Ten Men And The Elephant

The ten men and the elephant is a parable in many variations from the Indian subcontinent, dating back more than 2,500 years.

In a small village in India there were ten men who had heard of but had never seen the greatest animal in the jungle, the elephant. Determined to see an elephant, they hired a guide to lead them to one. After several days of trekking in the jungle, the guide saw an elephant and called forth the ten men. The men approached the elephant and in their excitement each touched a different part of the it. The man who touched its tail said the elephant was like a snake. The man who touched the elephant’s leg said the elephant was like a tree trunk. The man who touched the elephant’s tusk said it was like a seashell. Each of the ten men described the elephant very differently. Soon the ten men, each insisting that their view of the elephant was right, started to argue and eventually came to blows.

Clearly, the ten men were blind and didn’t know it. As to the elephant, clearly it is big; bigger than one blind man can imagine it in the context of his pervious experiences. Moreover, the elephant is like the universe itself; having so many facets, it is beyond description; it is what it is whatever it is.

The moral of this parable is that (1) as our individual perspectives are limited, we cannot come to know the nature of things. (2) When we are certain of the infallibility of our perceptions, we are blind and don’t know it. (3) Things appear quite different up close (as when we are within) than from a distance (when we are without). (4) Our understanding of things is limited when we understand things in the context of our memories of other things. (5) Taking our perceptions too seriously, we make fools of ourselves and at times come to strife. (6) Yet, the audience for this story, the Gods in the form of children, find it funny.