Before I retired, people who visited my office would often question me about the number of elephants I had around the room. There were carved elephants of wood, stone, even solid coal. There were crystal elephants from Denmark and brass elephants from India. In addition to the elephant figures on my desk, bookshelves, and other places around the room, there also were elephant paintings and photographs on the wall. Some of my visitors asked if I were a Republican (certainly not!!!), or why I did not have “religious art” instead of these dozens and dozens of elephants.
Elephants have been my personal totem, if you will, for many years. As a child I was fascinated by the size and grace of elephants. Elephants are noted for their intelligence and loyalty, to family and to tribe. They tend to live long and to maintain strong, positive relationships. In some very ancient traditions, elephants symbolize the removal of obstacles and barriers. There are a lot of reasons why one might select elephants as an object to collect.
For me, however, the elephant is not the object, however fascinating and wonderful it may be. I collect elephants because of the nature of Truth which is illustrated in the ancient Hindu story about the blind men and the elephant.
You no doubt know this story. It tells of several blind men who approached an elephant from various directions. Each touched a different part of the animal and attempted to describe the “truth” of their discovery to the others. One touched a leg, round and rough and tall like a tree. Another touched the tail and, to him, the elephant was like a rope. Still another touched the side of the elephant and insisted that the elephant was just like a stone wall. As each man touched a different part, each described the animal differently. Each told the truth. Each experience of touching was valid. Yet, none of them, because of their limitations, could experience the total truth of the elephant.
This story has great meaning for almost every situation, but especially for religion. The “truth” of the Divine is so far beyond the limits of human experience and understanding, it cannot be known in its totality. Each of us may have a religious experience or a spiritual insight that, for us and for that moment, is fully “true.” But another person may have an experience or insight that, while is seems contradictory to ours, is equally “true.” Gaining an understanding of “Truth and Elephants” is a first step toward leaning how to feel comfortable within one’s own religious context while being able to affirm and enjoy that of others who come at the Divine from different directions. My truth and your truth are both true, just not the total truth.
Even the elephant itself cannot know the total truth of what an elephant is, because the elephant only understands the “truth” of being an elephant from the inside. Of course, those who are not elephants can only understand the “truth” of being an elephant from outside, so they, too, only know part of the truth.
The next time someone tries to convince you they have “the Truth,” remember the elephant.