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Asian Elephants and Religions

The Asian elephant appears in various religious traditions and mythologies. They are treated positively and are sometimes revered as deities, often symbolising strength and wisdom. Similarly, the African elephant is seen as the wise chief who impartially settles disputes among the forest creatures in African fables, and the Ashanti tradition holds that they are human chiefs from the past.

The Earth is supported and guarded by mythical World Elephants at the compass points of the cardinal directions, according to the Hindu cosmology of ancient India. The classical Sanskrit literature also attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when they tire. Wisdom is represented by the elephant in the form of the deity Ganesh, one of the most popular gods in the Hindu religion's pantheon. Sometimes known as Ganesha, this deity is very distinctive in having a human form with the head of an elephant.

This was put on after the human head was either was cut off or burned, depending on the version of the story from various Hindu sources. Lord Ganesha's birthday (rebirth) is celebrated as the Hindu festival known as Ganesha Chaturthi. In Japanese Buddhism, their adaptation of Ganesha is known as Kangiten ("Deva of Bliss"), often represented as an elephant-headed male and female pair shown in a standing embrace to represent unity of opposites.

Various Religions & their Beliefs:

Hindu iconography:
Many devas are associated with a mount or vehicle known as a vāhana. In addition to providing a means of transport, they symbolically represent a divine attribute. The elephant vāhana represents wisdom, divine knowledge and royal power; it is associated with Lakshmi, Brihaspati, Shachi and Indra. Indra was said to ride on a flying white elephant named Airavata, who was made the King of all elephants by Lord Indra. A white elephant is rare and given special significance.

It is often considered sacred and symbolises royalty in Thailand and Burma, where it is also considered a symbol of good luck. In Buddhist iconography, the elephant is associated with Queen Māyā of Sakya, the mother of Gautama Buddha. She had a vivid dream foretelling her pregnancy in which a white elephant featured prominently.

Elephants remain an integral part of religion in South Asia and some are even featured in various religious practices. Temple elephants are specially trained captive elephants that are lavishly caparisoned and used in various temple activities. Among the most famous of the temple elephants is Guruvayur Keshavan of Kerala, India. They are also used in festivals in Sri Lanka such as the Esala Perahera.

To the royal sages, the white elephant signifies royal majesty and authority; they interpreted the dream as meaning that her child was destined for greatness as a universal monarch or a Buddha.

Chinese zodiac:
In the version of the Chinese zodiac used in Northern Thailand, the last year in the 12-year cycle – called "Year of the Pig" in China – is known instead as "Year of the Elephant", reflecting the importance of elephants in Thai culture.

Islamic tradition:
The year 570 is when the Prophet Muhammad was born and is known as the Year of the Elephant.[ In that year, Abraha, ruler of Yemen tried to conquer Mecca and demolish the Kaaba, reportedly in retaliation for the previous Meccan defilement of a cathedral Abraha had constructed in Sana'a.

However, his plan was foiled when his white elephant named Mahmud refused to cross the boundary of Mecca. The elephant, who led Abraha's forty thousand men, could not be persuaded with reason or even with violence, which was regarded as a crucial omen by Abraha's soldiers. This is generally related in the five verses of the chapter titled 'The Elephant'[b] in the Quran.

Judeo-Christian tradition:

Medieval artists depicted the mutual killing of both Eleazar the Maccabee and a war elephant carrying an important Seleucid general as described in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees. The early illustrators knew little of the elephant and their portrayals are highly inaccurate.

The unfamiliarity with the exotic beast has also made elephants a subject of widely different interpretations thus giving rise to mythological creatures.

The story of the blind men and an elephant was written to show how reality may be viewed from differing perspectives. The source of this parable is unknown, but it appears to have originated in India. It has been attributed to Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, and Sufis, and was also used by Discordians. The scattered skulls of prehistoric pygmy elephants on the islands of Crete and Sicily may have formed the basis of belief in existence of Cyclopes the one-eyed giants featured in Homer's Odyssey (c. 800~600 BC). As early as the 1370s, scholars had noted that the skulls feature a large nasal cavity at the front that could be mistaken for a singular eye socket; and the skulls, twice the size of a human's, looked as if they could belong to giant humanoids.

