Six Blind Men and the Elephant

I am somewhat of an invisible commoner, spending days doing the most ordinary things, waking up, going to the office, enduring some work outs in the evening, living a slightly varied weekend though with my books, seeing movies, listening to and learning music, but all the while observing the world around me, communicating with circles that seem to become smaller over time, grumbling about the sad state of things and despairing about the mess around the world, while going about other daily activities, as though I am living under a big mushroom, sheltered by it large overhangs…… from most of the larger direct problems, though affected by the indirect.

I feel somewhat lazy and fatigued today after a late night, after watching a fascinating Malayalam movie last night called “The diamond necklace’ – a movie about fickle human behavior so common in these modern times, and so dabbled in some aimless research, started by a study of an old fable.

The presidential election debates have started and there is a buzz in the air, will it be Obama or Romney? People are asking everywhere - Who do you think is better; will the state of things improve? And so on, as I read the headlines across the continents and learn about Soniaji’s trip expenses, announcement of a bandh due to some water issues (where else do you have rasta roko’s and bandh’s and processions with such regularity?), a country more focused on the state of cricket affairs and things like Tendulakr’s retirement (btw I myself am an avid cricket fan) than national affairs (of course the former i.e cricket is a tad better in shape actually) , brandishing of proof by a vitriolic politician Modi and of course much discussion about which is Mallika’s hottest avatar!!

Somedays, I really wish a strong willed person like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk takes the reins of India, for an iron hand is often required to bring about change, not just long overdoses of empty talk by anybody and everybody who dorns a khadi jubba or saffron headgear. But more about that another time, for the days of passive resistance and dharnas and so on, which were good against the British are not the answer for our own home grown problems and corruption that has hit the roof. It simply puts hard brakes on the rest of the country that wants to gallop forward and catch up with the rest of the world.

We all live in a funny world today, where everybody like me and you and the politician and the president have their views, but I still feel them incomplete and narrow, focused not on any kind of overall improvement but solutions to get over the present issues, if at all they may be called that…and that brings me to the fable we are talking about, a fable about individual viewpoints ….

It was only recently that I came across this apparently well-known and oft quoted Indian fable. Before we get into a discussion on it, or analysis, let us take a look at what it is. As we get into it, and study some common perspectives around it, you will realize how apt it is, and what an enormous amount of sense it makes, viewed from every one of those perspectives. So let us first dive into the story (I have quoted the James Riordan (Illustrated treasury of fairy & folk tales) version, to start with, so all due thanks & acknowledgements to him…)

A long time ago, in the valley of Brahmaputra in India there lived six men who were much inclined to boast of their wit and lore. Though they were no longer young and had all been blind since birth, they would compete with each other to see who could tell the tallest story.

One day, however, they fell to arguing. The object of their dispute was the elephant. Now, since each was blind, none had ever seen that mighty beast of whom so many tales are told. So, to satisfy their minds and settle the dispute, they decided to go and seek out an elephant.

Having hired a young guide, Dookiram by name, they set out early one morning in single file along the forest track, each placing his hands on the back of the man in front. It was not long before they came to a forest clearing where a huge bull elephant, quite tame, was standing contemplating his menu for the day.

The six blind men became quite excited; at last they would satisfy their minds. Thus it was that the men took turns to investigate the elephant's shape and form.

As all six men were blind, neither of them could see the whole elephant and approached the elephant from different directions. After encountering the elephant, each man proclaimed in turn:

'O my brothers,' the first man at once cried out, 'it is as sure as I am wise that this elephant is like a great mud wall baked hard in the sun.'

'Now, my brothers,' the second man exclaimed with a cry of dawning recognition, 'I can tell you what shape this elephant is - he is exactly like a spear.'

The others smiled in disbelief.

'Why, dear brothers, do you not see,' said the third man -- 'this elephant is very much like a rope,' he shouted.

'Ha, I thought as much,' the fourth man declared excitedly, 'This elephant much resembles a serpent.'

The others snorted their contempt.

'Good gracious, brothers,' the fifth man called out, 'even a blind man can see what shape the elephant resembles most. Why he's mightily like a fan.'

At last, it was the turn of the sixth old fellow and he proclaimed,

'This sturdy pillar, brothers' mine, feels exactly like the trunk of a great areca palm tree.'

Of course, no one believed him.

