The blindmen and the elephant

This post was written by admin on April 13, 2009
Posted Under: teaching stories

Six blind men heard of this giant wondrous animal called the elephant. Since they were blind they could only feel the form of an elephant. As it happens a circus was passing by and the six blind men went to the circus and asked the elephant keeper if they could feel his great beast.

The keeper agreed and each went in and felt the elephant. When they came out, they described the elephant.

The first said, “I now know the elephant is like a pillar.”

“No, no, you are wrong my friend,” said the next, “The elephant is like a great big wall.”

The others disagreed one-by-one: “The elephant is like a leather fan.” “The elephant is like a great saber.” “It is like a piece of rope.” “My friends, you are all wrong, you must be blind in your hands as well as your eyes, can’t you see, the elephant is like a fire hose.”

The blind men started to argue and nearly came to blows, when the elephant keeper came over and interrupted their bickering, “My friends, you are all right, and yet you are all wrong. You, each, have felt only a part of the elephant, but not all. You, felt the leg, which is like a pillar. You, the body, which seems like a wall, and you, the ear, you, the tusk, you, the tail, and finally you felt the trunk.”

The above story originally came from India and the above version is from Sanandaji an Iranian Sufi poet. A hundred years later Rumi wrote a slightly different version where the people were not blind but the elephant was kept in the dark and the poem ends with, “If there was a wise person with a candle he could light the room and enlighten the observers to the truth.” When I find that exact version I’ll translate into English and put it on this blog.

Like most teaching stories the above refers to many issues. I think any real religion, philosophy, psychology, ecenomic theory and so on are like the blind men. They end up with a small part of the truth and imagine they have the whole truth.

The story also reminds me of the principle of complementariness in quantum mechanics when one can observe one of two complementary characteristics (position, vs. momentum, wave-particle duality) but not both simultaneously.

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