Five Blind Men and an Elephant
Back to Contents
Somewhere and nowhere in an endless, shoreless sea swims a giant turtle. Each stroke of the turtle’s flippers marks the elapse of years. On the vast expanse of the turtle’s back, feet braced firmly on the turtle’s shell, stand four gargantuan elephants, their trunks held above the water so that the elephants can breathe. On their backs the elephants balance a wide disc, one shaped like a shield, bowed up in the center like a hill. No mere hill, though, the central boss on this shield is Mount Meru, Pivot of the Sky. The disc itself is the world.
Like a great umbrella, the sky spreads above the turtle’s back. Turning, ever turning, on the pivot of Mount Meru, it displays for all to see the richest of jewels; the stars, diamonds glittering against the black of the umbrella’s fabric; the great opal of the moon; and the hot, radiant gold of the sun.
On the south slope of Mount Meru, below the vast Store-House of Ice, the looming Him-Alay, where the land was well-watered and fruitful, there, just there, somewhere in Old India, lay a small kingdom, a simple little rajahstan.
People who remember such things tell us that a long time ago a rajah had a serious problem. His simple little rajahstan had long welcomed travelers and visitors from other lands. Such generosity came naturally to people who felt themselves blessed by the gods who ruled the forces of nature and had used them to shape the pleasant and fruitful land. And into that fertile soil fell a seed that germinated into a plant whose fruit bore the name discord.
It happened that theologians from five different religions came to the little rajahstan at about the same time. For reasons that no one has made perfectly clear, they believed that they had an obligation, a duty to teach these happy people the true nature of God. But the theologians each traveled alone and, though the rajahstan was small, its people were too many for one man to teach. Each of the theologians faced an impossible task, but each of them knew a secret: if one wanted to communicate something to all of the people at once, then one would be well-advised to employ the rajah’s decree service. As another might say it, they would have to get the rajah to endorse their religion.
Oh, how they hastened to the palace in the capital city! Oh, how little clouds of dust rose from where their sandals struck the road as they hurried to see the rajah! Oh, how they rushed into the rajah’s palace, eager to instruct the rajah on the true nature of God!
But one does not just walk in on a rajah, however important he believes his mission to be. Big, strong men bearing very sharp swords and pikes barred the way to the audience chamber and obliged the theologians, each of them, to take his proper turn in presenting his case to the rajah. So the theologians had to draw straws to see in what order they would, one at a time, approach the rajah.
One by one they entered the audience chamber. One by one they approached the divan on which the rajah sat with his vizier, a wise and learned man in his own way, sitting nearby. And one by one they presented to the rajah the case for their beliefs.
"I say verily unto thee that God is a triangle," the first theologian said. He presented his full case and then took his leave.
The rajah was astonished. "I did not know that," he said to his vizier.
"I say verily unto thee that God is a great warlike striving," the second theologian said. He presented his full case and then took his leave.
The rajah was perplexed. "I did not know that," he said to his vizier.
"I say verily unto thee that God is an all-giving Nothingness," the third theologian said. He presented his full case and then took his leave.
The rajah was bewildered. "I did not know that," he said to his vizier.
"I say verily unto thee that God is Life Itself," the fourth theologian said. He presented his full case and then took his leave.
The rajah was flustered. "I did not know that," he said to his vizier.
"I say verily unto thee that God is Light," the fifth theologian said. He presented his full case and then took his leave.
The rajah was deeply disconcerted. "These are wise and learned men," the rajah said, "so how can they not agree on the nature of God? How can it come possible that men who devote their lives to serving God do not know the nature of their master? What confusion has come into my land?"
"It is indeed a great puzzle," the vizier said. "But I believe that no harm can come from it. Their request that you impose one view upon your subjects, on the other hand, necessitates that you determine which of them has the correct view."
"How am I to decide?" the rajah asked in distress.
"Allow me to think on the matter for a time," the vizier said. "I believe that I can come to an answer for you."
The rajah agreed to give him the necessary time and the vizier left the audience chamber.
The next day, late in the morning, the vizier came to the rajah and suggested that they go and sit on the veranda overlooking the palace’s courtyard. As they made themselves comfortable a mahout led a large elephant into the courtyard and maneuvered it into standing where the rajah could see it plainly.
"What a beautiful creature!" the rajah said. "I recognize it. It is one from my own stables."
"Indeed so, Your Majesty," the vizier said. "I have had it brought here to participate in a minor amusement I thought up for the purpose of easing some of your worries for a time." He clapped his hands and from a gate on the far side of the courtyard there emerged a guide leading a blind man toward the elephant. "I have had five blind men brought here. One at a time they will each be allowed to touch the elephant and then they will be brought to you to tell you what the elephant is."
