The elephant and the truth

A great number of people in the world believe they know the truth.  Many believe it with such passion and conviction that they are willing not only to dedicate their own lives to the service of this truth, but to kill and to die for it.  They know they are right and anyone who disagrees with them are wrong.

When I was a fairly young child, I asked my father if a story I’d heard was “really true.”   “What makes something true is a very complicated question,” he said, “that takes great wisdom to answer.”  Then he told me the story of the blind men standing around the elephant.

Six blind men stood  around an elephant trying to discover what it looked like. The first one felt the elephant’s leg and reported that it was like a tree trunk.  Another grabbed its ear and said it was like a big fan.  The third got hold of the tusk and said it was like a large curved spear.  The one feeling the elephant’s side concluded that it resembled a large wrinkled wall.  The man who grabbed the elephant’s tail said it was a kind of snake, while the man at the other end who had hold of the elephant’s trunk said that it was some kind of water shower.

The men then started to argue, at first amiably, but as each insisted that he was right and had first hand experience to prove it, the arguments became more heated.  Each insisted that the others who disagreed with him were wrong, and gradually each began to insist that the others were not only wrong but also stupid, and even blinded by sinfulness.

This story is thousands of years old and originated somewhere in the Far East.  Some scholars think it was Buddha who first told the story to illustrate his insight that none of us ever have the complete truth.  Truth exists, he believed, but most of us spend most of our lives like a blind man in front of the elephant – thinking that what we see is the whole truth, while we only see a small part of it.  

My father used to tell me stories like this when I was young, many of which I couldn’t really understand at the time.  The elephant story has remained with me all my life.  It has convinced me that whether it is science or my religion that is the source of what I believe, I have not yet reached that level of wisdom where I see the whole elephant – that is the whole truth.

So even when people disagree with me, and I can’t see how both of us can be right, it might just be that each of us is examining a different part of the elephant. 

It is an amazing world we live in, and all sorts of apparently opposite things can be true at the same time. 

Another reflection on the blind men and the elephant can be found at


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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