There is an old story about five blind men and an elephant. Each man tries to determine what an elephant is like by sense of touch, but since each man is standing in a different position, they each feel a different part of the elephant. One man feels the trunk and declares that the elephant is like a snake. The man feeling the elephant’s foot says it is like a pillar. For the other three, the belly is like a wall, the tail is like a snake, and the tusks are like spears.
There are many versions of the story, with different descriptions of the elephant parts, varying degrees of conflict over the opinions about what an elephant is and a wide range of resolutions, or lack thereof. Interestingly, some different versions are attributed to different belief systems.
In the Buddha’s version, the men come to blows and resolve nothing, much to the amusement of the king who instigated the episode. The Buddha then compares the blind men to preachers and scholars who are so entrenched in their own views of what is “true” that they remain wilfully ignorant of all else:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Influential Hindu Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used the elephant story as a parable to show how people limit God to what they understand. “In the same way (as one of the blind men), he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.”
Though the story is ancient, it is still relevant. Parallels can be found in the arrogant way in which some demand respect for their beliefs and offer disrespect in return. It’s the mindset that can justify burning someone else’s sacred books, marginalizing and condemning people who do not sign up for the “one true way”, or overthrowing one type of dictatorship for another one. Such closed mindedness is a breeding ground for fear, hatred and anger – the blindness of ignorance. In such an environment, religion is often used as a tool to manipulate the masses, stifle dissent, and beat the opposition into submission.
As a child I was told what to believe, and then I believed what I was told. As I grew up I became aware of other belief systems, and began to question the conflicts in my own. Which religion had the answers? Was there one? Was there a God who punished people for not chosing to be on the winning team? People told me, directly and indirectly, that there was such a God, but I could never accept that. It didn’t feel right.
Ramakrishna experimented with belief systems other than Hindu, including Christianity and Islam, and determined that they all led to the same God. I believe that as well, although I’ve only a vague idea about what or who God is. But that’s kind of the point of the elephant story, isn’t it?
The version of the elephant story I like best is the Jain version. after hearing each blind man report, the king explains that they are all correct. The reason the men disagree is because they have all experienced one aspect of the elephant. The elephant is more than the total of their shared experiences. It is more than any of them could discover on their own.