The 3 monkeys are popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, their origins are probably hidden in ancient times.
Each of the three monkeys have a different posture. The first one is covering his eyes signifying – See No Evil. The second one is covering his ears signifying – Hear No Evil. And the third one is covering his mouth signifying – Speak No Evil. In some cases, there is a fourth monkey also who is shown crossing his arms signifying – Do No Evil.
Whether 3 monkeys or 4 monkeys, I am not concerned with that. What I wish to point out is that the 3 monkeys are not serving their purpose. If their purpose is to remind people to speak no evil, hear no evil and see no evil, then I really doubt whether anyone is reminded of that in daily life. The 3 monkeys then just become a good show piece at home.
Think of it – If the advice was meant for human beings, then why show monkeys giving the advice to humans? Will humans ever listen to monkeys? Obviously not. So is there a deeper message in the sense that humans only look like humans but deep down they are only monkeys?
There is a good possibility that the monkeys refer to the ‘monkey mind’ of the humans as a metaphor for the restless nature of the mind that keeps jumping from one thing to another. And for such a mind, it is important not to get involved in anything evil. So fundamentally, the intention of the 3 monkeys is to warn humans about evil and to keep them away from it.
However, there are some problems in this if someone tries to take the monkeys seriously. People anyways do not take them seriously but that is not because they have tried to in the first place. Most people are not bothered. They simply assume the advice is for monkeys and not for them.
Say, for example, you decide not to see any evil. So, when you come across any evil, you will close your eyes. Maybe you see one person hurting another and you realize that is evil, so you will close your eyes and not look at it. Maybe you see someone cheating or someone killing or someone behaving badly, then you will close your eyes because you are advised not to see evil.
The same applies to hearing no evil. Suppose you decide not to hear any evil. So when you find one person shouting at another or passing lewd comments about some woman, then that is evil. So you will cover your ears and not hear it.
In both the above cases, you actually turn away from what is happening. Is that an outcome we wish to have? Do we really want people to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all the evil in the world? If one does it, will it safeguard the person from evil?
Please note that before deciding to close one’s eyes or cover one’s ears, one must identify that the thing one is seeing or hearing is evil. This means that the definition of evil and the database of all evil things must be in the mind in the first place for someone to decide what one is seeing or hearing is evil, in order to take the action of closing one’s eyes or ears.
This is more clear in the case of speaking no evil. It presumes that if one gets the impulse to swear at someone, or speak a lie or bitch about someone, which I think can all be classified as being evil, then one is supposed not to speak it because the monkey tells – speak no evil. So one is asked to control one’s tongue. But all the while, the evil thoughts are going on in the mind uncontrolled.
So if evil and what is evil is already in the mind, then just not seeing, not speaking or not hearing does not serve any purpose. If we understand the 3 monkeys at this superficial level, then it does not make any sense.
In fact, Osho gave an interesting twist to the 3 monkeys. He said that the first monkey stands for – Don’t listen to the truth because it will disturb all your consoling lies. The second monkey stands for – Don’t look at the truth; otherwise your God will be dead and your heaven and hell will disappear. The third monkey stands for – Don’t speak the truth, otherwise you will be condemned, crucified, poisoned, tortured by the whole crowd, the unconscious people. You will be condemned, don’t speak the truth! The fourth monkey stands for – Keep your pleasures, your joys, hidden. Don’t let anybody know that you are a cheerful man, a blissful man, an ecstatic man, because that will destroy your very life. It is dangerous.
While Osho gave his own interpretation to the 3 monkeys, it does not solve the original puzzle of the meaning of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
I would like to propose that we understand the monkeys from the perspective of intention. When you see or hear anything, accept it the way it is. Do not find fault with it. Do not observe its negative aspects. Do not pay attention to its positive aspects. Do not differentiate between good and evil at all. Accept everything as it is. And when you speak, you speak about things as they are, not with any intention of doing good or evil, not with any intention of harming someone or benefiting oneself.
When one is able to do this, I believe the 3 monkeys’ true purpose is being served. I would rather be a monkey who lives up to this standard than a human being who thinks himself to be superior to monkeys.