The Goats and the Tiger

By Joseph Campbell

A fable tells of a tigress, pregnant and starving, who comes upon a little flock of goats and pounces on them with such energy that she brings about the birth of her little one and her own death.

The goats scatter, and when they come back to their grazing place, they find this just-born tiger and its dead mother. Having strong parental instincts, they adopt the tiger, and it grows up thinking it’s a goat. It learns to bleat. It learns to eat grass. And since grass doesn’t nourish it very well, it grows up to become a pretty miserable specimen of its species.

When the young tiger reaches adolescence, a large male tiger pounces on the flock, and the goats scatter. But this little fellow is a tiger, so he stands there. The big one looks at him in amazement and says, “Are you living here with these goats?” “Maaaaaaa” says the little tiger. Well, the old tiger is mortified, something like a father who comes home and finds his son with long hair. He swats him back and forth a couple of times, and the little thing just responds with these silly bleats and begins nibbling grass in embarrassment. So the big tiger brings him to a still pond.

Now, still water is a favorite Indian image to symbolize the idea of yoga. The first aphorism of yoga is: “Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind-stuff.” Our minds, which are in continual flux, are likened to the surface of a pond that’s blown by a wind. So the forms that we see, those of our own lives and the world around us, are simply flashing images that come and go in the field of time, but beneath all of them is the substantial form of forms. Bring the pond to a standstill, have the wind withdraw and the waters clear, and you’ll see, in stasis, the perfect image beneath all of these changing forms.

So this little fellow looks into the pond and sees his own face for the first time. The big tiger puts his face over and says, “You see, you’ve got a face like mine. You’re not a goat. You’re a tiger like me. Be like me.”

Now, that’s guru stuff: I’ll give you my picture to wear, be like me. It’s the opposite to the individual way.

So the little one is getting that message; he’s picked up and taken to the tiger’s den, where there are the remains of a recently slaughtered gazelle. Taking a chunk of this bloody stuff, the big tiger says, “Open you face.” The little one backs away, “I’m a vegetarian.” “None of that nonsense,” says the big fellow, and he shoves a piece of meat down the little one’s throat. He gags on it. The text says, “As all do on true doctrine.” But gagging on the true doctrine, he’s nevertheless getting it into his blood, into his nerves; it’s his proper food. It touches his proper nature. Spontaneously, he gives a tiger stretch, the first one. A little tiger roar comes out—Tiger Roar 101…. The big one says, “There. Now you’ve got it. Now we go into the forest and eat tiger food.” Vegetarianism Is the first turning away from life, Because life lives on lives. Vegetarians are just eating something that can’t run away. Now, of course, the moral is that we are all tigers living here as goats. The right hand path, the sociological department, is interested in cultivating our goat-nature. Mythology, properly understood as metaphor, will guide you to the recognition of your tiger face. But then how are you going to live with these goats?

This story gets to the story of life. When you talk of a tiger, you speak of a wild animal with particular needs and requirements – they need to hunt and eat to live. We think we’re something we’re not – we’ve been misled into thinking we’re something we’re not. We all get a description from our parents, our society telling us who we’re “supposed” to be. But that’s not what we are!

When the tiger finds out he’s not a goat, he lets out a fierce roar! The Goat and the Tiger is about exceeding the things you’ve been told you are, but becoming whom you actually are! We’re all so much more than the roles we play – don’t act like a Goat if you’re a Tiger! Let people know you care about them, be true and honest with yourself and everyone you know.