The Blind Men and the Elephant

An illustration entitled "Blind monks examining an elephant", an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

Have you ever heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? There are many variations, but it can be traced back to Asia, where it became a part of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist teachings, among others. In essence, it is as follows:

A king asks a group of blind men to come to his palace and identify the object before them (it’s an elephant). Each man feels a part of the great beast and then exclaims he knows what it is: one says it’s clearly a pillar, another other suggests a plow, yet another says he is holding a brush… . But the first was responding only to the shape of the elephant’s leg, the second its trunk, the third the tip of its tail, and so on.

Each of the metaphorical blind men claim to have a hold on the whole truth based on the limited slice of reality they have before them, but the king sees clearly this is not the case.

Setting aside the strange behavior of the king (was he just trying to give these blind guys a hard time? Having a courtly laugh at their expense?!), I think this little scenario contains some important ideas. Like the blind men, each of us brings his or her own prejudices and perspectives to bear. Each offers judgements based solely on a little piece of a bigger picture. But the problem is that we tend to give our own perspectives too much weight and expound on them as if they be true with a capital “T.”

In some versions of the story, the men fall on each other in violence, as if to demonstrate that all of humanity’s great differences spring from blindness, self-certainty, and the inability to see the much grander reality. We fight over doctrine and ideology, the story whispers from beneath its farcical exterior, but really we’re all talking about the same thing.

Even if the king were to explain the elephant to the blind men, they would be unable to see it as he saw it. Which maybe is the point after all: even the king had only a partial understanding of the elephant—he couldn’t see from the elephant’s perspective, he would never know how the elephant lived in the wild with the rest of its parade, nor could he understand the inner biological processes that made the elephant’s life possible.

None of us will ever see the whole elephant, as it were, so the best we can do is admit that there’s much more to the world than we can understand, and accept that from other angles things might appear quite different.