It is also suggested that the Behemoth described in the Book of Job may be the elephant due to its grazing habits and preference to rivers.

Throughout Asia there are many elephants associated with religions and temples. These are basically of two kinds: living elephants and statuary elephants or elephant deities. The living elephants participate in religious ceremonies.


Four depictions of elephants as they appear in religion and myth.

Both African and Asian elephants are common symbols in religion and folklore. Here are four representations which may enlighten you.


The boy with the elephant head:

One of the most well-known elephants in religion is the Hindu god Ganesha, who is depicted as a human with an elephant’s head. One Hindu story describes how Ganesh was created by the goddess Parvati, who wanted a loyal son.

Parvati’s husband, the powerful god Shiva, had been travelling while this happened. He was startled by young boy standing near his home, so drew his sword and severed the child’s head. Parvati was enraged and Shiva was distraught. He sent his soldiers out to bring him the head of the first living creature they came across, which just so happened to be an elephant. Shiva attached the elephant’s head on to Ganesh’s body and breathed life into it. He then accepted the boy-elephant hybrid as his own son.


The white elephant with six tusks:

Buddha is said to have incarnated as a white elephant several times. He once lived as Chaddanta, a white elephant with a scarlet face and feet and six tusks. He lived in a golden cave with two wives, Mahasubhadda and Chullasubhadda.

According to one version of the Buddhist story, Chaddanta insulted Chullasubhadda by giving his second wife a lotus flower. Chullasubhadda left him, and eventually hatched a plan – with her new lover the king of Benares - to steal his tusks as an act of vengeance. The king assigned a hunter, disguised as a monk, to retrieve his tusks. Although the elephant could have easily killed the hunter, he recoiled out of respect for religion.

The hunter eventually explained the entire story, and Chaddanta cut off his own tusks, handed them to the hunter and died. When the hunter presented them to Chullasubhadda, she died of shock. Essentially, revenge is no good.


The blind men and the elephant:

This ancient Indian parable tells the story of six blind men who encountered an elephant for the first time. When they set their hands upon it, each blind man felt a different part of its body – its flank, its tusk, its tail, its trunk, its ear and its leg.

The men all described what they thought the elephant looked like to each other – one described it as a mud wall, one a spear, one a rope, one a snake, one a fan, and one a palm tree. They inevitably returned from their trip bickering about what the elephant actually looked like. This tale describes how essential it is to consider all views to build an accurate picture of reality: although all of the blind men were partially right, they were all ultimately wrong.


The elephant and thunder:

This Kenyan myth tells how humans destroyed the harmony of creation. Three beings – the elephant, man and thunder – lived on earth, but didn’t get on because of their vast differences. Gradually, thunder became afraid of man’s power and left earth for the sky, whereas the elephant stayed because he thought man was small and harmless.

When man and the elephant were alone, he fashioned poisonous arrows and shot the beast in the back. As the elephant lay dying, it wailed at the sky, begging thunder to save him. But thunder refused, saying that the elephant’s naivety had killed him. As the elephant died, man made more poisonous arrows and went on to kill more living creatures, eventually becoming the master of nature.


Age old Bonds:

In Kandy, Sri Lanka, an elephant participates in the annual Festival of the Tooth--which features a procession carrying Buddha's tooth. Since they were domesticated some 4,000 years ago, elephants have played major roles in culture and everyday life throughout Asia. Today such relationships are eroding. Says one expert, "We in India have had a tradition of interaction with elephants going back millennia, and now man has decided to destroy it."

For their part, elephants are no slouches when it comes to consumption. Each day, a single adult spends up to 18 hours munching down more than 500 pounds of grasses, roots, leaves, bark and fruits--the equivalent in weight to a human eating 1,000 steaks. The animal also gulps more than 30 gallons of water a day as it scours the landscape like a mechanical harvester.

