The Blind Men and the Elephant
Thus have I heard. On a certain occasion, the Blessed One dwelt at Savatthi, in the Jetavana, the garden of Anâthapindika.
Now at that time a large number of Samanas, Brahmanas and wandering monks of various heretical sects, holding a variety of views, doubters on many points, having many diverse aspirations, and recourse to that which relates to various heresies, entered Savatthi for alms.
Some of these Samanas and Brahmanas held that the world is eternal and contended that this view was true and every other false.
Some said: the world is not eternal.
Some said: the world is finite.
Some said: the world is infinite.
Some said: the soul and the body are identical.
Some said: the soul and the body are not identical.
Some said: the Perfect One continues to exist after death.
Some said: The Perfect One does not continue to exist after death.
Some said: The Perfect One exists and does not exist after death.
Some said: The Perfect One neither exists nor does not exist after death.
Each contending their view was true and every other false.
These quarrelsome, pugnacious, cavilling monks wounded one another with sharp words [lit., “mouth-javelins”] declaiming: “such is the truth, such is not the truth: the truth is not such, such is the truth.”
And a number of Bhikkhus, robing themselves in the forenoon and taking their alms-bowls and tunics, entered Savatthi for alms and when they had returned from their rounds and finished their meal, they went to where the Blessed One was and drawing near, they saluted the Blessed One and sat down apart, and while thus sitting they said to the Blessed One: “Just now, Sire, a large number of Samanas and Brahmanas and wandering monks holding various heresies entered Savatthi for alms, and they are disputing among themselves, saying: ‘This is the truth, such is not the truth etc. [as above. Transl.]’
“These heretical monks, O Bhikkhus, are blind, eyeless, they know not what is right, they know not what is wrong, they know not what is true, they know not what is false. These monks not perceiving what is right, not perceiving what is wrong, not perceiving what is true, not perceiving what is false, become disputations, saying: ‘such is the truth, such is not the truth’ etc. [as above. Transl.]
“In former times, O Bhikkhus, there was a King in this town of Savatthi. And the King, O Bhikkhus, called a man to him and said: ‘Go, thou, and collect all the men born blind in Savatthi and bring them here.’
“ ‘Be it so, Lord’ said that man in assent to the King and he went to Savatthi and he brought all the men born blind in Savatthi to where the King was and drawing near he said to the King: ‘Lord, all the men blind from their birth in Savatthi are present.’
“ ‘Pray, then, bring an elephant before them.’
“ ‘Be it so, Lord’ said that man in assent to the King and he brought an elephant into the presence of the blind men and said: ‘This, O blind men, is an elephant.’
“To some of the blind men he presented the head of the elephant, saying, ‘Such, O blind men, is an elephant.’
“To some he presented the body, saying: ‘such is an elephant.‘
“To some he presented the feet, saying: ‘Such is an elephant.‘
“To some he presented the back, saying: ‘Such is an elephant.’
“To some he presented the tail, saying: ‘Such is an elephant.’
“To some he presented the hairy tuft of the tail, saying: ‘Such is an elephant.’
“The show-man, O Bhikkhus, having presented the elephant to these blind ones, went to where the King was and drawing near said to the King: ‘The elephant, Lord, has been brought before the blind men, do now as seems fit.’
“And the King went to where the blind men were, and drawing near said to them: ‘Do you now know what an elephant is like?’
“ ‘Assuredly, Lord: we now know what an elephant is like.’
“ ‘Tell me then, O blind men, what an elephant is like.’
“And those blind men, O Bhikkhus, who had felt the head of the elephant, said: ‘An elephant, Sir, is like a large round jar.’
“Those who had felt its ears, said: ‘it is like a winnowing basket.’
“Those who had felt its tusks, said: ‘it is like a plough-share.’
“Those who had felt its trunk, said: ‘it is like a plough.’
“Those who had felt its body, said: ‘it is like a granary.’
“Those who had felt its feet, said: ‘it is like a pillar.’
“Those who had felt its back, said: ‘it is like a mortar.’
“Those who had felt its tail, said: ‘it is a like a pestle.’
“Those who had felt the tuft of its tail, said: ‘it is like a broom.’
“And they all fought amongst themselves with their fists, declaring, ‘such is an elephant, such is not elephant, an elephant is not like that, it is like this.’
“And the King, O Bhikkhus, was highly delighted.
“In exactly the same way, O Bhikkhus, do these heretical people, blind and without insight, dispute among themselves saying ‘this doctrine is true, every other is false’.”
And the Blessed One in this connection, on that occasion, breathed forth this solemn utterance:
“Well is it known that some Samanas and Brahmanas,
The version above is quoted from Udana (“inspired utterances”), Jaccandhavagga (“Blind from Birth Chapter”, which is Chapter Six), Section 4. (May be cited as Ud.6.4) This is part of the Pali Buddhist Canon. It is widely believed to have been written down during the 1st Century BCE. The above translation from Pali is by Major General Dawsonne Melanchthon Strong, 1902.
The story is sometimes held to have originated in Jain writings, some of which share similarities to parts of the Pali Canon.
A retelling by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, a 13th Century CE Sufi Muslim poet, follows below. It is taken from Rūmī's Masnavi-I Ma'navi (“Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning”), Book III, Story V, translated from the Persian by Edward Henry Whinfield.
The Elephant in a Dark Room
Some Hindoos were exhibiting an elephant in a dark room, and many people collected to see it. But as the place was too dark to permit them to see the elephant, they all felt it with their hands, to gain an idea of what it was like. One felt its trunk, and declared that the beast resembled a water-pipe; another felt its ear, and said it must be a large fan; another its leg, and thought it must be a pillar; another felt its back, and declared the beast must be like a great throne. According to the part which each felt, he gave a different description of the animal. One, as it were, called it “Dal” and another “Alif.”
Comparison of the sensual eye to the hand of one that felt the elephant.
The eye of outward sense is as the palm of a hand,
Noah and his unbelieving son Canaan.
Noah cried, “Ho! child, come into the ark and rest,
Reconciliatian of the two traditions, “Acquiescence in infidelity is infidelity” and “Whoso acquiesces not in God's ordinance desires another Lord besides me”.
Yesterday an inquirer questioned me,
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