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The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in Indian subcontinent from where it has widely diffused. It has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies. At various times it has provided insight into the relativism, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behaviour of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.
It is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu lore. The tale is also well known in Europe. In the 19th century the poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. Since then, the story has been published in many books for adults and children, and interpreted in an ever-increasing variety of ways.
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. Denying something you cannot perceive ends up becoming an argument for your limitations.
The story of blind men's limitations appeals deeply to the reader as we very naturally and subconsciously identify with the narrator. There is, however, a highly arrogant assumption in the way the story is told. The only person who can see the whole truth is the narrator, who lets the reader in on his full-sighted perspective of the elephant. Everyone else is blind! The claim to know everything is arrogant. Yet the story allows the reader to dismiss all truth claims as partial versions of a bigger reality, which only the narrator and his readers see.
A 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.
This 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 Jainist beliefs often said to be seven versions). This is known as the Syadvada, Anekantvada, or the theory of Manifold Predications.
The Buddha twice uses the simile of blind men led astray. In the Canki Sutta he describes a row of blind men holding on to each other as an example of those who follow an old text that has passed down from generation to generation. In the Udana (68–69) he uses the elephant parable to describe sectarian quarrels. A king has the blind men of the capital brought to the palace, where an elephant is brought in and they are asked to describe it.
When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king 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?'
The men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants' head), a winnowing basket (ear), a plowshare (tusk), a plow (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).
The men cannot agree with one another and come to blows over the question of what it is like and their dispute delights the king. The Buddha ends the story by comparing the blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: "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." The Buddha then speaks the following verse:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet and teacher of Sufism, included it in his Masnavi. In his retelling, "The Elephant in the Dark", some Hindus bring an elephant to be exhibited in a dark room. A number of men touch and feel the elephant in the dark and, depending upon where they touch it, they believe the elephant to be like a water spout (trunk), a fan (ear), a pillar (leg) and a throne (back). Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception:
The sensual eye is just like the palm of the hand. The palm has not the means of covering the whole of the beast.
Rumi does not present a resolution to the conflict in his version, but states:
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: oh 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.
Rumi ends his poem by stating "If each had a candle and they went in together the differences would disappear." 
A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.
One of the most famous versions of the 19th century was the poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887).
The poem begins:
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
They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touch. They have a heated debate that does not come to physical violence. But in Saxe's version, the conflict is never resolved.
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen
The story is seen as a metaphor in many disciplines, being pressed into service as an analogy in fields well beyond the traditional. In physics, it has been seen as an analogy for the wave–particle duality. In biology, the way the blind men hold onto different parts of the elephant has been seen as a good analogy for the Polyclonal B cell response.
The fable is one of a number of tales that cast light on the response of hearers or readers to the story itself. Idries Shah has commented on this element of self-reference in the many interpretations of the story, and its function as a teaching story:
...people address themselves to this story in one or more [...] interpretations. They then accept or reject them. Now they can feel happy; they have arrived at an opinion about the matter. According to their conditioning they produce the answer. Now look at their answers. Some will say that this is a fascinating and touching allegory of the presence of God. Others will say that it is showing people how stupid mankind can be. Some say it is anti-scholastic. Others that it is just a tale copied by Rumi from Sanai – and so on.
Shah adapted the tale in his book The Dermis Probe. This version begins with a conference of scientists, from different fields of expertise, presenting their conflicting conclusions on the material upon which a camera is focused. As the camera slowly zooms out it gradually becomes clear that the material under examination is the hide of an African elephant. The words 'The Parts Are Greater Than The Whole' then appear on the screen. This retelling formed the script for a short four minute film by the animator Richard Williams. The film was chosen as an Outstanding Film of the Year and was exhibited at the London and New York film festivals.
An elephant joke inverts the story in the following way:
Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, 'Men are flat.' After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.
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