SPidge Tales

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Elephant and the Blind Men

“The study of comparative religions is the best way to become comparatively religious.” Ronald Knox

There is an old Hindu folk tale about blind men and an elephant. Popularized in verse by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), (click here to read it: http://www.wordfocus.com/word-act-blindmen.html ; it is a very well done—and short—poem), it is a parable about Man’s understanding of, and relationship with, the transcendent. Six blind men went to see an elephant. Each touched the elephant in a different place, one the trunk, one his tusks, one his side, one his back, and so on. Since each sensed the elephant in a different way, they argued amongst one another about who described the elephant correctly. Yet, none was right, since none could really see the elephant for what he was. The blind men represent the religions of the world, who constantly fight and argue amongst themselves over who gets God “right”, when none has the whole picture, and all just have little pieces of the big picture.

Is this an apt metaphor for religion? Are the different religions simply the variations and manifestations of Man’s search for God, the ultimate, and the transcendent; all equally apt, though ultimately inadequate, means of seeking God? The vindicated secularist in us, and the open-minded religious pluralist in us, is ready to say, “of course.” The orthodox Jew is us, and the traditional Christian in us, is ready to say, “those other religions may be ‘blind men’, but not we. We have the Truth.” Yet, there is a profound truth in this elephant tale. Blindness is a metaphor that takes us back to the Christian Scriptures, where Jesus heals the blind man. The authorities are troubled, since Jesus performed his healing, “worked,” on the Sabbath, the day of rest. Jesus heals one man’s physical blindness, but it was never that man who was really blind. He had faith. The men who are blind are the authorities who cannot look past their own preconceptions and expectations of God to recognize that the duty to honor the Sabbath is really about making time for God, and does not preclude helping others. Physical blindness as a metaphor for spiritual blindness has deeply embedded Scriptural roots. Maybe there is something to this Eastern myth.

The Elephant Tale is right. We are all, in many ways, spiritually blind, spiritually impoverished. Yet, how did we get this way? Is there a way out of the darkness and into the light? This story of blind men and an elephant is a good start, but needs to be expanded, and further delved into. Maybe what is needed is an extension of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem. Let us continue from Saxe’s final stanza, with free story rather than verse, as I do not bear the talents of Saxe.

…The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Papa, the men of the world are blind. They no longer can see the elephant. They search for him, but do not find. They feel him, but are constantly at odds. Why is this so? Was this always so?

My child, this is a story of long, long ago. Of a time when all men were blind. This is no longer so.

Papa, we are blind! I feel the elephant. He is solid ivory. But, Krishna feels the elephant as long and rollicky!

Child, we are not yet ready to speak of the cure for our blindness, the light to be lived. It is a light that men of old had originally seen. Men were not always blind. It was not always this way. Men did not always “prate about an elephant not one of them has seen!”

In the beginning, the elephant raised his trunk, stomped his feet, and breathed life into men. Men could see the elephant. Men loved the elephant, the giver of life. Men touched the elephant. All men could see that the elephant is like a wall, and a spear, and a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. Man could see the elephant, and man was happy.

What happened, Papa!?

The elephant had raised his trunk and breathed life into men so that men would be happy seeing and feeling the elephant. One day, on a day like all others, men, who had been satisfied to see and touch the elephant, with no inclination towards disobedience, decided that it was not enough to see and touch the elephant. Men wished to be elephants, themselves. Then they would know what it would be like to have tusks, a trunk, and ivory skin. They would not need the elephant to experience the elephant feel.

Papa, did the men become like elephants? Did they become the source of their own ivory feeling?

No, my child! Far from it. Not only did men not become elephants, they lost the vision of the elephant. Because man lost his appreciation, reverence, respect, and love of the elephant, he became blind. Men could now no longer see the elephant. This is why men during the following era prated “about an elephant not one of them has seen!”

Why did the elephant not give men back their sight, Papa? Why must the elephant punish the men like this? I thought the elephant loves the men, Papa?

He does love the men, my child. He is not punishing men. Men have chosen to bring blindness upon themselves and their descendents by not seeing the elephant as the elephant. If the elephant simply restores their sight, they still will not see, since they have chosen to hide themselves from the true vision of the elephant. Even if they did see, they may choose to disobey again. How many times should the elephant keep restoring sight, my child?

You are wise Papa. This saddens me. Are men doomed to blindness, to never seeing the elephant again? There must be more.

There is much more, my child. Men were trapped in blindness for ages. The men would come upon the elephant, and each feeling about blindly, argue with each other about the elephant unseen.

This happened every day. The men would visit the elephant, sense about, and prattle on needlessly. Then, on a day like all other days, something changed. The elephant raised his trunk, and roared to one of the men. This one man did not have his vision completely restored. He had inherited the vicissitudes of his ancestors. But, he was given a partial vision of the elephant. As the chosen man, he was destined to teach the men of the world about the elephant. He would suffer cruelties and beatings. Men would continue to mock him, and reject his message.

Why, oh why, Papa? This pains my heart to hear of his sufferings. Why would men do this to this man of the elephant?

Men were blind, my child. They knew not what they were doing. But, fear not. Light would be returned to men. Out of the house of this man of the elephant would be born One who is not blind. This Man, who was with the elephant, who was the elephant, became flesh, became man, so that men could see.

As the men of long ago had lost sight, this Man had sight from the beginning. This Man, the Incarnation of the elephant, was sent to reveal, to be the revelation of, the elephant. He walked amongst the blind men arguing about the elephant. He healed their wounds. He consoled their hurts.

Men did not embrace this Man. Instead, they took this Man who could see, they accosted Him, and they blinded Him. They took away his sight.

Papa, it appears hopeless. All is lost. If even this Man the men would not accept, all hope is lost.

Be not afraid! Blindness does not have the final word, my child. Men had brought blindness into the world. By embracing this blindness, by allowing blindness to come to Him in all its might, this Man took away the power of blindness over men.

On the third day, this Man, who had been blinded, returned in all His glory, with full vision and sight and of the elephant. Because of this Man, men now have sight regained. No, this sight did not come all at once, and many are still blind. In the end, when all will be all in the elephant, the blind will see.


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