The Elephant In The Sacred Space

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Aug 25, 2017 08:49 AM
The Elephant In The Sacred SpaceGanesha (Wikimedia Commons)
  • While Hindus do have the task of reforming the bonds in their unique mahout-elephant ecosystem and infusing it with more inter-species respect and empathy, the Christianising of the system or its total destruction would only leave Indian culture poorer.

The whole of India celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi, the manifestation of the elephant headed deity, today. He is considered the remover of obstacles (Vinayaka) and a story from the Tulsa Zoo in the United States may be amusingly relevant to this aspect of Ganesha.

The incident happened in 2005, when a statue of Ganesha at the elephant house was kept at the Tulsa Zoo and the creationist lobby opposed it saying it amounted to ‘an anti-Christian bias toward Hinduism'. They also wanted to order the zoo authorities 'to balance its evolution science exhibit' with a display of the genesis account of creation.

Later, fearing a backlash, the creationists stated that they would also accommodate six or seven creation myths along with 'Adam and Eve'. However with more than three hundred creation stories from world cultures, this was clearly impossible. Ultimately, the creationists backtracked. 'The New York Times', then not yet as Hindu-phobic as it is today, wrote:

Tulsa did us all a favor by underlining how truly singular the evolution explanation is, rooted firmly in scientific demonstration. Second thoughts are a creative characteristic of Homo sapiens, and the Tulsa Zoo directors did well by theirs. They were fortunate to have Ganesh, known to true believers as the remover of obstacles and the god of harmony, on the grounds.

Ganesha is also the personification of the sacred syllable AUM or Pranava. In the Hindu puranic tradition, he is the son of Shiva. Devotional, Yogic and Tantric traditions are associated with him.

With the arrival of colonial Indology, the deconstruction of Ganesha, in terms of Aryan and Dravidian, began. So, while he is considered as one of the native deities assimilated by ‘Aryans’, paradoxically in South India, the same school of scholars claim that he was introduced by the northern kingdom of Pulakesi during the 7th century. Hence, leaders of dogmatic Dravidian ideology not only consider Ganesha an ‘Aryan’ intruder but also religiously refuse to even greet people on the occasion of Ganesha Chaturti. E V Ramaswamy even launched a ‘rationalist campaign’ of public destruction of Vinayaka idols.

Despite such ‘deconstructions’ and politicalised attacks, Vinayaka worship is prevalent and is getting increasingly popular.

Although, none can be sure when exactly his worship originated.

His main feature is his elephant head. The sacralisation of elephants begins quite early in the Indian civilisation. According to ‘’, ‘one of the few elephant figurines from Harappa is a head with large stylised ears and red and white stripes painted across the face’. Clearly, this shows that the veneration of elephants began in Harappa itself. To this day, in the Shaiva tradition Ganesha or Vinayaka is shown sporting white stripes and red vermilion. The temple elephants in South India too are decorated in a similar fashion even today.

Elephant head from Harappa (Photo courtesy:
Elephant head from Harappa (Photo courtesy:

The sacredness of the elephant so rooted in Indian culture also has another dimension to it. India is perhaps the only civilisation that has domesticated an animal as big as an elephant. In other cultures, perhaps, at the most they were used in circuses but such big animals were not domesticated. The domestication of the elephant also led to a detailed study of elephant behaviour as well as that of the structural and functional components of the elephant body.

We have traditional manuscripts which have documented 90 ‘marma points’, important nodes, in the elephant body which can be used for therapeutic purposes as well as harnessing the elephant. Another interesting fact is that ancient Sangham literature poetry also speaks about the elephant mahouts in South India training the elephants with Sanskrit words. So, for thousands of year,s India has developed a sacred culture with a commensal bond between the elephant and the mahout. The bonding is unique in the annals of human-animal interaction.

