|Blind Men and an Elephant|
|Tuesday, 27 November 2007|
This ancient story was shared among many spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hindu, and Sufis. The well known modern version was composed in the 19th century by American poet John Godfrey Saxe.
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 answered, "Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind... and show them an elephant.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, 'Here is an elephant,' and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was 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?'
"Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.
"Then they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.
"Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.
"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."
Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated.
"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways. It teaches us to be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking. This is known as the Syadvada, Anekantvad, or the theory of Manifold Predictions.
This version was told by Rumi, the famous Persian Sufi Mystic, in The Tales from Masnavi.
Some Hindus had brought an elephant for exhibition and placed it in a dark house. Crowds of people were going into that dark place to see the beat. Finding that ocular inspection was impossible, each visitor felt it with his palm in the darkness.
The palm of one fell on the trunk.
‘This creature is like a water-spout,’ he said.
The hand of another lighted on the elephant’s ear. To him the beat was evidently like a fan.
Another rubbed against its leg.
‘I found the elephant’s shape is like a pillar,’ he said.
Another laid his hand on its back.
‘Certainly this elephant was like a throne,’ he said.
The sensual eye is just like the palm of the hand. The palm has not the means of covering the whole of the best.
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.
Poem by John Godfrey Saxe
The First approached the Elephant,
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
The Third approached the animal,
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
The Sixth no sooner had begun
And so these men of Indostan
So oft in theologic wars,
Randy Wang's website
Rumi's Tales from Masnavi
John Godfrey Saxe Poem
Wikipedia - Blind Men and an Elephant
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