The Parable of Six Blind Men and the Elephant

A Hindu Parable

Ranakpur Jain Temple | Rajasthan | India
(c) HADI ZAHER / Getty Images

Six Blind Men and the Elephant is an original Indian folk tale that traveled to many lands, found a place in multiple languages and oral traditions, and became a favorite story in many religions, including Jainism, Buddhism, and Islam.

The Parable of Sri Ramakrishna

This old Indian parable was used by the 19th century Hindu Saint Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to describe the ill-effects of dogmatism. To quote from the collection of his stories called The Ramakrishna Kathamrita:

“A number of blind men came to an elephant. Someone told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, “What is the elephant like?” as 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.”

In Buddhism, the tale is used as an example of the uncertainty of human perception, a demonstration of the principle that what we perceive to be true and factual is, in fact, empty of inherent reality. 

Saxe's Lyrical Version of the Tale

The tale of the elephant and the six blind men was made popular in the West by the 19th-century poet John Godfrey Saxe, who wrote the following version of the story in a lyrical form.

The story has since made its way into many books for adults and children and has seen a variety of interpretations and analyses.  

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 he 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!

Moral:

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.