Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Blind Men and the Elephant

I recently assigned the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant to a writing class for interpretation. I gave them three versions to work from: the John Godfrey Saxe poem, a Buddhist version, and a Jain version written in India for children. The story is familiar to most people as a moral lesson. A number of blind men, usually six, each try to identify an elephant. Limited to touch, each one grabs a different part of the elephant and reaches a different conclusion about what the elephant is. The one touching the side concludes it’s like a wall, the one touching the tusk says it’s like a spear, and so on.

The three versions reach different conclusions about what the moral of the story is:

Saxe says:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The Buddhist version says:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

And, finally, the Jain version for children says:

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree to. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, “Maybe you have your reasons.” This way we don’t get in arguments. In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways. So, you can see how broad our religion is. It teaches us to be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking.

I read the three versions aloud, after passing them out, and then asked the students to write their understanding of the story from memory in three sections, concluding with the moral of the story. Here is the moral of the story as each of them saw it:

  1. Each thinks his view is universal. He should think again.
  2. Each opinion is true according to its reason. It is important to hear others and make harmony with them.
  3. All persons’ opinions are right and wrong at the same time. We need harmony and tolerance.
  4. Feelings are incredible things.
  5. We should see the other perspective before arguing. We should have tolerance for other viewpoints.
  6. Harmony is very important. It is important to have a wide view and terrible to be ignorant.
  7. We should consider things from another viewpoint.
  8. We should listen to other people and be tolerant. This allows us to live in harmony with other people instead of arguing like the blind men.
  9. They didn’t see the whole elephant. We should stop insisting on our own view and understand what each other means.
  10. Things have many aspects. We have to see from different viewpoints. We often cannot see the forest for the trees.
  11. There are many different aspects to an argument. We should see things from different viewpoints. Then we can live in harmony.
  12. Each was partly right, partly wrong, because they couldn’t see more than a part of the thing. We should admit this and admit each viewpoint. That will make the world more peaceful.

As I was reading the student papers, it struck me how often the word “harmony” popped up. It appears in five of the twelve responses. Since I don’t see the moral of the story in terms of harmony at all, I was astonished to find this degree of consensus – almost half the responses. I was about to conclude that students were reading something into the moral from their own moral training about harmony in Japan. But then I went back and saw that this was made explicit in the children’s version, and I would not be justified in claiming they were reading something that wasn’t there. I take that as a moral lesson for me personally – to check my facts before reaching conclusions.

The issue of whether we see harmony as a Japanese value, or a Jain value, aside, it still remains interesting that one should conclude harmony is the lesson we should draw from the story. Tolerance, yes, but harmony?

Some postmodernists argue that objectivity is not possible, that we can never see things coolly and unemotionally from an outside perspective, that we all allow our own experiences and feelings to color what we see. To them, there is no elephant, only one’s particular perspective on an elephant. I think, however, that as the story is presented one is not justified in concluding that this is its moral. After all, we the audience are allowed to see the entire elephant in our minds. We see what the blind men do not see, and we see that the way out of their dilemma is to share perspectives in order to build a truer collective image of an elephant than each is capable of building individually.

For me, the moral has to do with the nature of knowledge, and not harmony at all. When harmony is the goal, the strategy is too often simply to listen to others and say nothing. It leaves us stuck in our own isolation and ignorance. In real life, we are not always like these blind men whose only error is that they see only part of the truth. While it is arguable that none of us ever sees the whole truth, it is also true that sometimes people are not merely reflecting a limited perspective but are actually wrong about their facts. One thing we should learn from the moral lesson of The Blind Men and the Elephant is that The Blind Men and the Elephant is not the only moral lesson we should learn from life!

Sometimes seeking harmony is a way of making us blind. The Blind Men and the Elephant helps us to see the wisdom of tolerance, because in this case each person has part of the truth, but it does not tell us what to do when we are faced with other people who are actually wrong or people who lie about what they see. If we work collectively, we can overcome factual error and deceit, but we have to be willing to challenge others’ opinions and insist that they reveal to us how they have reached their conclusions. That challenge sometimes means we have to make harmony a lesser priority. The art of life lies in part in distinguishing between those times when we should seek harmony and those times when it is a barrier to understanding.

At least that’s the part of the elephant my hands are on at the moment.

April 30, 2005

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