On a certain occasion, the Blessed One dwelt at Savatthi, in the Jetavana, the garden of Anathapindika.
Now at that time a large number of Samanas, Brahmanas and wandering monks of various heretical sects, holding a variety of views, doubters on many points, having many diverse aspirations, and recourse to that which relates to various heresies, entered Savatthi for alms.
Some of these Samanas and Brahmanas held that the world is eternal and contended that this view was true and every other false.
Some said: "The world is not eternal."
Some said: "The world is finite."
Some said: "The world is infinite."
Some said: "The soul and the body are identical."
Some said: "The soul and the body are not identical."
Some said: "The Perfect One continues to exist after death."
Some said: "The Perfect One does not continue to exist after death."
Some said: "The Perfect One exists and does not exist after death."
Some said: "The Perfect One neither exists nor does not exist after death."
Each contending their view was true and every other false.
These quarrelsome, pugnacious, cavilling monks wounded one another with sharp words (lit. mouth-javelins) declaiming: "Such is the truth, such is not the truth: the truth is not such, such is the truth."
And a number of Bhikkhus [monks], robing themselves in the forenoon and taking their alms-bowls and tunics, entered Savatthi for alms and when they had returned from their rounds and finished their meal, they went to where the Blessed One was and drawing near, they saluted the Blessed One and sat down apart, and while thus sitting they said to the Blessed One: "Just now, Sire, a large number of Samanas and Brahmanas and wandering monks holding various heresies entered Savatthi for alms, and they are disputing among themselves, saying: 'This is the truth, such is not the truth etc. [as above. Transl.]'"
"These heretical monks, O Bhikkhus, are blind, eyeless, they know not what is right, they know not what is wrong, they know not what is true, they know not what is false. These monks not perceiving what is right, not perceiving what is wrong, not perceiving what is true, not perceiving what is false, become disputatious, saying: 'such is the truth, such is not the truth etc. [as above. Transl.]'"
In former times, O Bhikkhus, there was a King in this town of Savatthi. And the King, O Bhikkhus, called a man to him and said: "Go, thou, and collect all the men born blind in Savatthi and bring them here."And the King, O Bhikkhus, was highly delighted.
"Be it so, Lord'' said that man in assent to the King and he went to Savatthi and he brought all the men born blind in Savatthi to where the King was and drawing near he said to the King: "Lord, all the men blind from their birth in Savatthi are present."
"Pray, then, bring an elephant before them."
"Be it so, Lord" said that man in assent to the King and he brought an elephant into the presence of the blind men and said: "This, O blind men, is an elephant."
To some of the blind men he presented the head of the elephant, saying, "Such, O blind men, is an elephant."
To some he presented the body, saying: "such is an elephant."
To some he presented the feet, saying: "Such is an elephant."
To some he presented the back, saying: "Such is an elephant."
To some he presented the tail, saying : "Such is an elephant."
To some he presented the hairy tuft of the tail, saying: 'Such is an elephant.'
The show-man, O Bhikkhus, having presented the elephant to these blind ones, went to where the King was and drawing near said to the King: "The elephant, Lord, has been brought before the blind men, do now as seems fit."
And the King went to where the blind men were, and drawing near said to them: "Do you now know what an elephant is like?"
"Assuredly, Lord; we now know what an elephant is like."
"Tell me then, O blind men, what an elephant is like."
And those blind men, O Bhikkhus, who had felt the head of the elephant, said: "An elephant, Sir, is like a large round jar.
Those who had felt its ears, said: "It is like a winnowing basket."
Those who had felt its tusks, said: "It is like a plough-share."
Those who had felt its trunk, said: "It is like a plough."
Those who had felt its body, said: "It is like a granary."
Those who had felt its feet, said: "It is like a pillar."
Those who had felt its back, said: "It is like a mortar."
Those who had felt its tail, said: "It is a like a pestle."
Those who had felt the tuft of its tail, said: "It is like a broom."
And they all fought amongst themselves with their fists, declaring, "Such is an elephant, such is not elephant, an elephant is not like that, it is like this."
In exactly the same way, O Bhikkhus, do these heretical people, blind and without insight, dispute among themselves saying "This doctrine is true, every other is false."
And the Blessed One in this connection, on that occasion, breathed forth this solemn utterance:
Well is it known that some Samanas and Brahmanas,
Who attach themselves to methods of analysis,
And perceiving only one side of a case,
Disagree with one another.
A desire arose among the people to see this monstrous elephant, and a number of the blind, like fools, visited it, every one running in his haste to find out its shape and form.
They came, and being without the sight of their eyes groped about it with their hands; each of them by touching one member obtained a notion of some one part; each one got a conception of an impossible object, and fully believed his fancy true. When they returned to the people of the city, the others gathered round them, all expectant, so misguided and deluded were they. They asked about the appearance and shape of the elephant, and what they told all listened to.
One asked him whose hand had come upon its ear about the elephant; he said, "It is a huge and formidable object, broad and rough and spreading, like a carpet."
And he whose hand had come upon its trunk said, "I have found out about it; it is straight and hollow in the middle like a pipe, a terrible thing and an instrument of destruction."
And he who had felt the thick hard legs of the elephant said, "As I have it in mind, its form is straight like a planed pillar."
Every one had seen some one of its parts, and all had seen it wrongly. No mind knew the whole. Knowledge is never the companion of the blind. All, like fools deceived, fancied absurdities.
Men know not the Divine essence; into this subject the philosophers may not enter.
One who touched its leg said, "The elephant is like a pillar."
The second who touched the trunk said, "The elephant is like a thick club."
The third touched the belly, and thought it to be like a big jar.
The fourth who felt the ears, concluded that the elephant was like a winnowing fan.
They then began to dispute amongst themselves as to the ?gure of the animal they had touched.
A passer-by hearing them quarrel, said, "What is it this you are disputing about?"
Then they stated the question and asked him to arbitrate. He said, "Not one of you knows the real elephant. As a whole, it is neither like a pillar, nor a jar, nor a winnowing fan, nor a club. But its legs are like pillars, its belly like a big jar, its ears like a winnowing fan, and its trunk like a thick club. The elephant itself is a combination of all these."
In exactly the same manner do men quarrel among themselves about religion, each having seen some different aspect of the Deity.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! -- but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: "Ho! -- what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 't is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he; "'T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong.
So, oft in theologic wars
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!
Then the king called the blind men, and asked them: "What are my Elephants like?"
One blind man said: "Your elephants are like posts." He had felt the legs.
Another blind man said: "They are like bath brooms." He had felt the end of the tail.
A third said: "They are like branches." He had felt the tail stump.
The one who had touched a belly said: "The elephants are like a clod of earth."
The one who had touched the sides said: "They are like a wall."
The one who had touched a back said: "They are like a mound."
The one who had touched the ears said: "They are like a mortar."
The one who had touched the tusks said: "They are like horns."
The one who had touched the trunk said that they were like a stout rope.
And all the Blind Men began to dispute and to quarrel.
Revised February 11, 2014.