Their curiosity satisfied, they all linked hands and followed the guide, Dookiram, back to the village. Once there, seated beneath a waving palm, the six blind men began disputing loud and long. Each now had his own opinion, firmly based on his own experience, of what an elephant is really like. For after all, each had felt the elephant for himself and knew that he was right!

And so indeed he was. For depending on how the elephant is seen, each blind man was partly right, though all were in the wrong. (Riordan, 1986, pp. 30-33)

They say that this is best explained as the Jain theory of manifold predictions or Syadvada, Anekantvad - In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways and that one should be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This will allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking.

As you can imagine, this story is today used for so many illustrations, ranging from explaining the concept of god, all the way through medical and scientific situations and IT. In general it is used to explain how an overall view may provide a correct picture.

Look at the way it is used to explain the concept of God. Each religion is describing the same thing in a different way. Thus no one is better or different from the other, but being described and practiced in a different way. And of course, the situation results in much argument and interpretation as we see on a daily basis. Illuminated people rush to offer the answer - there came along the 7th person, who is not blind - Jesus, Buddha, Allah, and Krishna or yet another Guru or messiah to explain a bigger understanding of the whole thing…

It is interesting how this analogy is used by so many people to explain their point – I saw a scientific paper where spinal stability was equated to this story – perhaps the scientists Reeve, Narendra and Cholewicki had an illuminating moment…

They state in their interesting paper - The concept of "stability" has the potential to become our elephant. Stability, one could argue, is a term that appears to change depending upon the context, and as such, appears to have unstable definitions. The ambiguity of this term in spinal biomechanics should not be surprising, given that even in more established disciplines in engineering, there is no absolute definition of stability. However, numerous definitions have emerged, each rigorously defined. So like the elephant, stability is an entity with many parts..

But then it is also used for totally different situations as in this linked paper to contest the state’s definition of marriage by Eichner – in her paper on the state’s position concerning intimate relationships

Determining the stance that the state should take with respect to adult intimate relationships is so difficult because these relationships implicate a number of goods that are central to our liberal democratic ideals and, at best, jibe uneasily with one another. Each of these goods—liberty, equal regard for all persons, insuring the caretaking necessary for human dignity and human development, sex and economic equality, civic fellowship is too important to the liberal democratic project to be sacrificed wholesale to any of the others. By the same token, none ranks so supreme that it should be deemed completely to trump the others.

People of course have different opinions of this analogy, as you will see Susan Elinor Wright in her analysis of a book by Peter B. Raabe states - I think the analogy of the blind men and the elephant misleading and misleading in an interesting way. The blind men after all made two category mistakes. First, they knew they all were trying to recognize the same thing, but did not know that they each had hold of very different parts of it. Secondly, they failed to recognize that they all had hold of a living being.

And there are some wise men who say it is the best way of defining or explaining parallel thinking, but then again when you think about that, it is not the best route to arrive at a plausible answer, unless you compare and communicate and iterate at the end.

As I got into the research mode over the various uses of this metaphor or analogy, I was taken into all kinds of areas, like quantum mechanics where a professor explains that the definitions an interpretations of quantum mechanics is somewhat like the opinions of the six blind men, all totally different and singular….

Or In biomedical research – Sarah Knox for example uses it to explain her point of view - In human physiology, organ systems are examples of emergent properties. Knowing everything there is to know about a cell in the heart (for example, a muscle cell) does not provide enough information to predict the function of the heart, nor does knowing the sequence of DNA base pairs that make up a single amino acid provide enough information to predict the characteristics of a transcription protein composed of many amino acids. In other words, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Another uses it to explain his Human resource issues - People affected by offshoring in different ways are like these blind men. They seem to see only the parts they have experienced.

Or there is this paper about CT scans and its outputs - Finding a way to synthesize the individual perspectives was the crucial problem that the inventors of the CT scanner solved, and the students of the elephant (fable) did not. And it is a matter of explicit procedure or mechanism. Simply laying the various two-dimensional images on top of or beside one another would be no more informative than having the blind men expound their conclusions simultaneously or in some particular sequence or pattern. Aggregation is not synthesis.

