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Blind Men and an Elephant

Blind Men and an Elephant

Overview
The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 from where it is widely diffused. It has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies. At various times it has provided insight into the relativity, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behaviour of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.

It is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain
Jainism
Jainism is an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation. Any soul that has conquered its own inner enemies and achieved the state...

, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu
Hindu
Hindu refers to an identity associated with the philosophical, religious and cultural systems that are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. As used in the Constitution of India, the word "Hindu" is also attributed to all persons professing any Indian religion...

 lore.
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Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 from where it is widely diffused. It has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies. At various times it has provided insight into the relativity, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behaviour of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.

It is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain
Jainism
Jainism is an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation. Any soul that has conquered its own inner enemies and achieved the state...

, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu
Hindu
Hindu refers to an identity associated with the philosophical, religious and cultural systems that are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. As used in the Constitution of India, the word "Hindu" is also attributed to all persons professing any Indian religion...

 lore. The tale is also well known in Europe. In the 19th century the poet John Godfrey Saxe
John Godfrey Saxe
John Godfrey Saxe I was an American poet perhaps best known for his re-telling of the Indian parable "The Blindmen and the Elephant", which introduced the story to a Western audience.-Biography:...

 created his own version as a poem. Since then, the story has been published in many books for adults and children, and interpreted in an ever-increasing variety of ways.

The story


In various versions of the tale, a group of blind
Blindness
Blindness is the condition of lacking visual perception due to physiological or neurological factors.Various scales have been developed to describe the extent of vision loss and define blindness...

 men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant
Elephant
Elephants are large land mammals in two extant genera of the family Elephantidae: Elephas and Loxodonta, with the third genus Mammuthus extinct...

 to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk
Tusk
Tusks are elongated, continuously growing front teeth, usually but not always in pairs, that protrude well beyond the mouth of certain mammal species. They are most commonly canines, as with warthogs, wild boar, and walruses, or, in the case of elephants and narwhals, elongated incisors...

. 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.

Jain


A Jain
Jainism
Jainism is an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation. Any soul that has conquered its own inner enemies and achieved the state...

 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 king 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
Gautama Buddha
Siddhārtha Gautama was a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. In most Buddhist traditions, he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit: सिद्धार्थ गौतम; Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher from the Indian...

 twice uses the simile of blind men led astray. In the Canki Sutta he describes a row of blind men holding on to each other as an example of those who follow an old text that has passed down from generation to generation, much like the Christian Gospel
Gospel
A gospel is an account, often written, that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In a more general sense the term "gospel" may refer to the good news message of the New Testament. It is primarily used in reference to the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John...

 (Matthew 15.14) saying about the blind leading the blind. In the Udana
Udana
The Udana is a Buddhist scripture, part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. It is included there in the Sutta Pitaka's Khuddaka Nikaya. The title might be translated "inspired utterances"...

 (68–69) he uses the elephant 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 plowshare (tusk), a plow (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 comparing the 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
Persian people
The Persian people are part of the Iranian peoples who speak the modern Persian language and closely akin Iranian dialects and languages. The origin of the ethnic Iranian/Persian peoples are traced to the Ancient Iranian peoples, who were part of the ancient Indo-Iranians and themselves part of...

 Sufi poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 Sanai
Sanai
Hakim Abul-Majd Majdūd ibn Ādam Sanā'ī Ghaznavi was a Afghan Sufi poet who lived in Ghazna, in what is now Afghanistan between the 11th century and the 12th century. Some people spell his name as Sanayee. He died around 1131.-Life:...

 of Ghazni
Ghazni
For the Province of Ghazni see Ghazni ProvinceGhazni is a city in central-east Afghanistan with a population of about 141,000 people...

 (currently, Afghanistan
Afghanistan
Afghanistan , officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, is a landlocked country located in the centre of Asia, forming South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. With a population of about 29 million, it has an area of , making it the 42nd most populous and 41st largest nation in the world...

) 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
Masnavi
The Masnavi, Masnavi-I Ma'navi or Mesnevi , also written Mathnawi, Ma'navi, or Mathnavi, is an extensive poem written in Persian by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the celebrated Persian Sufi saint and poet. It is one of the best known and most influential works of both Sufism and Persian literature...

. In his retelling, "The Elephant in the Dark", some Hindus bring an elephant to be exhibited in a dark room. A number of men touch and 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 does not 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.


Rumi ends his poem by stating "If each had a candle and they went in together the differences would disappear."

Hindu


Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used this parable to discourage dogmatism:

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
John Godfrey Saxe
John Godfrey Saxe I was an American poet perhaps best known for his re-telling of the Indian parable "The Blindmen and the Elephant", which introduced the story to a Western audience.-Biography:...

 (1816–1887).

The poem begins:
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


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 been or seen

Modern treatments


The story is seen as a metaphor
Metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

 in many disciplines, being pressed into service as an analogy
Analogy
Analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject to another particular subject , and a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process...

 in fields well beyond the traditional. In physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

, it has been seen as an analogy for the wave–particle duality
Wave–particle duality
Wave–particle duality postulates that all particles exhibit both wave and particle properties. A central concept of quantum mechanics, this duality addresses the inability of classical concepts like "particle" and "wave" to fully describe the behavior of quantum-scale objects...

