You can take a horse to the water but can not make it drink!

You can take a horse to water, but can you make it drink? Why does my mind behave the way it does?

Proverbs convey moral code or guidelines for better living. “You can take a horse to the water but can not make it drink!” is an often quoted proverb, familiar to many. It suggests that one can not force or coerce others to do anything without their own intent or willingness. Such proverbs are useful at the elementary level (i.e.) day to day life. Perhaps an in-depth analysis may be needed as one’s role and responsibility changes in life. Also in-depth reflection on such ordinary and common statements lifts one above the cloud of confusion and challenges faced at times despite one’s best intentions and efforts?

Vedic Philosophy provides three distinct and yet interconnected steps to reflect upon. They are the guides to understand anything. These three steps are:

  1. All that is cognitive (every aspect of anything Physical, Emotional or Intellectual) is the result of our Knowledge, Bias (Partial Knowledge) and Ignorance (Absence of relevant knowledge).
    • Our Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance always coexist.
    • The dominance of one over the other two determines our equilibrium state (Gunathvam) identified as Tranquility, Turbulence and Inertia. These determine our nature of connection to the subject matter.
  2. What is the true nature of our equilibrium state in understanding anything? in relation to anything? That depends on our Objectivity (Sagunathvam) or equal disposition to all equilibrium states. It reflects a non-judgemental frame of mind.
    • Our Objectivity helps to identify the specific and true nature of our Subjectivity (personal connection) and how it affects us in relation to anything: our reaction, response or plan of action going forward in any matter or situation.
  3. All our equilibrium states, subjectivity, objectivity, our understanding of all these and our action / reaction as a result in any matter and at any time are all governed by the invisible laws of nature or enablers (Inaction: Akarma). 
    • Inaction (Akarma) represents the infinite number of invisible forces of nature that merely exist. Collectively they are identified by a singular term: Brahman.
    • We along with every aspect of nature including the equilibrium states (Gunathvam : pertaining to connection) exist merely as products, outcome or effects of the Brahman, the forces of nature (that are invisible, eternal, omnipresent, objective, invariant, enabler of everything). 

Sarvam Brahma Mayam.

The above three steps are not independent. They are interconnected. 

Behind any proverb are lots of assumptions. In this case, for example: the horse is thirsty; it has been taken to a source of clean water in sufficient quantity; it has the freedom of movement and it is not restrained, etc. and yet it refuses to drink! Our Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance in all these and many other matters will have an impact on the intended goal. Let us make a short list:

Is the horse thirsty?

Knowledge: Yes, this horse is fed water at this time daily by me and it generally drinks water. Bias: The horse is expected to drink water at this time and it knows that very well! Ignorance: Someone else had earlier fed water to this horse; nobody told me.

Is the water clean to drink?

Knowledge: Yes, the horse is fed this water daily by me and it generally drinks. Bias: After all it is a horse; should I feed it bottled water? Ignorance: What is the difference? Aren’t all waters the same?

Is the horse free and not restrained from drinking?

Knowledge: Yes, this horse is free and not restrained; It can drink easily; I check for this daily. Bias: A horse can not be left unrestrained; I am responsible and I will be blamed! Ignorance: Horses have a sense of anticipating danger, better than humans. I didn’t know that!

If our knowledge is dominant in all cases, we will check for the remaining bias and ignorance at play. We check around and learn that the horse has been fed water a little while ago, by someone else. Or, there was a snake nearby that the horse perceived as danger. Ignoring the frightened look in the horse sensing danger, is ignorance. One could learn of these possibilities by observing the horse and its behavior. Blaming the horse as “unwilling to drink”, is a bias. Our thinking shifts from being judgemental – blaming the horse – to better understanding the cause or reason behind its behavior. The best course of action for the moment follows. That is Karma or duty. Such reflection and analysis preceding any action is Yoga?

It is easy to analyze and discuss a horse and its behavior towards its drinking water. Even that is not simple since it requires breaking our impulse to action and jumping into an opinion or judgment. Action, doing something –  blaming the horse as unwilling to drink – follows the judgment instinctively. It is a genuinely cultivated habit to be calm, contemplative and reflective through any action in our daily life. To guide us through such challenges the proverbs serve as a crutch, a walking stick – accepting the reality as it is without bias and moving on.

But we must discard such support occasionally and challenge ourselves. Consider for example a family matter. Or it could be a matter of discussion at the workplace. After great reflection you offer your views or opinion. You follow it up with an offer of some help that could be useful. If followed up or accepted, your inputs could have a great impact on the peace, harmony and overall welfare for all. But your input is summarily rejected. What can you do? Simply say “You can take a horse to the water but can not make it drink!” and walk away? The above situation is not hypothetical. We are faced with it all the time: in communication within immediate family members; across families; communication in a project team; religious and political groups; social circles, etc. Please see:

This is where step no. 2 listed above from Vedic Philosophy becomes useful.

