The original parable originated in China sometime during the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD):
It’s a parable of importance to one who is always seeking to understand the bigger picture. The essence of the story for a truthseeker is that wisdom requires a bigger-picture view than the incredible self-centric approach to divining reality that currently exists in the modern world.
Here it is in all its glory.
[Not to be outdone, the Indian version has six blind men and the elephant is in technicolor BTW.]
One day, three blind men happened to meet each other and gossiped a long time about many things. Suddenly one of them recalled, ” I heard that an elephant is a queer animal. Too bad we’re blind and can’t see it.”
“Ah, yes, truly too bad we don’t have the good fortune to see the strange animal,” another one sighed.
The third one, quite annoyed, joined in and said, “See? Forget it! Just to feel it would be great.”
“Well, that’s true. If only there were some way of touching the elephant, we’d be able to know,” they all agreed.
It so happened that a merchant with a herd of elephants was passing, and overheard their conversation. “You fellows, do you really want to feel an elephant? Then follow me; I will show you,” he said.
The three men were surprised and happy. Taking one another’s hand, they quickly formed a line and followed while the merchant led the way. Each one began to contemplate how he would feel the animal, and tried to figure how he would form an image.
After reaching their destination, the merchant asked them to sit on the ground to wait. In a few minutes he led the first blind man to feel the elephant. With outstretched hand, he touched first the left foreleg and then the right. After that he felt the two legs from the top to the bottom, and with a beaming face, turned to say, “So, the queer animal is just like that.” Then he slowly returned to the group.
Thereupon the second blind man was led to the rear of the elephant. He touched the tail which wagged a few times, and he exclaimed with satisfaction, “Ha! Truly a queer animal! Truly odd! I know now. I know.” He hurriedly stepped aside.
The third blind man’s turn came, and he touched the elephant’s trunk which moved back and forth turning and twisting and he thought, “That’s it! I’ve learned.”
The three blind men thanked the merchant and went their way. Each one was secretly excited over the experience and had a lot to say, yet all walked rapidly without saying a word.
“Let’s sit down and have a discussion about this queer animal,” the second blind man said, breaking the silence.
“A very good idea. Very good.” the other two agreed for they also had this in mind.
Without waiting for anyone to be properly seated, the second one blurted out, “This queer animal is like our straw fans swinging back and forth to give us a breeze. However, it’s not so big or well made. The main portion is rather wispy.”
“No, no!” the first blind man shouted in disagreement. “This queer animal resembles two big trees without any branches.”
“You’re both wrong.” the third man replied. “This queer animal is similar to a snake; it’s long and round, and very strong.”
How they argued! Each one insisted that he alone was correct. Of course, there was no conclusion for not one had thoroughly examined the whole elephant. How can anyone describe the whole until he has learned the total of the parts.
Kuo, Louise and Kuo, Yuan-Hsi (1976), “Chinese Folk Tales,” Celestial Arts: 231 Adrian Road, Millbrae, CA 94030, pp. 83-85.
The Samoans have a story along the lines that:
The higher the crab climbs the coconut tree; the more he sees.
Quite profound in it’s simplicity, really.
I enjoy listening to the Samoa wisdom literature.