Given the ravenous appetites of both species, and the resulting battles over dwindling resources, casualties have been high on both sides. In India--which houses Asia's single largest wild elephant population--some 200 people are killed by elephants annually, while 120 to 150 elephants die at the hands of Homo sapiens. Throughout the continent, understandably angry rural residents electrocute the animals with high-tension wires or fell them with guns, poison-tipped arrows and rice wine--an elephant favorite--laced with insecticides. Poachers and human-induced accidents add to the toll.

It's no wonder that little remains of an Asian elephant empire that once stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Yellow River in northern China. According to WWF and IUCN--The World Conservation Union, only about 35,000 to 45,000 Asian elephants survive in the wild today, less than a tenth the estimated total of their better-known cousins, the African elephants.

Countries such as India, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia and Sri Lanka still house greatly diminished but viable populations, while prospects for long-term survival in impoverished and war-scarred Indochina--Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia--are gloomy. In the past decade alone, elephant numbers have plunged by as much as 95 percent to fewer than 80 individuals in Vietnam. The animals have long vanished from West Asia and all but a small southern corner of China. Altogether, the Asian elephant inhabits some 169,885 square miles today, an area roughly the size of Sweden.

Beyond body counts, what is moszt tragic about the decline of the Asian elephant is that for thousands of years the animal has played a significant role in culture, religion and daily life throughout Asia. Today those age-old bonds are about to snap. In the words of D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury, an elephant expert for IUCN--The World Conservation Union, "We in India have had a tradition of interaction with elephants going back millennia, and now man has decided to destroy it."


Still the Elephants are getting killed

Yet ivory continues to be used throughout the religious world, especially in China and surrounding Asian countries. There, ivory carving is seen as a cultural practice, having been done for over 2,000 years.

Journalist Bryan Christy reports for National Geographic that ivory is used in Thai Buddhism, even though the elephant is the symbol of Thailand and greatly revered. Kruba Dharmamauni, a prominent Buddhist monk known as the,

“Elephant Monk,” wears an “ivory elephant-head pendant suspended from ivory prayer beads representing the 109 human passions.” In the recent documentary, “Battle for the Elephants“, Christy reports that “The Buddha would not be pleased” to see followers destroying the elephant to use in religious practices, especially as many are told the elephant wants to be killed to allow humans to use it’s ivory through worship. Buddhists in China have the mis-conveyed belief that “to be respectful of the Buddha, one should use previous material. If not ivory, then gold.

But ivory is more precious.” And the more precious, the more priceless. Literally. Christy found carved ivory Guanyin (ironically, a representation of compassion) on sale for US $215,000.

Unfortunately this is not a problem unique to Buddhism. Christy’s report contends that thousands of elephants are slaughtered to:
satisfy religious devotion, their tusks smuggled into countries to be carved into religious artifacts: ivory baby Jesuses and saints for Catholics in the Philippines, Islamic prayer beads for Muslims and Coptic crosses for Christians in Egypt, amulets and carvings for Buddhists in Thailand, and in China—the world’s biggest ivory-consumer country—elaborate Buddhist and Taoist carvings for investors.

This great juxtaposition between what religions claim and what their followers actually do is tragic. All religions claim the responsibility for humans to care and preserve the world, not plunder and destroy it. By all reason, these religions should be working to preserve and protect the elephant if they truly believe what is written in their scriptures and espoused by their leaders. And for Chinese culture to continue for another 2,000 yeas of master ivory carving, we need elephants to survive as well. Conversing with, and educating, the religious about the destruction of the ivory trade is key.

Christy states in If you could get at what drives people to buy ivory for religious purposes, you have a chance to change their opinions and that’s something you very rarely have. You do have a series of disconnects between the love of an elephant and what’s happening to get that ivory…Americans probably have difficulty understanding the extent of ivory trafficking and the problems that it’s causing – people are loosing their lives over this – and religions are driving it. It seems to me that there is an opportunity given the deeper value systems to make a difference, to make a change.

It is time for those of us with a, “deeper value system” to make a change. It may not be comfortable, it may not be easy, but it is necessary if we want to ensure the well-being of a range of ecosystems dependent upon the elephant. It is time for the world to see the common thread that unites us: the call to care, and work together to save one of the world’s most precious animals – the elephanBeyond habitat loss, another intractable problem is the human appetite for elephant meat, tusks and other body parts, such as these offered for sale at a traditional medicine market in Myanmar (Burma). Ivory poaching is especially widespread. Gunmen, often backed by illegal syndicates, pursue tusked males into even the most remote refuges.

