The origins of the parable about the elephant and the blind men?

Monima Chadha asked me to make a post looking for help in tracking down the origins of the classical parable about the elephant and the blind men. Please post any leads for her below. Thanks!

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

9 Replies to “The origins of the parable about the elephant and the blind men?”

  1. I also have heard that it is pan Indian. I found one source in

    The Buddhist text Udana 6.4

    However, I was working on the version that Jeffery Long has in his book on Jainism. I think there is a version in Jainism. And I think it fits Jain epistemology very nicely. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes from there. But it seems pan Indian. In addition, when I did research on it for an article, I discovered that there are different versions of it. So, there might be one version that fits Buddhism and another that fits Jainism. But tracking down a Jain text with it in it, was difficult for me.

  2. I don’t have an answer for you, just wanted to say that in Tibetan there is a possibly Indic-based epithet for the elephant sna-zhags, with literal meaning of ‘nose noose.’

    I love this and just had to share it.

  3. Its origins, should they be discoverable, are distinct from whether or not the parable may be, became, or in fact is now, pan-Indian. Of course the fact that the parable appears pan-Indian makes it that more difficult to discover its origins in a particular worldview or tradition. That said, I find the question of origins unavailing (for example, and given the simplicity of the parable, should its origin be known, how much might we learn from that fact in a way that avoids the genetic fallacy), it being rather more interesting as to how (or where) it ramifies through epistemic and perhaps even metaphysical questions and topics in different worldviews.

  4. I have long thought it arose as a comment on disputes between competing interests in elephant caravans. With the caravans serving long-distance trade, that made it a pan-Indian story, and more. But the caravans were also strategically important, so a veil of sovereign secrecy falls over the record, and I don’t think the search for a text will prove interesting. Proverbs are older than texts. Instead, we find the metaphor elaborated in philosophy, in the metaphor of the blind body and the lame mind. That image echoes in the tradition of Democritus in Greece, and could well go back through Leucippus to the era of the Hittite Indo-Aryan inscriptions (roughly 1400 BCE). So the original image belongs to a still earlier time, with legendary figures like Kapila and the Seven Sages. Those remote antiquities have been so bitterly disputed between Orientalists and Nationalists that all we have is a stark illustration of the proverb itself, for neither side could grasp that both Great Wars were fought between two sides, and the Aryan alliance that lost the first, still won the second, after Krishna changes sides. A large array of subsequent debates is recorded in the Santi Parvan, where you can see the transition to more formal disputation and philosophy under way. To speculate about the origins of Samkhya or Yoga without that evidence is pretty senseless, but sadly remains the norm.

    What interests me is the fact that Manu, surveying customary law, found a margin of virtue running between the two heartlands, the proverbial ‘moral high ground’ on the watershed between the Ganges and Saraswati Rivers. And the Buddhist Middle Way reflects a similar pattern, further east, just where the main ford crossed the Ganges, near the Holi forest. Most of the earliest Jain Tirthankaras (fordmakers!) hailed from that area too, way before any discourse captured in text.

    In sum, we have morality as the elephant, and humanity as the blind.

  5. One possible origin for the elephant parable may be verse 1.4.7 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The verse discusses not elephants but rather the Atman, however the general idea which is conveyed seems to be the same—that there is a singular truth which is viewed differently according to the way in which people approach it.

    The relevant part of the verse reads:

    People do not see It (the Self), for (viewed in Its aspects) It is incomplete. When It does the function of living, It is called the vital force; when It speaks, the organ of speech; when It sees, the eye; when It hears, the ear; and when It thinks, the mind. These are merely Its names according to functions. He who meditates upon each of this totality of aspects does not know, for It is incomplete, (being divided) from this totality by possessing a single characteristic. The Self alone is to be meditated upon, for all these are unified in It.

    The blind man grasping the trunk of the elephant and saying “an elephant is long and skinny like a rope with an opening on one end” is comparable to a person described in this verse who experiences the connection or relation of the Self with hearing and says “the Self is the hearer” even though this definition is only incidental.

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