Self Improvement · Understanding

Understanding others through a simple parable

Blind men and an elephant

I want to share a parable with you all which I heard quite often growing up as Jain and how that story reflects real-life situations and attitudes. There are slight variations in the parable depending on the source.

Blind men and an Elephant

One day, a wise man approached six blind men and asked them to determine the appearance of an elephant. The six men, amused, took turns answering the wise man’s question.

The first blind man answers: “The elephant is shaped like a pillar,” after touching the leg.

The second blind man answers: “The elephant is shaped like a rope,” after touching the tail.

The third blind man answers: “The elephant is shaped like a tree branch,” after touching the trunk.

The fourth blind man answers: “The elephant is shaped like a hand fan,” after touching the ear.

The fifth blind man answers: “The elephant is shaped like a wall,” after touching the belly.

The sixth blind man answers: “The elephant is shaped like a solid pipe,” after touching the tusk.

After much argument among the blind men about who is correct in illustrating the appearance of the elephant, the wise man steps in. He explains to each one of them that while their subjective answer is correct, it is only a partial truth in explaining the elephant in its entirety as they are limited to what their hands can feel. If all the viewpoints are put together, it would comprise the whole truth.

This parable goes hand-in-hand with the concept of “Anekāntavāda” or “many-sidedness”. Anekāntavāda refers to the theory of relative pluralism or varied perspectives of the complete truth. It explains that though one may have total understanding of their own viewpoint, another may have complete understanding of their viewpoint as well. However, each of these viewpoints are only a partial and fragmented glimpse of the entire, multi-faceted truth. Sometimes we are deluded by perceptions we do understand that we deny the ones we don’t understand. Hence, this parable concludes that though our subjective experience can be true, that truth is limited by its failure to account for other truths or the entirety of the truth.

This concept can be seen and applied to our daily lives in many ways. Whatever we perceive and understand thus far is based on our own individual knowledge and experience. Everyone is on a different journey and therefore experience different situations. When our viewpoint on a subject matter does not match with theirs, take into account anekāntavāda. Once we accept that our viewpoint is limited to the point we are looking from, we slowly begin to accept that other viewpoints are not wrong, but rather are formed from different vantage points as well.

How I understand and apply it to my life is pretty straight-forward and simple. Here are a few examples that are good reminders:

Remember when we were teenagers and we had to obey our 10PM curfew? Or finish our school homework before going out with friends? Or when we were young adults and our parents warned us about college parties and drinking? Or told us about the importance of a savings account?

At one point we considered our parents’ advice as strict, bothersome and wrong. We would get upset, throw fits and tantrums and yell. We didn’t know better, so, naturally, we acted based on that. Eventually, however, with experience, we were able to see that they were right from their perspective. We didn’t know that getting home at a decent hour is for our own safety, finishing homework is necessary, college parties and drinking should be handled with care and a savings account could help us financially in the future. Ultimately, they were trying to protect us based on their own knowledge and experience.

A real-life example: my friend had a bad habit of smoking cigarettes on a daily basis. I would advice him every day to stop the habit and give him a list of reasons as to why smoking has severe repercussions. Each day I would be angry and yell at him or sometimes go days without even speaking to him. Eventually after a long time of explaining the reasons why I expect better from him, he decided to quit.

One of the biggest points that hit home to me and help me to learn from such matters is the following: we’re all doing what we’re doing because we only know that much. We are limited by our own experience. Growing up, I didn’t need to be told that I shouldn’t smoke or do drugs, it is something I came to learn from experience and my parents’ own values and trust on me. My friend, however, lived in a strict household with a lack of trust that once he had even a smidgen of freedom, he tried everything he possibly could. It’s a great reminder that each one our vantage points are experience-based and therefore, each point will be differ from the other.

One person may not have learned acceptance on their journey but learned obedience while another learned self-control but not kindness. We’re all on the path of learning and growing, but we all learn differently. So the next time a situation occurs with opposing views, take a new perspective and remind yourself that attitude and behavior is based on one’s individual journey. They’re right from their point of view and you’re right from yours. The purpose is not to necessarily be submissive to their view, but to understand it – we’re all doing what we are doing because we don’t know any better, quite yet.

If we are able to understand the greatness of diverse truths we will be able to accept that the entirety of truth relies on compiling these multiplicity of views together. Ultimately, it will help us appreciate and understand others while furthering our self-knowledge.


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6 thoughts on “Understanding others through a simple parable

  1. Wow. I learned the word Anekantavada! This can be easily applied to many things – different religions, philosophies, political grounds, economic policies, every day living styles.
    I like to attribute this multi-faceted existence to the simple fact that each one is different, after all we are called “individuals”. When I see conflicts that is what I think rather than that there is a bigger truth.

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