Sometimes I recall nuggets of spiritual wisdom but cannot remember when or where I picked them up. One in particular has increasingly taken on new meanings for me as I’ve wrestled with some of life’s tougher questions. You might call it the “Parable of the Elephant.” This is how it goes, as best I remember, with a few adaptations of my own:
Once upon a time in a jungle kingdom, there arose rumors that a mysterious new beast was lurking in the dense growth outside the city walls. Because nobody had ever clearly seen the beast in the clear by the light of day, various inconsistent descriptions of the beast were circulating throughout the kingdom. Some even speculated the mysterious new beast might be the fabled “elephant” that was rumored to exist in far away lands.
Wanting to settle the rumors once and for all, the king ordered his five wisest sages to go into the jungle, find the fabled elephant, and bring back a clear and accurate description of it. The sages spent several months in the jungle searching for the elephant without any luck, and decided to abandon their search. But as they were returning back to civilization, they were overtaken by a thick fog, got separated from one another, and became lost.
That night, as the sages separately wandered through the dense jungle in the darkness, each of them came into contact with a different part of the elephant for a brief moment. One sage touched the elephant’s tusk, another it’s trunk, another its ear, another its leg, and another its side.
Eventually, each of the sages made it back to civilization, eager to give his description of the elephant to the king. But when the sages gave their reports to the king, they offered widely different descriptions of it:
“An elephant is slender and sharp like a spear,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s tusk.
“An elephant is long, round, and flexible like a snake,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s trunk.
“An elephant is like a leather drape,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s ear.
“An elephant is thick, round, and solid like a tree trunk,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s leg.
“An elephant is broad and flat like a wall,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s side.
Upset by their conflicting descriptions of the elephant, the king erupted: “Fools! You claim to be wise men! You each claim to have found the elephant, and yet you offer me such widely different descriptions of it?! Your contradictory reports make the truth of the matter obvious! There is no such thing as an elephant!”
As the dejected sages returned home, they argued with one another about the true nature of the elephant. As they were debating, a young boy ran up to them and excitedly reported: “I’ve seen it! I’ve seen the elephant! I saw him in broad daylight! He has long and sharp tusks like a spear; a long, round, flexible nose like a snake, ears like leather drapes, legs thick and round as tree trunks, and sides as big and broad as a city wall!”
Stunned, the sages looked at the boy in silence for a moment, then looked at each other, then returned their gaze back to the boy. “Preposterous!” said one sage. “Impossible!” said another. “Liar!” “Delusional!” “Madman!” said the rest. And they scoffed, mocked, and ridiculed the boy to scorn.
Crestfallen, the young boy sheepishly turned his heels and walked home. When he arrived at his doorstep, he could still hear the sages out in the street, rancorous, seething, still arguing about what an elephant truly is.
The Messages of this Parable
I have my own views about what messages this parable contains, but I feel like it would undermine the entire purpose of a parable for me to come out and say what they are. So I would love to hear what messages you folks draw from this parable. Some of the messages seem fairly obvious to me, but others have occurred to me only gradually over time. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you see other messages I still haven’t recognized.
I think it means you should support my political positions.
(…since that is usually the way we use parables now days).
Make sure you have acurate and thorough information. And find out why your ‘wise’ men only had part of the story, yet drew firm conclutions and gave confident answers.
1. Sages are no better, and sometimes worse, at discerning truth than children.
2. This lesson confuses me as a Westerner, but may be fine for the Eastern tradition: Truth is the combination of all contending viewpoints.
3. Elephants are apparently non-violent and very willing to let humans touch them.
Even with the knowledge and additional insight that we may have, it is critically important to remember “…how unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of [God]; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways.” (Jacob 4:8)
The acquisition of knowledge should be coupled with increased humility and openness, not the other way around, as is unfortunately all too often demonstrated.
Witness testimony is often problematic, even if the witnesses are honest. So we should be careful about drawing conclusions from one or two or even five witnesses. Likewise, personal experience can also be misleading. Once we express an opinion based on this experience then pride can make it difficult to accept new but contradictory information.
I have long thought that in our attempts to understand theological questions we resemble the sages in this story.
This represents to me the essence of Kant’s transcendental idealism. thanks Andrew.
Certainty is the feeling one enjoys in the moments before the question is fully understood.
Here’s John Godfrey Saxe’s version of the parable:
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: “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!
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!
dpc, That’s it! Thanks for finding it for me. I cannot remember when or where I read that, but that certainly rings the bell for me.
This also helps me identify which parts of the above parable were my own adaptations. One of my additions is the king’s reaction to the sages’ contradictory accounts. I’d love to hear what people make of the king’s reasoning and his conclusion (There is no such thing as an elephant!), and to know whether anyone sees any parallels in our lives.
dpc, I just checked out the Wikipedia site and now I’m not so sure it was the Saxe poem I read previously. This parable has been around a long, long time and is has been quoted and applied by many different religious groups. Thanks for finding this additional info for us!
The Saxe version is the one I’m most familiar with. I wasn’t even aware there were other versions of the story until I read yours. I hadn’t realized that it had a much deeper history and meaning than I thought.
Dpc, yes, I think Saxe does a good job of summarizing one of the morals of the story, however, I believe there are many, many others to be learned from it, as illustrated by the other versions. Thanks again!
