Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

June 7, 2007

First published June 6, 2007

Elephant Lore

She dreamt of an elephant entering her womb, and the next day the queen declared she was pregnant. The child grew up to become the Buddha. In his previous lifetime, so says the Jatakas, the Buddha was Vessantara, prince of Sivi, who had in his stables a magical elephant that drew rain clouds wherever it went. And so, when there was a drought in Kalinga, the king requested that Vessantara’s elephant be sent there and draw in the rain.

Stories such as these clearly indicate that in India, and in South East Asia, in general, elephants are associated with rain and fertility. In Puri, Orissa, at the height of summer, the presiding deity, Jagannath, is bedecked with a mask of an elephant in the hope that it will serve as a talisman and bring in monsoons sooner.

Little wonder then that Indra, king of the gods and god of the sky, is visualized riding an elephant. No ordinary elephant. An elephant with white skin, six trunks and six pairs of tusks called Airavata. Indra rides atop Airavata into battle and hurls his thunderbolt at dark rain-bearing monsoon clouds, visualized as a herd of dark elephants, forcing them to release rain so that the red earth turned green. Amongst Airavata’s many titles are names such as ‘the wandering cloud’ and ‘the brother of the sun’ leaving no doubt that Indra’s white elephant symbolized the white clouds that embellish the sky when the rain clouds have passed.

According to the Kurma Purana, when the gods churned the ocean of milk, Airavata was one of the fourteen treasures that emerged. He was the first elephant and was claimed by Indra. Since then elephants have been the symbol of royal power. A medieval text known as Matangalila, the play of elephants, describes Airavata’s birth differently. When Brahma broke open the egg of the cosmos, out came flying, Garuda, the sun-bird. From the right half of the shell came eight-bull elephants led by Airavata and from the left half came eight cow-elephants led by Abharamu. These elephants paired up and then one by one they went to the four cardinal and the four ordinal directions and became renowned as the Dig-gajas or the elephant guardians of the eight directions. Every time they trembled the earth shook.

These eight elephants, all white, indicating their celestial nature, all came together when the gods churned the ocean of milk to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. They raised their trunk and sprayed her with water. This was the Abhishekha ritual — the pouring of water — which is indicative of the rain. With rain comes vegetation and with vegetation comes wealth and with wealth comes power. Thus elephant is associated with fertility, wealth and power. It is the favorite animal of Lakshmi. She rides on it and blesses the kings of the earth.

In Mauryan times only kings were allowed to own elephants. It was proof of their wealth and power. In temples, one often finds images of lions subduing elephants. The lions are symbols of the king. The elephant represents the earth that the king rules over. She is rich, fertile and submissive.

In erotic literature, elephants are symbols of unrestrained raw sexual power. According to the Kama-sutra, an elephant-woman or Hastini is the lustiest of women, crude and vulgar in her carriage. In the Mahabharata, queens such as Draupadi were addressed as Mada-gaja-gamini, women who walk like cow-elephants in rut. The translation does not paint a pretty picture but it basically means a large hipped voluptuous but very graceful woman. The walk of an elephant and the swing of her hips has inspired Indian poets such as Kalidasa for ages. An elephant walks without much sound and it places its feet on earth softly and with great care.

In Vishnu Purana,Vishnu rescues, the king of elephants, Gajendra, from the jaws of a crocodile. The king of elephants surrounded by cow-elephants is a metaphor for the sensual delights of the world, the crocodile representing the bondage of materialism. Liberation comes when the elephant (sexual power) raises its trunk and offers a lotus (devotion) to the Lord.

In heat or ‘musht’, the elephant is unstoppable and extremely dangerous. From here comes colloquial words such as ‘masti’ or bawdy fun that the youth indulge in. When an elephant is in the peak of its sexual cycle it oozes fluids from its temples. This is called mada from where comes the word ‘madira’ meaning wine. In Kerala temples, the most prized elephant was a bull elephant whose trunk, tusk and penis touched the ground. Such an elephant represented absolute virility. Such an elephant was reserved for the chief deity of a shrine.

In Japan, the elephant-headed deity, Kangiten, is worshipped as a central object of devotion. Kangiten symbolizes conjugal affection, and is thus prayed to by couples hoping for children. Statues of this deity are relatively rare in Japan — most are kept hidden from public view and used in secretive rituals. Kangiten statues in Japan clearly reflect the deity’s Hindu origins, for in India the deity is known as the elephant-headed Ganesha. In Japan, Kangiten is typically depicted with an elephant’s head and human body, or as a pair of two-armed, elephant-headed deities in embrace.

Killing elephants is the ultimate feat of manhood. In the Bhagavat Purana, Kamsa dispatches the royal elephant, Kuvalayapida, to trample Krishna. Krishna not only kills the elephant but wrenches out its tusks as trophies of victory. By killing the elephant, the cowherd declares open revolt against the king.

In Tantrik literature, the goddesses often are described as riding elephants or carrying impaled elephants in their hands. This establishes the sexual and violent power of the deities.

If elephants represent wealth and power and material grandeur, then they should not matter to ascetics. And they don’t. Shiva, the supreme ascetic, is called Gajantaka, he who killed an elephant, flayed it alive and used its thick skin, the Gaja-charma, as a cloak. In many scriptures, the elephant is described as a demon, Gajasura, who terrorizes the world, a metaphor for the dangers of sensual pursuits undoubtedly. Elephant’s skin cannot be tanned easily. Thus it rots. Shiva by wearing it reinforces his role as one who holds all things material in disdain.

The elephant’s skin is thick and strong. Arrows in a battlefield have little or no effect on it. That is why they were used as moving citadels in ancient warfare, protecting the cavalry and chariots from the rear. They terrified Alexander’s army when he reached the borders of India until the Greeks realized that the elephant could be used against the enemy. Just terrorize it so that it runs amuck killing all those it is supposed to protect.

In Tibetian Buddhist art one often comes across images of Mahakala standing upon an elephant-headed demon. Scholars believe this is Gajasura, the demon of materialism. Others say the elephant headed demon represents proto-Ganesha; for long before Ganesha became the much loved god who removes obstacles he was a much feared god who created obstacles. This tradition still exists in remote Tibet where the elephant-headed deity is feared and needs to be trampled by the lord of time, Mahakala.

But as Hinduism evolved in India, the elephant-headed demon destroyed by time became the elephant-headed son created by Shiva. Why did Shiva use an elephant’s head to resurrect the son autonomously created by his consort, the goddess Shakti? The instruction given to his attendants was: “Go north and fetch the head of the first living thing you come across.” North is the direction of growth in Vaastu and according to Brahmavaivarta Purana, the creature first seen by Shiva’s attendants was the white Airavata, the mount of Indra. Clearly, the killer of elephants is creating his son using the ultimate symbol of material splendor.  In creating the elephant-headed Ganesha, Shiva stops being the world-renouncing hermit and transforms into Shankara, the world-affirming householder. Thus the elephant brings with it life and growth, wherever it goes. A befitting representative of God’s Own Country.

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