Blind Men & Elephant parable

The parable of the blind men and the elephant is used to illustrate how biases can blind us, preventing us from seeking a more complete understanding on the nature of things. It is often used as a warning against the promotion of absolute truths.

The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in India (Pali Buddhist Udana) from where it is widely diffused. Made famous by the great Sufi master Jalal ud-din-i Rumi (1207-1273 c.e.) in his Mathnawi of Jalalu’ ddin Rumi, the parable has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies.

File:Blind monks examining an elephant.jpg
“Blind monks examining an elephant” by Itcho Hanabusa 1888

The parable went something like this:

In a distant village, a long time ago, there lived six blind men. One day the villagers announced, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had never seen or felt an elephant before and so decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” And thus they went down to the village to touch and feel the elephant to learn what animal this was and they described it as follows:

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” argued the second after touching  the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” the third man spouted after touching the trunk.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man feeling the ear.

“It is like a huge wall,” sounded the fifth man who groped the belly .

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man with the tuskin his hand.

They all fell into heated argument as to who was right in describing the big beast, all sticking to their own perception. A wise sage happened to hear the argument, stopped and asked them “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.”

The wise man then calmly said, “Each one of you is correct; and each one of you is wrong. Because each one of you had only touched a part of the elephant’s body. Thus you only have a partial view of the animal. If you put your partial views together, you will get an idea of what an elephant looks like.”

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 defecit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.

Although the parable’s function is to call attention to a lack of objectivity and consideration of other approaches and perspectives when trying to understand the nature of things, we do have to warn that not all perspectives are equally valid, and even valid arguments are not necessarily equally sound. I would like to thank Dr. Peter Kabai for this reminder.

Each of us lives in our own world, with our own life experiences and sensory perceptions, which often lead us to biases characterized by a lack of general objectivity, open-mindedness or the consideration of the points of view of others.

In a world where issues are usually and uncritically two sided: black or white: good or bad; ethical or unethical, it is easy to fall into heated debates, each defending a point of view often times equated to truths.

Sufi Story...Elephant & blind sages by Blanca Marti for Equilibre
Sufi Story…Elephant & blind sages by Blanca Marti for Equilibre

The elephant in this sense represents reality, and each of the worthy blind sages represents a different approach to understanding this reality. In all objectivity, and in line with the poem of John Godfrey Sax, all the sages have correctly described their piece of reality, but fail by arguing that their reality is the only truth.

And so these men of Hindustan
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.

John Godfrey Saxe

Unless we can piece together the realities of the sages we can in no way be objective and we will fail to understand the whole elephant.

How can anyone describe the whole until he has learned the total of the parts.

____________________________

There are many versions of the parable and differences are mainly in regard to what body part is touched and described, here a common denominator;  a group of blind sages (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what an elephant is like. Each one feels a different part, but only that one part, such as the tail or the trunk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.

____________________________

The blind men and an elephant by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

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 approached 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 approached 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,
Than 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.

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7 thoughts on “Blind Men & Elephant parable

  1. Pingback: We’re all blind when… | Communication Essentials

  2. In the cartoon, the blind man examining the tail has a speech impediment where he mispronounces “You’re” as “Your”. It’s sad to have two disabilities at once. 😦

    • Is this what you got from all of this? Let me show you how smart I am? There’s a message here that transcends grammar and spelling. -1 for the spelling error. -25 for not understanding the message. Good Lord. Do you really need that much attention?

  3. Pingback: CombiGEM takes combinatorial miRNA Analysis to the next level

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