Blind Men And Elephant

There is currently a heated (petrol-bomb driven) debate raging within the nation and especially in cyberspace, as to who has seen the proverbial Elephant; or more accurately, who is authorized to label the elephant, and whether “elephant is in fact a good and right label.” Of course, the original Eastern story in allegorical form states that seven blind men sought to describe the huge animal but relying only on their own experience and sensory apparatus; their five senses. And, as a result they were confused because the phenomenon was too big for their sensory capabilities. Only the person who can see the entire animal from multiple perspectives can claim and name the impression using their own label. Usually this privilege is given to a ‘Wise One’ depending on who is telling the story. Today, we also have the help of Thomas Edison’s light. I think there is a parallel here with our own confusion of categories, claiming ownership of it, and the right or privilege to label the phenomenon.

One of the more famous English versions of the same allegory is the poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) which I found in Wikipedia:

“The poem begins:

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

They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touch. They have a heated debate that does not come to physical violence. But in Saxe’s version, the conflict is never resolved.

The Moral goes:

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!”

Our current debate is about the use of the Arabic term, “Allah.” The debate is whether the Catholic Herald should have the right to use the term in its Bahasa Malaysia version of the publication meant for Bumiputera Christians and other Malay speaking congregations. The discourse centers on whether this is a unique and personal name of the Muslim God or whether this is the Arabic version of the generic name of God, but applied by Arab Christians when referring to the Lord-God. It also festers around whether there is a political intent by the Herald in using the particular language; especially in Peninsular Malaya. Please allow me to reflect on the same discourse using my genuinely limited reasoning and language skills in the light of Edison’s bulb.

Bumiputera Christians of Sabah and Sarawak have been using the term Allah in their Bahasa translations (most times this is technically an Indonesian version) since about 150 years ago. That is a historical fact which can be easily verified or falsified. But, maybe the more important question is, who are we to anthropomorphize God (to reduce our understanding of GOD into human levels of thinking and being or by giving GOD human attributes)? The second important question to my mind is who are we to also claim unique personal ownership of this “phenomenon (or, ‘neumenon?’) of God?” Can God, if we behold this “elephant-like impression,” ever be “reduced into a thing which can be possessed or owned?” That is the equivalent of the Persians, for instance, arguing that the Blind Men and Elephant is theirs alone; their Intellectual Property! The consequential question and moral imperative is: even if we know and can appreciate this phenomenon of God, how should we become “stewards or owners” of the phenomenon, or spiritual reality?

Therefore, to my mind, this discourse has three dimensions, all of which are equally important. First, can we understand each other’s categories of thinking, and are we all talking at the same level of analysis? Is GOD, the same God or Allah for all peoples and all times? Does the image of this “Other” change or shift based on our understanding, or lack of it? Does it really matter to GOD that we call Him by as many names, as there are observers? Is not the real beauty in the eye of the Observed, and not the observer in this case?

Second, even if we understand, know and appreciate this spiritual reality we call God does any of us have a unique human right to claim ownership? I certainly think not. If not, then stewardship of that personal understanding and knowledge is the only real issue. How then should we seek to communicate the characteristics of such great Knowledge? Is it really by claiming naming rights and towards excluding others’ rights to claim the same metaphorical elephant? Under whose authority then are we making the claim then? And, by what authority do we seek to enforce that “understanding which is already so ephemeral and spiritual.”

Thirdly, even if we spiritually can and do know this God, is not reflecting and practicing the characteristics and nature of this experience the more critical question? For example, if God is all-knowing, should we not also seek to demonstrate such knowing through our being as well?

For Christmas, when I was having a meal with some friends, this topic came up and one of them, a Malay Muslim said: The Allah issue is not a Muslim issue but rather a Malay one. Some have also said that it is not a legal issue but really a political one. I have a feeling it is both a Malay issue and a very political one; not a legal or scientific or a historical or spiritual one. The majority of Peninsular Malays may need to be informed and educated to know that the root word for Allah is an Arabic word but which does not merely have the Malay meaning. Neither can Malays claim ownership of the word. They also need to be taught to understand that once we make Malay a national language, one has lost the privilege of claiming private ownership of the national language. Every Malaysian ethnic group has now as much rights to use all such words and phrases because they too are called Malaysians. To deny anyone in particular this human right of faith or belief or conscience is to deny them their very humanity. Otherwise, 1Malaysia also becomes meaningless!

We therefore need to build bridges of understanding and communication, so that we begin to see each group’s blind spots, their blind men and their respective elephants. Furthermore, with modern communication tools there are many more elephants and blind men claiming even more explanations. My prayer is that we learn to understand and hear one another; more than try to make oneself heard! May God bless Malaysia!

K.J. John is a regular contributor to The Micah Mandate and Malaysiakini. His new column in The Micah Mandate, Truth Matters Forum, debuts this week.

2 Replies to “Blind Men And Elephant”

  1. John,

    Perhaps the elephants and the blind men comparison could be applied in another way: “The Mouse that wants to be thought of as an Elephant.”

    By using images of fear to persuade us to suspend judgment (“this is a sensitive issue”), the mouse wants us to choose blindness and allow it to act like an elephant.

    I think this issue is about the powers of the Home Ministry and is in the same array of issues as the use of the ISA; it’s about those who are pro-evidence (those who believe pre-existing words cannot be copyrighted) and those who are not; it’s about sectarian vs global identity.

    Looking forward to your column!

  2. The Almighty is the Ultimate Truth. That Truth, viewed from any angle or perspective, will remain truth.

    It is my humble contention that human viewpoints about God do not agree with other human viewpoints about God because all of those viewpoints are coloured and filtered by an accumulation of cultural beliefs, conditioning and expectations. If we strip away those added layers and see the truth as it was originally revealed, we will all see the same Truth.

    There is only One God, by whatever name we choose to call Him.

    All else emanates from the One.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *