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Of Elephants and Blind-men

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

There is an ancient parable over 3,200 years old that tells of a band of six blind-men who in their travels encounter an elephant. Recently an addendum to the original parable has been found and is included here.

As they were wandering together, the blind-men approached a village and ran directly into the elephant.

The first blind-man bumped into the elephant’s side. “Brothers,” he cried, “We must be near the village for I have nearly knocked myself out banging into the city wall.”

“Wait,” declared the second blind-man who had just been brushed by the elephant’s flapping ear, “we must already be in the city in the market at the fan maker’s stall for I have felt the brush of a fan and its breeze on this hot day. But I'm having a hard time taking it from the display.”

“In the market, yes,” agreed the third blind-man, “but at the armorer’s place of business for I have nearly impaled myself on a spear. You can feel how short its point is.” Slowly he eased away from the elephant’s tusk.

“You are both wrong,” argued the fourth blind-man who had just grabbed hold of the elephant’s tail. “This has to be the hemp dealer’s stall for I have in my hand a sturdy rope that is strong enough to swing on.”

“None of you are right,” challenged the fifth blind-man whose arms were hugging the elephant’s leg. “We have wandered into the jungle and I have my arms around the trunk of a huge baobab tree.”

“Yikes,” shouted the sixth blind-man who jumped as the elephant wrapped its trunk around his leg. “We are definitely in the jungle for I have just been attacked by a huge python.”

Unable to agree, the blind-men sat down and continued to argue about who was right about their experience and where they were. As their frustration grew so did the volume of their wrangling.

A passing blind Cārvāka philosopher heard them arguing and stopped to listen. Taking direction from what was being said he moved to the elephant and began to move around it touching all of its various parts but being careful not to disturb it. Having satisfied himself he returned to the other blind-men and interrupted them.

“My fellows, you have been so earnest in arguing from your individual experience that you have failed to listen to one another or explore what might be the source of each other’s experience. I have listened to each of you carefully and have no doubt that you are interpreting your experiences honestly. But, I have also moved to where you said your experiences originated and I can declare with confidence that none of you have a correct interpretation. You do not have experiences of six different things but six experiences of one thing, an elephant.”

After a moment’s pause, almost in unison, the original blind-men slapped their foreheads and uttered a chorus of “Duhs!”

Well, not all of them. The sixth blind-man continued to insist that he had been attacked by a snake. As the others tried to convince him to accept the more comprehensive and coherent interpretation of their experiences, a bypassing blind business man heard their rather boisterous discussion.

“If you’ll pardon me,” he interrupted them, “I think what you have here is a rare business opportunity. There are only about 4,000 captive elephants in all of India. This creature could be a ‘gold mine;’ or, to mix metaphors, the ‘goose that lays the golden egg.’ First of all we need to actually secure the elephant that appears to be a male. So, we’ll need a lot of that rope that one of you mentioned.”

The seven blind-men were now very attentive to their new conversation partner. “We need to act quickly before capturing elephants is banned but think of the opportunities. We can make it the center attraction of a small travelling circus. When not touring we can provide rides for tourists and lease it out for major civic or religious ceremonies. If these don’t work out we can always lease it to the lumbermen to help with their clear cutting the forest for farmland or urban development. If we act quickly enough we might be able to capture a female so that we can have an elephant resource in perpetuity. If worse came to worse we could always harvest its tusks for the ivory trade, though that’s a bit tricky, and we could sell the meat and the hide in the village market. But let’s not think of that. We will, of course, need to invest in a place to keep it and someone to care for it and train it.” As the blindmen continued to listen to this entrepreneur, each began to imagine how they might spend the proffered profits.

Upon this scene of economic speculation there came a blind bodhisattva. “Namaste,” he said in greeting. “I could not help but hear your conversations. I am struck that you are treating the elephant as an object of utility. My brothers, the elephant is a living creature, a remarkable being that is its own center of value. Did you know that elephants have brains more that tree times the size of yours? They are aware of themselves and form very tightly knit family groups. When one in the group dies, elephants exhibit behavior that seems similar to human grief.

“Elephants are also very intelligent. Though they do not have an opposable thumb, they have a great ability to use parts of trees and rocks as tools with their trunk. They exhibit skill in problem solving and are quick learners with exceptional memories. You know the old saying, ‘Elephants never forget.’

“Elephants play and have a capacity for mimicry, even an ability to mimic the sounds of a few human words. They understand pointing and can use it as a communication resource.

“Perhaps most important, elephants seem to share distinctive behaviors also found in human beings: altruism, even inter-species altruism, and compassion. Is this, then, not a noble creature? With all these qualities do we not worship the elephant form, Ganesha, as a manifestation of the One, True Reality: Brahman? How can we then consider this amazing example of Shiva’s creativity a mere object to exploit and bend to serve our mundane interests?

“Let us consult the elephant and see if he is lost and searching for his family and, if so, help him find his way home. If not, we can at least extend to him hospitality. Perhaps through such an act of kindness we can join together in a broader community of mutual care.”

The bodhisattva’s words offered an entirely new perspective on the situation. Not wanting to completely abandon the entrepreneur’s ideas, the original six blind-men wondered whether it would be possible to “do well by doing good.” It was an intriguing problem.

"Maybe," one of them suggested, "we should consult the elephant."

[My appreciation to Zeb Toonz <> for his permission to use seven of his cartoons in this blog.]

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