CH Koch advocating pragmatism and perspective explains - We often evaluate plans like blind men studying an elephant because we elevate the rationality that abstracts from the complex contexts and multiple purposes that accompany plans to serve as the proper framework for judgment. A pragmatic approach helps us find ways to compensate for the limits of our rational blindness and fixed position. Pragmatism does not provide a miraculous cure, but modest practical steps for recognizing and assimilating differences. Adopting a pragmatic planning outlook will not restore vision to the blind persons standing round the elephant. The tale warns us about the importance of context to perspective. (Evaluating plans pragmatically - Charles J. Hoch)

But Greta Christina talks differently about one of the fables applications and her thought process is a little complex, so those who want to peruse it may find it worthwhile spending a few minutes on it

Interestingly there are some real skeptical people out there who dissect this story and give all kinds of opinion saying that the blind men did the wrong things, that they should have discussed, that they should have felt around a little more and so on, without realizing that the fable itself was narrated to explain a larger concept to people of lesser intellect. It is just an illustration and not a finite study in itself.

But equally remarkable is this story, if you think about it from the elephant’s point of view….The elephant itself is not so good when it comes to eyesight. The sight of an elephant is quite poor and they can only see for short distances of up to 20 metres. An elephant typically does not have as far reaching eyesight as humans do, but his/her sense of smell is unparalleled. Also, an elephant is capable of hearing sound waves well below our the human hearing limitation. As is stated by experts - With notoriously bad eyesight, forest elephants tend to follow their trunks, using the appendage as a blind person might use fingertips on a stranger’s face--to identify, visualize, gather clues, and communicate. From infancy, elephants entwine their trunks in play, establishing bonds of kinship while storing vital information--from smells and texture to the muscular strength of their playmates. Later, these games become more aggressive, especially among males, which grapple and joust with each other in order to establish dominance.

Interesting isn’t, it??

Many of our old Jataka tales or Panchatantra fables hold such gems of wisdom and can be used to illustrate many a point and understand many a problem, and as you study them you realize that the man of the past was also an intelligent person when it came to dealing with the issues of that time. It is interesting also that these stories went on from our land to many others, some changing form as they went, and characters to match the locale it reached, look at the picture of the elephant and the monks…as the story hit the far east!!! Or the clothes of the blind men as the story reached modern lands….

The ‘Panchatantra’ dispersion around the world’s communities is also pretty interesting for it involves a trader and individual from the 12th century, one whom I wrote about…More on that another day…

And I will soon have lunch and dash off to the local movie theater to see my favorite star - Sridevi and her movie ‘English Vinglish’, which reviews explain is even more fascinating…Ah! It will be good…Sreedevi… many wonderful movies she gave us, remember Moonram Pirai? Remember Varumayin Niram Sigappu….and so many more…now she is back with a bang…Time to spend a little time in a make-believe world of Bollywood…


Happy Kitten said…
That was a whole lot of info.. initially I thought you were going to write abt Mustafa Kemal Ataturk....

Sreedevi reminds be of Shobana... have met Sreedevi in person when she was in Thekkady for a shooting.. a sweet girl of 16 or so she was then...she can still mesmerise the crowd I am sure..

Maddy said…
Thanks HK..
I will write about Kemal bey one of these days, know more about him than most I suppose...
English Vinglish was simply superb. go see it with your family, truly enjoyable movie...
Beautifully written..........but think there was no conclusion to what you started you were lured by Sridevi...ha ha ha ....are you not in FB?? may be you should and give the link everytime you write an article......have a good day,,, here we can't see in theatre as not many hindi movies are screened have to wait for a trip or for the CD.......
Maddy said…
Thanks tolifetolifelachaim...
welcome to the blog & thanks again for commenting..
so, then it really turned out as a classic ramble..right?
actually the conclusions ar ein the I got into the fable to simply illustrate differing view points and then veered off to show how the same fable is used by so many different types of people to illustrate widely diferring situations..

