My favorite version of the Blind men and the Elephant parable is Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young – it’s one of our all-time favorite kids books around here. Here’s a summary:
One day seven blind mice were surprised to find a strange Something by their pond. “What is it?” they cried, and they all ran home. Red mouse thinks it’s a pillar. Green mouse thinks it’s a snake. Yellow mouse thinks it’s a spear. Purple mouse thinks it’s a great cliff. Orange mouse thinks it’s a fan. Blue mouse thinks it’s a rope. And they all began to argue. But white mouse went to the pond and ran up one side and down the other and from end to end and realizes the something is as sturdy as a pillar, supple as a snake, wide as a cliff, sharp as a spear, breezy as a fan, stringy as a rope – but altogether, the Something is… an elephant! And when the others ran up one side and down the other and across the Something from end to end, they agreed. Now they saw, too. The Mouse Moral: Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.
It’s interesting to see the other versions of this tale..
From the Jain perspective:
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features.”
“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
From the Buddhist perspective:
The raja asks each man what an elephant is like. The blind men assert the elephant is like a pot (head), winnowing basket (ear), ploughshare (tusk), plough (trunk), grainery (body), pillar (foot), mortar (back), pestle (tail), or brush (tip of the tail). The men come to blows, which delights the raja. The raja says:
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.
And from the 19th Century American poet, John Godfrey Saxe:
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 and 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: Even 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!
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!