Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a far off distant corner of Rajasthan, there lived a Maharaja. The Maharaja was a humble and pious man and did his best to rule with fairness and firmness. And he was well loved.
The Maharaja possessed a magnificent estate. As far as the eye could see from his palace, the grounds and gardens extended away on all sides. Down to a lake, squawking, quacking and squeaking with wild creatures; along rushing streams, cascading waterfalls and bubbling rivulets; to ornate flowered gardens; to a wilderness of ancient trees, thick jungle undergrowth and wild animals – all these spread out around his central dwelling. And the Maharaja was contented.
His household included many servants, as well as innumerable cousins, brothers, in-laws, salaried courtiers and even a few bureaucrats. There were also many tamed wild wild animals. He was married to a charming wife, the Maharana. And they were all more or less content with their lives.
Amongst the animals was one grand old elephant named Raj, the Maharaja’s favourite, who carried him and his father before him on many ceremonial processions, as well as on frequent outings into his wide estate.
The elephant like his master, had an observant eye and a kind heart, as well as enjoying the fuss and pomp which was invariably made of him. He lived, with his mahout, nearby to the main palace and had for company a number of less-aged elephants. They all lived together in a large paddock, while the mahouts lived in a neat collection of small Indian cottages, alongside. And they too, were all quite contented.
One day, a group of Indians from the open plains came to visit the Maharaja. Amongst them came five blind men. The group had many things to discuss with the Maharaja, as men do, but one of their more innocent wishes was that their small number of blind brothers should be permitted to meet the great elephant, Raj. For they had never, in all their life, ever before met an elephant.
The Maharaja was, of course, delighted to be able to offer this small service to his quests and in the cool of the late afternoon, he personally conducted them to the paddock where the elephants lived.
Raj was dutifully led out by his mahout and presented to the five blind men. These five went forward, each encountering a different part of the beast.
“Ah,” said one, bumping into the flank of the animal.
“An elephant is large and mostly flat, like the side of a tent.”
Another, who had taken hold of Raj’s tusk, exclaimed,
“But no, the elephant is long, hard, curved and pointed.
Rather like a warped fencing post.”
But the third had stumbled into one of the front legs of the great creature and proclaimed that the elephant was,
“No more than a large, tall pillar – yet strangely capable of self-activated movement.” This man was clearly a philosopher and observer of life.
The fourth, catching hold of the tail, decided that an elephant was a kind of snake, whilst the fifth finding himself mischievously teased by Raj’s long trunk was firmly of the belief that an elephant was more like an animated, but intelligent rope. Probably self-organizing.
These five, standing around the elephant, each with his own honest yet limited perception and experience, began to debate the nature of the beast, while those who had eyes kept quiet and looked on with both affection and some considerable humour.
Being blind to the visual nature of the physical world, the five men were used to discussions concerning the nature of things they were unable to see. Indeed, this occupied much of their time. And so they happily debated the true nature of the elephant, while all the time Raj stood by quietly, whisking his tail to drive off flies, teasing the man who was in the region of his trunk, and occasionally adjusting the weight upon his legs.
The informal parliament continued and new insights were received by this leisurely group. Suddenly, Raj, flapping his ears, brushed the top of the head of the man holding fast to one of his front legs. ( he was a very tall man, I have to admit). “Ah hah,” said the philosopher,
“An elephant is not just a self-activating, mobile pillar but has wavy, floppy characteristics too.” This gave the discussion even greater interest, as you can imagine!
Well, the Maharaja and his court watched them with amusement while he, his courtiers and the remainder of the visitors had a cup of tea. Finally, he thought that it might be kind to let the five men know where they were going wrong. Accordingly, he asked one of his entourage to gently inform them the true situation.
But the result was not as he had expected. For while one or two of the group had begun to suspect that perhaps they were all correct and yet incomplete in their perceptions, the remainder had become so heavily entrenched in their position and so identified with their own point of view, that they rounded on the poor courtier and with one accord told him to go away. “ After all”, they said, “You aren’t even touching the elephant, and you certainly haven’t been considering the problem as long as we have. So how can you know anything about it?”
And so the Maharaja and his party left both them and the long-suffering Raj, to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon and evening in what had by then become a formalized philosophical debate, with a variety of possible, yet conflicting theories.
But the Maharaja and his party had a good walk around, thoroughly enjoying the beauties of nature and each other’s companionship. And to this day, at least as far as I have been told, the five blind men are still vigorously debating the nature of elephants. Whilst those with eyes are quite contented.
From – The Secret of the Creative Vacuum by John Davidson