ELEPHANTS . Indigenous to both Africa and India, the elephant is the largest of all living land animals. A peaceful herbivore, the adult of the species has no fear of any other animal, with the exceptions of the human hunter and small rodents that might crawl up its trunk. Because of its awesome strength and great size, the elephant—whether wild or tamed as a beast of burden—is commonly a symbol of power: both the brute force that supports the cosmos and its life forms and the majesty of royal power. At the same time, the wild elephant demonstrates numerous characteristics shared by human beings—such as longevity, social customs, and varied personality traits—which give rise to tales in which the elephant may be a companion to humans or may exhibit humanlike qualities such as fearfulness, rage, and stubbornness.
In India, the elephant-headed god Gaṇeśa has been widely revered as a remover of obstacles, hence as a bringer of success, among both Hindus and Buddhists. His enormous popularity is also attested outside India. As Indian culture spread, the cult of Gaṇeśa was enthusiastically accepted in Southwest Asia, and in China and Japan, Gaṇeśa became well known through the introduction of Tantric Buddhism to these lands.
Since ancient times, especially in India and North Africa, the elephant has been domesticated and trained as a beast of burden. The Carthaginians, for example, rode on elephants in their war against the Romans. In Hindu mythology, elephants hold up the four quarters of the universe: the earth rests on the back of elephants, which rest, in turn, on the back of a huge tortoise. According to the Mahābhārata, the divine elephant Airāvata was born out of the primeval milky ocean as it was being churned by the gods and demons. This elephant was destined to be the mount of Indra, the god of thunder and battle, protector of the cosmos.
The intimate connection in Hindu mythology between Airāvata and Indra indicates that the elephant is not simply a symbol for brute force but is also most broadly associated with the powers that support and protect life. Probably because of its round shape and gray color, the elephant is regarded as a "rain cloud" that walks the earth, endowed with the magico-religious ability to produce rain clouds at will. In present-day India, the elephant plays a significant part in an annual ceremony celebrated in New Delhi for the purposes of inducing rainfall, good harvest, and the fertility of human beings and their livestock. An elephant, painted white with sandal paste, is led in solemn procession through the city. The men attending the elephant wear women's clothes and utter obscene words, as if to stimulate the dormant powers of fertility.
Although in the period of the Ṛgveda elephants were tamed but little used in war, by the middle of the first millennium bce, the owning of elephants had become a prerogative of kings and chieftains, who used them in warfare and on ceremonial occasions. Elephants, particularly albino ones, became the mounts of kings and, hence, symbolic of royal power. In the mythology of kingship, the white elephant appears as one of the seven treasures of the universal monarch (cakravartin ), who rides upon it as he sets out on his world-inspection tours.
As the embodiment of perfect wisdom and royal dignity, the Buddha himself is often referred to as an elephant. According to the older, verse version of the Lalitavistara, the Buddha was conceived when his mother, Maya, dreamed of his descent from heaven in the form of a white elephant. This motif is depicted in a medallion on a balustrade of the Bharhut Stupa dating from the second or first century bce, and from that time onward, it appears repeatedly in Buddhist iconography throughout India. The later, prose version of the Lalitavistara, followed by the Mahāvastu, states more emphatically that the Buddha descended into his mother's womb in elephantine form. In subsequent centuries, the Buddhist community has generally accepted the idea that a Buddha, either of the past or of the future, must enter his mother's womb in the form of an elephant.
Many of the myths from Africa about the elephant emphasize the ways in which elephants and human beings share certain characteristics. Perhaps it is because the African elephant remained wild in comparison to its Indian cousin that its natural habits had more effect on the form of its symbolism. For instance, wild elephants are very social, living in groups with definite customs. The life expectancy of the elephant is somewhere between sixty and seventy years. It is an intelligent creature and capable of complex emotions, even neurosis and insanity. These attributes indicate ways in which human beings and elephants are similar, and therefore it is no surprise that the elephant is often regarded as a special companion of the mythical ancestors. For example, the Nandi in East Africa recount the story of how one day, when Asista, the creator, arrived on earth in order to arrange the creation, or to prepare the present condition of things, he found three beings already there, living together: the thunder, a Dorobo (a member of a hunting tribe believed by the Nandi to be their mythical ancestors), and an elephant. A similar tale is told by the Maasai. According to the Yao, the first human being emerged from the primeval wilderness carrying an elephant on his shoulders. The elephant made him a great hunter by teaching him about the natures of all the animals, granting him wild honey for food, and training him in the art of killing. Moreover, the hunter found his wife in the land of the elephants, and together they became the primordial ancestors of the Yao. In southern Africa, it is widely believed that elephants can transform themselves into human beings and vice versa.
Apparently the elephant shares with human beings the capacity for antagonizing the gods: According to the Tim in central Togo, West Africa, at the time of the beginning, the god Esso and all the animals lived together in harmony. They even shared water from the same spring. But the elephant picked a quarrel with the god, who thereupon left the earth and its inhabitants and withdrew to his heaven so that he might enjoy peace and quiet.
The classic analysis of elephant symbolism in India remains Heinrich Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, edited by Joseph Campbell (1946; reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1972), pp. 102ff. A more comprehensive discussion is presented by Jan Gonda in his Change and Continuity in Indian Religion (The Hague, 1965), pp. 90ff. On the symbolism of the elephant in Buddhism, see Alfred Foucher's La vie du Bouddha (Paris, 1948), translated by Simone B. Boas as The Life of Buddha according to the Ancient Texts and Monuments of India (Middletown, Conn., 1963), pp. 22ff. On Gaṇeśa, there is a study by Alice Getty, Gaṇeśa: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God, 2d ed. (New Delhi, 1971).
Manabu Waida (1987)