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Feb 10, 2010

What Is An Elephant?


For the want of a better blog title, "What Is An Elephant?", this is a fable about a simple elephant story for the young children of many generations.

The recent "Taking Up The Challenge" blog by my friend Victor Koo are thought-provoking blog topics here   "A Little Bird Told Me":

The phrase has a somewhat contentious origin: some attribute it to Ecclesiastes 10:20 "for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter".

Another, a philosophy poem of a tortoise "Going Round In Circles", a meaningful stanza I really like:

"My movement may be slow
But Iet me decide where to go
Please treat me kindly
Though you can't set me free"

To be inspired by Victor's mimesis about other species of Mother Nature for this blog topic for the creatures of the small, I choose the creature of the huge, another pair of the Noah's Ark - the elephant.

Since the book "The Blind Men and the Elephant", retold by Karen Backstein and illustrated by Annie Mitra is out of print since 1992, I would like to share this adaptation to read the story for the first time, or refresh the same story again:

Long ago and far away, there lived six blind men.
Although these men could not see, they learned about the world in many ways.

They could hear the music of the flute with their ears.

They could feel the softness of silk with their fingers.

They could smell the scent of food cooking and taste its spicy flavor.

Together they took care of their home, and they were very happy.

Then one day, the blind men heard some exciting news. The prince had received a new elephant at his palace.

The blind men had heard of elephants, but they had never met one.

They did not know what an elephant was like.

"Let us go to the prince's palace," said one of the blind men. Then we can find out what the elephant is really like."

Off they went. It was a long walk to the palace. The blind men grew hot and thirsty.

But they did not stop. They could not wait to touch the elephant.

Finally they reached the palace. A guard came to greet them. The blind men told him why they had come.

"Of course you may touch the elephant" said the guard. "I am sure the prince will not mind."

The guard led the six men to the animal, which stood quietly in the garden.

The first blind man touched the elephant's side.

"It is strong and wide," he thought. "I think an elephant is like a wall."

The second man touched the elephant's long, round trunk. "Oh, it is just like a snake!" he decided.

The third man grabbed the elephant's smooth ivory tusk. "Why, an elephant is as sharp as a spear!"

The fourth man held the elephant's leg. He thought it was as round and firm as a tree.

The fifth blind man held the elephant's ear. The ear was very, very big. The elephant flapped it gently. The fifth man laughed. "It's just like a fan!"

The sixth blind man touched the animal's long, thin tail. "An elephant is like a rope," he thought.

By now, it was midday. The sun burned hot in the sky.

The guard took the six men over to a tall, shady tree.

"Why don't you rest here?" he said.

"I will bring you some water!"

While they waited, the six blind men talked about the elephant.

"No one told me that the elephant is like a wall," said the first man.

"A wall?" said the second man. Oh, no. It is like a snake."

The third man shook his head. "An elephant is clearly like a spear."

"What?" said the fourth man. An elephant is like a tree."

The fifth man started to shout. "A wall? A snake? A spear? A tree? You are all wrong. An elephant is like a fan."

"No! It is like a rope!" yelled the sixth blind man.

The sound of angry voices filled the garden.

It was the sound of the six blind men fighting about the elephant.

"A wall!" "A snake!" "A spear!" "A tree!" "A fan!" "A rope!"

All the noise woke the prince. He had been taking his midday nap. "Quiet!" he called. "I am trying to sleep!"

"We are sorry," said the first blind man. But we cannot agree on what an elephant is like. We each touched the same animal. But to each of us the animal is completely different."

The prince spoke gently.

"The elephant is a very large animal.
Its side is like a wall.
Its trunk is like a snake.
Its tusks are like spears.
Its legs are like trees.
Its ears are like fans.
And its tail is like a rope."


"So you are all right.
But you are all wrong, too.
For each of you touched only one part of the animal.

To know what an elephant is really like, you must put all those parts together."

The blind men thought about the prince's words. They realized that he was very wise.

"I will tell you something else about the elephant," said the prince. "It is very good to ride on. Now you will ride on it all the way home."

So they did.

And they all agreed that was the best part of all.

From Wikipedia, the story of "The Blind Men and An Elephant" is originated from India.

In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement. The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective, suggesting that what seems an absolute truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths.

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A wise man explains to them:

"All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.

This resolves the conflict, and is used to illustrate the principle of living in harmony with people who have different belief systems, and that truth can be stated in different ways".

Like what Bugs Bunny will alway end every cartoon TV serial:

"Thats All, Folks"!

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2 Comments:

Blogger Victor said...

Thank you for linking me, James. Yes, I know this interesting story of the elephant and the blind men since I was a kid.

Wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

February 13, 2010 at 11:31 PM  
Blogger Lam Chun See said...

I remember this story from an Executive Dev Prog I attended at Philips. Must be around 1980.

February 15, 2010 at 2:21 PM  

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