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World Elephant

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Title: World Elephant  
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Subject: Bhagadatta, Cultural depictions of elephants
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World Elephant

Classical Sanskrit literature has references to World Elephants as mythical animals supporting the world in Hindu cosmology. This image augments the stock of mythological world-bearers over the earlier World Turtle (Kurmaraja) and World Serpent (Nagaraja or Shesha). The popular rendition of the World Turtle supporting one or several World Elephants is recorded in 1599 in a letter by Emanual de Veiga.[1] From the testimony of the Amarakosha (c. 5th century), the concept of a World Elephant seems to have been in existence by the Gupta era, but it is comparatively rare and not found in the Puranasor the Epics.

Indeed, Wilhelm von Humboldt suggested that the idea of a world-elephant was due to a confusion, caused by the Sanskrit noun Nāga having the dual meaning of "serpent" and "elephant" (named for its serpent-like trunk), thus representing a corrupted account of the world-serpent.[2][3][4] The various Hindu myths of the world being carried or enclosed by either a tortoise, a serpent or an elephant were referred to by Taylor (1878:339).[5] In the epics and major Puranas, there "is no myth of a world-upholding elephant",[6] and Al Biruni makes no mention of it, only quoting Brahmagupta who states "the earth is the only low thing".[7]

The elephants are supposed to be guarding (and supporting) the earth at the compass points of the cardinal directions, and they cause earthquakes when shaking their bodies. Thus there are four, eight, or sixteen of them. The Amarakosha (5th century) lists the names of eight male elephants bearing the world (along with eight unnamed female elephants). The names listed are: Airavata, Pundarika, Vamana, Kumunda, Anjana, Pushpa-danta, Sarva-bhauma, Supratika. Four names are given in Ramayana 1.41: Viru-paksha, Maha-padma, Saumanas, Bhadra.[8]

Mahapadma also appears as the name of a treasure-guarding naga (serpent, dragon) in Harivamsa and Vishnu Purana. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists Maha-pudma and Chukwa are names from a "popular rendition of a Hindu myth in which the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma, which in turn supports the world".[9] The spelling Mahapudma originates as a misprint of Mahapadma in Sri Aurobindo's 1921 retelling of a story of the Mahabharata,

Love and Death.

On the wondrous dais rose a throne,
And he its pedestal whose lotus hood
With ominous beauty crowns his horrible
Sleek folds, great Mahapudma; high displayed
He bears the throne of Death. There sat supreme
With those compassionate and lethal eyes,
Who many names, who many natures holds;
Yama, the strong pure Hades sad and subtle,
Dharma, who keeps the laws of old untouched.[10]


  1. ^ J. Charpentier, 'A Treatise on Hindu Cosmography from the Seventeenth Century (Brit. Mus. MS. Sloane 2748 A).' Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 3(2) (1924), pp. 317-342, citing John Hay, De rebus Japonicis, Indicis, and Peruanis epistulæ recentiores (Antwerp, 1605, p. 803f.)
  2. ^ Sadashiv Ambadas Dange, Glimpses of purāṇic myth and culture (1987), p. 70.
  3. ^ "INDOLOGY archives - April 2010 (#17)". Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
  4. ^ "INDOLOGY archives - April 2010 (#33)". Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
  5. ^ "Researches into the early history of mankind and the development of civilization". Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
  6. ^ "J L Brockington, Indology mailing list". 2010-04-02. Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
  7. ^ "INDOLOGY archives - April 2010 (#8)". 2010-04-02. Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
  8. ^ "Monier-Williams, ''Indian Wisdom'', p. 430f". Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
  9. ^ Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 15th ed., revised by Adrian Room, HarperCollins (1995), p. 1087. also 14th ed. (1989).
  10. ^ "Love and Death: Love and Death". Retrieved 2013-04-14. 
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