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Symbolic Significance Of Elephant In Hinduism – Elephant In Hindu Culture – Temple – Festivals

Hindu scriptures, from Rig Veda onward, are replete with stories of elephants. There is not a single scripture in Hinduism that does not mention elephant. Here is a look at the symbolic significance of elephant in Hinduism.

The Aryans called elephant the mriga hastin (animal with a hand). Elephant was the favorite animal of artists, poets, and sculptors.

Why The Most Popular Hindu God Has The Face Of Elephant?

Taittiriya Aranyaka vividly portrays the elephant. The big elephant head represents the great repository of wisdom and the larger ears connote the conduit to acquire vas knowledge. The trunk of Ganesha symbolizes the power to uproot ignorance and impart gentle grace to the devotees. It connotes the discriminatory capacity to differentiate between the dualities of life, such as good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, in gross and subtle forms. The two tusks represent these dualities, the broken tusk of Ganesha indicates the state of the real enlightened individual who is above these contradictory pairs. The elephant head is the most befitting symbolism of Lord Ganesha, who is vidya (the master of knowledge) and avidya (the victor of worldly acquisitions).

Elephant And Goddess Lakshmi

Equally impressive is the elephant as a symbol of one of the eight forms of Mahalakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity – Gajalakshmi. She is padmasthita (seated on lotus) in a lake and has padma hasta (holding lotus in her hand) and is flanked by two white elephants standing beside her and pouring milk from a vessel held on raised trunks. The lotus represents divinity and purity. The elephant gently pouring the milk symbolize the power of the gentle and generous Goddess who emanates energy as milk flowing out of the vessels.

In Buddhism, the elephant symbolized Buddha before his image became an object of worship. This is because his mother, Maya, dreamt of a white elephant before Buddha was born.

The lower architrave of the western gate of Sanchi depicts the Chaddanta – Jataka legend of an early incarnation of Buddha as the king of a herd of elephants.

Elephant In Hindu Scriptures

The white elephant with four tusks, Airavata, come out during the churning of the ocean of milk by gods and demons. It becomes the mount of Lord Indra.

As per Hindu scriptures, four elephants standing on a tortoise support the earth. The elephant here denotes power and endurance, while the tortoise represents creative power.
Puranas vividly portray elephants in various ways. Shiva displays his power by dancing about the slain elephant demon Gajasura. Bhagavata Purana anthropomorphizes the elephant in the episode of Gajendra Moksha. The might elephant that is in imminent danger of death at the jaws of alligator wholly submits to the grace of God as savior and is saved. This symbolizes the futility of mere might and points to the possibility of liberation from the cycle of life and death only on submission to the will of almighty god.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata depict the elephant as a symbol of royal power, strength and status and describe its use in various situations, especially in warfare. Lord Rama gives his elephant as a gift to the son of Sage Vasistha. Bharata ceremoniously carries Rama’s sandals on an elephant’s head. The episode of awakening of Kumbhakarna in the Ramayana includes the use of elephants to pull the nasal hairs of Kumbhakarna and to trumpet loudly to awaken him. There are references to Chaturanga Sena (a four-fold army), comprising elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry. Ravana leads the army, along with three million elephants. But while there is minimal mention of elephants in actual combat in the Ramayana, this is explicit in the episode of Bhagadatta and his elephant, Supritika, in the Mahabharata.

Supritika destroys the chariots of powerful warriors like Bhima, Abhimanyu, and Satyaki. It winds its trunk around Bhima and hoists him in the air. Bhagadatta freely sends arrows and javelins and brings death and terror to the enemies. These episodes of the Mahabharata reveal the behavior of tamed and wild elephants at the time.

Elephant As Guardians Of Directions

Brahma sang seven holy melodies and created eight male elephants and eight female elephants. They became diggaja which presided over the directions and became ancestors of all elephants and supporters of the world. Airavata and his consort, Abhramu, guard the eastern direction; Pundarika and his consort Kapila, the southeast; Supritika and his consort Anjanavati the northeast, Vamana and his mate, Pingala, guard the south; Kumuda and his mate, Anupama the southwest; Anjana and his mate Tamrakarni guard the west, Pushpadanta and his mate Subhadanti the northwest and Sarvabhuma and his mate, Angana, the north.

Elephants In Hindu History - War

Seals from the Indus Valley Civilization depict elephants with saddles, indicating domestication.

During the time of Ashoka (273-32 BC), the elephant was a common theme in sculptures. The north gate of the great stupa of Sanchi shows elephants supporting the wheel of law. The north and east gates have statues of decorated elephants with riders.

Hindu kings and emperors fostered as symbols of power and glory and patronized the sculptors, architects, and artists to create various elephant motifs. They captured the beauty, power and versatility of the elephant in their works and adorned the temples and palaces with exquisite carvings and statues of elephants in various postures.

