The Parable of the Elephant
Posted by Andrew on February 28, 2008
Sometimes I recall nuggets of spiritual wisdom but cannot remember when or where I picked them up. One in particular has increasingly taken on new meanings for me as I’ve wrestled with some of life’s tougher questions. You might call it the “Parable of the Elephant.” This is how it goes, as best I remember, with a few adaptations of my own:
Once upon a time in a jungle kingdom, there arose rumors that a mysterious new beast was lurking in the dense growth outside the city walls. Because nobody had ever clearly seen the beast in the clear by the light of day, various inconsistent descriptions of the beast were circulating throughout the kingdom. Some even speculated the mysterious new beast might be the fabled “elephant” that was rumored to exist in far away lands.
Wanting to settle the rumors once and for all, the king ordered his five wisest sages to go into the jungle, find the fabled elephant, and bring back a clear and accurate description of it. The sages spent several months in the jungle searching for the elephant without any luck, and decided to abandon their search. But as they were returning back to civilization, they were overtaken by a thick fog, got separated from one another, and became lost.
That night, as the sages separately wandered through the dense jungle in the darkness, each of them came into contact with a different part of the elephant for a brief moment. One sage touched the elephant’s tusk, another it’s trunk, another its ear, another its leg, and another its side.
Eventually, each of the sages made it back to civilization, eager to give his description of the elephant to the king. But when the sages gave their reports to the king, they offered widely different descriptions of it:
“An elephant is slender and sharp like a spear,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s tusk.
“An elephant is long, round, and flexible like a snake,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s trunk.
“An elephant is like a leather drape,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s ear.
“An elephant is thick, round, and solid like a tree trunk,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s leg.
“An elephant is broad and flat like a wall,” said the sage who had touched the elephant’s side.
Upset by their conflicting descriptions of the elephant, the king erupted: “Fools! You claim to be wise men! You each claim to have found the elephant, and yet you offer me such widely different descriptions of it?! Your contradictory reports make the truth of the matter obvious! There is no such thing as an elephant!”
As the dejected sages returned home, they argued with one another about the true nature of the elephant. As they were debating, a young boy ran up to them and excitedly reported: “I’ve seen it! I’ve seen the elephant! I saw him in broad daylight! He has long and sharp tusks like a spear; a long, round, flexible nose like a snake, ears like leather drapes, legs thick and round as tree trunks, and sides as big and broad as a city wall!”
Stunned, the sages looked at the boy in silence for a moment, then looked at each other, then returned their gaze back to the boy. “Preposterous!” said one sage. “Impossible!” said another. “Liar!” “Delusional!” “Madman!” said the rest. And they scoffed, mocked, and ridiculed the boy to scorn.
Crestfallen, the young boy sheepishly turned his heels and walked home. When he arrived at his doorstep, he could still hear the sages out in the street, rancorous, seething, still arguing about what an elephant truly is.
The Messages of this Parable
I have my own views about what messages this parable contains, but I feel like it would undermine the entire purpose of a parable for me to come out and say what they are. So I would love to hear what messages you folks draw from this parable. Some of the messages seem fairly obvious to me, but others have occurred to me only gradually over time. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you see other messages I still haven’t recognized.