Anekāntavāda: Maxim of Blind Men and the Elephant

“Let not your first thought be your only thought, 
Think if there cannot be some other way. 
Surely, to think your own the only wisdom, 
And yours the only word, the only will, 
Betrays a shallow spirit, an empty heart.” 

– Sophocles, Antigone

Traditions in certain branches of Indian philosophy take a non-absolutist position in epistemology. For instance, the central proposition of the doctrine of Anekāntavāda is that the nature of reality is complex and multifaceted and no single perspective can explain it adequately. This notion of pluralism and multiplicity of subjective experiences is illustrated in the ancient Jain parable of the blind men and the elephant:

blind-men-elephant

John Godfrey Saxe is credited for retelling the parable through his poem:

It was six men of Indostan
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: “E’en 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 Indostan
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!

– John Godfrey Saxe (1816 – 1887)

Within the scientific method, the doctrine of Anekāntavāda is somewhat akin to Tinbergen’s four questions. It encourages an integrated system of inquiry from multiple different perspectives. It also highlights one of the major problems in structural organization of most modern universities. That is, most university departments are structured based on the system of investigation rather than the theme of investigation which results in a compartmentalized structure of inquiry that limits inter-disciplinary exchange and collaboration. With regards to public policy, dogmatist adherence to simplistic, absolutist narratives to complex problems is a major hindrance to political progress. The doctrine of Anekāntavāda serves as a useful reminder that no single perspective can offer complete or absolute truth and we must at least consider the narratives that do not resonate with our own. The maxim doesn’t prescribe indiscriminate concession to all opinions or view points. It is neither a form of skepticism nor is it gestalt-ian in suggesting that the whole is anything other than the sum of its parts. Instead, it encourages genuine positive pluralism grounded in logic and empiricism and provides a framework for reconciliation, tolerance and consideration of diverse views and ideas.

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