The Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant (part of many religious traditions) is a powerful commentary on the perennial tension between subjectivity and objectivity. The narrative is simple – a small group of blind men (or men in the dark) try to touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each touches only a part (side or tusk or ear or something else) and hastily concludes that it must be the elephant’s real and only form. They quarrel long and loud upon discovering the incompatibility of their accounts. The story has been used to encourage intellectual humility and respect for the views of one’s opponents. It is also a reflection on the tricky nature of truth and highlights the need for dialogue in human society.
The tale holds a special place in Jainism, where is it used to illustrate the fundamental doctrine of Anekāntavāda (literally “the school of many-sidedness”). According to Anekāntavāda, reality is perceived differently by different individuals leading to a multiplicity of vantage points. No single human being can claim to have a monopoly on absolute truth but the sum of various vantage points may give us access to greater fact. Anekāntavāda is closely related to two other doctrines: syādvāda (the theory of conditioned viewpoints) and nayavāda (the theory of partial viewpoints).
The story was used by the Buddha to address sectarian squabbles. Recorded in the Udana (part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism), begins thus:
A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, “Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?”
The Buddha also spoke of a “row of blind men” when talking of the uncritical passing of texts and traditions from one generation to the next in the Canki Sutta (from a 1999 translation by the American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu):
So then, Bharadvaja, it seems that there isn’t among the brahmins even one brahmin who says, ‘This I know; this I see; only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ And there hasn’t been among the brahmins even one teacher or teacher’s teacher back through seven generations who said, ‘This I know; this I see; only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ And there hasn’t been among the brahmin seers of the past, the creators of the hymns, the composers of the hymns… even one who said, ‘This we know; this we see; only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the brahmins turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. So what do you think, Bharadvaja: this being the case, doesn’t the conviction of the brahmins turn out to be groundless?
Within Sufism, the tale of the blind men and the elephant is found in the works of Persian poets Hakim Sanai (1080-1131/41) and Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi (1207-1273). Sanai mentioned it in The Walled Garden of Truth or The Hadiqat al Haqiqa – the first mystical epic of Sufism on God, love, philosophy and reason -and Rumi in his influential Masnavi – a 50,000-line poem called “The Koran in Persian” made up of entertaining stories and penetrating homilies (this time an elephant is brought into a dark building). Both these versions reflect on humankind’s inability to fully understand God by way of the parable.
Similarly, the Hindu mystic and yogi Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–1886) situated the tale in a definite theological context, using it to emphasise the folly of dogmatism. Here is an excerpt from his collection of diaries The Ramakrishna Kathamrita (website):
A number of blind men came to an elephant. Someone told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, “What is the elephant like?” as 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.
The tale was popularised in the English-speaking world through a version written by the American poet John Godrey Saxe (1816-1887). Read it below:
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!
In a 1992 essay called “‘The Truth Looks Different From Here’ or On seeking the unity of truth from a diversity of perspectives“, the Canadian-born Catholic theologian and philosopher Janet Martin Soskice (born 1951), a professor at the University of Cambridge, proposed what she calls “Perspectivalism” – a notion that truth does have some objective and absolute meaning but could be approached from different perspectives and is subject to different understandings (this does not mean relativism). The world in which we live is so complex, she argued, that it will never be able to be comprehended in a single theory. She quoted the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) – “There is nothing to stop a thing that is objectively more certain by its nature from appearing subjectively less certain to us because of the disability of our minds…we are like bats, who in the sunshine blink at the most obvious things.” The insight complements the old Eastern tale well.