Rousseau’s Monkey

Monkey is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.

Ramu the monkey hovered beside Sarada, picking through the shelter manager’s long black locks, looking for edible tidbits in her scalp and eyebrows. Every so often he would find something, pick it with his delicate fingers, and pop it into his mouth. I spent several weeks in Visakhapatnam, India, in 2008, where I met Ramu and Sarada, and filmed their interaction:

Ramu was a macaque. As a baby he’d been attacked by dogs and practically torn in two. Almost dead, he was picked up by the ambulance of the Visakha Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, stitched back together, and carefully nursed to health over a period of months. Though now healthy, his body displayed the scars of the attack – thick strips of knotted, gnarled skin running all the way down his back from his shoulder to his waist, on his arms, and elsewhere.

Some viewers enjoyed the soothing scene of Ramu grooming Sarada. They could see that there existed a relationship of trust and affection between the monkey and the woman. They appreciated the reasons for Ramu’s captivity, and extended grace to the animal shelter that, despite its limited resources, had saved Ramu’s life and provided him with a safe, if not perfect, place to live. Would a multi-million dollar primate sanctuary in the forest have been better? Sure, but there weren’t any in the neighborhood. Ramu got the best on offer.

The context of Ramu’s captivity seemed lost on other viewers of the video, a video that, inexplicably, has generated over a million views since I made it in 2008. What those viewers always noticed was the chain around Ramu’s neck. Not only did they notice it, they frequently unleashed a barrage of criticism on (I’m not sure who) for this act of supposed cruelty.

Despite repeated attempts at responding nicely to people with explanations (he’s not ready for release yet, if he gets away while out of his cage he could be attacked by dogs again, yes, a cloth collar would be nicer but he’s able to remove them), even years after uploading it, and adding to the information below the video to explain Ramu’s situation, I gave up. I even tried switching off the comments for a while. It didn’t matter. People were going to watch the video, say their piece, and move on to their next quarry. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. I resigned myself to scrolling through the comments occasionally and deleting the vulgar and abusive ones.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned the (modified) proverb with which I began this post. The real version, man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains, refers to Rousseau’s view that, like Ramu, we are born free, but repressive authorities, dominating individuals, and our own inauthentic needs work to enslave us. The goal of good government, he said, should be the freedom of its citizens.

To that end, I recently contacted Pradeep Nath, the VSPCA founder and president, for an update on Ramu. I was amazed to learn that sweet Ramu, a wounded creature I thought would spend the rest of his life in captivity, has been released under the supervision of the Forestry Department, along with four other macaques rescued and rehabilitated by the VSPCA. Good government indeed. And a lovely redemptive analogy: a redeemer rescues the monkey from certain death, and restores him back to life. Thus saved, the monkey lives within the constraints of a fallen, imperfect world, always carrying within himself an innate, God-given blueprint for freedom and full restoration.

It turns out Ramu did not hope in vain. Pradeep not only saved Ramu, he also effected his restoration to freedom, to life as intended, in a prototype paradise, itself a foretaste of the cosmic renewal to come.


Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away. (…) And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”    Revelation 21.1,3-5