Elephant Deities

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This is the 2nd Elephant page.  Click here to read the 1st one.

Deities Associated With the Elephant

Ganesh is not an animal; certainly not an elephant.  But it is his elephant head that identifies him.


Ganesha is not mentioned in Indian scripture until the Puranas (ca.  500 CE) and was not significant in popular culture until the mid-15th century. 

Also called Ganapati, in Hindu practice he is propitiated first, before the worship of other gods may take place.  This accords with his role as Siddhidatta or "bestower of accomplishments."  He has only one complete tusk; the other is broken -- lost in a fight in which he would not flinch before a thrown axe.  His mount is a mooshika or shrew.  (Some consider it is a mouse or even, a rat.)

In his four hands he often holds a conch shell, a discus, a club, and a lotus -- the same attributes that characterize Vishnu.  Often his inner palm displays a red auspicious swastika mark.  

In South India, Ganesha is worshipped as Pillaiyar which in Tamil means noble son and he is often called by that epithet in the Buddhist context.  In India and Shri Lanka, prayers to him are always said before those to other deities.

Ganesha means "lord of ganas," Shiva's company who are the components believed to combine to make the world of forms.   

Some also infer in him the spectral presence of Brahmanaspati.  The Yagnavalka Smritis suggest that Ganesha emerged from the Vinayakas . . . dreaded spirits who create hindrances.  Hence they were propitiated before beginning any important task. ~ <http://www.hindumythology.com/legend.htm> No longer available.

He is regarded both as a remover and as a maker of hindrances. It is as Vighnaharta or Vigneshwar (remover of, or lord over, obstacles) that he is invoked at the beginning of any enterprise, but as a maker of obstacles, Vighnakarta, he is also propitiated. 

Ganesh is a focus for some Tibetan Buddhist practices in both regards.  In depictions of the six-armed protector, Mahakala,  he is being trampled by the Dharma Protector, but he does not appear distressed.  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche saw Ganesh as Vinayaka: he is the obstacle of the continuous chatter of thoughts so disturbing to concentration.  

He is probably the most widely worshipped deity in that region of the world, and not only among Hindus, as we have seen. All ceremonies, religious or secular, but especially before beginning work on any religious writing start by the pronouncement, Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namaha.  Greeting and invitation cards that are sent out on any happy occasion invariably bear his image. 

Origin of Ganesh

There are at least 3 different Indian accounts of the origin of Ganesha.  According to the Padma Purana, he is the younger son of Shiva and Parvati, but according to the Shiva Purana, his origin is more complex:

Lord Shiva, Mahadeva -- the Great God -- (Tib.: lha chen) arranged that whoever worshipped the Vedic deity Soma at his temple known as the Someshwara, would win a place in heaven.  As a consequence, the heavens became overcrowded and the king of heaven Lord Indra, begged Shiva to intervene.  He was directed to approach Parvati, Shiva's wife. 

Now Parvati had made, from the filth scrubbed off her own body, a being called Ganesh.  His role was to intentionally create obstacles, for in his benevolent form Ganesha was the indirect result of Parvati's attempt to protect her privacy from all intruders including her husband.  Adding some sandalwood paste to her own body's substance, she breathed life into it and created a guardian.  Nevertheless, Lord Shiva managed, with the help of Vishnu some say, to decapitate and render the boy lifeless. 

Mahadeva gave in to his wife's grief, however, and agreed to replace the creature's head with that of whichever creature appeared from the northerly, most auspicious, direction.  So it was that the guardian acquired the head of an elephant and was adopted by Shiva and Parvati as their son. 

The elephant head is an emblem of memory and wisdom which is underscored by the symbolism of his mount, the tiny shrew, often considered a rat or mouse.

Transforming Negative to Positive

One version of Ganesh's origin (Brahmavaivarta Purana  3: 9: 1-26) makes him the result of Vishnu's attempt to seduce Parvati.  Vishnu disguises himself as an old Brahmin man :

Then Siva and Parvati offered the Brahmin food and water, and he vanished and took the form of a child and went to Parvati's bed. There he became mixed with the seed of Siva that was on the bed, and he was born like an engendered child. Parvati found the child and nursed him, naming him Ganesa.

In the epic poem Mahabharata, it is Ganesh who records the words of the poet Vyasa, some say using the point of broken tusk either as his pen or as an ink-horn.

Ganesha has two wives, Buddhi and Siddhi (Knowledge and Accomplishment,) 

Ganesh is also recognized in Japan, where he is called Shoden

Like other zoo-cephalic deities, his part-animal, part-human form might be a vestige of his origin as a totem of very ancient times: the elephant.

