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Significance of Elephant in Sanatana Dharma and Indic Culture

significance of elephants in hinduism

Elephant finds a centre place in the Indic culture. The testimonial witness to the interlinked history-culture-society of Bharata and by that virtue Hinduism is the Elephant and its manifestation can be found – in symbolism, its corner stone presence in itihasa (history) and puranas and in everyday life. Elephants are considered sacred and many texts have been written about them exclusively.

Elephant has its own place in the history of Bharata from ancient times all the way to the Mughal period and later. The Elephant is believed to bring good luck and prosperity and worshiped as Lord Ganesha. It is considered sacred with a connection to divinity and in ancient times was treated as a part of the extended family. Elephants are reared in South Indian temples as part of the temple worship rituals. Elephant idols adorn the entrance of many ancient temples and even today Hindu and Buddhists homes have symbolic elephants in wooden form as idols, iconography or chain rings and other forms. Elephant motifs on sarees and textiles have been used since ancient times in India. One of the earliest depictions of elephants is the Bhimbetka caves which shows that since the ancient times man and animal co-existed together in Bharata.

Elephants in Puranas and Itihasa

In Puranas Airavata is considered the divine King of elephants. Airavata finds a mention the Puranas, in Itihasa – Ramayana and Mahabharta. The story as per Matangalila goes that Lord Brahma created elephants from two halves of an egg as he chanted seven secret mantras of creation. Towards the end of his chanting from one half of the egg eight male elephants were born and from the other half eight female elephants were born. The first of the male elephants was, Airavata, which means belonging to Iravati. According to Ramayana, Iravati, daughter of Kadru and sage Kashyapa, was the mother of Airavata.

In the story of Samudra Manthan mentioned in Bhagvata Purana and Vishnu Purana, Airavata a spotless majestic white elephant of the clouds emerged from the churning of the Ocean of the Milk. Airavata’s beauty mesmerised Sri Indra and he immediately laid claim to him and Airavata became his mount or vehicle.

Elephants in Purana

According to the Rig Veda story involving Sri Indra and Vritra, a dragon serpent, Airavata plays a crucial role as the vehicle of Indra. It is said the Vritra blocked the flow of rivers causing famine by keeping the river waters captive in his asuric world. The mighty Airavata reached down his trunk into the watery underworld, sucked up its water, and then sprayed it into the clouds. This helped Indra who then by his power caused to rain forth cool water, thereby linking the waters of the sky with those of the underworld.

elephants with wings

Puranas also explain how these celestial beings happened to get stuck on earth. During the Puranic times elephants had mammoth strong wings and they could easily fly between the three worlds. But once an elephant accidentally disturbed Sage Dirghatapas and the power of the elephants to fly was taken away. Rishi Dirghatapas whose name means, “one who does extended tapas or meditation”, was involved in one of his long meditations under a tree. An elephant who had been flying for a long time and was feeling tired decided to stop and perch on the same tree where Rishi Dirghatapas was doing his meditation. The Rishi was disturbed due to breaking of some branches by the elephant and this enraged Dirghatapas. He immediately cursed the elephant saying the wings of the elephant and all his kind will be of no use any longer. He further added that the elephants would from there-on be bound to earth and will have to carry humans on their backs.

अश्वत्थामा हतो नरो वा कुञ्जरो वा -Aswathhama hatha iti Narova Kunjarova is a famous line from the Mahabharta. During the Kurukshetra war when Krishna realised that it would be difficult to defeat the great warrior Guru Dronacharya- he decided to create a ruse. He asked Bhima to kill an elephant named Ashwathhama and forced Dharmaraj Yudhishthir to give the news of the death of the elephant as a half lie to Guru Dronacharya. The father heard only the name of his son Ashwathhama and immediately plunged in to grief there by being distracted and an easy target for Dhrishtadyumna to cut off his head immediately.

