an allegory, then who is to say that Jesus being born of a Virgin is not an allegory as well. I quickly saw how critical, interpretation and hermeneutics  was to Religious Studies and that is what lead me to the considerations of this article.

I began with a look at prejudice and interpretation and we have considered several varieties of prejudice and interpretation. It seems, that to be free of prejudice and 'correct' in one's interpretation, is not a matter of the knowledge of any particular thing. Rather, the whole consideration leads into what we might call 'wisdom' as opposed to knowledge. This is the realm of the 'whole' man, or what in ancient times, when the world was more religious, was called a saint, a siddha or a sage. It seems to me our real consideration is a religious problem, not merely an intellectual one. Many believe in this or that scripture, religion or holy man? But, how many of those who believe, truly understand what is said, written or demonstrated. 

If we do not understand, we will kill the pigeon and our world is littered with dead pigeons.

The signs and pronouncements are there. It is in our understanding of them that we err and fail to align ourselves with what is really the case. The great Being we need must finally be us, if only to recognize a greater Being than our own self. Reality is here. 

Adi Da Samraj

This is why the Spiritual Masters have said:

“If any generation is without living Masters, then its children are without Light, even if holy books are piled up, one upon another, like a fortress in the night.” 

-Adi Da Samraj

Peter Malakoff
Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India
Old Manali, Himachal Pradesh
e-mail: petermalakoff@gmail.com