A friend sent me this little fable and I thought it was very interesting, so I thought about its meaning and made some pretty heavy commentary on it. Here I am sharing both the original fable and then my response to it.

Six Blind Men and an Elephant

A long time ago in the valley of the Brahmaputra River in India there lived six men who were much inclined to boast of their wit and learning. Though they were no longer young and had all been blind since birth, they would compete with one another to see who could tell the tallest story.

Every evening, when the sun was setting behind the palms, and the air was full of smoke and spices, one of the old men would begin a new story. It might be of how he had spoken with Lord Krishna, whom he had met--or so he said--while walking in the forest. The man would tell how Lord Krishna appeared in a dazzling blue glow, playing a merry, enchanting tune upon his flute. And he would tell how Lord Krishna had granted him eternal wisdom above all other mortals.

The second blind man might tell of the bulbul bird, who received his brilliant crimson breast one day when he espied the tiger fleeing from the porcupine. So funny was the scene that the bird had burst himself laughing and the blood had spilled all over its breast.

Not to be outdone, the third blind man would cough and clack his tongue as if holding a conversation with a lizard on a mud hut wall. Having taken inspiration thus, he might tell of the times of good King Vikra Maditya who had saved a brahmin's child and wed a humble peasant girl.

After him the fourth, followed by the fifth and then the sixth would tell their stories, each more fantastic than the one before. So it continued, the blind men passing away the time in harmless boasting.

One day, however, they fell to arguing. The object of their dispute was the elephant. Now, since each was blind, none had ever seen that mighty beast of whom so many tales are told. So, to satisfy their minds and settle the dispute, they decided to go and seek out the elephant.

Having hired a young guide, Dookiram by name, they set out early one morning in single file along the forest track, each placing his hands on the back of the man in front. It was not long before they came to a forest clearing where a huge bull elephant, quite tame, was standing contemplating his menu for the day.

The six blind men became quite excited; at last they would satisfy their minds. Thus it was that the men took turns to investigate the elephant's shape and form.

The first man to approach the elephant came forward boldly but, sadly for him, stumbled over a log and fell sprawling against the beast's broad side. "O my brothers," he cried out, "it is sure as I am wise that this elephant is like a great mud wall baked hard in the sun."

The second blind man was more cautious and when his turn came, he edged forward, hands outstretched, to feel the way. Since he had approached it from the front, his hands presently encountered two long, sharp objects that curved high above his head. It was the elephant's strong tusks. "Now, my brothers," the man exclaimed with a cry of dawning recognition, "I can tell you what shape this elephant is--he is exactly like a spear."

The others smiled in disbelief.

Now it was the turn of the third blind man, who came to the object of their curiosity from the rear. Carefully, he stepped forward, his hands waving in the air before him until he touched the elephant's tail. Seizing it with both his hands, he felt the strong bending twine and the coarse fibres on the tip. "Why, dear brothers, do you not see--this elephant is very much like a rope," he shouted.

The turn had come for the fourth blind sage to make his pronouncement. He, bold fellow, stepped nimbly forward from the front and soon his groping hands grasped a long, squirming object that curled about his waist. It was, of course, the elephant's long trunk. "Ha, I thought as much," he declared excitedly. "this elephant much resembles a serpent."

The others snorted their contempt.

The fifth, a tall old fellow with turban and white beard, chanced to touch the creature's ear. "Good gracious, brothers," he called out, "even a blind man can see what shape the elephant resembles most. Why, he's mighty like a fan."

That brought scoffing laughter from the remaining five.

At last, it was the turn of the sixth fellow. He, bowed down with age, came forward slowly, passing beneath the elephant's trunk and tusks, so that his head came in contact with the beast's stout leg. Feeling it wonderingly with both hands, he called to the others in his wheezy, old voice. "This sturdy pillar, brothers mine, feels exactly like the trunk of the great areca palm tree."

Of course, no one believed him.

Their curiosity satisfied, they all linked hands and followed their guide, Dookiram, back to the village. Once there, seated beneath a waving palm, the six blind men again began disputing loud and long. Each now had his own opinion, firmly based on his own experience, of what an elephant is really like. For after all, each had felt the elephant for himself and knew that he was right!

And so indeed he was. For depending on how the elephant is seen, each blind man was partly right, though all were in the wrong.

And now for my interpretation:

This reminds me the most of people's explorations of religion. First there is the sense that we are all blind--we don't have the correct senses to correctly interpret the big picture, the way the blind men don't have the vision to see the whole elephant. Each man approaching from a different direction is like the way many people are sent toward religion from a particular direction: A slant in society, a push from the family, that causes them to approach only the side, tusk, rear, trunk, ear, or leg of a proverbial elephant. (And not only that; it praises the exclusion of other parts that CAN be gleaned with the known senses by saying that the best way to truly know is to throw oneself into ONLY the study of that one part!) And it's also interesting to me that all the men were using the same sense--their hands with the sense of touch--and coming up with different interpretations because of where they stood and what had happened on the way and even how nature had shaped them (the tall man experienced an elephant's ear while the short man noticed only the leg, and the first man was clumsy enough to stumble along the way to contact forcibly with the side!).

But I think the biggest lesson to be learned is that when approaching something BIG--an elephant or a concept like religion--it is best to circle around a few times. Seeing as how we admit we obviously don't HAVE the senses to just "see and know" the truth of religion and God, we have to use what we've got, and those blind men used only their sense of touch when there were surely interpretations of the elephant that could have been acquired through hearing and smell (though I hope they wouldn't try to taste it). But yes, on top of all that each man took away only a very small experience of the elephant and then made a leap of assumption and backed it up not with further explorations but with firm belief in the mistaken conclusions at which they'd arrived through their narrow experience. It's very like humans to do that; to go to an elephant and re-affirm the "known" by continuously repeating the action that caused the conclusion rather than moving a bit to the left or the right. I doubt any but the man who encountered the trunk knew that the elephant could interact back with him, and I doubt the man who encountered the leg expected there could be four of them. What might the man who found the tail have thought it was for? How could a man who touched such a strange, large ear have understood that it served the same purpose as his own very different ears? And I'd be willing to bet none of the men realized that an elephant can be ridden, and none of them managed to hear its trumpeting.

Here is an interesting link on the same subject:

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Comments from others:

Mikey: I found this to be an interesting piece with many a fine point and more than justified with the outcome of words left for an interpretation.

Noise Tank: I psycologist told me this story.

alex: this reminds me of a book i used to read when i was a kid, except instead of old men it was blind mice who went to figure out what an elephant was like. at the end of the story, the mice took what they all had learned about the elephant and combined it to make a whole picture. i think if people shared what they believe about religion, they could understand it better.