Blind Men and the Elephant is an interesting story that originated in India in the 18th century. While it entertains us, it also teaches us an important lesson of life. Here, we give you its interpretations in different religions.
The story of the blind men and an elephant became famous when John Godfrey Saxe, an American poet wrote The Blind Men and the Elephant. Natalie Merchant sang this poem in her album Leave Your Sleep.
Since childhood, we have heard several parables like The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, among others, that taught us important lessons. Their versions vary across cultures, with slight changes in the characters and other details. However, the basic theme and the message they carry is the same.
One such famous parable or moral story is The Blind Men and an Elephant, which is believed to have originated in India. Later, it became a part of the lore of many different cultures, each interpreting the story in its own way.
A group of blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each of them touch different parts of the elephant. Not knowing what an elephant is like, each of them comes to a different conclusion based on his own experience. One blind man touches the elephant’s side and claims that the elephant is like a wall. Another blind man touches its leg and exclaims that the elephant is like a tree. The other blind men touch the tusk, trunk, ear, and tail and believe that the elephant is like a spear, snake, fan, and rope respectively. They argue over what the elephant is like, based on their experience of the animal. In some versions of the story, the argument is never resolved. In different versions, the number of men vary and there are slight variations in what they think about the elephant. At the end of the story, a sighted man (in some versions, a king) explains to the blind men what the elephant is really like and resolves the argument.
In the story, each blind man touched only a part of the elephant, and believed it to be the whole elephant. They based their opinion of how an elephant is, on their knowledge of the animal, which wasn’t complete. This is to say that people believe something to be true, based on their personal experiences, and seldom go on to see the complete picture before coming to a conclusion. People form opinions based on incomplete knowledge.
This parable has been adopted by various religions. The story is a part of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi cultures.
In Hinduism, the tale explains how on touching, seeing, or experiencing a part of the whole, we tend to limit ourselves to only that part, leading us to consider it as the whole. A 19th century Indian saint Ramkrishna Paramhamsa has used this tale to oppose dogmatism in religion saying, “He who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.” He believed that a person shouldn’t stick to only his knowledge and turn away if anyone challenges it. He should be open to other points of view.
A Buddhist version of the parable describes blind men invited by a king to his palace to describe an elephant. Each blind man, after touching different parts of the elephant, describes it as a plow, a granary, a winnowing basket, etc. To the king’s surprise, the blind men cannot agree with each others’ interpretations of the elephant.
Gautama Buddha uses this story in his scripture Udana, to point to the ignorance of religious preachers and followers. According to Buddha, these preachers and followers stick to their narrow views and that makes them disagree any other views. A verse from the scripture summarizes the nature of such men. It goes like this.
“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.”
Buddha believed that clinging to one’s view of things is not right. With such an attitude, one might miss the whole truth.
In the Jain version of this parable, a king asks six blind men to determine how an elephant looks, by touching it. All six men describe the elephant differently after touching different parts of its body. After listening to their opinion about the elephant, the king explains to them that, in a way, they all are right. Their answers are different because they have touched different parts of the animal. The elephant has all the features that the blind men believe it to have.
The tale seconds the Jain belief that the truth can be stated in different ways, and people can live in peace and harmony with that. In old scriptures, the tale is used to describe immature people who are deluded by a side of the truth they think they understand. They deny all other sides or aspects of truth.
A 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi has included the tale in his poem Masnavi. However, he has changed the story a little by writing that some Hindus had brought an elephant and kept it in a dark room for exhibition. The crowd that gathered there couldn’t see the elephant; therefore, each one in the crowd touched it to know how it looks. With what they felt with their hands, they believed it to be a fan, a pillar, a throne, etc. Rumi explains that our eyes are just like our palms. As the palms cannot cover the whole elephant, even our eyes cannot see the whole truth. He ends the poem stating that if we see collectively, we might be able to see the whole truth.
In 19th century, an American poet John Godfrey Saxe introduced the parable to the Western culture in a form of verse.
John Godfrey Saxe’s Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
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!
The poem talks about six blind men from “Indostan” who describe the elephant as a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan, and rope. Their different perceptions of the elephant lead to a dispute that never gets resolved. Saxe talks about the ignorance that people have about each other’s opinions. People blindly believe in their view and draw conclusions about something even they haven’t understood.
Though the interpretations of Blind Men and the Elephant in different religions, are different, in all its versions, the story can be seen as a metaphor. The elephant can be considered as the metaphor for God, about whom we lack complete knowledge and form opinions based on our experiences. Also, most of us tend to believe in only our own ideas about God and are reluctant to accept others’ views about him. The blind men are a metaphor for all of us who are ‘visually impaired’ in the sense that we cling to our beliefs, and blinded by our opinions, we fail to ‘see’ what others think or feel.