Symbolism of Elephant in Hinduism and Ancient Society

In Hinduism elephants symbolise physical and mental strength, fertility, royalty, majesty, prosperity, intelligence, keenness and wisdom. Sri Ganesha the foremost worshiped deity and popular symbol of elephant in Hinduism where religion in terms of divine manifestation, spirituality and animal features are intertwined. Just as elephants create their own path in dense forests Sri Ganesha is considered by the devout Hindu a vighnaharta, remover of all obstacles. He is prayed to before start of any puja or start of any new venture. The big head of elephant with large ears and wide mouth are suggestive to the wisdom and intellect of Sri Ganesha while the ears are symbolic to good listener. The small eyes are said signify the long vision and the broken tusk ability to overcome opposition.

Hindus intertwined the majestic Elephant in their everyday life effortlessly through culture, art and aesthetics- from paintings on caves, murals and miniatures, everyday fabrics and textiles, coins and many other forms.

Maurya coins

Elephants are the identity of Indic civilisation through-out history and can be found on seals excavated from the sites of Indus Valley civilisation dating as far back as 2500 BCE or earlier. Many bronze idols of elephants have been found during excavations in the Saraswati river bed which are placed to be around 2500 BCE. Study of numismatics in ancient India gives ample information about Hindu practices and relevance of elephants during various dynasties. The Mauryan dynasty had punched marked coins that had engravings of the Elephant and wheel. According to Mintage World Magazine; “Representation of elephant, bull, lion and horse is commonly found on Satvahana coins. The occurrences of these animals have different significance, either region wise or religion wise. These animals sometimes have relevance in accordance with particular region. E.g. the elephant, which are found on majority of the Satvahana coins, is a popular animal of South India, the region the Satvahana’s belonged to the sculptures elephants are also found at the many caves such as Karle, Bedse, Sanchi, Bhrut, Amravati etc. which belong to the Satvahana period.” (1)

Indian dynasties through-out history gave prominence to the Elephant due to its symbol of royalty and majesty. The Pandya kingdom during the Sangam age had symbols on their coinage depicting the Elephant with the trident in its façade. The coins found at the Krishna and Godavari districts of Andhra dynasty typically had the elephant roughly depicted with or without legs usually facing the right end, its trunk raised in a gesture mimicking a salute.(1) The Kongani dynasty which finds its origins in the Chera dynasty also had its recognising bearing with the Elephant and supplemented by the bow. Post 9th century saw a split in the Chera-Kongu dynasty and the faction which established itself in Orissa is called the Gajapati dynasty.

Symbolism of Elephants in the Indic culture and its presence on everyday objects obviously is due to the dharmic significance which has its roots in nature worship. The progression from nature worship to religious and spiritual worship to breath taking mesmerising art forms in Indic culture is a separate commentary in itself. Elephant as an art motif can be found in various arts such as Mithila paintings, Pahari paintings of the Himachal Pradesh and the wooden or marble inlay art form prevalent in Punjab. The Elephant was transformed as motif on textiles too by Indians. The mind-boggling question -if the regalness of sarees from Kanchipuram or Patola from Gujarat is due to the fine silks & gold embroidery or the elephant motif continues even today.

Elephants carved in Hindu temples and Buddhists caves can be found almost everywhere in India. As mentioned earlier Bhimbetka caves are the oldest paintings of elephants said to be about 10,000 years old. The Ajanta cave paintings dated to be about 450 CE also have paintings of elephants. Due to the royal and majestic appearance of the elephant many temples have elephant carvings as dwarpalas. Gharapuri island near Mumbai which is now known as Elephanta caves aptly named so by Portuguese invaders in 16th century has caves and sculptures built by Shilhara Kings between 9th to 12th century. At the mouth of the island a stood a massive elephant sculpture which the Portuguese attempted to transport to the main island in the 16th century but failed. The elephant was later brought to the main island and now adorns the Bhau Lad ji Museum in Mumbai. Elephant carvings and stand-alone elephant statues can be found in Orissa temples too- like the Sun Temple of Konark and the Daksha Prajapati Temple. Darasuram near Tanjore has the Airavateswara temple built in 12th AD by Rajaraja Chola. It is believed that Airavata, the elephant of Sri Indra worshiped the Lingam here and hence the Lingam is called Airavateswara.