Elephants are not giving up their homelands without a fight. On the once densely forested Indonesian island of Sumatra, the rampaging behemoths wiped out nearly 2.5 million acres of cropland--some $6 million worth of damage--between 1993 and 1995. (A year later, 12 elephants were found dead, poisoned by Sumatran oil palm plantation workers.) The most intense and dramatic conflicts take place in India, with 19,000 to 29,500 wild elephants living among a seething one billion humans. For many months each year, villagers across the country live in a state of siege, some spending every night sleepless in "watch huts" erected in the fields to sound warnings of approaching raiders.
 In years when attacks are especially frequent, they build tree houses. Last year two dozen tribespeople in the eastern state of Orissa were forced to spend several nights in the treetops when a 60-strong elephant herd caught a whiff of homemade rice wine and went on an extended binge.

Solutions to the problem are elusive, due largely to the animals' intelligence. Elephants rarely fall for the same trick twice, so firecrackers, drums, torches and similar measures ultimately prove ineffective. Some villagers have tried trenches and electric wires, but with limited success.

When an electric fence was erected around the Holongapar gibbon sanctuary in Assam, for example, shocked elephants initially ran off screaming. But coming back to sniff and ponder later, they knocked down the posts and blithely walked over them. Rangers then took out many of the stakes, only to witness the animals grabbing branches with their trunks and beating down the wires.
Occasionally, clashes end in a cease-fire, such as one declared recently near Kui Buri National Park in southern Thailand. After years of trying to discourage the animals, farmers failed to halt some 100 elephants that were routinely emerging from the park to raid their pineapple fields.

"Once they know how good the fruit tastes, nothing can stop them from coming back," explains provincial administrator Tinat Poolpipat, adding that locals are now planning to switch to dairy farming and ecotourism.
But such peaceful outcomes are rare. Battling the odds, governments, international organizations and local groups have launched conservation efforts in every country where Asian elephants are found. Last summer, for example, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society teamed up with farmers, park rangers and local conservationists to create "crop protection units" in Lampung, Indonesia. Sharing guard duty in areas hit hard by elephants, participants stationed in watchtowers use trip wires to alert them when elephants enter an area.

Guards then use deterrents such as sirens, spotlights, firecrackers, whistles and--for particularly aggressive animals--vehicles or teams of trained elephants to drive intruders back into the forest. Soon ropes coated in chili-impregnated grease--a technique that's worked well in parts of Africa--will be added to their arsenal.

In the most ambitious effort, WWF's Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy targets eight elephant hotspots in India, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for comprehensive, integrated programs to save the species. Still in its early stages, the complex plan includes land-use planning, study of migration patterns, adequate compensation for farmers, tougher anti-poaching laws and finding ways, such as ecotourism, that rural populations can benefit from the proximity of elephants.

Perhaps the greatest hope, though, stems from the Asian people's abiding, deeply rooted respect and reverence for elephants. At Panbari, India, where Goonda wreaked such devastation, nine villagers have died over the past few years in elephant raids. The creatures wipe out as much as two thirds of the rice planted for its 300 households. One family has had to rebuild its elephant-battered home three times. And yet, rather than revenge, a sense that humans are the guilty parties prevails, along with a desire, if possible, for peaceful coexistence.

"None of us hate elephants because if we do they will read your heart and rest assured will visit you that night," says Rupeswar Das, Lilo's strong, handsome nephew. "This is such a huge animal, so it needs a lot of food, and there is not enough in the forest. If an elephant comes and does some damage to us, it is not they who have done anything wrong, but we who have done something wrong and are feeling the wrath of God."

Standing by the lone surviving jackfruit tree in his stripped, uprooted orchard, Lilo Das nods in agreement. Asked who will eat the fruit first--his family or the elephants--Das smiles, and offers his frontline view on Asia's elephant wars: "This was the land of the elephant, and we people came and took away their land."



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