The Elephant

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Be like a free elephant in the forest.


 A tale in the Udana tells of six men of Hindustan who approached a stately elephant in a grave and learned manner. Though all were totally blind, each wished through observation to satisfy his mind. The first, falling against the elephant's broad side, pronounced it "very like a wall." The second grasped the tusk and thought it was a spear. The third took up its trunk and believed the elephant like a snake. The fourth, on feeling its knee, bethought it like a tree. The fifth, who touched the ear, was reminded of a fan, while the sixth, who seized the tail, pronounced it "very like a rope." Having completed their investigation, they fell to arguing about the nature of the elephant, each deeply committed to his own erroneous opinion. If, instead of drawing a moral concerning man's inclination to double ignorance, we take this tale to suggest something of the mystifying nature of the elephant, we might reflect that the elephant, for all its poor eyesight, would never have mistaken the nature of those who approached him.

 Throughout the East the elephant is thought of as a symbol for wisdom – the vehicle, in some sense, of innate knowledge of the inner balance of things. The comings of Great Teachers have been heralded by the presence of elephants in vision and elephants also figure in tales of previous incarnations of great beings. They seem to express deliberation in their shape and bearing, and perhaps an inward knowledge of the purpose of action. Leconte de Lisle expressed this touchingly when he wrote:

Bold and deliberate, they sway along;
A line of darkness o'er the boundless sand;
The desert sings again its soundless song;
Beyond its edge plods on the lumbering band.

And plodding on, they seem involved in more than a mere migratory shift but appear to be engaged in a pilgrimage. Indeed, no one has ever followed a herd of elephants throughout a human or elephant lifetime, but it is known that years may pass before they return to the same spot. Inexplicably, they penetrate far up into the mountains from time to time. The tune in nature to which they march being hidden from the analytic mind, man has expressed his intuitive, if incomplete, understanding of their nature in terms of symbol.

 Something of this is borne out in the meaning of the name 'elephant' which comes from the Greek elephas, derived from elephio – a corruption of lophos, designating 'the brow of a hill.' The Egyptians called the elephant Abu, which refers to the 'hard substance' of its tusks. Like many Africans to this day, they believed that the mysterious inner nature of the elephant was somehow expressed in its tusks. This may well have been the initial reason why the tusks were prized and placed around doorways in many parts of Africa. The protective power of these mighty incisor teeth seems to have preceded in importance the later emphasis placed upon their value in the market place. The Hindu name Hathi comes from Hastin, indicating the 'hand' of the elephant, and is one of many names emphasizing its various parts, reminding us of the designations by the six blind men. There seems to be something deeper suggested in these appellations. For example, the Sanskrit name Gadja means essentially 'to go,' to continue on an endless pilgrimage, to never stop, to barely sleep, to always, deliberately, move along.

 In Hindu tradition the origin of elephants is described as a holy creation for the sacrifice of the gods and the welfare of kings. It is said that the 'Unborn' took the two halves of the cosmic egg in his hands and chanted seven samans all at once. Thereupon the pure white elephant Airavata was born, to be followed by seven other noble elephants. These, together with their consorts, produced many children, endowed with spirit and might who ranged at will in heaven and earth. The eight remained at the Four Quarters and, standing like pillars upon a tortoise's back, they perpetually support the world. In the Matanga Lila (Elephant Play) it is written that originally elephants had wings and possessed unlimited freedom of movement as well as the ability to assume any earthly or heavenly form. It came to pass, however, that they inadvertently disturbed a mendicant who cursed all of them except those at the Four Quarters. Palakapya, the sage of the elephants at Campa, explained this history to the King of Anga and related how he, himself, had been born to care for those cursed to live among mortal beings.

 The records of this relationship are to be found in the caves of Cro-Magnon men and in Paleolithic sites in the Vindhya Hills of India. Ivory seals and effigies from the Harappan and Mohenjo-daro civilizations depict elephants, and the early Dynastic Egyptians had separate hieroglyphs for trained and untrained Abus. The elephant, either alone or in relation to man, is realistically and symbolically rendered in all parts of Asia and even became a popular motif in Mediaeval Europe. Marco Polo described the elephants of Kublai Khan planting huge trees and parading in great numbers with the riches of the court fixed upon their backs. So greatly appreciated were the mighty services rendered by these intelligent assistants that they were protectively housed in heated stables five months out of the year. Perhaps the greatest proof of the beneficence of the elephant's nature lies in its willingness to aid the human race in all its constructive work. It has been said that "the elephant is surely Plato's philosopher-statesman, ready, indeed eager to cooperate with mankind for the good of creation as a whole." This is symbolically suggested in the moving passage from Les Miserables which describes how Gavroche took the two deserted children to the great model elephant in the Place de la Bastille. The patrol searching for the nocturnal vagabonds "passed in silence before the elephant; the monster erect, motionless, staring open-eyed in the shadows, had the appearance of dreaming happily over his good deed; and sheltered from heaven and from men the three poor sleeping children."