Left:Elephant with Mahout(National Geographic) Right: from&nbsp; ’Marma Chikitsa in Traditional Medicine’ Courtesy: L.S.P.S.S Publication, Chennai<br>
Left:Elephant with Mahout(National Geographic) Right: from  ’Marma Chikitsa in Traditional Medicine’ Courtesy: L.S.P.S.S Publication, Chennai

There is definitely control and harnessing of the elephant but there is also a family bond. Perhaps the famous photo of a ‘Mahout and elephant bathing’ taken by Mohit Midha in 2008 for ‘National Geographic’ shows this loving relationship.

While before independence almost every king and all important temples in South India had elephants, after independence they were mostly left with the temples. And with temples falling into the hands of the government, the care-taking of elephants deteriorated. Most of the elephants now live in temple environments which have lost all the greenery associated with them, thus depriving the elephants of a good living space. They are chained and despite the growth of modern veterinary sciences the health care of elephants has become questionable.

Making use of all these arguements now, certain non-governmental organisations have started clamouring for the abolition of the temple elephant system. However, this would destroy a unique bio-cultural phenomenon evolved in India and the loss of the elephant-mahout-temple ecosystem will be a loss for human civilisation itself. What is definitely needed is the removal of abuses and mismanagement in the system in a war footing while preserving that institution as a gift of Indic culture to humanity. Perhaps, it was the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, who understood the problem in a holistic way and arranged ‘refresher camps’ for temple elephants in the forests.

Baptising an elephant?&nbsp;
Baptising an elephant? 

A disturbing parallel development is the Christianisation of the sacred elephant culture by the Church. A recent picture of a Catholic priest of St. George Foronah Catholic Church in Kerala sprinkling holy water on an elephant, owned by a politician P C George, went viral on social media. The original name of the elephant was Mahadevan. The priest went on to explain that he did not baptise the elephant but only blessed it 'like one would do with a new vehicle'. The witnesses have contradicted the statement and have asserted that what took place was indeed baptism. Whether it is blessing the elephant ‘like blessing a vehicle’ or baptism, they both essentially constitute a calculated religious insult to the Indic perception of the elephant as being divine.

While Hindus do have the task of reforming the bonds in their unique mahout-elephant ecosystem and infusing it with more inter-species respect and empathy, the Christianising of the system or its total destruction would only leave the nation poorer.

Elephant worship in temples in ancient Tamil Nadu is again well chronicled in Sangham literature. Paripadal speaks of unmarried women worshiping the elephant in the temple of Murugan, feeding it with rice and eating what is left by the elephant. This, they believed, would give them good consorts and win the steady love of ones who they sought.

Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi University Professor of Sanskrit, Dr Sankara Narayanan, points out that the first direct reference to Ganapathi appears in Manava Hridaya Sutra, which he says might be dated to the 4th to 5th century BCE, where it was said that those who do not worship Ganesha would not get proper consorts. This clearly correlates with the ancient Tamil practice of venerating the temple elephant for good consort.

These literary references from both Sanskrit and Tamil show, apart from the pan-Indian nature of Ganesha, the ancient roots of another later Puranic tradition unique to Tamil Nadu. When Murugan tried courting his tribal consort Valli, she spurned his advances. Dejected, Murugan meditated upon Ganesha who at once came in the form of a wild elephant. Terrified, Valli came and hugged Murugan, thus also accepting his love. This very famous South Indian legend clearly has its roots in the veneration of the elephant for good consort and is a testimony to the very ancient roots of Ganesha worship.

Ganesha is the most loved of Gods in South India – particularly by children. He is also called ‘Pillaiyar’ meaning infant God. While in north India, the legend of Ganesha’s worship is associated with Shiva killing the boy-guard created by Parvati, in South India the most famous narration of Ganesha’s birth is more mystical and yogic. Parvati and Shiva visited the ‘Mantra Chitra Mandapa’ which contains seven crore mantric syllables, among which were the Samashti Pranava and Viyashti Pranava. When both Parvati and Shiva looked at these Pranava Mantras they merged and Ganesha emerged as the personification of Pranava itself. Ganesa killed Gajamukasur, the elephant faced demon, with his right tusk. He would also use the tusk to scribe Mahabharata for Vyasa. Thus his breaking of his own tusk was for both the destruction of evil as well as the creation of goodness.