but then again, I agree, I was lured off by Sreedevi...and she did well in doing it for it was and entirely enjoyable movie...
windwheel said…
I'm a great admirer of this blog. I wonder whether this statement is true ' for the days of passive resistance and dharnas and so on, which were good against the British'- were dharnas good against the British? So far as I can see they were bad. Making it difficult to govern India may benefit the Opposition in the sense of giving them prominence, but it also vitiates the Govt as a mechanism for doing needful things and addressing vital issues.
The British created
1) Rule of law- i.e. legal means of redress. But barristers like Gandhi chose dharna to push for things like Khilafat and demanded boycott of the British Courts. This failed but also reduced the legitimacy of the Courts as well as 'Public discourse' based on rationality, statistics etc.
2) Indian National Congress- as a forum for educated people from different classes and castes to come together and resolve their differences so as to agree on reforms which benefited the whole country. People like Azad and Gandhi criticized I.N.C because it was 'elitist'- i.e. English speaking- and out of touch with the masses. So Azad supported Khilafat to bring the Mullahs out against the Aligarh graduates and Gandhi, foolishly, supported Khilafat. The problem with dharnas is that it did not unite Hindus and Muslims but exacerbated differences between them. The British were put firmly back in the saddle because dharna politics divided more than it brought together.
3)Representative Govt- this British idea ought to have ensured a strong executive. However, the earlier decision by people like Azad & Gandhi- but later continued by J.P, Lohia etc and now Anna, Ramdev etc- that only dharna politics is truly 'popular'- has created a 'concurrency deadlock' of the Executive such that Corruption & Dynasticism is the only lubricant for 'joogard' solutions.
I honestly don't know why people think dharnas worked against the Brits. The Ceylonese didn't go in for it and were rewarded with full adult franchise, with good minority safeguards, 20 years before India. Dharna politics increased the power of the Viceroy who, elsewhere in the Empire, were becoming just constitutional figureheads. The British did respond to military action- they gave the Boers everything they wanted- i.e. Boers lost the war but won the peace- they also responded to proper purposive organization- e.g. of Labour, Manufacturer's Associations etc. But stupid dharnas were seen as just a sort of infantile sickness- tears before bedtime- which made the minstrations of the British Nanny more necessary not less so.
During the Second World War, Churchill was far more put out by the Labour Govt. in Australia- which was ruthlessly pursuing Australian national interests- but was scarcely affected at all by the 'Quit India' movement.
I suppose there is some idea that the British were all sweethearts who got very upset if Gandhi went on hunger-strike or a big bunch of people turned up and demanded a beating from the Police so they could sleep nicely. This view is entirely untrue. The British showed great ruthlessness against their own suffragettes and Labor movement when they engaged in populist antics. However, they yielded to organized rational tactics which used legitimate methods to advance their cause. This is because organized and rational tactics allows compromise settlement such that both sides gain a benefit.
Maddy said…
Thanks Windwheel,
for the great comment. As i started the stentence, more on that another day..
Passive non coperation & dharna was successful against the British for at least two reasons,
one - it was new and shocking, and got some world attention & much traction.
two - it started the winds of change. gandhiji managed to find the one thing that the mostly illiterate masses understood - i.e power their doing nothing, which was just perfect for the otherwise lazy guy on the street. As the volumes of dharna goers increased, the message became bigger & noticeable..

