The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms. You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.
One version of the story:
Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.”
“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.”
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”
The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.
In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.
And what is the moral or lesson?
Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences. Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.
The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.
In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”
In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.
I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”
In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.
In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.
The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.