The Symbolism of Elephants in Indian Culture

    The elephant has enjoyed the charismatic status in South Asia from the earliest times, and its representations in stone and painting are ubiquitous. The Indus Valley seals depict the elephant in graceful aspects standing over a manger, creating the impression that it was already a domesticated animal and of artistic and possibly religious importance. The Vedic poets were impressed by the massive strength of the elephant, as when they sang of Indra, filled with Soma, smashing the cities of his enemies "as a wild elephant rushes on this way and that, mad with heat" (Rg Veda 1.64.7). Huge and gray, that elephant also resembled the dark clouds of refreshing and violent rain that fed and replenished the parched land. Another name for Airavata, Indra's elephant steed was Abhranu or Abhramatanga, "the one who knits or binds the clouds".

   The association of elephants with rain and water finds expression in the myth of the anointing of the goddess Laksmi or Gajalaksmi, wife of Vishnu and giver of well-being, at the time of the churning of the ocean of milk. As Laksmi rose out of the ocean seated on a lotus, Ganga and the other sacred rivers stood there performing ambulations. And the 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.

    The connection of elephants with water and rain is further emphasized in the mythology of Indra, who rides the elephant Airavata when he defeats Vrta. This mighty elephant reaches down his trunk into the watery underworld, sucks up its water, and then sprays it into the clouds, which Indra then causes to rain forth cool water, thereby linking the waters of the sky with those of the underworld. Although there appears to be no direct association in the classical texts between Laksmi and Ganesa, the connection has not been lost in contemporary Hinduism as indicated by a popular lithograph that depicts Ganesa and Laksmi out of the same lotus. They are linked by the common figure of the elephant, but they share another important feature. Both are bringers of well-being, deities to who Hindus turn to, seeking the fulfillment of their wishes and goals.
 
 



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