Elephants held a cornerstone and played an important role in all royal processions of Kings and temple rath yatras. Kings would deck out the elephants in royal pageantry during victory or other symbolic festival processions.

Texts on Elephants

As mentioned earlier through the Mahabharta tale elephants were part of armies that went to war since ancient times. While it was common to have captive elephants and rear them be it for the purpose of war or ceremonial processions in Temples extensive texts were written to guide on capture, training, animal husbandry specially for elephants. The elephants were reared with much care and extensive deep studies on the science of elephants was also carried out since ancient times. These studies have been written in Sanskrit and many parts have been lost due to Mughal and British aggressions. Some of the texts found pertaining to elephants are as below-

  1. Hasthi Ayurveda

As the name suggests it is literally the Ayurveda of elephants.  it is  also known as Gajayurveda or Gajachikitsa and is attributed to sage Palakapya a contemporary of King Dasharatha of Ramayana. The text is divided into four parts – 1. Maharogasthanam (major maladies), 2. Kshudrarogasthanam (minor maladies), 3. Sallyasthanam (surgical conditions) and, 4. Utharastanam (epilogue). Each section gives in-depth knowledge on how to treat elephants for various diseases and situations the elephants may hurt itself. It gives guidance on feeds, medicated feeds and surgical options for wounds, pregnancy, poisonous bites from other animals etc. The last part discusses administration of medicated oils, electuaries, different types of enemas, feeds such as sugarcane, ghee, milk and fodder during different seasons, tusk trimming etc.

  1. Mathangaleela (elephant sport or game)

This text is written by Neelakanta and is considered to be about 200 years old but many consider it to be a much older text which compiles knowledge received and shared over centuries. The twelve Chapters give extensive information- about the Puranic history of the elephant, the knowledge on how to choose a good elephant based on markings on various parts of the body, how to predict the longevity of life of an elephant based on markings, signs of character of elephants and the types thereby, management of elephants, qualities of a mahouts and managers of elephants, commands to be used to train elephants including visual aids, oral and percussion based signs. Neelakanta ends the text with a thoughtful note ‘elephant science is like a deep ocean, this small part is extracted by me from it and is given as Mathangaleela. This may be examined, tested and corrected by the wise’. (2)

There are other ancient texts which mention about elephants – their science, care and usage pertinent to war, games and rituals. These texts are the Brihat Samhita, Arthashastra, Manasollasa and Gaja Shastra. Reading of these texts gives an insight into the development of knowledge in regards to care and maintenance of elephants from birth to death in all situations. It is a reflection upon how Indians considered the animal as someone who should be cared for properly so as to make its life free of any stress from health issues. In the past decade there has been a concentrated campaign to declare Hindu practices of retaining elephants in temple rituals as being animal cruelty. Reading of these texts gives an insight into the compassion acharyas and Kings insisted for the elephant and cared for it as being one of the family.

Endnote

The elephant is worshiped, revered and a much-loved animal in the Indic culture. It finds a prominent place in our culture from time memorial and as per Hindu beliefs elephant is one of the animals Sri Brahma created at the beginning of creation. The majestic animal has been retained in our lives since then by our ancestors through worship, culture and altruistic preservation of them. The recent news of the death of an elephant from eating a firecracker is wake up call to remind ourselves of our tradition of protection and compassion towards the animal.

References

  1. Historically tracing the symbolism of elephants in Hinduism- Rinny Rebecca
  2. Elephantology in Sanskrit by Jacob V. Cheeran, Gajah 39 (2013) 24-29

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