Blind men and an elephant  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in India and is used to demonstrate either the relativity, or the inexpressible nature, of truth.

Contents

The story

In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.

The stories differ primarily in how the elephant's body parts are described, how violent the conflict becomes and how (or if) the conflict among the men and their perspectives is resolved. The theme is common to Sufis, Jains, Buddhists and Hindus and is now popular in the West. For example, in the popular British children's television show Aquila, the professor describes the truth as "an elephant surrounded by blind men" and explains how each man can feel a part of the elephant, and believe that they understand the whole about it, although that is in fact beyond their grasp.

Jain

A Jain version of the story says that six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body.

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A wise man explains to them:

"All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned."

This resolves the conflict, and is used to illustrate the principle of living in harmony with people who have different belief systems, and that truth can be stated in different ways (in Jainist beliefs often said to be seven versions). This is known as the Syadvada, Anekantvad, or the theory of Manifold Predictions.

Buddhist

The Buddha twice uses the simile of blind men led astray. In the Canki Sutta he anticipates the Christian Gospel saying about the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15.14), using a row of blind men holding on to each other as an example of those who follow an old text that has come down generation after generation. In the Udana (68-9) he uses the parable to describe sectarian quarrels. A king has the blind men of the capital brought to the palace, where an elephant is brought in and they are asked to describe it.

"When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and said to each: 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?"

The men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants' head), a winnowing basket (ear), a ploughshare (tusk), a plough (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).

The men cannot agree with one another and come to blows over the question of what it is like and their dispute delights the king. The Buddha ends the story by compareing the six blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: "Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing.... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus." The Buddha then speaks the following verse:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

Sufi Muslim

The Persian Sufi poet Sanai of Ghazni in Afghanistan presented this teaching story in his The Walled Garden of Truth.

Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet and teacher of Sufism, included it in his Masnavi. In his retelling, "The Elephant in the Dark", some Hindus bring an elephant to be exhibited in a dark room. A number of men feel the elephant in the dark and, depending upon where they touch it, they believe the elephant to be like a water spout (trunk), a fan (ear), a pillar (leg) and a throne (back). Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception:

The sensual eye is just like the palm of the hand. The palm has not the means of covering the whole of the beast.

Rumi doesn't present a resolution to the conflict in his version, but states:

The eye of the Sea is one thing and the foam another. Let the foam go, and gaze with the eye of the Sea. Day and night foam-flecks are flung from the sea: oh amazing! You behold the foam but not the Sea. We are like boats dashing together; our eyes are darkened, yet we are in clear water.

Hindu

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used this parable to discourage dogmatism:

"A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else."

John Godfrey Saxe

One of the most famous versions of the 19th Century was the poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887).

The poem begins:

It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touch. They have a heated debate that does not come to physical violence. But in Saxe's version, the conflict is never resolved.

Moral:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Modern treatments

The story is seen as a metaphor in many disciplines, being pressed into service as an analogy in fields well beyond the traditional. In physics, it has been seen as an analogy for the wave–particle duality. In biology, the way the blind men hold onto different parts of the elephant has been seen as a good analogy for the Polyclonal B cell response.

There is an element of self-reference in the many interpretations of the story. In this light Idries Shah has commented on its function as a teaching story:

...people address themselves to this story in one or more [...] interpretations. They then accept or reject them. Now they can feel happy; they have arrived at an opinion about the matter. According to their conditioning they produce the answer. Now look at their answers. Some will say that this is a fascinating and touching allegory of the presence of God. Others will say that it is showing people how stupid mankind can be. Some say it is anti-scholastic. Others that it is just a tale copied by Rumi from Sanai – and so on.

Cultural references

In 2010, the US pharmaceutical group Bayer released a television advertisement for their birth control products featuring blindfolded women examining different parts of a rhinoceros, and drawing different conclusions about it. The variation on the story is used to demonstrate the need for "the whole picture" when evaluating birth control products.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Blind men and an elephant" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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