the biggest diference from all the other instances were the unmanageably large numbers of people and the inability of the British to use their bureaucracy and police to fight them. they feared that the police & army would mutiny with a snowball effect and if you recall, the sepoy mutiny was such a big fear at the back of their minds all along..
windwheel said…
I agree that fear of mutiny was a big factor- but dharna politics, e.g. Khilafat & Non Cooperation Movement, failed because Azad & Gandhi created 'wedge' issues which proved divisive such that the elite consensus which previously existed totally disintegrated. Furthermore, dharnas became an end in themselves and demands became wildly unrealistic and Utopian. For Gandhi, the advantage was that dharna had become purely spiritual. Take the Dandi 'Salt March'- it failed completely. At the same time the Indian Manufacturers were able to do a deal with the British Manufacturers- Modi-Lee agreement- without any dharnas but by rational negotiation. In practice this meant sacrificing the cotton farmer and the consumer. Nehru and Churchill, interestingly, were against it but Nehru could do nothing and Churchill almost lost his seat by opposing this corrupt deal.
The Brits had a technique of letting local agitations run their course and then coming back stronger than ever once every one was utterly disgusted with the outcome- like the Moplah uprising. They let the Mahdi have Sudan for a bit but then came back after his death. People like A.O Hulme, Wedderburn & Cotton, all ICS officers, had hoped that the INC would co-operate with the administration so as to turn the Viceroy into just a figurehead- like the Governor General in other Empire countries. However, because Mass Mobilization had become a sort of 'party drug', dharnas ceased to be useful to show popular support and put pressure on the Viceroy to make concessions. Gandhian dharna did get a good offer from Reading but Gandhi refused to deal. After Reading, dharnas only increased, not reduced, the leverage of the Viceroy because dharnas were splitting the Indians- esp. Hindu/Muslims- and also Mass mobilization made minorities- including S.C/S.T, very nervous.
The big problem with dharnas is that they depend on 'preference falsification' and availability cascades not rational negotiation.
Britain has a long tradition of huge Mass Mobilizations- all failed. 1848, millions of Chartists come to London to demand the vote- they lose and go back. The Suffragettes created a big drama- they got nothing. Trade Unions did a General Strike in 1927- failed completely. All these people got what they wanted when the argument was put logically and rationally. Britain never yielded to dharna type politics- just recently there was huge demonstrations against the Iraq War- failed utterly. Legal minded countries think Mob politics is a sign of immaturity and so dharnas become the best reason NOT to yield.
Govt of India seems to have carried on this tradition but Soniaji isn't from India. She was a young person in 1968 and believes that big crowds on the street means something is genuinely happening.
Italy and France are different from Britain- there mobs can shake Govts. De Gaulle himself fled Paris in 1968.
The problem nowadays is that you have two generations of adults who actually believe that the Brits left because of the Salt March or Quit India or Gandhi's fasting or something like that. It simply isn't true.
The Brits left because they were able to get an unbeatable deal from the Indians which the Indians more than stuck to. Brits have good reason to love Gandhi, Nehru etc and to pretend they yielded to 'Moral force' rather than Economic and Military weakness.
Maddy said…
Thanks Windwheel..
I will definitely get onto this topic a little later, for I have myself not completed the studies i started some months ago, reading churchill, rossevelt and so on and the geopolitics of that time.

Until the end of the WW2 india was very important for britain as the main supplier of raw material to sustain the effort. Once it was over, India proved to be non self sustaining as far & difficult to govern as britain was concerned and a retreat was deemed necessary.

Nevertheless, before & during the war, the brits were shaken by the non cooperation movement, mainly due to their own worries of war support & own inadequacy . Once it was promised by Gandhi, the war ran its course and India became a matter that was decided by latter economic constraints.

Will get into more detail later...
windwheel said…
I look forward to your post on this especially if you draw on Malyali source material from memoirs etc- e.g V.P Menon or, earlier, Sir Sankaran Nair, great men undoubtedly- which people from other parts of the country may not have access to.
From the British point of view, there is a good book- I think called Escape from Empire- which is from Clement Atlee's p.o.v.
The Radicals in U.K had wanted to give self-govt. to India from before the War. Nehru heard Fenner Brockway as a student but could not connect with such a radical notion!
Gandhian politics frustrated the English Left's good intentions while even Nehru completely ignored Atlee's offer of full Dominion status given in 1938! In other words, the Indian obsession with dharnas led them to neglect proper lobbying in London.
I'm not saying popular mobilization isn't important. In Kerala in the Thirties it looks to me as though change from below greatly outstripped what Gandhi was offering.
Of course, Kerala has always been somewhat exceptional. Still, the lessons from there are more relevant to other parts of India and so should be more widely known.

The interesting thing for me, I'm long time settled in U.K, is that the British Govt. hardens its position when faced with 'dharna' type agitation but makes quite generous deals with credible counterparts when it benefits themselves. In India's case we find a bizarre situation where the elephant of Mass Mobilization on an issue such as corruption is interpreted differently by the blind savants in New Delhi and then there is a 'concurrency deadlock' as to what response is required. So some will say 'Anti-corruption movement' is RSS inspired- so we need to say Hindutva is the biggest terrorist threat. Others will say- aam aadmi is crying out because of poverty- we need more subsidies. Others say- no, Sharad Pawar is the problem. Anna hates him. So cut him down to size and get rid of a few more 'tainted' Ministers and everything will be okay. Others say- people want Rahul Baba only. Let him become P.M or at least get married and they will all be happy.

Anyway, look forward to your post on this topic.
Maddy said…
thanks again windwheel
perhaps you should read my heavier blog historic alleys. My last post covered mpn menon etc.
there is a tab/link on top which you can click or type
Stephen Brewer said…
This story always leaves out the blind man who refuses to touch and claims the elephant doesn't exist.

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