I like trying to find original stories or folklore that have found their way into modern thought, still moving forward after so many storytellers have passed. These treasured tales often wind up like those whispered to children sitting meditatively in a circle. By the time they arrive, having traveled from origin to a present form, they’re often much different, or at least applied differently, sometimes for good intent and other times not. Free will guides the choice.
These are three of the earliest Oriental examples of the concept of “the one and the many,” the most recognized of which is “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Please note that these concepts were passed as oral traditions, by storytellers, for many years prior to their being committed to writing (the dates given below).
The basic concept can be found in plenty of modern examples. One would be the contrast between libertarianism and socialism or between the individual and the State. A second post follows on this one, focusing on a modern example of the concept from the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher [ The One and the Many: The Ants of Capital Hill ]. –SB
A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, “Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?”
The Buddha answered, “Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, ‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind… and show them an elephant.’ ‘Very good, sire,’ replied the servant, and he did as he was told.
He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.
“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’
“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’
And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’
Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare.
Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.
“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.
“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.
“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”
Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim / For preacher and monk the honored name! / For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. / Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Udana 68-69 (Buddhism canon: Pali/Theravada, 1st Century B.C.E.) The Jainist version is considered older, but I like this Buddhist rendering better. — SB[ http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~rywang/berkeley/258/parable.html ]
2. “Truth is one, sages call it by various names“:
‘Ekam sat vipraa bahuda vadanti’ has been translated by some as ‘Truth is one, sages call it by various names’.
The sentence is ‘Ekam sat bahuda (iti) vipraa vadanti’ which means ‘It is the ONE reality which appears as MANY – So say the sages’. In other words, this sentence is only giving out the vedantic vision that though there appears to be MANY things, there is only ONE reality which is non-dual.
Vedanta (Hinduism, 1700-1100 B.C.E.)[ http://www.indiadivine.org/audarya/advaita-vedanta/138127-truth-one-sages-call-many-names.html ]
3. “God, Who is One has many manifestations“:
. . . as seconds, minutes, hours, quarters of a day, lunar days, week days, months, / Are created by one sun and so are created many seasons by it, / Similarly God, Who is One has many manifestations . . . .
Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism: Kirstan Sohila, Asa Measure, Guru Nanak, 1469-1708 C.E.) [ http://sikhs.org/transl6.htm ]