 In the seventeenth century John Ludolphus observed that "of all of the dumb beasts, this creature certainly shares the most of human understanding." Indeed, even physiologically there are some striking similarities. Their knees flex forward like ours, their forelegs are like hands and the female's mammary glands are situated at the chest like those of higher primates. Since ancient times people have sensed many of these similarities and reinforced them by close association. In Burma a baby elephant is often given to a boy of the same age so that they will grow up and spend their life in each other's company. One also finds frequent reference to man in terms of the elephant in many Buddhist scriptures. In the Dhammapada the disciple is advised: "If you do not find a prudent companion, upright and self-possessed, then walk alone like a king who has renounced his kingdom and his conquests. Be like a free elephant in the forest." Elsewhere the disciple is warned against engaging in those practices which will loose his kamic nature and render him like a raging captive elephant who is obsessed with longings for the wild groves.

 The legendary intelligence of the elephant is recognized by ancients and moderns alike. In the Akbarnama, the secretary of state in the court of the great Moghul king Akbar declared the elephant to be "worth 500 horses and to be as intelligent as a human in obedience and attentiveness. They can remember melodies and keep time as well as shoot a bow and discharge a matchlock." They are also psychologically highly individualistic, and those who work with them say that extreme care is needed in establishing solid trust between trainer and animal. A pampered elephant can be extremely dangerous due to the complex cunning it may employ in deceiving its keeper as to its real intentions. A true friend, however, will never be forgotten, and there are abundant accounts of elephants acting with unstinting courage and compassion on behalf of someone who possesses their gratitude and respect. Indeed, at the loss of such a companion, they have been known to sob at length and mourn the loved one in a truly human fashion.

 In early Christian teachings the elephant was used symbolically to preach ethics and the meaning of Christianity. It was closely connected with stories of the serpent Draco and the strange man-like plant, the mandrake. The teaching described how elephants, being unwilling to mate, go through a ritual wherein the female leads the male to the mandrake tree where he takes the fruit, causing her to conceive. In time the female goes to a deep pool where the infant is born. This refers to Adam and Eve and the birth of Cain "above the waters of shame" as well as to the fall of man from paradise into the world. Then, the teaching continued, the Great Elephant of the Law came, but could not raise them up from the waters of shame. Nor could the twelve elephants that followed who represented the Twelve Prophets. Finally, the smallest elephant was successful, being humble and obedient unto death, like the Christ who raised up mankind. Thus the early Christian Fathers taught that wherever the bones or skin of elephant are burned, no evil serpent can enter. This is echoed in a thirteenth century manuscript by Hugo de Folieto describing the evil dragon (serpent) who "lies in wait for the elephant, the most chaste of animals, and coiling itself around the animal's legs, endeavours to suffocate it with its breath." As the elephant falls dead, its weight crushes the evil dragon just as Christ crushed the devil by his own death upon the cross. Thus in Christian as well as earlier traditions the elephant played a key role in describing the fall into matter, the enactment of Law, and the great contest between good and evil. Pondering the nature of a creature seen both as a redeemer of man and as the embodiment of Law, Kipling wrote:

The torn boughs trailing o'er the tusks aslant,
The saplings reeling in the path he trod,
Declare his might – our lord the Elephant,
Chief of the ways of God.

 They silently await sunrise and sunset as though to echo the stillness of that mystical transition between life and death. Pliny wrote of how they worshipped the sun, moon and stars, stretching up their trunks, holding aloft branches as if in offering. They cure their own ills with herbs which they identify and use according to need after they offer them up to heaven first. Indeed, the elephant appears to be aware of a source of all that is beneficent, a divine progenitor with which it seeks to act in harmony.