I still like this post (I enjoyed it when it was on-line, but before you posted it and now that you’ve made it public, it is still great). It captures so much.
I always enjoy reading your posts, Andrew. This parable has long been a favorite of mine. It would be nice, though, to have a bit of backstory to it so that we can better understand why the five sages came to the conclusions they did; what were the perceptions that they brought to the elephant? (Please forgive the apparent Coveyfication of the parable; been reading lots of psychology stuff lately.)
I like this version:
The lion walked through the jungle, seeking to establish his reign. He saw a gazelle running by, quickly ran him down, pinned him to the ground and roared, “Who’s king of the jungle?” The gazelle say, “You are, sire, you are!” The lion, satisfied, let the gazelle go.
The lion walked on some more and saw a young gorilla moving from one patch of jungle to another. Again, the lion ran up, pinned the gorilla to the ground, and roared, “Who’s king of the jungle?” The gorilla said, “You are, o mighty one, you are!” The lion, again satisfied, let the gorilla go.
Wandering more onto the veldt, the lion spotted a bull elephant giving itself a dust bath. The lion ran up behind the elephant at full speed and with a mighty leap, jumped onto the elephant’s back, digging in his claws. “Who’s king of the jungle?”, the lion roared. The bull elephant reach up with his trunk, grabbed the lion, and proceeded to smash him repeatedly into the ground. Finally growing bored of this activity, the elephant dropped the now-limp lion and wandered off.
The lion, after a little while, painfully got to his feet, and as he limped back to the jungle, he said, “Sheesh, just because you don’t know the answer is no reason to get mad about it….”
OK, corny I know, but it was one of my (late) father’s favorite jokes. ..bruce..
Any takers on my question about the king’s reaction to the sages’ inconsistent descriptions of the elephant. Specifically, the soundness of his reasoning and conclusion? Anyone ever seen that same “logic” applied elsewhere?
Anyone? . . . Bueller? . . . 🙂
Andrew, I’m reminded of Julia Sweeney’s frustration while reading the New Testament. At one point she yells at Jesus: “Stop talking in parables. It’s not working. Even your staff isn’t getting it.” 😀
The king’s reaction is strange, considering the sages all attest they’ve encountered something.
It’s interesting that the sages may have heard incomplete descriptions of the elephant from those who had encountered it which may have guided them to the part of the elephant they were ready to touch and understand.
The size of an elephant vis a vis humans also seems to suggest the futility of ever fully understanding other big concepts.
I think the king exemplifies the skeptic/cynic school of thought (excuse the over-generalization) that finds it easier to believe in nothing, and uses lack of corroboration as a rationale. This does, however, leave the king at a loss to explain the individual experiences of the sages, so he writes them off as lunatic crack pots.
KC, yes. I have a few friends who make the following argument.
“The Christians say God is X, the Buddhists say God is Y, the Taoists say God is Z. They contradict each other. Therefore, THERE IS NO GOD!”
“Brigham Young said God told them X, and Joseph F. Smith said God told him Y. They contradict each other. Therefore, GOD CANNOT BE TALKING TO THEM!”
For me, the message is that our individual perceptions of God (and many other things in life) will inevitably vary because we “see through a glass, darkly.” But even though our individual experiences and impressions of God differ and even contradict each other, those contradictions do not rule out God’s existence any more than the sages’ inconsistent descriptions prove that “there is no such thing as an elephant!” We may be perceiving something out there differently, but the fact remains, we are all perceiving SOMETHING. And our inconsistent descriptions of that SOMETHING out there do not prove there is NOTHING out there.
“skeptic/cynic school of thought (excuse the over-generalization) that finds it easier to believe in nothing”
Yes, this is an overgeneralized statement because I think you are really referring to nihilism in your statement. Skeptics are the ones who question a claim and demand evidence for said claim. Cynics, on the other hand, tend to have a worldview that questions the motives of a particular group or individual, feeling that all is done out of self-interest.
“We may be perceiving something out there differently, but the fact remains, we are all perceiving SOMETHING. And our inconsistent descriptions of that SOMETHING out there do not prove there is NOTHING out there.”
You’re right, Andrew. The simple idea that people have contradictory spiritual experience does not disprove the existence of deity nor does it prove deity. It simply proves that people have a wide range of experiences that they attribute to deity.
As far as what the king’s response represents, I see it as a lack of critical thinking and jumping to premature conclusions. It shows the king’s inability to “connect the dots” and believe in his own superiority in claiming truth. He has rejected the truths the sages were able to obtain without taking the time to examine all that they may hold. Furthermore, the sages, likewise, reject the concept of cooperation and combining knowledge, especially when faced with the child’s (the new guy) discovery. It further shows that without further investigation, they remain in their ignorance rather than investigating each others’ and the child’s claim. Had they done so, they would have obtained a significant truth…the -elephant- is real, just in the way that they perceived.
NM Tony, yeah I think “nihilism” is what I was going for…I just couldn’t articulate it well (hence the little disclaimer.) Healthy skepticism and cynicism can often be helpful in constructing a realistic world view, I didn’t mean to belittle them per se. Although often I’ve found that nihilism and even sometimes agnosticism comes bundled with a fair dose of skepticism and cynicism.
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