Elephants in religious consciousness


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* Elephants adorn the steps that led up to the inner sanctum of the highest section of the Venkatesvara temple in Malibu, California. From the very beginning of the temple in the 1980s they have been lovingly and beautifully painted, inviting worshippers toward the ascent.

* At the Amber Palace in Jaipur, visitors are invited to climb up onto the back of an elephant to promenade up the mountain into the once restricted domains limited to royalty.

* Far to the South, in Tanjore, elephants at the Nandi temple loll on the ground for their periodic bath, drenched and cooled and lovingly scrubbed by their elephant tenders.

* Animal ecologist and activist George Schaller lamented in 2011 while we were in Delhi and saw ‘working’ elephants, commenting on the sadness of breaking these magnificent animals and putting them under human control.

* While travelling in the area of Dehra Dun and Rishikesh in the winter of 2011, roads were closed and traffic diverted due to marauding elephants. By some estimates as many as 500 human lives are lost in India each year due to elephant trampling.

* Goldman Environmental Prize winner M.C. Mehta told me a harrowing tale of being trapped by elephants on his property, eventually rescued by neighbours who, summoned by cell phone, came running with flaming torches to move the elephants away from his eco ashram.

THESE random accounts of encountering elephants will serve as a frame for some reflections on the role of these magnificent animals within human consciousness.

Elephants have occupied a special niche in the human imagination for millennia. School children find themselves fascinated when told that Hannibal brought elephants from Africa to invade the Roman Empire. Circus elephants have delighted audiences worldwide, though Lisa Leeman’s film ‘One Lucky Elephant’ highlights the moral ambiguities involved with elephant capture and domestication. People in India have long regarded elephants with amazement and respect. Schoolchildren chant ‘aana! aana!’ when they lumber down the street, breaking into laughter and smiles.

An elephant is a magnificent creature: large like a massive boulder or a tumultuous thundercloud, strong like his bovine cousins, intelligent, compassionate and deeply emotional. Famous for their mourning ceremonies, they gather in Africa around the bones of their deceased brethren. Even in captivity elephants evoke a deep response from their human mammalian kin. Their very bulk commands attention. Walt Disney knew the psychic sway of the elephant. He depicted flying pink elephants in one memorable scene in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. One of the most popular Disney theme park rides, Dumbo, sets one flying through the sky on the back of an elephant.


Despite their ability to produce delight deep from the depths of the human psyche, elephants also produce great fear. Elephants are known for their ferocity. Their sheer size can evoke profound respect if not terror of their capacity to do harm. The mahouts who train elephants use sharp tools to gain the upper hand and still find themselves at times unable to dominate the occasional rogue elephant, particularly at the time of must/musth. As explained by G. H. Evans:

‘Male elephants, and very rarely females, on obtaining maturity, are subject to peculiar paroxysms of excitement, which seem to have some connection with the sexual functions, to which the name musth is applied... The behaviour changes, shown by disobedience to commands, trying to break away, or showing violence to man or destructive tendencies and being altogether out of sorts. The temples become puffy, due to the swelling of the temporal glands which lie beneath the skin... when musth is established there is often a partial retention of urine... the attack may last a few days weeks, or months’ (p. 75, as quoted by Edgerton, pp. 29-30 from G.H. Evans, Elephants and Their Diseases, Rangoon, 1910).

Both the delightful, intelligent elephant, and the marauding elephant have been at the core of many fables and instructional tales within the Buddhist, Jaina, and Hindu traditions. This article will survey both typologies.


Elephants have been part of religious lore from the times of earliest India. The seals of Mohenjodaro and Harappa depict elephants as early as 3000 BCE. The Vedas talk about the power of Indra being like that of elephant, mad with heat (RV I.64.7). Indra uses his thunderbolt in order to break open the clouds and let the monsoon rains fall to earth. In some accounts from the Mahâbhârata and the Matsya Purâňa, Indra rides an elephant known as Airavata or Abhramu or Abhramatanga when he defeats Vrtra. It might be said that Indra rides a cloud elephant, with something of the colour of rain clouds and both are similarly large. Airavata, Indra’s mount, was said to be one of the gems that rose up from the churning of the ocean, along with the nectar of immortality and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Elephants are associated with the four directions. The Vishnu Purana states that ‘elephants of the quarters of the sky took up their pure waters in golden vessels and poured them over the goddess, the queen of the universe’ (1.9.103). The four elephants of the cardinal directions are named in the Râmâyana as Virupaksa, the mount of Indra to the East, Saumanasa, who carries Varuna to the West, Mahapadma, the bringer of death or Yama to the South, and Himapandara, the mount of Kubera, to the North. Other texts add the intermediate directions, resulting in eight elephants with similar associations with deities, coupled with spouses:

Airavata/Indra/east/married to Abhramu




Anjana/Varuna (ocean)/west/Anjanavati


Sarvabhama/Kubera (wealth)/north/Tamrakarna

Supratika/Soma (moon)/northeast/Anjanavata.

