Of Blind Men and Elephants

In the Udana, Buddha tells a story:

A wise king, in order to prove a point, brings five blind men into his palace and has them touch an elephant. He then interviews them asking “So, what do you think of elephants? Pretty neat, huh?”

Each blind man enthusiastically describes the elephant according to the part of the animal he happened to touch: one man says it is like a plow (he touched the tusk); another says, “No, it was like a fan!” (he felt the ear); another “No, like a pillar!” (the foot) and so on. The blind men got into such an argument about the true nature of elephants that they got into a fist fight.

The king got a big kick out of this saying, “Well so much for wise men trying to know the truth about things: each of us knows only a small part of the great truths of life, takes it for the whole, and acts like a big jerk about it.”

Now, that king was a major asshole.

He spends the better part of a day exploiting the handicapped just to prove how smart he is, and then caps it all off with a Battle Royal like something out of The Hunger Games or Invisible Man.

Alright, I can hear you saying “But Dave, you are being obtuse. We should set aside the different sensibilities of modern America and ancient India (with its absolute monarchs and rigid caste system) and pay attention instead to the moral of the story: that we ought not be dogmatic about our opinions and recognize that we can only hope to have a little sliver of the truth.”

But I don’t think the details of the story and its moral can be fully separated here. You see, the king is not cruel because he is ancient absolute monarch; the king is cruel because he is a smug bastard. He knows that blind men cannot see elephants, but he can see elephants, and that gives him the right to make fun. He knows that no one can know the truth about things… except for him. He can see the truth, the truth that there is no truth, and from this exalted perspective he can put all true believers in their place: as blind, violent beggars who provide the perfect foil for his vanity.

Hyperbole aside, of course I recognize that there are some brilliant insights to be gathered from this piece of Indian lore. We are handicapped in our search for truth, and we cannot be too quick to lash out those who disagree with us. Still, we have to ask ourselves who we identify with in this work: the blind men who are at least searching, or the smug and jaded king who has long since given up?


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