Apr 10 / Simcha

Six Blind Men and an Elephant

Illustration: Jason Hunt, 1999

In the wonderful ancient Indian tale The Six Blind Men and the Elephant (made popular by 19th-century English poet John Godfrey Saxe), six blind men touch an elephant. Although each man touches the same animal, his determination of the elephant is based only on what he is able to perceive.

The tale, with origins most likely in Hindu lore,* illustrates how people form their realities and belief systems based on limited and subjective experiences. The tale has been used to teach tolerance for other religions and cultures. It also suggests how the collective sharing of  individual perspectives might ultimately afford us deeper and more comprehensive understanding.


Blind Men and the Elephant
by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887)

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.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


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!

*                           *                              *

*  A version of the story has been used in the Buddhist culture as well as the Jain and Sufi Muslim culture.