The notion of elephants holding up the four corners of the world evokes their strength, their loyalty, and their affirmation of life. The association of elephants with the most powerful of Hindu gods, as well as the special relationship between the elephant and the goddess Lakshmi demonstrate their significance in the representation of and petitioning for stability and power.


The Matânga Lilâ, a Sanskrit text on the training of elephants, states that the original elephants were able to fly freely in the sky:

I:11. The sage Palakapya said to the Lord of Anga: ‘Formerly elephants could go anywhere they pleased, and assume any shape; they roamed as they liked in the sky and on the earth. In the northern quarter of the Himalaya mountain there is a banyan tree which has a length and breadth of two hundred leagues. On it the excellent elephants alighted (after flying in the air).

12. They broke off a branch (which fell) upon a hermitage place, where dwelt a hermit named Dirghatapas. He was angered by this and straight-away cursed the elephants. Hence, you see, the elephants were deprived of the power of moving at will, and came to be vehicles for even mortal men. The elephants of the quarters, however, were not cursed.’

The text goes on to state that elephants must always be protected:

1.21. The creation of elephants was holy, and for the profit of sacrifice to the gods, and especially for the welfare of kings, therefore it is clear that elephants must be zealously tended.


The creation of elephants took place at the very beginning of the formation of the world:

22. The Unborn (Creator) took solemnly in his two hands the two gleaming half shells of that (cosmic) egg... and chanted seven samans at once. Thereupon the elephant Airavata was born and seven other noble elephants were severally born through chanting. (These eight rule over the quarters or directions as explained above.)

23. Thus eight elephants were born from the cosmic eggshell held in his right hand. And from that in his left in turn eight cows were born, their consorts. And in the course of time those elephants, their many sons and grandsons, etc., endowed with spirit and might, ranged at will over the forests, rivers, and mountains of the whole world.

24. And the noble elephants went to the battle of the gods and demons as vehicles of the lords of the quarters, Indra, Agni, and the rest. (Edgerton, tr.)

As pillars upholding the universe, elephants carry the strength of gods and humans.

From the South of India, the story of Gajendra Moksa tells how through devotion to Lord Vishnu, the king of the elephants gained release from a crocodile, as summarized by Nanditha Krishna:

Gajendra, the king of the elephants, with his females and all other animals, lived in peace and harmony on a mountain in the milky ocean. One day, he went to a lake on the mountain to assuage his thirst. A crocodile… caught hold of the foot of Gajendra. The other elephants pulled and so did Gajendra, but they were unable to release his foot from the grip of the crocodile. This went on for years till Gajendra prayed to Lord Vishnu who immediately mounted his vehicle Garuda and reached Gajendra, whom he rescued by cutting off the crocodile’s neck with the Sudarshana chakra (130-131).

This story may be read as a metaphor for the power of Vishnu in his various incarnations to free his devotees from suffering.


Another South Indian story can be found in the temple at Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, dedicated to the element water. During a pilgrimage to the elemental temples of the South in 2013, our small group descended into a broad river valley with gardens and dense groves of banana, cocoanut, and palm trees. As we entered the water temple, a wonderful mural greeted us, depicting the story of the spider and the elephant.

The spider versus elephant narrative depicts a beautiful woman bathing the Siva lingam. A spider had woven a web overhead, to help protect the lingam, and the spider did this every day. But every day a hulking elephant would come and perform abhisheka, sprinkling water from his trunk onto the lingam, wrecking the spider’s web. So each morning the spider wove a new web and harboured great enmity toward the elephant. Finally the spider died and reincarnated as a great king. He built the water temple to protect the Siva lingam and made the entrance to the inner sanctum very small, to ensure that no elephant could enter. Sure enough, we had to duck low as we entered the sanctum, illumined with many ghee lamps, but much cooler that the inner sanctum of the fire temple. Although the elephant was outsmarted by the spider is this narrative, the story underscores the everyday presence of elephants. Also within Tiruchirapalli we visited the large Vaishnava temple and watched an elephant being painted and adorned for his daily procession.


