Elephants in Hinduism and the Indian Culture are a symbol of intellectual strength, and sturdy earthy mental strength. It is a sacred animal and is considered the representation or the living incarnation of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity riding a mouse. It is the most important of all gods who is invoked before any other gods. The charismatic nature of this being has made it an element of strong symbolism across various cultures all over the world. Asian regions like India and China have dense mythologies which are packed with rich symbolism and multi-layered depictions of various elements of nature. Elephants are found in eminent numbers across these regions, and have been a part of their civilizations for a long time. Evidently, elephants have made way into people’s conscience, and consequently, their art.
Elephants, in general, symbolize the qualities of wisdom, strength, courage, longevity, patience, honor, and stature. Here is a brief about their varying symbolism across different cultures. Elephants play a recurring theme in Buddhism and Hinduism and differ only in the fact that Buddhists revere the elephant they are worshiping so much are the qualities they wish to emulate.
Lord Ganesha, the elephant god, is the most universally worshiped Hindu deity. He is exalted by devotees and believed to represent “perfect wisdom” and be the “remover of obstacles.” His image graces the entryways of temples and is also found at workplaces. Followers pray to Ganesha before they begin a new venture because they believe he will remove any obstacles to success.
To Buddhists, the elephant represents mental strength. Dharma (the teachings of Buddha) and mediation are important aspects of this religion. The gray elephant symbolizes someone first learning Buddhism whose mind can run wild and wreak havoc at any time. The white elephant signifies a mind under control, which is extremely powerful and can be used to destroy any obstacle.
Flying elephants are often depicted in Indian mythology, and the white elephant Airavata is the most highly regarded. He has four tusks and seven trunks and is seen carrying the Hindu god Indra on his back. Airavata is also believed to have the power to produce rain. Indian kings owned elephants and used them in wars.
As a symbol of wisdom, the elephant is said to attain old age and with all its wisdom. The animal is highly revered for its strength and power. With different species, the white elephant having been chosen by Buddha was because he wanted to use it for his many incarnations. The white elephant is a rare animal and their appearance today will still be considered a phenomenon of the gods. It is the most positive animal symbol known with no negative consequence. There are several lessons we can learn from the elephant and these too are used as its symbol: strength, wisdom, solitude, strong sense of loyalty to the family and intelligence. Other communities still consider the Elephant to be a strong symbol of luck. And thus the saying goes keep a lucky elephant at the door to your house so that you can get protection from bad luck.