Six Blind Men in Search of the Nature of an Elephant

1001 Tales Discourses

“People look into books, find out fragments, make philosophies out of fragments. That’s how all the religions have evolved, and all the theologies and all the philosophies. They are all fragmentary,” says Osho. Related story in the series 1001 Tales, compiled by Shanti.


I have heard a very beautiful anecdote. You may have heard it. It has many versions, but this version I don’t think you will have heard before.

Six blind medical students sat by the gate of a great city as an elephant was led slowly past. Inspired by scientific curiosity of the highest degree, the six blind students rushed forward to palpate the great beast and to determine the nature of his being.

The first man’s hands fell upon the elephant’s tusks. “Ah,” said he, “this creature is a thing of bones; they even protrude through his skin.” Later on, years having past, this man became an orthopedist.

At the same time the second blind medical student seized the elephant’s trunk and identified its function. “What a nose!” he exclaimed. “Surely this is the most important part of the animal.” Accordingly, he became a rhinologist.

The third man chanced upon the elephant’s great flapping ear and came to a similar conclusion: for him the ear was everything, so he, in time, became an otologist.

The fourth rested his hands on the huge chest and abdomen of the elephant. “The contents of this barrel must be enormous,” he thought, “and the pathological derangements infinite in number and variety.” Nothing would do but that he would become an internist.

One of the blind men caught hold of the elephant’s tail. “This,” he said, “would appear to be a useless appendage. It might even be a source of trouble. Better take it off.” The blind man became a surgeon.

But the last of the six did not depend upon the sense of touch. Instead he only listened. He had heard the elephant approaching, the rattle of the chains and the shouts of the keepers. It may be that he heard the elephant heaving a great sigh as he trudged along.

“Where is the creature going?” he asked. No one answered. “Where did he come from?” he asked. No one knew. Then this man fell into a deep reverie. What was in the elephant’s mind, he wondered, in having left wherever he was and having come to this great city? Why does he submit to the indignities of our curiosity and the slavery of chains? And while he was wondering how to find out the answers to these questions, the elephant was gone. This man became a psychiatrist.

The other students were disgusted at this impracticality. They turned their backs upon their visionary companion. What difference does it make, said they, what the elephant’s purpose may be? And his chains — they constitute a legal, not a medical problem. The important thing is to recognize the animal’s structure.

Then they fell to quarreling among themselves as to whether the elephant’s structure was primarily that of a nose or that of an ear or that of a tail. And although they all differed flatly from one another on these points, they all agreed that the psychiatrist was a fool.

Osho quote from
The First Principle – Talks on Zen, Ch 5

Illustration by Pamela Zagarenski

ShantiShanti is a regular contributor
All excerpts of this series can be found in: 1001 Tales
All articles by this author on Osho News

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