 According to the Akbarnama there are four basic types of elephants: the Bhaddar, which has an excrescence resembling a large pearl and which is very powerful, the Mand, which is black with yellow eyes and ungovernable; the Mirq, which is whitish with black spots and red, yellow or black eyes; and the Mir, which is small-headed, obedient and fearful. These basic types mix to produce all varieties of elephants which are further divided into three classes depending upon which one of the Gunas dominates. Thus, a Sattvic elephant may be a mixture of the four types but will be well proportioned, chaste, moderate and live to be very old. A Rajasic elephant will be savage looking, proud, bold and ungovernable, while a Tamasic elephant will be self-willed, destructive, lazy and voracious. An experienced keeper can work with these complex elements and bring out those characteristics that will greatly improve the nature of any individual beast. As their characteristics became known, they were given names of great beauty and power like Khaliq-dad (Creator-given), Sarv-sairat (Pretty Artist), Dil-kusha (Heart-opener), or Dushma-bush (Enemy-Treader). This last name reminds us that man, in different cultures and at various times, has trained and even crazed these peaceful creatures with intoxicating wines to stimulate a war-like behaviour. They were marshalled into combat by kings, and elephants with soldier-filled castles on their backs are depicted in painting and relief from the British Isles to the Far East. The elephant became a symbol of man's involvement with political power and governorship, a sort of inversion of the Great Elephant in the early Christian allegory.

 Left to themselves, elephants form great friendships, indulging in lighthearted flirtations. But when serious attractions arise, they are expressed in formal courtship which culminates in ceremonial mating. After twenty-four months (or less) the infant emerges into the world at a circular clearing that has been prepared by its mother and 'nurse,' who are the only witnesses of this sacred event. This 'nurse' and the mother will never leave the side of their charge until it is fully weaned at six years and ready to enter 'tribal life' with its complex rules and taboos. A large tribe of a thousand will be separated into lineal groups which form large extended families, very often sharing marked physical characteristics. Mothers often carry babies on their tusks or backs, and any who are caught in a pit trap or otherwise ensnared will be rescued at any cost by the adults. They march along single file, and during a twenty-four hour cycle they are on the move almost all the time with the exception of their midday stand-up rest and their three hour sleep before dawn. They probably live to be about one hundred twenty-five, but some are thought to have endured two hundred fifty years. It has even been suggested that they possibly never die except in epidemics or by accident. The old ones tend to lag behind on the march and wander off alone to feed. In India the Brahmans say that when the old ones fail to keep up with the others, the latter will gather nearby and wait for a time in profound silence. Few have ever witnessed the death of this noble creature in the wild. It is hidden and private, just as was his coming into the world.

 They care for one another throughout their life, the adults holding back at the river's edge so that the young ones may cross upon unbroken banks. A sick elephant will be held up and moved along by others flanking it, and they dispense medicines to one another or pile leaves upon each other's heads to protect against the sun. It would naturally seem to follow that the captive elephant would long for his brethren in the wild, and it is, therefore, all the more remarkable that those restrained by the hand of man should be so willing to cooperate with him.

 It is said that the best trained elephants are those who have been subjected to very stern discipline and an enormous amount of loving affection. Trainers say that it is not merely by audible command but by the elephant's response through a kind of mental telepathy that he understands in detail what is desired. The Mahoots say that they must be rewarded for everything done well but never permitted to do something incompletely or badly. The trainer cannot give up until the elephant is submissive at each point. "Not only must he obey every command before you let up; but he must actually lie on his side voluntarily and sigh." Those who spend their lives with elephants say that "the Abu think; and they think of us; they have compassion as well as a mere desire to protect their human friends. In return they ask only this – that you devote your entire life to them."

 Given their extraordinary qualities, there is a deep significance involved in controlling an elephant. In Akbar's time, kings mounted all the royal elephants to ensure their obedience, and in all Eastern cultures they were thought of not only as the pillars of the universe but the bearers of kings and queens. As such, they bear that which governs and lends order to the world. This is particularly interesting when considering the elephant as a symbol of the power of the libido. This 'brow of a hill' looming in the background of the mind, so to speak, seems to represent the immense strength of potential Will which the human mind rarely utilizes to any significant degree. The libido is that psychological goddess who rules the desires of mankind and whose prime minister is Eros. According to Jung the libido would be the inner view of what must in objective description be called 'psychic energy,' and the elephant symbolizing this energy is not only linked up with great power but with necessary order. Perhaps this is the key to understanding the willingness of the elephant to be subdued and ordered by man. The elephant, like man's entire nature, must be made to obey its master at every point. The enormous potential of will energy needs to be brought into order so that it may be safely activated.

