Gajatame and Ganesha: The Sacred Elephant of Ancient India
The elephant rose from the status of a supreme animal, Gajatame, in early Buddhist India to that of a supreme god, Ganesha, in Hindu India by about the 4th or 5th century. In spite of a rather turbulent relationship with people through history, the elephant has also been widely revered across the cultures of south and southeast Asia. This reverence, perhaps, has played a critical role in the survival of the species in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. This talk traces the unique elephant-human relationship from the ancient Harappan civilization when it is believed to have been first tamed, through the use of elephants in the armies of major kingdoms and empires, to its rise to supreme godhead in the medieval Hindu period. I provide sociopolitical and ecological interpretations as to why the largest land mammal was accorded sacred status in Asia, though not in Africa.