I am translating my article to English, which heavily uses the Blind men and an elephant tale. Since the metaphor is important, I wonder how it would be perceived in the West, especially in the US. Do you know how familiar or exotic it is to a Westerner?

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, "elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

many blind people shown touching different parts of an elephant with their hands


2 Answers 2


The story of the Blind Men and the Elephant is well-known in the West.

Perhaps mostly due to the version of the tale written by John Godfrey Saxe, a 19th-century US poet who retold the story as a poem, attributing it to "a Hindoo fable"; you can read his version here.

It's also been told as a song in a 21st-century album by a US singer.

Wikipedia also mentions other retellings and references to this story throughout western culture, in everything from scientific literature to children's stories (all with citations):

The story is seen as a metaphor in many disciplines, being pressed into service as an analogy in fields well beyond the traditional. In physics, it has been seen as an analogy for the wave–particle duality.[19] In biology, the way the blind men hold onto different parts of the elephant has been seen as a good analogy for the Polyclonal B cell response.[20] [...]

The story enjoys a continuing appeal, as shown by the number of illustrated children's books of the fable; there is one for instance by Paul Galdone and another, Seven Blind Mice, by Ed Young (1992). [...]

Touching the Elephant was a 1997 BBC Radio 4 documentary in which four people of varying ages, all blind from birth, were brought to London Zoo to touch an elephant and describe their response.[24]

So I don't think you need to replace it by another story. It will do perfectly well as it stands.

  • Which version would be most popular in the West? Saxe's one? For example in my Vietnamese version the trunk looks like a leech.
    – Ooker
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 11:57
  • 1
    @Ooker Wikipedia says that Saxe "introduced the story to a Western audience", and he's the only Western author to get a full section to himself in this article. So I'd say yes ... but on the other hand, it's the idea that's important, so regardless of whether the trunk is a leech or a snake, people will recognise the story. E.g. if a Vietnamese character is talking about it in your translation, you could have them tell a version slightly different from Saxe's, to remind your readers of their culture.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 12:03
  • is it common in the West that the blind men will argue without finding a solution, or even fight each others?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 7:01
  • 1
    @Ooker Yes, or at least I (living in the West) have often seen that as part of the story. And Saxe's version has them arguing heatedly, if not actually fighting.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 9:56
  • 2
    Sigh. It's not a Hindoo fable. It is very specifically a Jain fable. The skeptical and relativist epistemology behind it, syādavāda, is quite alien to Hindu philosophy, which has an epistemology of certitude.
    – verbose
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 8:36

To give more example, in the introductory textbook about brain dynamics Observed Brain Dynamics, Partha Mitra and Hemant Bokil include these images:

Many blind people, in peasant's clothes, shown touching different parts of an elephant with their hands. The caption is "Figure 2.1: The blind men and the elephant."

Many people, in modern-day outfits, shown touching different parts of a brain. The caption is "Figure 2.6: Partial views of the brain."

So if the tale exists in a research book, then it should be well-known in the culture too.

  • 3
    Counterpoint (though I agree that it's well-known): the authors both have Indian names, so are probably from India, where the tale originates and is possibly better known. The authors might be extrapolating from their own familiarity. (Nevertheless, I too think the story is very well known in the West too.) Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 5:11
  • I can't believe that :-o
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 6:07

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