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Rumi’s ‘The Elephant in the Dark’

‘Disagreeing over the Description and Shape of the Elephant’

An elephant was in a darkened hall –
            Hindus had brought it as a spectacle.
Into that darkness everybody passed
            to have a look at it, so many people.
Since seeing with the eye was not permitted,
            they felt it in the darkness with their hands.
The hand of one fell on the elephant’s trunk.
            This someone said, ‘This structure’s like a drainpipe’.
The hand of one reached to the creature’s ear –
            It seemed to him as though it were a fan.
When one hand felt its leg the person said,
            ‘To me the elephant’s shape is like a pillar!’
And one who put his hand upon its back
            remarked, ‘This elephant’s just like a sofa!’
Just as each one had touched whatever part,
            so people formed their view from what they’d heard.
Their statements differed as their point of view –
            one man would call it ‘chalk’, another ‘cheese’.
If each had held a candle in his hand,
            the disputes would have vanished from their speech.
The sensual eye is like the hand, that’s all –
            a hand can’t grasp an elephant entirely.
The Ocean’s eye is one thing, spray’s another.
            Give up the spray! Look with the Ocean’s eye.
Spray leaping from the Ocean day and night,
            you see the spray not Ocean – how surprising!

Translated by Alan Williams from the third book of Rumi’s Masnavi, ed. R.A. Nicholson III.1259-1271, (ed. M. Este‘lami III. 1260-1272).

Alan Williams is Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester, England, and the author of Rumi Spiritual Verses: The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Ma'navi, London and New York: Penguin Classics, 2006 and an audiobook, The Spiritual Verses, read by Anton Lesser, translated and abridged by Alan Williams, London: Naxos, 2007.

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