Have you done your best to feed water to the horse as required and to your best of ability? Have you given sufficient reflection prior to offering your views or opinion? Have you relentlessly addressed your own bias and ignorance and minimized them, before, during and after sharing your opinion or suggestion? That reflects your objectivity. Are you rejecting the obvious clues or signals received? Are you unhappy with the outcome even if it is partial? That reflects your attachment (Turbulence). Are you feeling helpless? That reflects your ignorance and its dominance (Inertia). Are you pleased with the outcome and willing to let things evolve as the matter requires participation and engagement by others as well? Then you are Tranquil. Precisely which equilibrium state (Gunathvam) truly reflects my state of mind will be known only to myself. This requires me to be non-judgemental: distance from the situation, details, inference, communication, etc. This non-attachment with which I observe my state of mind in any instance is Objectivity (Sagunathvam)? This broader aspect of being unattached or non-judgmental and its distinction from the objective analysis of the data in step 1 is subtle. It is like a person sitting quiet in a place. But he may not be truly unattached if his mind and emotions are fertile and active. In step 2 every aspect of our body, mind and intellect are unattached and non-judgemental. This is a measure of renunciation (Sanyasam). 

Step 1 above is situation specific. We get into the details – the nuts and bolts – of our Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance. In step 2 we proceed to an aggregate view of the situation and the prevailing equilibrium state. I check my own bias and impulse to action arising out of attachment. One’s views being ignored is nothing new. I am not alone in this as it happens to many more I am aware of under various circumstances. What course of action in a similar situation helped or hurt in the past?  Do I see progress over time or do I continue to push for an outcome or communication, where my approach or method is flawed and has not worked before? All of these aggregated views and analysis is part of Step 2.

We are no longer assessing a horse and its drinking water. Instead we are thinking about the behavior of a herd of horses and their consumption behavior! In real life, we are exploring the means and methods of communication of our views and their effective use; communication with others, on matters in life with significant impact. Our reflection becomes non-attached (i.e.) independent of specific person, people or event or situation. Our thought gets more focussed on the process such as the science of communication. Creating the right climate for communication becomes the goal rather than the end result. This gradual shift ultimately and hopefully fosters better communication across team members on their own. My role and responsibility becomes secondary. I exist and participate, yet I am not involved as others are enabled to play their role on their own accord! At this stage we are already in Step 3 (i.e.) exploring the prevailing laws behind our subject matter. It may be the behavioral science of horse and its drinking water or the science of communicating useful guidelines and their acceptance or not, by others involved in our interactions! If the outcome of step 2 is true non-attachment (i.e.) renunciation, the end result of step 3 can be seen as “liberation”. In this state of liberation we are truly one with nature! Sarvam Brahma Mayam.

Such challenges to communication within families or project teams are very visible everywhere. Traditions have a large role in such matters. Such wisdom is generally codified as proverbs, rituals and religious practices. Yet they are merely crutches. They can not replace individual reflection, reasoning and inference. In a large joint family the words of the elders had the final say. Good or bad they could “force the horse to drink”. Their effectiveness and failure is recorded well in the history and the epics. (e.g.):  

Today nuclear families are spread across the globe. Traditions have become ad hoc. There are too many “family heads” and each wishing to assert their views and superiority. The same goes for Business Units and Project Teams spread across the globe. Decisions and communication may occur that optimize local needs. But, global optimization, meeting the larger good of everyone suffers due to bias and ignorance in decision making and communication. Even matters of advice and consent on routine aspects of life suffer from these pitfalls. People may flock to the social media and internet more readily for guidance than seek out interpersonal exchanges and communication. Leadership at any level and in any situation requires us to diligently pursue the three step process outlined above. It is a sure way to escape the despair faced (i.e.) You can take the horse to water but can not make it drink!

Even when you accept the reality – the horse when guided does not drink the water – such acceptance has to be with clarity and understanding. It has to be genuine based on the reasons and the laws pertaining to them. Otherwise the unfulfilled need over time could become a major source of anguish leading to depression. Such mental health challenges may not be limited only to one person (the horse that needs to drink). They may spread across to the person who feels the responsibility to guide others (one who takes the horse to the water)! This spread of unfulfilled needs and their mental anguish can be seen across generations. Education on Vedic Philosophy and their practice through strict adherence to the above three steps as a way of life may indeed be the required solution in all these matters. We do know that such a treasure house of wisdom exists in our tradition, literature and scriptures. How do we make it a prevalent way of life for many? We need to progress beyond the proverb: You can take a horse to the water but can not make it drink!

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