The Religious, Mythological, & Philosophical Meaning Of Elephants In The East
For thousands of years, elephants have been an integral part of the spiritual traditions of Asia. Even today, all throughout the east, elephants are prominently featured. From temples to homes, to street artwork, the iconic imagery of these beautiful animals is everywhere. Elephants are in just about every eastern mythological story as well, often revered as deities symbolizing strength and wisdom.
But each eastern religion has their own take on this majestic beast and a unique perspective about their place in it…
Without a doubt, Hinduism takes the cake for the most reverential respect of elephants. According to the ancient texts, the Earth itself is supported by them at the cardinal directions. But of course, the most well-known representation of elephants in India is Ganesh. This deity is possibly the most popular god in Hindu mythology! An elephant head sitting atop a human body, Ganesh was created (depending on which story you believe) by Lord Shiva after he cut off his head from an unfortunate misunderstanding. It turned out Ganesh was Shiva’s estranged son. Talk about family problems!
Elephants are also associated with a divine vehicle known as a vahana.
Moreover, elephants, in general, represent divine attributes such as patience, strength, wisdom, and the ability to overcome trials.
With its geographical and philosophical roots in India, Buddhism places a big emphasis on the symbology of elephants. In fact, Buddhism has its origin closely tied to elephants: Queen Maya, the mother of Gautama Buddha, had a vivid dream of a white elephant dancing with her. When she awoke, it is said she immediately knew the dream foretold her pregnancy of a very special child. When she told the royal sages, they quickly agreed and interpreted the dream as the coming of a great spiritual teacher or king. Of course, we all know how that went!
This is why white elephants have such sacred significance in Buddhism.
Showing the universality of Ganesh, Japanese Buddhism also adopted the deity, and named him Kangiten (‘Deva of Bliss’). In this representation, it’s an elephant-headed male and female in an embrace. This represents the unity of opposites.
Elephants have a strong connotation to fertility in the east, but especially China. Because of this, elephant symbology is often put around around the bedroom and are considered lucky for conception and childbirth. They’re also associated with mental strength, so elephant imagery is also recommended in places of learning or study, such as libraries.
In the year 570, Muhammad was born during the Year of the Elephant. That same year, Abraha, the king of Yemen, tried to overthrow Mecca in response to Mecca’s destruction of a Yemeni cathedral. But he was stopped because of his white elephant, which refused to cross into Mecca. This was thought to be an important omen by Abraha’s forty thousand soldiers, so they refused to go.
The Elephant Today
Nearly every eastern religion and spiritual practice revere the elephant, but what most outside observers (mostly westerners) get wrong is that assume the elephant is worshipped directly. But this couldn’t be more wrong!
Sure, elephants are powerful animals to behold, but it isn’t the animal they’re worshipping. It’s the qualities elephants portray in their everyday living…qualities that are worth incorporating into our everyday lives.
Disciplined, graceful, humble, focused on hearing rather than speaking (large ears), and pretty much unstoppable when moving on a path. These are qualities of the perfect spiritual disciple.
What do you think? Are you inspired by these magnificent creatures?
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