Many Buddhist narratives include elephants. When Queen Maya ascends to the Tusthita Heaven during the midsummer festival, a white elephant circumambulates her day bed three times and enters her body to conceive the future Buddha. In the Matiposaka Jataka, the Buddha lived as a white elephant in a prior life. His mother was blind and at denying his own self-interest he cared for her in a cave. The king of Varanasi captured the magnificent animal but in captivity he refused to eat. The king learned about the elephant’s devotion to his mother and released him to return to the cave. When his mother died, the elephant joined a monastery. The Jataka tales mention 24 different elephants and ‘the training of an elephant is compared to the meditative techniques associated with the four foundations of mindfulness’ (Harris, 208).

In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the elephant occupies a significant place in religious iconography. Building on the Hindu image of the eight elephants supporting the universe, one Buddha in particular named Aksobya who became so firm in his resolve to help all sentient beings that he became unshakable in his vows, hence earning his name. He is often depicted in Himalayan art touching the earth with his right hand, atop a throne supported with eight regally attired elephants.

According to the Jaina tradition, animals and one elephant in particular are capable of acts of compassion. In one famous narrative, a huge forest fire had caused a herd of elephants and all the animals of the forest to flee, crowding around a lake. More and more animals crowded in, and one rabbit scampered into the only space available. The great Red Elephant, the chief of the herd, had an unbearable itch and had lifted its leg to find some relief. The rabbit chose that very place to hide. When the elephant saw what had happened, he stood on three legs to protect the life of the rabbit. A few minutes turned into hours, yet the elephant held his pose until the fire died down and the rabbit was able to escape. By this time, a terrible cramp debilitated the elephant. He fell and was unable to stand, dying shortly thereafter. His noble act of compassion guaranteed for him an auspicious rebirth as the prince Megha, who, remembering his selfless act in a prior life, renounced his claim to the throne and became a renowned Jaina monk.


During the evening in which she received the embryo of the 24th Tirthankara, Lord Mahavira, Queen Trisala experienced fourteen dreams. During the first, Trisala saw:

A fine, enormous elephant, possessing all lucky marks, with strong thighs and four mighty tusks; who was whiter than an empty great cloud, or a heap of pearls, or the ocean of milk, or the moon-beams, or spray of water, or the silver mountain whose temples were perfumed with fragrant musk-fluid, which attracted the bees; equalling in dimension the best elephant of the king of the gods (Indra’s Airavata); uttering a fine deep sound like the thunder of a big and large rain cloud. (Kalpa Sűtra II:1)

Elephant metaphors abound in Jaina literature. Mahavira is said to be ‘valorous like an elephant.’ The second Tirthankara, Ajita, sits upon an elephant throne, emphasizing his link with and renunciation of royal status.

The elegance of elephants finds literary expression in the second verse of Kalidasa’s masterpiece, the Meghaduta. The story begins with a lost bracelet that later rejoins two lovers. The very cloud messenger who brings the couple together, is described as an elephant, once again linking one of the largest, heaviest animals with the cloud-filled sky:

When he, a lover of sensual pleasures, had passed some months on the mountain, separated from his wife, and his forearm bare on account of the slipping off of the gold bracelet, he beheld, on the first day of Ashadha, a cloud, resting on the peak of the mountain and looking as attractive as an elephant stooping down in his butting sport against a bank. (verse 2, p. 3)

The drama unfolds around the king’s pining for his wife stimulated by the sight of the cloud that resembles an elephant.

The most famous depiction of the elephant in India, Ganesh, is in fact part human (his body) and part elephant (his head). Created by his mother Parvati fully as a young boy, he was decapitated by his angry father Shiva who attached the head of a passing elephant to the boy’s body, creating a powerful and magical being. Known as the remover of obstacles, Ganesh stands as perhaps the best loved god of the Hindu pantheon, adored by Vaishnavas and Saivites alike.


