The Blind Men and the Elephant

Hokusai, The Blind Men and the Elephant (block print, Japan, ca. 1817).
The elephant sadly and patiently suffers the inspection.

The Eye of the Heart

In that great tale for people of all ages, The Little Prince, the French author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

St.-Exupéry is talking about what is known in Sufism as the “Eye of the Heart” (Ar. ayn al-qalb, Prs. chasm-e dil). The concept has strong analogies in other wisdom traditions: it’s even in the Bible (Grk. ofthalmous tis kardias, Lat. oculus cordis: Eph. 1:18). But as Prof. Huston Smith has pointed out, it is dealt with “most directly in Sufism”. For example, the Sufi martyr Mansur al-Hallaj wrote:

I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I asked: “Who are You?”
He answered: “You.”

A Saying of the Prophet goes: “Beware the discernment of the faithful, for s/he sees with the light of God.”

The Heart that the Sufis intend is not the physical lump of flesh that pumps blood, but a psychic center or “Subtlety” (latifa) belonging to the spiritual body, located within the body of an adult a couple of inches below the left nipple. God does not care about the external trappings of a human being, but looks at what is in one’s Heart. In fact, it is said that the Heart is the seat of God. According to a Holy Tradition, “The heavens and the earth could not contain Me, but the Heart of my believing servant did.”

In the modern world, the heart is taken to be the center of emotion. In other cultures, however, such as in ancient Egypt, ancient China and Sufism, knowledge—and especially, knowledge of the divine—was situated in the Heart. And the Eye of the Heart is the organ of spiritual vision. Moreover, this eye ultimately sees not duality/multiplicity, but the One. In the words of the Sufi poet Sham’i of Konya (sometimes confused with Shamsi of Sivas),

Nobody attains the Real till one is distant from all else
The treasure doesn’t open in this Heart until it is full of light

Drive out everything else from the Heart until the Real manifests
The King does not enter the palace until the place is built up.

Our calling, as human beings on this planet, is to open this Eye of the Heart.

The Man Born Blind

Consider the following story by the Chinese poet Su Tung-po (a.k.a. Su Shi, Su Dongpo):

There was a man born blind. He
had never seen the sun and asked about it of people who could
see. Someone told him, “the sun’s shape is like a brass tray.”
The blind man struck the brass tray and heard its sound.
Later when he heard the sound of a bell, he thought it was
the sun. Again someone told him, “The sunlight is like that
of a candle,” and the blind man felt the candle, and thought
that was the sun’s shape. Later he felt a big key and thought
it was a sun.
The sun is quite different from a bell or a key, but the
blind man cannot tell their difference because he has never
seen the sun. The Truth is harder to see than the sun, and
when people do not know it they are exactly like the blind
man. Even if you do your best to explain by analogies and
examples, it still appears like the analogy of the brass tray
and the candle. From what is said of the brass tray, one
imagines a bell, and from what is said about a candle, one
imagines a key. In this way, one gets ever further and further
away from the truth. Those who speak about Truth
sometimes give it a name according to what they happen to
see, or imagine what it is like without seeing it. These are
mistakes in the effort to understand Truth.

(Quoted in Henry Bayman, The Black Pearl (2005), p. xxix.)

The Elephant in the Dark

In his masterwork The Masnavi, the great Sufi poet Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi tells the story of an elephant brought from India to a land that knew nothing about elephants and placed in an unlighted barn at night. People were curious to discover this unfamiliar creature, so they went in and groped around, feeling various parts of the animal. (M 3:1259-1274.) Rumi did not invent this story; it has a much earlier provenance. Coleman Barks has done a modern translation of Rumi’s tale. A variant of the story has blind men feeling the elephant, instead of it being in a dark barn at night. I have given a rhyming poem by John Godfrey Saxe below because it is more fun.

Of course, the story is quite enjoyable, and can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. But what did Rumi himself intend by it? For this, we need to look at the verses that succeed the story (I quote from the E.H. Whinfield translation):

The eye of outward sense is as the palm of a hand,
The whole of the object is not grasped in the palm.
The sea itself is one thing, the foam another;
Neglect the foam, and regard the sea with your eyes.
Waves of foam rise from the sea night and day,
You look at the foam ripples and not the mighty sea.
We, like boats, are tossed hither and thither,
We are blind though we are on the bright ocean.
Ah! you who are asleep in the boat of the body,
You see the water; behold the Water of waters!
Under the water you see there is another Water moving it,
Within the spirit is a Spirit that calls it.

Here we have the key. The sea/foam or ocean/wave metaphor is a frequent trope used by the Sufis. The sea or ocean stands for God, who is the Truth and the Real, while waves and foam represent the phenomenal world, with its incessant flow of evanescent events. We become so engrossed in this grand procession that we do not see the ocean for the waves. Yet just beneath the surface, beyond all the frenzied activity, there is the stillness, the calm, the immensity of the ocean. Within every spirit there lies the divine Spirit: what Ibn Arabi called “the Spirit of spirits, not the spirit of receptacles” (Futuhat 1, 9). Or, as the Sufi poet Yunus Emre sang: “There is an I inside me, inner than myself.”

God is close to us—closer, in fact, “than your jugular vein” (50:16). But are we close to God?

We see, then, that the blind men and the elephant stand, in Rumi’s understanding, for us versus God. We are blind to God’s existence, and even when we acknowledge Him, we each fancy God to be circumscribed by our own limited view of Him. But what is infinite, even beyond the infinite, cannot fit into any pigeonhole, however large (except perhaps the human Heart). As it is said in the Upanishads: “If you think you know the truth about God, know that you know little indeed.”

That said, let us conclude with the poem.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Hindustan
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 tis 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 an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “Even 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 Hindustan
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!







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