Five Blind Men and an Elephant

Analysis of the Story

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    This story clearly does not give us an example of a fairy tale. But we also can't legitimately call this a myth - it doesn't tell the origin of anything (though I have used the Hindu cosmology as an introduction) and it doesn't have an unhappy ending. It doesn't seem to serve the Superego. But it also does not conform to what we think of as a fairy tale: it doesn't take place in the animistic realm of those tales, but in the cold, rational realm of the adult world. It seems more like a wisdom story or a fable, a strange form of gossip that we use to pass on wisdom that we have acquired through experience.

    The action of the story takes place somewhere in Old India and does so because this story came from India. First came the Hindus, then the Buddhists. Islam came next. The Sikhs and the Jains added their own spice to the mix. And finally came the Christians. Can we wonder that the people of India might have felt a little bewildered? To make matters worse, the proponents of each religion asserted that their beliefs were the only ones that people should hold in their minds, the justification being made on the claim that the religion's theologians had a special knowledge of God.

    Certainly all people understand that there exists a great mystery behind Reality. And we typically use the name God to denote that mystery. How else could we understand the observation, upon which all the world's spiritual traditions agree, that the world of our perceptions bespeaks an unseen, subtle, and meaningful order underlying it all. But all people need to understand that no one has ever solved that mystery.

    That understanding eventually came through the clever story of a hand-count of blind men fumbling around an elephant. It works so much better than someone simply coming out and saying, "the theologians of the great religions do not know the full truth about the nature of God." In that sense the story acts more like a fairy tale or, more to the point, a parable. As Plato said of parables, "We may liken the false to the true for the purpose of moral instruction."

    It works something like a joke: you have to "get it" for it to have its proper effect. In that aspect the story has something in common with fairy tales. We see here the clever use of metaphor and we can shed a little more light upon it by considering a different metaphor on the same subject.

    We call rivers, creeks, streams, and canals by different names, but they all carry water from one place to another. In like manner all religions have different names, but they all purport to convey truths. But we also discern a destination in both concepts. All rivers lead to the sea and all religions lead to God. It doesn't matter to you which river you follow, but it matters to those who have set up shop on the banks. Thus true religion does not concern itself with how you approach God, but the churches do.

    And that fact leads to the motive behind the story, the reason it matters whether the rajah chooses one religion or not. That motive comes from an observation that Max Born, the physicist who asserted the probabilistic interpretation of quantum theory, made when he said, "The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems to me the deepest root of all evil that is in the world."

    Some people hold that the world presents to us only one way to right living and that they are the sole possessors of the map. They would, if they could, force all others to follow one road. The greatest evil flows from the belief that others who do not live as we do are themselves evil. But if we cannot know that we, ourselves, are correct in this matter, then, perhaps, we should not be so eager to claim that others are wrong. We create evil in ourselves by conceiving it in others.

    This aspect of the story generally does not appear overtly. I put it into my version because I wanted to make it explicit for those who would ask what difference it would make if the rajah simply picked one religion at random. In this I have made the parable more like one of Aesop's fables, in which the moral instruction in the story is stated explicitly at the end.

    In this case the moral instruction is heresy. The people of the rajahstan will have to think for themselves and decide for themselves which religion they will follow. Freedom of thought is the essence of heresy and is anathema to those who seek to control what others think and believe. As one wit put it, heresy is a stigma with which to beat a dogma. It gives people the means to evade Max Born's source of evil. In that understanding we see the hidden wisdom of the story.


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