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, the ten men hired a guide to find 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 sea shell. 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 they were. 

The moral of this parable is that anyone who is certain of the infallibility of their perceptions is blind and doesn’t know it. Don’t take your view of something too seriously as in so doing you will likely make a fool of yourself and at times wind up hurting others or yourself.

If you can’t view something in at least ten different ways (with at least one way which is funny), you don’t know what you are looking at. In the parable, each man’s view is funny (as in odd) to those of us who’ve seen an elephant; funny (as in laughable) as the men are fools, not knowing they are blind.

As in Shakespeare’s As You Like It,  “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”  And Daniel Kahneman: “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”

Finally, as to what does an elephant look like, we need to conclude that it is what it is whatever it is and that whatever that is, it is big. The elephant is the universe.

Tags: