Blind men and an elephant

Blind men and an elephant

The story of the blind men and an elephant originated from India. It has been attributed to the Sufis, Jainists, Buddhists, or Hindus, and has been used by all those groups. The version best-known in the West is the 19th Century poem by John Godfrey Saxe. Buddha used the simile of blind men in Tittha sutta in Udana (Pali canon). Buddha used a row of blind men as an example in Canki sutta as well to explain the blind following of a leader or an old text that had come down generation after generation.

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 touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement. The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective, suggesting that what seems an absolute truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths.

Various versions are similar, and 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.


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.cite web | url = | title = ELEPHANT AND THE BLIND MEN | work = Jain Stories | publisher = | accessdate = 2006-08-29 ]

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.


A Buddhist version is told in "Jainism and Buddhism. Udana 68-69: Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant." Buddha tells the story of a raja who had six blind men gathered together to examine the elephant.

: "When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja 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?'cite web | url = | title = The Blind Men and the Elephant | first = Randy | last = Wang | accessdate = 2006-08-29 ]

They assert the elephant is like a pot (head), winnowing basket (ear), ploughshare (tusk), plough (trunk), granary (body), pillar (foot), mortar (back), pestle (tail), or brush (tip of the tail).

The men come to blows, which delights the raja. The raja says:

: 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.

Muslim - Sufi

Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī , popularly known in the English-speaking world as simply Rumi, was a 13th Century Persian poet, jurist, theologian and teacher of Sufism.

Rumi credits the tale to the Hindus in his telling of the story, "The Elephant in the Dark" from "Tales from Masnavi". In this version, some Hindus bring an elephant to be exhibited in a dark room.

In a translation by A.J. Arberry, some men feel the elephant in the dark. Depending upon where they touch, 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.cite web | title = 71-The Elephant in the dark, on the reconciliation of contrarieties | url = | work = Rumi - Tales from Masnavi | date = 2004-05-09 | first = A. J. | last = Arberry | accessdate = 2006-08-29 ]

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: of 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.

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 Indostan: To learning much inclined,: Who went to see the Elephant: (Though all of them were blind),: That each by observation: Might satisfy his mindcite web | title = The Blind Men and the Elephant | url = | date = 2003-02-20 | work = The Wondering Minstrels | accessdate = 2006-08-29 ]

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!

Hindu Version

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used this parable to discourage dogmatism [Citation
last = Gupta
first = Mahendranath
author-link = Mahendranath Gupta
title = Kathamrita
chapter = Chapter V - Vaishnavism and sectarianism – harmony of religions
chapterurl =
place =
publisher =
year = Sunday, 11 March, 1883.
volume = Vol.II
] —Quote
"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."


A well-known Discordian version of the late 20th Century is Reverend Loveshade's "Five Blind Men and an Elephant," which first appeared in the 1994 online Non-Existent Apocrypha Discordia. It also appears in the 2001 Apocrypha Discordia (a distinct work — this story is the only piece found in both versions), Apocrypha Diskordia (German translation of the 2001 version), The Book of Eris, Ek-sen-trik-kuh Discordia: The Tales of Shamlicht, and Principia Harmonia. In this telling of the elephant story, there are five blind men who touch the elephant and dispute about what they've found, and whether the elephant is like a snake, spear, wall, tree, or fan.

But in this version, the conflict becomes extremely violent.

The argument grew more heated, and finally escalated into a battle, for each of the five had followers. This became known as the Battle of the Five Armies (not to be mistaken for the one described by that Tolkien fellow).cite web | title = Five Blind Men and an Elephant | url = | date = 1994 | work = Ek-sen-trik-kuh Discordia: The Tales of Shamlicht | accessdate = 2007-12-28 ] Then a "blind, self-appointed Discordian oracle" stops and feels the entire elephant, and thinks, "What a bunch of fools these guys are."

The oracle Eristotle tells them they are all right, and that

the elephant is a great Tree, and on this tree grow leaves like great Fans to give most wondrous shade and fan the breeze. And the branches of this tree are like Spears to protect it. For this is the Tree of Creation and of Eternal Life, and the Great Serpent hangs still upon it.
Unfortunately, it is hidden behind a great Wall, which is why it was not discovered until this very day. It cannot be reached by normal means. ]
By twisting the truth into an original perspective that harmonizes the discordant elements (an example of the Ek-sen-trik Discordian principle of "harmonious discord"), the oracle stops the war. Then she tells them that she can teach them, for a price, how to use a rope she's found (the elephant's tail) to climb the elephant, and thus gain eternal life.
Eristotle then named an extremely high price for her services (Eternal Life doesn’t come cheap), and made quite a bundle.
Moral: Anyone can lead blind men to an elephant, but a Discordian can charge admission. ]


quotation|In the unwritten sequel to the classic poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant", we go a thousand years further on the linear timescale to a world in which vast temple complexes have been built by the followers of each of the seven theoreticians, and holy war is waged against all who dispute that an elephant is very much like a tree, a wall, or a rope. Even worse, cults arise venerating fans and ropes "as elephants", and devotees plant bombs in the automobiles of those who insist that a wall is just a wall, and not an elephant at all.|Pope Nenslo|The Bobliographon, p. 137


A rendering as a children's picture book called "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is retold by Karen Backstein, and illustrated by Annie Mitra. (ISBN 0-590-45813-2) Of special note is one picture of the elephant with body parts morphed from a wall, a snake, a spear, a tree, a fan and a rope.

American cartoonist Sam Gross published a book featuring the blind men and the elephant on the cover; however, one blind man was feeling a pile of elephant dung. The book was titled "An Elephant is Soft and Mushy" (ISBN 0-396-07823-0)

A meta-joke exists in which three blind elephants argue what a man looks like. The first one feels the man with his leg, and says that the man is flat. The other elephants touch the man as well, and agree.

There was also a Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly on this story.Pogo stated that "each of the blind men was partly right".Churchy Lafemme replies, "yeah, but they were all mostly wrong."

See also


**Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi
*Dharmic tradition


*John Godfrey Saxe
*Hasty generalization


External links

* [ Story of the Blind Men and the Elephant] from []
* [ All of Saxe's Poems including original printing of The Blindman and the Elephant] Free to read and full text search.
* [ Buddhist Version as found in "Jainism and Buddhism. Udana" hosted by the University of Princeton]
* [ Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi's version as translated by A.J. Arberry]
* [ Jainist Version hosted by Jainworld]
* [ John Godfrey Saxe's version hosted at Rice University]

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