It was six men from Indostan, very scholarly inclined, who went to see the elephant (Though they were all blind),…

Many of us may remember the lines from the poem learned in school. And perhaps most of us, and that includes me, gave credit for the “funny” story to English poet Saxony. Thanks to the ocean of information available on the internet, I now know that this is an ancient Indian parable with a universalist perspective and relevant for all times.

“Reality is one, though sages speak of it differently,” states the Rig Veda. This premise is the foundation of the parable of the blind men and an elephant.

The earliest version of the story is traceable to the Buddhist scriptural text, Udana in which Buddha uses this tale to explain sectarian conflicts. The Buddha compares the blind to those preachers and scholars who ignore the views of others and take their own views as the ultimate truth.

In Jainism, this story is used to explain the concept of Anekantavada or the multiplicity of reality and Syadvada. The word Syat means “in certain respects”. Jaina philosophers held that reality can be looked at from many different points of view. There are several sides to the truth. Language itself is not absolute truth, but a means of expressing truth.

According to Mallisena, a 12th century Jaina Acarya, whenever someone takes a partial and unconditional view of ultimate reality and denies the possibility of another aspect of that reality, that is an example of the parable above and defective vision.

Since the heart of the story remains the same, there are several versions of the story. In the story of the Persian poet Rumi, an elephant is exhibited in a dark room. A number of men smell the elephant in the dark, and depending on where they touch it, they believe the elephant to be different things. Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception and ends the poem by stating “If everyone had a candle and they walked in together, the differences would disappear.”

The conclusion of the story for us mere mortals is this. There might be a fact to what someone else says. We might disagree with this because we have our own views based on our preconceptions. But what we think may not be the absolute truth either.