Elephants in the state of musth can be very dangerous. However, humans have not been successful in using elephants in war other than as beasts of burden or transport because of their tendency to panic. At the sight of fire, elephants may turn and stampede, and have killed their own soldiers (Krishna, 120). In the narrative by M. C. Mehta, fire helped save him and his compound from being trampled.

The Buddhist tradition tends to emphasize the unruly side of the elephant. In the Indasamanagotta Jataka tale, one monk refuses to give up his pet elephant when he joins the monastic order. The Buddha warned him, ‘You will live to regret it.’ A wind from the South riled up the elephant who went on a rampage and killed his master Indasamanagotta. The Buddha reminded the surviving disciples the importance of heeding his words. If interpreted as an allegory, perhaps the elephant represented attachment to things of the world. In any case, this story underscores the power of elephants, with a reminder that what we think might be tamed could fool us.


Many stories in the early Buddhist tradition involve two of his cousins, Devadatta, who hated the Buddha, and Ananda, his closest disciple. In various narratives, Devadatta attempts to kill the Buddha, once by rolling a boulder down an incline toward him. In the elephant narrative told in the Buddhacarita, Devadatta goads an elephant named Nilagiri who charges the Buddha ‘with a noise like the thunder of black clouds.’ Except for the loyal Ananda, all the other monks flee. The Buddha calmly receives the elephant; ‘the Sage’s spiritual power brought the beast to his senses and made him lower his body and place his head to the ground.’ In a beautiful flourish, the text goes on to say that ‘the Sage stroked the head of the lord of elephants as the sun touches a cloud with its rays’ (Buddhacarita 18.40-53). Through kindness, the Buddha brought peace to a difficult situation.

In India, the elephant can be seen working, carrying telephone poles, hauling loads, transporting people, and participating in temple ceremonies. Wild elephants can be seen in preserves such as the Periyar national park in the mountains of Kerala where they can be viewed from a safe distance from a boat. Wild elephants are not only confined to reserves, but wander at will in various regions of India, causing trouble and concern.


The continent of Africa also has large populations of elephants. Folklore and literature give praise to elephants as well as warnings of their unpredictable nature. In one story, elephants are said to be the source of all vegetables:

Long ago Elephant came down to earth from heaven where he was born. One day he met Lightning, who had also come down from heaven. They agreed to hold a competition in noise making. Elephant trumpeted grandly, but Lightning let forth such a blast that Elephant dropped dead of fright on the spot. His body just lay there, and his bowels started fermenting. His stomach began to swell up until it burst, and out of it came all the seeds of the good plants that Elephant had been eating in Heaven. That is how vegetables came to the Earth (Bantu story of the origin of food, Opoku 354).

The following Yoruba poem warns of the power of an elephant:

Elephant, a spirit in the bush,

elephant who brings death.

He swallows a palmfruit

thorns and all.

He tramples down the grass

with his mortar legs.

Wherever he walks

the grass is forbidden to stand up again.

He tears a man up like an old rag

and hangs him in the tree.

With his single hand (trunk)

he pulls two palm trees to the ground.

If he had two hands

he would tear the Heaven to shreds.

An elephant is not a load for an old man –

nor for a young man either. (Beier 79)

Just as a child feels small in the presence of adults, so any man, young or old, feels puny and helpless when confronted with the strength of an elephant.


The presence of an elephant sparks feelings of joy and awe and respect on the part of human beings. When tamed, elephants work as partners and companions with humans. However, even the most docile of elephants can become riled by the onset of musth or by fire or by mistreatment by humans. For thousands of years the human has coexisted with elephants, harnessing their power in some instances, fleeing from their rampages in other circumstances. Elephants, in their elegance and in their strength, bring a richness to human consciousness. Thomas Berry noted: ‘this presence of humans with the other members of the animal world has a mutual responsiveness unknown to other modes of being… Our relation with the animals finds its expression especially in the amazing variety of benefits they provide for us in their guidance, protection, and companionship. Beyond these modes of assistance, they provide a world of wonder and meaning for the mind – beauty for the imagination. Even beyond all these they provide an emotional intimacy so unique that it can come to us from no other source’ (Berry 8). The lore of India and Africa remind us of that uniqueness, that sense of total presence we experience when in the company of elephants, near or far. The elephant enriches and elevates human consciousness like no other animal.



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Marc Bekoff, ‘Wild Justice, Social Cognition, Fairness, and Morality: A Deep Appreciation from the Subjective Lives of Animals.’ In Waldau and Patton.

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