Mabel’s Fables: ‘The Three Blind Men and the Elephant’

by Marie Marshall

elephant fable

Little one, many folk tell the tale of the three blind men who, unaware of each other, came upon the same elephant.

The first blind man, putting out his hands to feel his way, touched the elephant’s mighty trunk, feeling it flex and move, as though it had a life independent. He took it for a great snake.

“Surely,” he thought, “This is the greatest, most magnificent snake ever!”

The second blind man bumped into one of the elephant’s legs and, putting out his arms to try and encompass it, was certain that he had found the bole of a tall tree.

“Surely,” he thought, “There is no tree in all the world like this!”

The third blind man felt the elephant’s tail brush his face, and when he caught it in his hand, he was convinced that it was part of a gigantic vine.

“Surely,” he thought, “A man could live in the shade of this vine and want for nothing.”

Now folk who tell this tale, little one, usually stop at that point, and say it proves that in matters of faith and belief, all men perceive a little bit of the truth, never all of it. But they are not wise, little one, for the tale does not stop there. It goes on…

The first blind man became devoted to his notion of a snake, and began to worship it, singing and chanting.

“O divine Serpent… O divine Serpent…”

The second blind man became devoted to his notion of a tree, and began also to worship it, singing and chanting.

“O ineffable Tree… O ineffable Tree…”

The third blind man became devoted to his notion of a vine, and began also to worship it, singing and chanting.

“O miraculous Vine… O miraculous Vine…”

Then they heard each other, and became angry.

“What fools these other two fellows are,” thought the first blind man. “This is neither a tree nor a vine, but the Holy Serpent!”

“What fools these other two fellows are,” thought the second blind man. “This is neither a snake nor a vine, but the Heavenly Tree!”

“What fools these other two fellows are,” thought the third blind man. “This is neither a snake nor a tree, but the… er… Divine… Vine!”

So they all began to sing and chant more loudly, in order to drown out each other’s voices; and soon there was cacophony.

“… ineffable Tree… divine Serpent… miraculous Vine…”

Then their anger blazed into fury, and they began to shout and scream at each other.

“Heretics!”

“Blasphemers!”

“Infidels!”

Now you are aware, little one, being the wisest of children yourself, that elephants are very patient animals. But even the patience of the most forbearing tusker wears very thin, when such a hullabaloo happens around his feet. For this elephant was perfectly certain in his own mind that he was neither snake, nor tree, nor vine, but an elephant. And indeed he was. Elephant through and through. Elephant right to the core of his being. He knew well enough that each of the blind men did not have some of the truth, part of the truth, or even a little bit of the truth. All three were totally, completely, utterly… wrong!

Eventually he could stand no more. He shook his trunk free of the first blind man’s hands, and trumpeted loudly in his ear.

“Ow!” said the first blind man, his head ringing. “No snake ever did that!”

Next the elephant lifted his leg, and trod on the toes of the second blind man.

“Ow!” yelled the second blind man. “No tree ever moved!”

Next the elephant – I’m afraid – evacuated on the third blind man, who was impudently tugging his tail.

“Ugh!” said the third blind man. “Those are neither grapes nor oranges!”

In that moment, when the elephant manifested himself to them, little one, all three were enlightened, and knew the true nature of what they had worshipped separately.

Little one, foolish though these blind men were, eventually they were enlightened. Not so, I fear, those story-tellers who stop short, and do not themselves wait for the elephant to manifest itself. You see, because our god or our gods are known to be greater than we are, it is often assumed that they are wider and more complicated than we can conceive.

But they might just be simpler, more straightforward.

Like an elephant, little one.

Now be patient. You might dream of an elephant.

Go to sleep.