Shaiva Siddhanta in Tamil Nadu does not differentiate between Shiva and Ganesha. It has a Vedic precedence. Dr Sukumari Bhattacharji, in her paper ‘Rudra from the Vedas to the Mahabharata’ (Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 41, No. 1/4 (1960), writes: “While in the RV., Rudra was generally associated with rivers, earth, water, trees and mountains, (RV. 10: 64 : 8); he now has a particular habitat in the Mūjavat Hill ( SYV 3 : 61 ). For his special attendant Rudra has now a mouse. He now becomes the god of architects, councillors and merchants.” To this day, the vehicle of Vinayaka is the mouse and every Hindu entrepreneur,be he an engineer, industrialist or a trader, worships Ganesha before entering into any new venture.

In the folk traditions of Tamil Nadu, it was Avvaiyaar, the legendary Tamil matriarchal poetess, who was one of his most favourite devotees. She perhaps wrote the world’s most ancient children’s literature, which is to this day taught as the very first recitation lesson in all schools in Tamil Nadu. A later yogic text ‘Ganapathi Akkaval’ is also attributed to her. It praises Ganesha and explains in detail how his blessings and grace leads one perfectly through the Yogic sadhanas to realise the Divine. Gajanani is also a Yogini worshipped with an elephant head. In south Tamil Nadu, at the Suchindrum temple, there is a pillar with the sculpture of a female form of Ganesha called Vigneshwari.

Vigneswari: Suchindrum Temple Pillar sculpture
Vigneswari: Suchindrum Temple Pillar sculpture

With all this, could evangelists resist the temptation of appropriating Ganesha? While initially their worst contempt was reserved for Ganesha, calling his form ugly and devilish, they also sided with the Dravidianists calling Ganesha an Aryan intruder. However, they soon launched an appropriation strategy by which they claimed that the narrative of Shiva killing the boy-guard and Ganesha coming back to life was actually the mythological interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection.

Appropriating Ganesha: Christian theo-piracy
Appropriating Ganesha: Christian theo-piracy

The Christianisation strategy falls flat as even the oldest Ganesha form discovered in South India is considered by Iravatham Mahadevan to be as old as 50 BCE to third century CE. A deity with elephant head and human body is also attested archaeologically in the Indo-Greek coins of the first century BCE. Yet, malicious false propaganda is being carried out unscrupulously.

Oldest Ganesha form (Picture courtesy: Iravatham&nbsp; Mahadevan)
Oldest Ganesha form (Picture courtesy: Iravatham  Mahadevan)

For example, a prominent Christian theologian, M M Ninan, who was the brother of Nagaland’s former governor and Central Committee of World Council of Churches former chairperson Dr M M Thomas, has written books promoting the idea that Hinduism came from Christianity. Though thrashed by most scholars as being biased and non-scholarly, these books exert a great influence on evangelicals in confusing Hindus. In his book, The Development of Hinduism, Ninan says thus:

We often confront the son in the form of the Elephant. Pillayar is depicted as Gana Pathy which in itself means Lord or Saviour of People - Emmanuel. Yet the Elephant figure have (sic) come to dominate the religious ceremonies. Though it blows off the stretch of imagination, this was a natural development of the concept of incarnation. It is a symbolisation of ‘the only begotten Son of God’...

So even with their Primal Deity Indic Dharmic traditions need to ever be on guard against theo-piracy by expansionist monocultures.

When Lokmanya Tilak was organising Ganapathi processions in Maharashtra as a form of bringing together all sections of people to increase the political awareness, the great poet Subramania Bharati sang of Ganapathi as the king whose feet we should hold so that we can elevate ourselves to delight collectively in freedom. The song remains to this day one of the most famous devotional songs which also imparts a love for freedom.

Thus, Ganesha remains another great spiritual masterpiece that India has gifted to the world. He bestows infinite possibilities in art and sculpture. He guides the inner processes and he is also one of those ‘strong but invisible threads’ which unite India spiritually and culturally – to miss him thus would be to miss the proverbial elephant …no, the Elephant in the sacred space.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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