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The Blind Monks and the Elephant: a Christian Interpretation

by Justin Wishart

Eastern religious and philosophical ideas are often expressed in parables. This can lead to various interpretations of any individual parable. One famous Eastern parable is the tale of the blind monks and the elephant. Craig Hazen, Professor of Comparative Religion at the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles University, sums up the folktale:
There is a very old and famous fable—of either Buddhist or Jain origin—that has been used through the centuries to illustrate what is thought to be a fundamental truth about the religions of mankind. Several blind men [or monks] were lead into a rajah’s (king’s) courtyard, where they encountered an elephant. One felt a tusk and concluded that an elephant is like a spear. Another touched a leg and thought an elephant was like a tree. Yet another bumped into the side of the beast and thought that it is like a wall. And so on. The rajah heard the activity, came out on his balcony, and told the blind men that they were each encountering only one small part of the magnificent whole.[i]
This parable is often used to express the idea that all people’s truth claims are true, in their own way, and are simply aspects of the larger ultimate truth. That bickering over doctrinal claims, as this interpretation goes, is really a failure to understand the true reality of things. One should, instead, look to learn from other views to get a more complete idea of the whole.
There is one question which rises to the surface regarding this interpretation: is this not a truth claim itself? The person who uses this parable with this interpretation is claiming to be the rajah. It is he who is able to look down at all these disagreements and state the true reality to those below. Far from being pluralistic, he is making an assertion about what the elephant actually is. He is making a dogmatic claim about why one should not be dogmatic. He is not playing by his own rules.
Since this understanding is self-referentially incoherent, a new interpretation should be proposed, one that possesses internal consistency. Some major tenants of Christianity provide a solid interpretive key to this parable. However, before this parable is unlocked with a Christian understanding, identification of each major character is needed.
The elephant represents the world as it actually is. As the largest land animal, it represents the transcendent, all-encompassing truth. The blind monks represent all people. They denote that humanity only sees a little sliver of reality, and, if left to their limited view, people cannot discover ultimate truth. Humanity is effectively blind. The rajah represents one who can see the truth of things transcendently. He is up on his balcony, with full vision, able to see the truth in its completeness. The rajah doesn’t suffer the same limitations as the blind monks arguing down below.  
The Bible also agrees with these ideas. For example, Jesus corrects Pilate’s erroneous view of the situation before them:
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:10-11).[ii]
Just like the elephant has a total description of its existence (as is known by the rajah), so does reality have a total description. Pilate thought he understood the actuality of things, but Jesus corrects him and shows the true nature of the situation. Pilate, like a blind monk, saw only a small sliver of things. Jesus showed that his view was wrong because Pilate could not see the whole elephant.
Likewise, the Bible affirms that we only see things dimly. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Paul is clear that while humans are alive on this earth they have a very limited view of reality. People are blind monks who cannot see the elephant very well.
Lastly, God is the all-knowing rajah who sees reality as it actually is. As the Psalmist writes, “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (Psalm 147:5). Paul gives a similar expression: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33). Scripture is clear that God knows the elephant “beyond measure,” even if humans are not able to.
If one examines the relationship between the elephant and the blind monks without the rajah, he would find a hopeless situation. Humans could never have assurance of reality; people’s mind would be filled with partial-truths and partial-lies. There is no mechanism in place to decipher fact from fiction, and knowledge becomes reduced to subjective uncertainty. One person says, “truth is (x),” while another insists, “truth is (y).” Yet, there is no way of knowing if truth is (x), (y), or something else entirely. Left to themselves, humans have no epistemic warrant to have any assurance of their truth claims. As T. Z. Lavine asks, “What, then, can be done about philosophers and the philosophy which they have produced, now that philosophy is seen to be a history of confusion?”[iii]
Even the rajah in the parable, on his own, cannot solve this seemingly desperate situation. He is separated from the blind monks, on his own balcony, knowing reality as it truly is. However, this does not help humans very much. The rajah must express the truth to the blind monks. Therefore, certain knowledge must be revealed knowledge. God must condescend to humanity and reveal the elephant for what it truly is if humanity is going to know reality as it is. Without this step, certain knowledge is not possible, and we are still hopelessly blind.
It seems that this parable does a good job at diagnosing the human condition. It aptly shows man’s inability to know truth by his own faculties. Unfortunately, the standard proposed remedy doesn’t do justice to the parable as a whole. By concluding that humanity should not bicker over doctrine because every view contains truth makes the person the rajah. One would need to know the truth as it actually is to be able to say that every view contains truth. Yet, the person using the parable in this manner is not the rajah but is necessarily a blind monk.
Additionally, this interpretation does not deal with the obvious contradictions in the blind monks’ conclusions of the elephant. Is the elephant a spear, tree, wall, or something else? They cannot all be true.

The Christian interpretation provides a much better remedy and also makes better use of the parable’s elements. After understanding the state of humanity, about which both interpretations agree, the Christian interpretation’s focus shifts to the rajah and his words. In them the blind monks find truth. The standard interpretation does not have a knowable rajah and is simply a blind monk talking to blink monks. The traditional conclusion entails that reality remains ultimately unknowable. In opposition, the Christian interpretation shows that a knowable rajah needs to communicate to humanity the truth of the elephant if knowledge is to be actualized. That knowledge of reality is only possible if truth is revealed. This is exactly what Christianity claims God has done.

 [i]Craig J. Hazen, “Aren’t All Religions Basically the Same” in The Apologetics Study Bible, ed. Ted Cabal (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), p. 566.
 [ii]All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version, Crossway, 2001.  
 [iii]T. Z. Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1984), p. 407. 
  • Well described and very well re-interpreted. It is of considerable interest that Karl (Carl) Mannheim author of the” Sociology of Knowledge Thesis” saw the dilemma of a limited perspective and in later life began to embrace a transcendent creator as a solution.

  • Well done! 🙂

  • Pete

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