The Blind Men and the Elephant

The concept of anekantvad may be unfamiliar to some of you. I wanted to immediately start off by explaining it, before getting into any larger hopes or goals for this collection of musings that I will continue to amass as I tromp around India during these summer months. The concept of anekantvad is perhaps most frequently–and most effectively–illustrated by the classic parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Five blind men, on their way to the city, suddenly come upon a large, strange object blocking their path. Surprised and curious, each approaches the object to try and figure what it is that is standing in their way.

The first touches a long tube at the front of the object, and announces, “Sirs! I have just learned that this object is a pipeline, as might be used for water!” The second reaches for a wide thin flap, and declares, “Sirs! On the contrary, this object seems to be the large palm frond of a tree!” The third, grasping a thick and clammy portion down low, states, “Sirs! You seem to be confused, for rather, this object is the trunk of a tree!” The fourth, trying to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the object, notes, “Sirs! With careful and thorough inspection, I have divined that what we are beholding is none other than a wall!” The fifth, trailing behind the rest, grasps the slender and flexible object quickly and excitedly shouts, “Sirs! Sirs! It is a rope! A rope!”

The five men quarreled and quarreled until, finally, a wandering priest came up to the men along the same path and inquired, “What, my good men, seems to be the trouble?” Each of the blind men described his own opinion of what the object was. The priest looked at the object, and, contemplating a moment upon the descriptions provided by the men, stated, “All of you are right, and none of you are wrong.”

The men were confused. “But, how can that be? How can we all be right when we have such different views?”

The priest smiled softly, and spoke. “Each of you was addressing a different part of the same whole. You were simply limited in your perception by your inability to see, but given your sensory abilities, you were certainly not wrong in your assessments.”

The parable is simple, but illustrates well the relativistic notion in Jainism of anekantvad. Jains believe in an absolute truth. But Jains also believe that no being can behold and understand this truth fully and accurately unless they are free from the epistemological bondage of time, space, and the sensory organs to which we are materially tethered. As long as we have these limitations, human beings, like the blind men, will only ever be able to see a part of the whole.

Why, then, does this blog gain that title? The precise reasons for that will have to be fleshed out throughout this summer, as I explore the ways in which anekantvad, pratikramana, and other Jain theology and practices can inform nonviolence, conflict resolution, and ultimately, social change. For now, suffice it to say that the humility that must necessary arise of such a set of epistemological premises forms the backbone of Jain approaches to evaluating the beliefs, desires, and actions of others. Because anekantvad requires us to rely on the testimony of others, at least in part, to better complete our own limited understanding of the world, it can create pathways for justifying open, honest discourse and mutual trust, even when parties seem to be completely oppositional. After all, it is when two individuals are facing precisely opposite directions that they have the most knowledge to offer to one another. Each can see precisely what the other can’t, and no more. It is this fact that puts them in opposition, but it is also this fact, once trust and discourse are engaged, which can bring them out of conflict.

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One thought on “The Blind Men and the Elephant

  1. Hey Ronak, I’m really excited to watch this blog and see where your travels take you!

    Reading this post, I was struck by the apparent similarity anekantvad seems to hold with some of what I’ve been reading this past semester in my philosophy of education class. Specifically, I’d suggest looking into anything by Helen Longino and Paul Ernest regarding objectivity, the gap between the rational and the social, and social constructivism (Ernest writes about math mostly, but it’s applicable to other fields. Longino is just great overall).

    You explain anekantvad as comprehending absolute truth by working past human limitations. These authors (and some others too) argue that objective, scientific knowledge can’t be attained by individuals, but rather to count something as knowledge, it needs to be co-constructed and validated by a community of people. This sort of ties in with trendy ideas of the “wisdom of crowds”– a group of people with multiple perspectives can achieve more than any one person could by themselves, as concerns the creation or discovery of new information. In other words, individual biases preventing objective knowledge sounds very similar to how you’ve described the idea of anekantvad. So, the blind men could’ve “seen” the elephant if they stuck their heads together and discussed how their observations could fit into a coherent picture. As more viewpoints are incorporated, you start to approach something you could describe as “objective” or true.

    In any case, I hope this sounds interesting and that these authors might help you get a sort of analogous but outside look at the Jain concepts you are already familiar with!

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