Armored elephants played a decisive role in warfare for millennia until the early 19th century, when cannons pushed them to supply lines in the rear guard. The 11th – 13th century temple frieze in Hoysala graphically portrays elephants in war. The might elephant brigades of the Indian kings Porus and Chandragupta Maurya caused severe damage to the Greek armies. The emperors gave thousands of armored elephants as gifts during royal matrimonial alliances.

The Maharaja of Gwalior tested the strength of the palace ceiling by hoisting three elephants to the roof before installing the 42-feet high chandelier weighing about three tons!

Elephants In Festival - Culture

Apart from warfare, elephants have been intimately associated with many cultural and social activities. Elegantly caparisoned elephants have been the soul of festivals and ceremonies for almost three millennia. They include colorful annual processions, like the Dussehra festival in Mysore, and the grand annual temple ceremonies.

For the Mysore Dussehra festival, the large and powerful Kumeriah breed is usually chosen to provide the ‘State Elephants” for the procession. The elephants are given an elaborate bath. The artists, using chalk and vegetable dyes, paint intricate floral and bird motifs on the animals. They then drape them with richly embroidered tasseled velvet and satin brocades and adorn them with silver anklets, chains and brass bells. It is a spectacular sight to watch these magnificently clad elephants that receive puja (royal homage) on the ninth day of Dussehra.

Elephants add charm and splendor to the daily ceremonies and stately annual festivals of most of the temples in Kerala. For daily ceremonies, priests carry the images of the deity on the top of one or three caparisoned elephants that circumambulate the temple accompanied by drummers.

Elephants are an indispensable part of the famous pooram festivals in Kerala. In the annual Thrissur Pooram festival, as many as 25 caparisoned tuskers from two temples carry the images of deities on ornate gold-studded frames and follow drummers, cymbalists, and clarion trumpeters to face other as in an epic battle. Here two temples in a mock rivalry try to display the largest elephants, the best musicians, the most beautiful parsols, and the most astonishing fireworks.

During the annual festival, another traditional event is the para edukkal. A caparisoned elephant carrying the image of the deity visits the homes in the community. The devotees receive it at the well-decorated gate with lighted oil lamps and burning incense and offer bushels of paddy. The elephant gets its share of bananas and coconuts.

Kerala elephants are treated as pets in community. They are especially endearing  to the matriarchal Nair nobility, since elephant herds also have a closely knit community led by a matriarch. They are invited to their homes to feast on their favorite foods – banans, coconuts, rice with molasses and palm leaves. People of Kerala named the highest mountain range in the state as Anamalai (elephant range) and its summit as Anamudi (elephant peak).

The elephant sanctuary of Guruvayur Temple in Kerala is famous. Equally famous are the important elephants in the temple.

Elephant Sculptures In Temples

The backs of eight elephants support the temple of Kailashnath temple at Ellora, carved out of rock in the 7th century AD. Two free standing elephants carrying a human figure with a shield in his hand stand as a landmark of the famous Konark temple, dated 1238-64 AD. Two elephants with intertwined trunks is a striking platform frieze at Khajuraho. The Cota sculpture at the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur is an elephant holding a person in its trunk.

A view of the elephant statue of 16th Century in Azhagar Kovil Village Tamil Nadu

Hindu Artists have immortalized the grandeur of decorated ceremonial elephants, the dexterity of elephants on the battlefields, and the amicability of docile ones in various ways.

Elephants have also been used in the construction of temple (like the well-known big temple of Thanjavur).

Elephant Paintings

Ajanta cave paintings (100 – 900 AD) from wall 17 vividly portray the Jataka story of the elephant section of an army. The soldiers are armed with spears and bows, while military officers sit on enclosed canopied platforms, which are fixed to backs of elephants.

The Rajasthani mural flanking the doorway of the inner court of the City Palace depicts a beautifully decorated ceremonial elephant. The frescoes at the City Palace in Udaipur display an elephant in ceremonial dress washing in a lily pond and decorated elephants in the wedding procession. The east gate of Kota Palace in Rajasthan has a realistic mural of elephants in royal wedding procession. The elephant is a favorite theme for paintings on the doorways of house for the folk artists of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. These may vary from realistic portrayals to outlandish ones like elephants with seven trunks.

The elephant is a favorite character for poets and storytellers. Matanga Lila embodies the elephant lore of the Hindus and describes the mythological origin of the elephant. Among the notable expatiations on the elephant are Hastayurveda, a medical text on elephants by sage Palakapya, and Matanga Lila (elephant sport) by Nilakantha. The famous Hindu fables ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant is an allegory of theological disputes.’

Source - notes taken from Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume V page 144 - 46 - IHRF