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Six blind men and the elephant — a parable

elephant 2The Message

Consider all viewpoints! WE all see things differently

The story

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 feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.

The stories 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.

In some versions, they stop talking, start listening and collaborate to “see” the full elephant. When a sighted man walks by and sees the entire elephant all at once, they also learn they are blind. While one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. If the sighted man was deaf, he would not hear the elephant bellow.

Jain

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 king 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.[2]

The ancient Jain texts often explain the concepts of anekāntvāda and syādvāda with the parable of the blind men and an elephant (Andhgajanyāyah), which addresses the manifold nature of truth.[3] This parable 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 Jain beliefs often said to be seven versions). This is known as the SyadvadaAnekantvada, or the theory of Manifold Predications.[2]

Two of the many references to this parable are found in Tattvarthaslokavatika of Vidyanandi (9th century) and Syādvādamanjariof Ācārya Mallisena (13th century). Mallisena uses the parable to argue that immature people deny various aspects of truth; deluded by the aspects they do understand, they deny the aspects they don’t understand. “Due to extreme delusion produced on account of a partial viewpoint, the immature deny one aspect and try to establish another. This is the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant.”[4] Mallisena also cites the parable when noting the importance of considering all viewpoints in obtaining a full picture of reality. “It is impossible to properly understand an entity consisting of infinite properties without the method of modal description consisting of all viewpoints, since it will otherwise lead to a situation of seizing mere sprouts (i.e., a superficial, inadequate cognition), on the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant.”[5]

(source Wikipedia)

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