The parable of the blind men and the elephant “has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu lore.” One version goes like this:
“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.”
This parable has also become a popular story in the Western mindset. In the story, the dogmatic (but blind) men all miss the true nature of reality because they take their limited perspective to be the total picture. But we can ‘see’ that they are all missing the point. If they would just listen to one another with humility and respect, accepting each person’s experience as equally valid, then they would be able to arrive at a more accurate understanding.
For the record, I’m in favor of humility, acceptance of others, and respect.
But unfortunately, this parable doesn’t exemplify any of these qualities. Consider the different characters in the parable: an elephant, blind men, and the storyteller. Do you see how the teller of the parable is criticizing everyone else as being wrong and stupid? Not to mention that the story isn’t very kind to blind people! Though the parable aims to teach acceptance and respect, it does so by being critical and unkind.
Another problem is the underlying hubris of the parable: I can see, but you can’t. Not only does the storyteller know that everyone else is wrong, but he also knows what the entire picture of the elephant looks like – the exact same error that the blind men are guilty of making. In order to teach the point that we don’t know much, the storyteller must claim to know a great deal – both about how other people see reality and ‘the real truth’ about what the elephant is like.
The Main Problem
But the primary illusion of this story, as a friend pointed out to me recently, is that, in most cases, the storyteller doesn’t even believe the elephant exists. Huh? Isn’t the whole parable about an elephant?
Actually, no – the function of the story is not to describe elephants, but to shame people who claim to have religious knowledge. Why do that – unless there’s nothing to know when it comes to religion?
If religion is just the different theories people come up with to describe their spiritual experiences, then all the differences are irrelevant. None of us is more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about the supernatural, because there is no supernatural to describe. All we are doing is using different words to account for our fuzzy spiritual experiences. This is the background context in which the elephant parable makes sense.
Here’s another way to look at it: imagine trying to tell this story at a zoo. You ask a tourist: hey, what do you see there? “A cool elephant.” Ok, thanks. You ask a kid: what do you see? “A really big elephant.” Got it. You see the zookeeper: what’s that? “A mature Loxodonta africanus elephant.” Fair enough. But everyone is going to tell you they see an elephant. If you ask some blind men, they’ll use the Braille description to tell you there’s an elephant behind the bars. Or listen for animal noises a little while and make an educated guess that there are some elephants nearby. If there really is an elephant, then the story doesn’t make any sense.
So the worst problem with the elephant parable is that it can be so easily deceptive. It sounds like it is affirming everyone’s spiritual perspective as equally meaningful and beautiful. But in reality, it is a backhanded way of affirming that everyone’s spiritual experience is equally false and ridiculous. You think God is like a pillar? Or a basket? Those clearly wrong ideas just show how your religious talk is more about your experience than about what is really there. Why? Because there’s nothing really there.
The elephant parable can be told by well-meaning people. Even then, it comes across as unkind and dogmatic while it tries to teach acceptance and humility. But the main problem with the parable of the blind men and the elephant is that it furthers a disingenuous message. It is time we put this misleading parable to rest and spoke honestly to one another. If we can find a way to say ‘I think you’re mistaken, but I still want to be your friend’ then we’ll be going in the right direction.
This post was originally published at Reasons for God.