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Dialogue Stories: The Six Blind Men and the Elephant

Tue, 26 Apr 2011 10:23 | Written by Sarah Perceval in Articles
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Sarah Perceval

I’ve been asked to write this column as an introduction to the idea of ‘dialogues stories’ that will be a common feature of the Dialogue Society columns. A dialogue story might be something that has happened to you or someone you know illustrating how dialogue can work in real life and perhaps in an unexpected way. A dialogue story can also be those historic/traditional/folk stories narrated to illustrate the importance of engagement and greater understanding. So, here to start us all off is a traditional story you may be familiar with… The Six Blind Men and the Elephant.

Once upon a time in India there lived six blind men. Because the men had been blind since birth, they developed their understanding of the world through touch and by asking questions, but there was one thing that confused them. The ‘Elephant’. They had heard so many stories about ‘Elephant’ but they just could not agree as to what it was. Some said it was a fierce creature used in battle, some that it was so gentle the Sultan’s daughter rode on one. They had heard it could uproot a tree and its shrill cry was terrifying. How could they understand its reality? Was it gentle? Powerful? A help to man? Awe inspiring? Did it exist at all?

The men decided to invite a friend to visit their village with his elephant. When it arrived, there was great excitement, the blind men were longing to experience what an elephant was really like. So the first man approached the elephant and felt its large heavy side.

“Hmm, wide, flat, tall and strong. The elephant is most like a wall.”

The second blind man touched the elephant’s trunk,

“A wall? No my friend, it is long, round and it sways from side to side, the elephant is most like a snake.”

The third man felt the elephant’s tusk.

“I agree, it is round and long, but it is completely stiff, and sharp at the end, it’s like a spear!”

The fourth blind man touched the elephant’s ear,

“From what I can feel, this elephant is flat and wide and swishes from side to side; it is most like a fan!”

The fifth man had the elephant’s leg,

“It’s quite simple, an elephant is solid, round and has bumpy bark, just like a tree.”

The sixth man had the elephant’s tail, he was most unimpressed.

“Brothers, we are being tricked, someone has just put a piece of old rope in my hands and asked me to believe it’s an elephant! I tell you, the elephant does not exist, it’s a joke!”

They all started to argue. The elephant’s owner spoke.

“Friends!” He said, “ The elephant is a very large animal, you have all touched only one small part. In order to understand the elephant, you need to listen to each other and put all the different parts together. Then you will come closer to understanding the truth about what the Elephant is.”

What a perfect story for dialogue. It helps us to see another’s point of view for our own benefit. And could it be that all our concepts of an Eternal Creative Being are part of a Whole that humanity simply does not have the capacity to conceive of in its entirety? We are all grasping in the dark. Stories help us to see more clearly, they can be a wonderful non-confrontational meeting place, accessing the imagination rather than our more rigid rational mind. They can be a keyhole into another faith or culture that we can enjoy looking through. When we share stories about ourselves we share what it is to be human. We understand story because we are story. We are the hero of our own life story and the pattern of story is within each and everyone of us.

Here’s the audience’s response to this story. The Hindu says he learned this story in school and it is a great Hindu story. The Buddhists tell me that they know it because Buddha told it. The Sufis, that it is a story from Rumi… Then they start to listen to each other, put all the pieces together, and discover the truth about story; it is all true, it belongs to all of us, and we love it.

(Please share! We would love to hear your stories, perhaps you have an experience, a personal story that touches on positive dialogue, or maybe, like me, you really enjoy a traditional story that illuminates dialogue for us. What ever your preference, you are invited to send your story to . It could be your story you read here next time!)

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

About Sarah PercevalBrowse Author's Arhive

Sarah Perceval works as a storyteller specialising in sacred stories from all religions. She develops and records stories for adults and children and her performance work centres on interfaith and community cohesion events. Sarah has an extensive background as an actress, puppeteer and corporate communication skills trainer.