Politics Magazine

Feeling Elephants

Posted on the 28 November 2023 by Steveawiggins @stawiggins

There’s an old story about an elephant (the noble kind).  It involves visually impaired men—they always seem to be male—feeling said pachyderm and coming up with different ideas of what it is they’re touching.  I’m sure you’ve heard this before—it’s repeated constantly.  The other day I was reading yet another author using this analogy and he specified that there were three blind men.  I stopped.  Scratched my head.  Where did he come up with three?  An elephant has lots of parts and you need someone to touch at least the trunk, the tusks, the legs, and the tail.  At least.  So I decided to find out where this story came from.  This particular author said it was from India, which seemed likely enough.  And so I went looking.

Feeling ElephantsImage credit: From The Heath readers by grades, D.C. Heath and Company (Boston), p. 69, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It turns out that the earliest rendition of this story is a Buddhist text from the sixth century BCE.  In case you’re biblically oriented, the sixth century is the era of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as Deutero-Isaiah.  Things were happening, that is, religiously.  While the prophets were busy dealing with the fall of Jerusalem, someone during the lifetime of the Buddha was writing this story into the Tittha Sutta (the story spread to Hinduism and Jainism as well).  Now I’m quick to admit that I’m no specialist on Buddhism.  I know a few Buddhists, but they don’t talk to me much about the tenets of their religion.  Still, I marvel at how much our culture has been influenced by the religions of India, including Buddhism.  So how many men are there? I hear you ask.  Well, the most usual answer is “a group.”

A typical early version had men feeling the trunk, ear, leg, side, tail, and tusk—double the three I’d just read about.  But you see, literalism is the problem here, as it generally is.  Nobody has suggested, at least in my limited research on the topic, that an actual group of visually impaired males found an actual elephant to feel up.  And that these men weren’t curious enough to reach beyond the trunk to the head, or feel along its side.  The story is told to make a point, not to establish history.  And like all stories, it changes over time.  So much so that when innocently reading about something else, I discovered that somebody had heard that there were three men.  Rather like wise men, I expect, who are numbered by their gifts rather than Scripture.  Instead, wouldn’t it be best to feel the whole elephant and find out what it really is?

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