What Does ‘The Blind Men and The Elephant Story’ Tell Us About Reality?

Jainism – Ancient Indian Religion

Jainism, an ancient religion in India, prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. The word Jainism comes from a Sanskrit verb meaning ‘to conquer’. It refers to the battle Jains wage against their own nature to reach the enlightenment that brings salvation.

Jains respected the different ways humans saw and experienced reality, while recognizing that no one ever saw the whole of it. They called this doctrine of respect anekantavada. And to illustrate it they told a story about blind men and an elephant.


The Blind Men and The Elephant Story

Six blind men were invited to describe an elephant by feeling different parts of its body. The man who felt the leg said that the elephant was like a pillar. The man who felt the tail said it was like a rope. The one who felt the trunk said the elephant was like the branch of a tree. The man who explored the ear said the elephant was like a hand fan. The one who moved his hands over the belly said it was like a wall. And the one who felt the tusk said the elephant was like a solid pipe. Their teacher told them they were all correct in their descriptions of the elephant, yet each had grasped only a part and not the whole.

The moral of the story was that humans were all limited in their grasp of reality. They may not be entirely blind to it, but they can only see it from a single angle. That was OK as long as they didn’t claim their view was the whole picture and force others to see things from the same way.

The Blind Men and the Elephant Story tells us that because of their limited vision, humans are incapable of achieving perfect knowledge of ultimate reality, so they should be modest about the religious claims they make.

In spite of the warning, the prophets and sages of religion are rarely in doubt about their beliefs, because they have ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ what lies behind the veil that hangs between humans and ultimate reality. We have to decide for ourselves how to respond to the claims they made about their experiences – because they all saw different things or saw the same things differently.

A Little History of Religion
A Little History of Religion

Richard Holloway

Background on Richard Holloway

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