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What's New home > parables > The Blind Men and the Elephant

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,
Who attach themselves to methods of analysis,
And perceiving only one side of a case,
Disagree with one another.”


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,
The whole of the object is not grasped in the palm.

The sea itself is one thing, the foam another;
Neglect the foam, and regard the sea with your eyes.

Waves of foam rise from the sea night and day,
You look at the foam ripples and not the mighty sea.

We, like boats, are tossed hither and thither,
We are blind though we are on the bright ocean.

Ah! you who are asleep in the boat of the body,
You see the water; behold the Water of waters!

Under the water you see there is another Water moving it,
Within the spirit is a Spirit that calls it.

Where were Moses and Jesus when that Sun
Showered down water on the fields sown with corn?

Where were Adam and Eve what time
God Almighty fitted the string to His bow?

The one form of speech is evil and defective;
The other form, which is not defective, is perfect.

If I speak thereof your feet stumble,
Yet if I speak not of it, woe be to you!

And if I speak in terms of outward form,
You stick fast in that same form, O son.

You are footbound like the grass in the ground,
And your head is shaken by the wind uncertainly.

Your foot stands not firmly till you move it,
Nay! till you pluck it not up from the mire.

When you pluck up your foot you escape from the mire,
The way to this salvation is very difficult.

When you obtain salvation at God's hands, O wanderer,
You are free from the mire, and go your way.

When the suckling is weaned from its nurse,
It eats strong meats and leaves the nurse.

You are bound to the bosom of earth like seeds,
Strive to be weaned through nutriment of the heart.

Eat the words of wisdom, for veiled light
Is not accepted in preference to unveiled light.

When you have accepted the light, O beloved,
When you behold what is veiled without a veil,

Like a star you will walk upon the heavens;
Nay, though not in heaven, you will walk on high.

Keep silence, that you may hear Him speaking
Words unutterable by tongue in speech.

Keep silence, that you may hear from that Sun
Things inexpressible in books and discourses.

Keep silence, that the Spirit may speak to you;
Give up swimming and enter the ark of Noah;

Not like Canaan when he was swimming,
Who said, “I desire not to enter the ark of Noah passing by.”

Noah and his unbelieving son Canaan.

Noah cried, “Ho! child, come into the ark and rest,
That you be not drowned in the flood, O weak one.”

Canaan said, “Nay! I have learned to swim,
I have lit a torch of my own apart from thy torch.”

Noah replied, “Make not light of it, for 'tis the flood of destruction,
Swimming with hands and feet avails naught today.

The wind of wrath and the storm blow out torches;
Except the torch of God, all are extinguished.”

He answered “Nay! I am going to that high mountain,
For that will save me from all harm.”

Noah cried, “Beware, do not so, mountains are now as grass;
Except the Friend none can save thee.”

He answered, “Why should I listen to thy advice?
For thou desirest to make me one of thy flock.

Thy speech is by no means pleasing to me,
I am free from thee in this world and the next.”

Thus the more good advice Noah gave him,
The more stubborn refusals he returned.

Neither was his father tired of advising Canaan,
Nor did his advice make any impression on Canaan;

While they were yet talking a violent wave
Smote Canaan's head, and he was overwhelmed.

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,
Since he was interested in the foregoing narrative,

Saying, “The Prophet, whose words are as a seal,
Said, ‘Acquiescence in infidelity is infidelity.’

And again, ‘Acquiescence in God's ordinance
Is incumbent on all true believers.’

Infidelity and hypocrisy are not ordained of God;
If I acquiesce in them I am at variance with God.

And yet, if I acquiesce not, that again is wrong;
What way of escape is there from this dilemma?”

I said to him, “This infidelity is ordained, not ordinance,
Though this infidelity is the work of the ordinance.

Therefore distinguish the ordinance from the ordained,
That thy difficulty may be at once removed.

I acquiesce in infidelity so far as it is God's ordinance,
Not so far as it is our evil and foul passions.

Infidelity qua ordinance is not infidelity,
Call not God an infidel. Set not foot in this place.

Infidelity is folly, ordained infidelity wisdom,
How can mercy and vengeance be the same?

Ugliness of the picture is not ugliness of the painter,
Not so, for he erases ugly pictures.

The ability of the painter is shown in this,
That he can paint both ugly and beautiful pictures.

If I should pursue this argument properly,
So that questions and answers should be prolonged,

The unction of the mystery of love would escape me,
The picture of obedience would become another picture.”

Bewilderment from intense love of God puts
an end to all thinking and argument.

A certain man whose hair was half gray came in haste
To a barber who was a friend of his,

Saying, “Pluck out the white hairs from my beard,
For I have selected a young bride, O my son.”

The barber cut off his beard and laid it before him,
Saying, “Do you part them, the task is beyond me.”

Questions are white and answers black; do you choose,
For the man of faith knows not how to choose.

Thus, one smote Zaid a blow,
And Zaid attacked him for his treachery.

The striker said, “Let me first ask you a question,
Give me an answer to it and then strike me;

I struck your back and a bruise appeared,
Now I ask you a question in all kindliness,

Did this bruise proceed from my hand,
Or from the smitten part of your back, O complainer?”

Zaid replied, “Through pain I am not in a condition
To enter upon thought and consideration of this.

You, who are free from pain, think this out;
Such trifling thoughts occur not to a man in pain.”

Men in pain have no time for other thoughts,
Whether you enter mosque or Christian church.

Your carelessness and injustice suggest thoughts
And unprecedented difficulties to your imagination.

The man in pain cares only for the faith,
He is aware only of man and his work.

He sets God's command upon his head and face,
And for thinking, he puts it aside.

Copyright 2018 Michael Marking. All Rights Reserved. last modified Saturday, 29-Oct-2011 23:33:06 CEST
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