The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

You know the story of the blind men and the elephant right?

A king asks six blind men to determine what they are touching by feeling different parts of an elephant’s body. One blind man feels a leg and 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 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 pipe.

Then the king 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.”

What’s wrong with this story?

This story is told to indicate the truth that can be found in all religions. Any religion that makes exclusive truth claims (such as, “Jesus is the only way to God”) should learn from this parable and be more tolerant of other religions.

I can think of at least three problems with this parable (If this comes across as being intolerant of foolishness, so be it.):

  1. All six of the blind men were wrong.
  2. Only the king knew the truth.
  3. The blind men were ignorant of the truth until the King revealed the truth to them.

I also draw three insights from these three problems with the parable:

  1. Only the one who has seen God (Jesus) can reveal God.
  2. All other attempts to know God are in vain.
  3. It is logically impossible for all religions to be true. (for example, is there only one God, is there more than one God, or is there no God? Because it can’t be all three.)

Need more?

I love what Leslie Newbigin said about this story,

In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant… the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. What this means then is that there is an appearance of humility and a protestation that the truth is much greater than anyone of us can grasp. But if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth, it is in fact an arrogant claim with the kind of knowledge which is superior that you have just said, no religion has.

And here’s some more commentary on the story from Tim Keller:

To say, I don’t know which religion is true is an act of humility. To say, none of the religions have truth, no one can be sure there’s a god is actually to assume you have the kind of knowledge, you just said no other person, no other religion has. How dare you? See, it’s a kind of arrogant thing to say nobody can know the truth because it’s a universal truth claim. To say, ‘Nobody can make universal truth claims.’ That is a universal truth claim. ‘Nobody can see the whole truth.’ You couldn’t know that unless you think you see the whole truth. And, therefore, you’re doing the very thing you say religious people shouldn’t do.”

What do you think? Does the parable of the blind men and the elephant communicate anything valuable?

Get these posts delivered directly to your inbox!

  • Dimitris

    I think it can work if you put it outside the world religions theme and put it inside the christian denominations theme. We are all different, we are different parts of the same Body of Christ and we all emphasize in different parts/revelations/calling of/from God. Only the King has the big picture and our collective understanding of Him makes the perfect image of who He is, how is He revealed and what part does our calling as a believer/church/denomination in His Kingdom plans. (I don’t mean that we are blind the the full revelation of God through Christ, but i suggest that our over-emphasis on several matters is a kind of blindness) (Sorry if my english aren’t sufficient enough to explain myself. They are not my native language.) By the way, thank you for your excellent blog. God bless you

    • Anonymous

      Dimitris, I like the way you are thinking and I get what you are saying. Thanks for thinking through this issue with me. Sadly, that’s not how people apply this story so we have to think in those terms. Instead, it was written specifically to harmonize all the religions into one truth and that’s just impossible. For example, what do we do when one religion beliefs there is no god and another believes that there are a million gods? Can they both be true? So, the story just simply breaks down no matter what.

  • CJ Godfrey

    Fun post Nathan.  Another part of the story I’ve never liked is that each blind man is quite content to only poke around their little section of the elephant.  I think anyone who sincerely desires to understand that which presents before them, will seek after the full revelation.  In time, one will then discover that what is in front of them is neither a pipe, pillar, or wall, but, in fact, an elephant.  The only religions that don’t posessess the truth are those that do not seek to fully see what the king sees.  More importantly, if the king’s son told the blind men that they were touching an elephant, there would be no need for silly pawing about trying to figure out what it was. 

    • Anonymous

      Good point CJ! I want to know the Truth, not just some limited (and therefore false) version of the Truth. Let’s keep encouraging people to stop wasting time hypothesizing and start investing there time in a relationship with the King!

  • Mark

    The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant says pretty much what Jesus tells us in the Bible.  Jesus told the rich man to give up his wealth and he told the preists to stop being so arrogant and greedy.  Everyone who thought they knew the absolute truth was scolded by jesus and all the humble were praised.  Think about that for a while.

    • Anonymous

      Mark, could you elaborate?Are you suggesting that Jesus is the only one who can know absolute truth and the rest of us have to settle for thinking an elephant tail is a rope? Or, shouldn’t we consider that Jesus is the Truth and we can know Him and that we all need to stop being arrogant and greedy and everything else? Not sure exactly what you’re getting at.