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The Six Blind Men and the Elephant


This Indian folk tale helps us reflect on the true nature of things. Are we sure everything is really like it seems at first glance? Can six wise men all be wrong about what an elephant really looks like? Let's go with the six blind wise men on their journey through the jungle and see for ourselves.

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The Six Blind Men and the Elephant

More than a thousand years ago, in the Brahmanputra Valley, there were six blind men who passed the time of day competing to see which of them was the wisest.

To prove their wisdom, they used to tell the most fantastic tales they could think of and then decide which of them was the most imaginative.

So every evening they would get together round a table, while the sun was setting behind the mountains and the aromas of the delicious meals that were being prepared for them began to seep from under the kitchen door. The first wise man put on a serious face and started to tell the story of what he said had happened to him that day. Meanwhile, the others listened, fascinated but incredulous, trying to imagine the scenes he described in such detail.

The story told how, because he didn't have anything to do that morning, the wise man had decided to take a walk in the woods near his house, where he could enjoy the happy chirping and melodious songs of the birds. The wise man said that, all of a sudden, the god Krishna had appeared before him and begun to play a beautiful tune on his flute to accompany the birdsong. The wise man was so full of praise that Krishna decided to reward him by making him wiser than anyone else.

When the first wise man had finished his tale, the second one stood up. Putting his hand to his breast, he said he would tell them about the day he saw the famous red-breasted bulbul bird. He said he was standing behind a tree, spying on a tiger that was running away, terrified, from a bad-tempered porcupine. The scene was so funny and the bird laughed so much that it burst its breast, and its feathers were stained bright red with blood.

To compete with these tales, the third wise man coughed and flicked his tongue, like a lizard does when it's taking the sun on the warm wall of a mud hut. This inspired him so much that he was able to carry on talking for hours and hours about the times of good King Vikra Maditya, who had saved his son from a Brahman and taken a beautiful but humble peasant woman as his wife.

Then it was the fourth wise man's turn, then the fifth's and then the sixth's. And this way the six blind men passed the time of day, entertaining each other while each one tried to show the others how ingenious and intelligent he was.

However, one day, the calm was broken and the men started arguing with each other. They couldn't agree exactly what shape an elephant was. Their opinions were all different and, because none of them had ever been able to touch an elephant, they decided to go off the next day to find one, so that there could be no doubt about what an elephant was like.

So, at daybreak, when the first birds were starting to sing their dawn chorus and the sun was just rising, the six blind men took young Dookiram as a guide and, one behind the other with their hands on the shoulders of the man in front, they set off in a procession along the path that led into the deepest jungle. They hadn't walked far when they came across a bright clearing and found a great elephant lying down calmly on its side. As they approached, the elephant got up, but lost interest straight away and started eating the fruit it had prepared for its breakfast.

The six blind wise men were delighted and congratulated each other on their good luck. At last, they could solve the dilemma and decide what an elephant was really like.

The first of them, the boldest of all, eagerly hurled himself towards the elephant. But, in his hurry, he tripped over a branch on the ground and collided with the elephant's side.

"Oh, my brothers!", he exclaimed. "I tell you that the elephant is just like a mud wall that has been dried in the sun."

Then it was the second one's turn. He approached more cautiously, with his hands out in front, so as not to frighten the animal. This way he immediately touched two very long, pointed objects that curved up above his head. The elephant's tusks.

"Oh, my brothers! I tell you that this animal is shaped just like a lance - there's no doubt about it!"

The other wise men couldn't help laughing to themselves, because they didn't believe any of this. Then the third blind man approached the elephant from the front and tried to touch it very carefully. The elephant was curious by this time and, turning towards the wise man, put its trunk round the man's waist. The blind man got hold of the trunk and edged his hands up and down, noticing its long, thin shape and how it moved at will.

"Listen, my brothers," he said. "This elephant is more like ... like a long snake."

The other wise men disagreed in silence, because this was nothing like the shape they had touched. Now it was the fourth wise man's turn. He approached the elephant from behind and received a swish of its tail that was swirling around to scare off the bothersome insects. The wise man took hold of the tail and moved his hands up and down and felt all its wrinkles and hairs. He had no doubts at all and exclaimed:

"That's what it is!", he cried, so pleased with himself. "I can tell you what the elephant's really like. It's just like an old rope, there's no doubt about it."

The fifth man now approached the elephant, listening carefully to hear any of its movements. When he reached up to touch it, his fingers found the elephant's ear. He turned round and cried to the others:

"None of you got it right. The elephant is more like a big, flat fan." And he passed the turn on to the last of the wise men so that he could find out for himself.

The sixth wise man was the oldest of all. When he walked towards the animal, he did so very slowly, leaning on his old wooden stick. He was so bent up with old age that he walked right under the elephant's belly and seized hold of its thick leg.

"Brothers! I'm touching it now, and I assure you the elephant is shaped like the trunk of a big palm tree."

Now they had all discovered what an elephant was really like and thought the others were all wrong. Their curiosity had been satisfied, so they joined hands and started back on their way home.

When they were seated again in the shade of the palm tree with its refreshing fruit, they took up their discussion once more about what the elephant's shape was really like, each one sure he had discovered the truth.

Certainly, all the wise men were partly right, because all the shapes they had felt were real. But it's also clear that they were all wrong about the true shape of an elephant.

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