Elephant of Desire

Kama, god of love or desire, is sometimes mounted on an elephant.  Here, in a painting from London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the mount is formed of the bodies of women.  Note that the skin of this deity is green.

Kama can subdue the elephant with his ankhusha.





A White Elephant

The phrase means something grand that is useless, costly to maintain and hard to dispose of of at any price.  There is/was such a building in the shape of an elephant at the amusement park of Coney Island, New York.  

However, the origin must lie in the fact that an albino elephant would have been the prize in any sultan's zoological collection.  It would have required special and costly maintenance necessitated by its sensitive skin and eyes, but also since it would need its own full-time vigilant guard as an object of envy - a rare and amazing animal to behold. 

The Buddha's birth was heralded in a dream of a white elephant.

This richly caparisoned elephant bears a solid gold howdah not unlike the one used for the procession of the Buddha's  Tooth Relic in Kandy, Shri Lanka.  The Tooth relic was moved there to protect it from invaders.

Here it is on a well-padded elephant in the annual Dusera procession in Mysore, India.  (Dusera is a 10-day Hindu festival celebrating the victory of Goddess Durga over the giant demon buffalo.)

For around 300 years Britain had a gold unit of currency, a coin known as the guinea (equal to 21 shillings) that had as its mark, the taller, slimmer African elephant.  The coin was named for the African country and the gold mines there, but to many the emblem stood for the wealth of Empire whose "jewel in the crown" was India.

Actual elephants

Pachyderms [tough-skinned ones] consist of two sub-species, the African and the Asian.  The African elephant is the taller and slimmer of the two, with larger ears and two 'fingers' on its trunk.  There is also a pigmy form of this elephant. 

The animal of Hindu and Buddhist mythology is the smaller eared variety.  It has a long history of service to human beings.   Besides serving as a mount for royalty, and historically, as a war 'machine', it was and still is used in the lumber industry of southeast Asia since it can go where large machines cannot.

The most famous trainer of elephants in India is probably Parvati Baruah of Assam, a woman whose father was a mahout for British hunting expeditions.

An elephant trainer and keeper is called a mahout and the hooked goad they use is known as an ankh [in Sanskrit, ankusha.]  As there is a great demand in India for ceremonial elephants, mahouts are also in demand but, says Nibha Namboodiri of the Kerala Elephant Institute, mistress of Sunita the elephant, "Many of them are also drunkards and insensitive to the elephant's needs.  Worse, with the brisk elephant trade, the elephants' owners and mahouts change often.  So the elephant doesn't develop bonds of trust with its mahout as it did when the same mahout looked after the elephant for much of its life."

"Elephants are unpredictable and can be very dangerous," she adds, but that is not surprising.   Though it is well-known that to reward a correct behaviour is a much more effective technique in training than to punish an incorrect move, the method used on elephants is still primitive.  Mahouts get the elephant to obey some commands with an eye-watering blow of the metal hook to the animal's skull.  It is no wonder that some elephants have been known to nurse a life-long hatred for their merciless trainers.  However, the number of stories told of revenge by goring to death or trampling is balanced  by accounts of animals who have saved their mahout's life. 

Interestingly, a Frenchman named Henri Mahout discovered, in 1860, Angkor Wat, the medieval temple complex abandoned around 1450 that now lies deep in the jungle of Cambodia.

"Mad-elephant-itis" or masth [pron. must] is associated with excretions from the pachyderm's facial gland ducts.  The God-intoxication of the princely fool of Sufi poetry is referred to as "masth kallandar," as in the famous song by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Who will speak to preserve the habitat of the wondrous being that is Elephant ?

NB. In some places in Africa, the elephant has made such a successful comeback that there is talk, in 2005, of making a cull -- that is, killing "excess" animals.  The reasons given are that they destroy trees and habitat suitable for human beings and their farms.  We should speak out against this, for there will be at least two disastrous results:  The small amount of ivory legitimately obtained from any tusks will revive the market for elephant ivory.  This will certainly lead to further poaching. 

More importantly, elephants do not symbolize memory and sensitivity for nothing.  Studies have demonstrated that the family and friends of murdered elephants never get over their trauma and loss.  They not only suffer themselves, but can become a danger to themselves and others -- people included.  The elephant population can be safely controlled through birth control measures, preferably via injection. 

But it may not be necessary to do anything at all to "regulate" elephant population.  In many game parks the environment seems to regulate itself, although it may take some time.  Trees and vegetation re-grow and population size adjusts to the limits of the area to which it is confined. ~ CBC Radio, May 5/2005.

Thanks to Indian Culture Online for the popular image, and references for Ganesh.

Elephant Artists & Performers


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