"Oh, come now," the rajah said merrily. "You are jesting with me. Even if they are blind, how can they not know what an elephant is?"
"They live in a part of your realm where elephants are not used," the vizier said. "They have heard rumors of a thing called an elephant, but none of them knows what an elephant actually is."
"So you have brought them here to encounter an elephant?" the rajah asked.
"Yes," the vizier replied, "and so that they can report to you their findings on what an elephant is."
They then watched in silence as the guide led the blind man to the elephant.
"Woops!" the blind man said as, tripping over some imperfection in the smoothness of the ground and nearly falling, he grabbed one of the elephant’s legs and regained his balance. He moved back the way he had come and his guide led him before the rajah, to whom he said, "It seems very clear to me, Your Majesty, that the elephant is a species of tree."
The rajah thanked the man for his information and gave him a handful of rupees to reward his effort. After the guide led the blind man out by a different way, the second blind man was led into the courtyard and to the elephant.
"Ow!" the blind man exclaimed as the elephant’s tail slapped his cheek. He sidled away from the elephant and his guide led him before the rajah, to whom he said, "Well, Your Majesty, it seems to me that the elephant is simply a kind of fly-whisk."
The rajah thanked the man for his information and gave him a handful of rupees to reward his effort. After the guide led the blind man out by a different way, the third blind man was led into the courtyard and to the elephant.
"Ooh!" the blind man enthused as his hands came upon one of the elephant’s tusks. He stepped away and his guide led him before the rajah, to whom he said, "Oh, indeed, Your Most Glorious Majesty, I have perceived that the elephant is a kind of heavy spear."
The rajah thanked the man for his information and gave him a handful of rupees to reward his effort. After the guide led the blind man out by a different way, the fourth blind man was led into the courtyard and to the elephant.
"Unh!!" the blind man grunted as he walked into the elephant’s side. He moved away from the elephant and his guide led him before the rajah, to whom he said, "Yes, Your Majesty, it is clear to me that the elephant is simply a kind of wall."
The rajah thanked the man for his information and gave him a handful of rupees to reward his effort. After the guide led the blind man out by a different way, the fifth blind man was led into the courtyard and to the elephant.
"Aiiyee!!" the blind man shrieked as he caught hold of the elephant’s writhing trunk and then reeled away from the elephant, nearly falling over as he did so. His guide rescued him and led him before the rajah, to whom he said, in a fear-shaken voice, "the elephant, Your Majesty, the elephant is indeed a kind of snake!"
The rajah thanked the man for his information and gave him a handful of rupees to reward his effort. After the guide led the blind man out by a different way, the rajah thanked his vizier for the entertainment and, feeling somewhat refreshed, he went back into his palace.
Later that day, before the time that the vizier had set for the theologians to return to the palace, worry returned to the rajah. To sooth himself and to abate his anxiety he went to an upper level of the palace with his vizier and strolled along a walkway that was hidden from view behind ornate screens. They came to the place where the walkway had a broad view over the city and looked down into the public square in front of the palace. There they paused.
Standing looking out over the city, the rajah saw the blind men in the square before his palace. He saw that they were arguing quite heatedly over some topic that seemed very important to them. From little snatches of the conversation that came to him on the breeze he discerned that they were arguing over the nature of the elephant. Each seemed determined to convince the others and none was succeeding.
And then he saw, on the opposite side of the square, where they were waiting for their next audiences with him, the theologians. They were also arguing with each other. Indeed, but for their clothing, he would not have been able to tell which group was which.
He turned toward his vizier with an odd smile decorating his face. "God is an elephant?!" he said.
The vizier smiled and bowed. "In a manner of speaking, Your Majesty," he said.
"I see," the rajah said.
And indeed he did. So he returned to his audience chamber and had the theologians brought before him. He told them that he would not endorse any one of their beliefs, but that they remained free to talk to his subjects and share their beliefs.
"Each of my subjects will decide for themself what they will believe," the rajah said. "I will not tell them how to think in this matter."
The theologians then left, each going his own way. They went away saddened because now they faced a difficult task. They would have to spend their time, day after day, talking to people, one at a time, and explaining their beliefs. Or they could go back to farming. It was not a hard decision to make.
And thus the little rajahstan settled back into its natural state of peace and happiness.
Five blind men groped an elephant and argued all day long;
for while each was partly right, they were all completely wrong.
No amount of arguing could make those men agree.
Each was firmly convinced he knew that which he could not see.
Rivers, bayous, creeks, and streams; by different names they go.
And yet in one way they’re all the same; in each does water flow.
All religions act as channels of faith, though none should think it odd
that, like the rivers that flow to the sea, all lead to the very same God.
Back to Contents