The Blind Men and the Elephant – A Picture of Relativism and Tolerance

by Erlene Woollard and Patricia Plackett

The Blind Men and the Elephant is a famous Indian fable that tells the story of six blind sojourners that come across different parts of an elephant in their life journeys. In turn, each blind man creates his own version of reality from that limited experience and perspective.

The parable is used today as a warning for people who promote absolute truth or exclusive religious claims. The underlying truth is that our sensory perceptions and life experiences can lead to limited access and overreaching misinterpretations. How can a person with a limited touch of truth turn that into the one and only version of all reality?

American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) immortalized the fable in his famous eponymous poem.

Application of the parable

The Suzuki Elders have worked together on various salons and other educational outreach events over the past several years. We would like to offer an opportunity to revisit this well-known parable and its useful messages as we strive to continually explore things like reducing polarization and having difficult conversations, extending our knowledge with big topics like Drawdown, offering our newfound learning to others, and trying new ideas for education and community engagement through our salons and inter-generational work.

As in the case of the blind men, it could be argued that all of us involved in these events could be in danger of seeing different parts of the elephant and believing that we were seeing the whole animal.

Lessons to be learned

There are various lessons that can be taken from the parable. We focus on four of them.

1.  Our perceptions and life experiences can only ever be partial and can lead to limited understanding and overarching misinterpretations.

2.  When it comes to the moral of the Blind Men and the elephant it seems that we might end our stories too quickly, forget to listen better and to digest the bigger picture. Doesn’t the picture of the blind men and the elephant point to something bigger — the elephant?

Indeed, each blind man has a limited perspective on the objective truth, but that doesn’t mean objective truth isn’t there. In fact, truth isn’t relative at all. It’s there to discover in all its totality. In theology, just because we have limited access to Truth, that doesn’t mean any and all versions of Truth are equally valid. Actually, if we know the Whole Elephant is out there, shouldn’t this drive us to open our eyes wider and seek every opportunity to experience more of Him?

3.  The parable shows us how every belief system contains a tiny fragment of an otherwise unknowable whole. It challenges us to work with others to approach a shared understanding that could benefit all.

4.  The pertinent lesson for the Suzuki Elders and to anyone endeavouring to do climate crisis work while trying to “increase the tribe” and reduce the environmental deficit that we are in danger of leaving for future generations is this:

Working together with humility to understand the elephant and all of its parts can encourage us to take chances outside our comfort zone to:

  • come to an understanding of the Big Picture, and
  • explore with an open mind.

 

1 comment

  1. On the one hand you say (in a quote I guess which is unattributed – who wrote it?) “Indeed, each blind man has a limited perspective on the objective truth, but that doesn’t mean objective truth isn’t there. In fact, truth isn’t relative at all. It’s there to discover in all its totality.” But then you say “every belief system contains a tiny fragment of an otherwise unknowable whole.” Are the “objective truth” and the “unknowable whole” the same thing? If yes, then the question is whether the objective truth is discoverable or unknowable. Can’t logically be both.

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