. In biology
Biology
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

, 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
Polyclonal B cell response
Polyclonal B cell response is a natural mode of immune response exhibited by the adaptive immune system of mammals. It ensures that a single antigen is recognized and attacked through its overlapping parts, called epitopes, by multiple clones of B cell....

.

The fable is one of a number of tales that cast light on the response of hearers or readers to the story itself. Idries Shah
Idries Shah
Idries Shah , also known as Idris Shah, né Sayed Idries el-Hashimi , was an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition who wrote over three dozen critically acclaimed books on topics ranging from psychology and spirituality to travelogues and culture studies.Born in India, the descendant of a...

 has commented on this element of self-reference
Self-reference
Self-reference occurs in natural or formal languages when a sentence or formula refers to itself. The reference may be expressed either directly—through some intermediate sentence or formula—or by means of some encoding...

 in the many interpretations of the story, and its function as a teaching story
Teaching stories
Teaching stories is a term used by the writer Idries Shah to describe narratives that have been deliberately created as vehicles for the transmission of wisdom...

:
...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.


Shah adapted the tale in his book The Dermis Probe
The Dermis Probe
The Dermis Probe is a book by the writer Idries Shah published Octagon Press in 1970. A paperback edition was published in 1989 and again in 1993. The stories presented in the book are also available in an audio format....

. This version begins with a conference of scientists, from different fields of expertise, presenting their conflicting conclusions on the material which a camera is focused upon. As the camera slowly zooms out it gradually becomes clear that the material under examination is the hide of an African elephant. The words 'The Parts Are Greater Than The Whole' then appear on the screen. This retelling formed the script for a short four minute film by the animator Richard Williams. The film was chosen as an Outstanding Film of the Year and was exhibited at the London and New York film festivals.

The story enjoys a continuing appeal, as shown by the number of illustrated children's books of the fable; there is one for instance by Paul Galdone
Paul Galdone
Paul Galdone was a children's literature author and illustrator. He was born in Budapest and he emigrated to the United States in 1921. He studied art at the Art Student's League and New York School for Industrial Design...

 and another, Seven Blind Mice, by Ed Young
Ed Young (illustrator)
Ed Young is a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and author of picture books.-Biography:...

 (1992).

Cultural references


In 2010, the pharmaceutical group Bayer
Bayer
Bayer AG is a chemical and pharmaceutical company founded in Barmen , Germany in 1863. It is headquartered in Leverkusen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and well known for its original brand of aspirin.-History:...

 released a television advertisement in the US 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.

"The Parable of the Six Men" is mentioned in Neal Stephenson's
Neal Stephenson
Neal Town Stephenson is an American writer known for his works of speculative fiction.Difficult to categorize, his novels have been variously referred to as science fiction, historical fiction, cyberpunk, and postcyberpunk...

 novel Anathem
Anathem
Anathem is a speculative fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, published in 2008. Major themes include the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and formalism.-Plot summary:...

, in the discussion Ferman Beller has with Fraa Arsibalt about complex protism.

The protagonist of the 1954 Tamil Movie, "Andha Naal
Andha Naal
Andha Naal is a 1954 Tamil crime mystery film directed by Veenai S. Balachander. It is arguably the first film-noir in Tamil cinema and is the first Tamil film to be made without songs. The film was inspired by the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashômon...

", CID Officer Sivanandham (Played by Javar Seetharaman) recalls the parable.
The parable is implicitly referenced in Brian Friel
Brian Friel
Brian Friel is an Irish dramatist, author and director of the Field Day Theatre Company. He is considered to be the greatest living English-language dramatist, hailed by the English-speaking world as an "Irish Chekhov" and "the universally accented voice of Ireland"...

's play, Molly Sweeney
Molly Sweeney
Molly Sweeney is a two-act play by Brian Friel. It tells the story of its title character, Molly, a woman blind since infancy, who undergoes an operation to try to restore her sight. Like Friel's Faith Healer, the play tells Molly's story through monologues by three characters, in this case Molly,...

.

See also


  • Anekantavada
  • Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
    Flatland
    Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. Writing pseudonymously as "A Square", Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointed observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture...

    , an 1884 satirical novella
  • Hasty generalization
    Hasty generalization
    Hasty generalization is a logical fallacy of faulty generalization by reaching an inductive generalization based on insufficient evidence essentially making a hasty conclusion without considering all of the variables...

  • Rashomon effect
    Rashomon effect
    The Rashomon effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. A useful demonstration of this principle in scientific understanding can be found in an article by...

  • Syncretism
    Syncretism
    Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining", but see below for the origin of the word...

  • The Blind Leading the Blind
    The Blind Leading the Blind
    The Blind Leading the Blind is an oil painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, dating from 1568 and housed in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples, southern Italy. Other titles include Blind and The Parable of the Blind....

  • Unreliable narrator
    Unreliable narrator
    An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually...


External links