 It is said in Hindu tradition that Parvati, wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesha, saw the syllable OM. Her very glancing at it transformed the sacred word into two coupling elephants which gave birth to Ganesha and then resumed the form of the OM. Thus Ganesh, with elephant head and human body, possessed the OM as his syllable. Therefore, as Ganapati, he is considered the Lord of Categories and Order, and identifiable with Brihaspati, the teacher of the gods and master of the Creative Word. Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata at the dictation of Vyasa, and by setting down the word in symbolic and categorical form, he made accessible to man a richly allegorical but also systematically ordered means by which worshippers could come to worship the god who rises from within. This is why it is believed that his power and cleverness allow him to remove all obstacles as he stands guarding the shrine of his father Shiva. The disciple approaches him, praying: "O Ganesha, prepare for us the way: remove for us the obstructions in life's true path."

 The trunk of Ganesh is curved around his single tusk in the form of the sacred word as though to protect the essential potency of the remaining tusk. The power within the trunk is the sense of smell which in the elephant is the channel of experience par excellence. The nostrils at the tip of the trunk open into great canals that perforate the whole area and lead to large olfactory chambers in the head. The elephant's sense of smell is very highly developed, enabling the accumulation of complex and detailed experiences through myriad associational patterns.

 The symbolic significance of this is suggested in the Yoga system, where Muladhara, the root center of the mortal body, is related to the elephant, or Ganesh, as well as to the bottom of the spine and the elimination center. This root center represents earth and the sense of smell as well as cohesion, obstruction and bone. Thus Ganesh stands at the beginning of the pilgrimage up through the centers, and it is he who must be propitiated to remove all obstacles. In The Secret Doctrine earth is spoken of as a 'rudiment' of the sense of smell. The other senses are related to water, fire, air and ether and are said to be all combined in the sense of smell which is the last of the series to evolve. Related to this powerful sense is that form of memory which has to do with the psychic realm pertaining so significantly to the libido. The elephant, being a symbol for all these characteristics, seems symbolically and actually to embody the powers of the akasic and lower astral realm brought down to earth. This vast reservoir of will power ranges from its full Buddhic potential to its ungoverned, rajasic dissipation.

 In Buddhist tradition it is said that Queen Maya, in her dream, saw the Buddha descending and entering her womb in the form of a white elephant with six tusks. According to Vedic wisdom, it is by and through Maya that the static truth of essential being becomes the ordered truth of active being. Thus, through his mother, the Buddha obtained the form which would enable self-conscious expression of total control over the six senses and embodiment of the six virtues, both symbolized by the six tusks of the elephant seen in the dream. In the elephant form, the Buddha experienced a preceding life where he ruled as king of a herd of elephants and was renowned for his refusal to reciprocate any wrongs done to him, including that which brought about his death. In his last agonizing moments, he, as a dying elephant, tore out his six tusks and presented them to his murderer. Symbolizing inner power, the loss of the tusks represented a noble sacrifice which ushered this great being from death into a birth where the ultimate sacrifices could be consciously made on behalf of mankind.

 Thus the Bodhisattvas, symbolized as holy elephants in Buddhist scripture, gather together all the senses, all the powers and virtues within their being and prepare their vehicles (symbolized by the earth) for the future embodiment of Buddhahood. It is said that the attainment of Buddhahood is unthinkable without the ideal of the Bodhisattva career behind it. The full memory of past lives, which is one of the powers of a Buddha, is a memory related to a para-sense of smell, an ability to capture and understand the essence of past experiences and to synthesize them into one total awareness. The earth, which expresses the 'rudiments' of this, was touched by the right hand of the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree. As he touched it, the earth shook in six different ways and dispersed the hosts of Mara.

 Even as the elephant digs for water in the dry river bed in order that other animals may drink, so the Bodhisattva lives and struggles for all creatures, ever striving to carry a greater burden so that others may lighten theirs and take hope. Like the elephant, the Bodhisattva sleeps little and ever moves upon a pilgrimage, sustaining his body only to grow in knowledge that may be imparted to others. The Bodhisattva, like the elephant trained by the good and loving trainer, leaves no stone unturned in his striving for complete and balanced control. Thus it is that the elephant, linked with the earth and the endless preparatory sacrifices of the Bodhisattva, is symbolically an island refuge set down and caused to remain among mortals for their benefit. Having lost his wings, the elephant works with and shares the dreams and frustrations of men but retains the untouchable essential nature of a great primordial sacrifice and an overwhelming compassion. He is an island, like that of Elephanta, east of Bombay, or Elephantine in the Egyptian Nile. He is like the Buddha Dipanikara whose name means Island Maker,' and upon his back man can learn the mysteries of all the powers that lie within the human realm and gain the grace to act in harmony with universal law. Through knowledge of what the noble elephant represents, man may some day, in lives to come, approach the pure unobstructed realm of Buddhahood where compassion, the Law of Laws, rules supreme.