The elephant in various cultures has been considered representative of good memory, persistence, determination, solidarity, companionship, posture, authority, longevity, and wisdom. In Nepal and India, the elephant is worshiped as a sacred animal.
The first appearance of the Elephant according to Hindu scriptures can be recorded during the Samudra Manthan and the first elephant is known as Airavata. Airavata certainly holds the greatest position among those elephants as he is considered the King of Elephants.
Airavata represents the celestial ride of Lord Indra and thus symbolizes the power to rule. Peace and prosperity are the effects of this established power.
One of the most worshiped deities, Lord Ganesha is also associated with the Elephant; he is popularly known as Gajanana, one with an Elephant face.
The birth of Airavata
In Hindu scriptures, Airavata is depicted as a spotless white enormous elephant. He is the progenitor of all elephants rising from the waters.
There have been several legends concerning the origin of Airavata. According to one version of the ancient scripts, Airavata appeared from the ocean during its churning by the gods and asuras/demons. He is one of the 14 jewels that emerged during the ocean churning.
After seeking permission from Lord Vishnu and Asura King Bali, King Indra accepted Airavata as his celestial vehicle. Airavata is also the guard of Indra’s Kingdom Swarga.
According to Matangalila, Lord Brahma one day sang the sacred Vedic hymns in Brahmanda (Infinite Universe) in front of a golden egg. First, Garuda was born, and from the other half, Airavata emerged with seven other male elephants and eight female elephants. The eight deities that guard the cardinal points are seated on these eight female elephants, which were used to protect each zone.
After that, the elephant siblings became the guardians of the eight directions of the world, and Airavata, by virtue of his primacy and exclusivity, became the patron of the East. King Prithu (regarded as the first holy ruler, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) declared Airavata king of all elephants.
Airavata in Sanskrit is composed of the root word Ira which means water (Jal). Since Airavata rose from the milky ocean water during its churning, he is named Airavata.
The other names of Airavata are:
- Abhramatanga: one who makes cloud
- Nagamalla: one who participates in battle
- Arkasodara: brother of the sun
- Erawan: in Thailand
- Shwethasti: one who is white
- Gajragrani: the king of elephants
Marriage and Descendants
According to the Hindu epic Ramayana, Airavata married a female white elephant named Abharamu. The first descendants of Airavata and his elephant wife were white-winged elephants who were able to fly, but the sages cursed them. So, they lost the ability to fly, but in India, people still believe that white elephants are the ones who create white clouds in the sky.
Appearance of Airavata
According to sacred Hindu texts, Airavata was born with four tusks and seven trunks. He is pristine white. While some Puranas also say Airavata was born with 10 tusks, 5 trunks, and 10 teeth, each representing 10 directions. He had three or five heads, but still, he looked quite ordinary.
Airavata in Ramayana
According to Ramayana, the Airavata mother’s name is Iravati, so he was named Airavata. Jambavan, or Jambavat, an enormous sacred bear created by Lord Brahma to assist Lord Rama during his exile to find Mother Sita, compared lord Hanuman’s tail with Airavata’s trunk.
Airavata in Mahabharata
When Lord Krishna was counseling Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he described himself as Uchhaishrava of horses and Airavata of elephants. According to Bhishmaparva, the northern part of Aryavarta is named Airavata instead of Kuru.
According to Mahabharata, one day, when sage Ved Vyasa visited King Dhritarashtra, he requested Ved Vyasa to tell him about the remedy to retain the wealth and fame of his Kingdom. The sage explained to the king about worshiping Gajalakshmi, in which he told him the importance of worshiping the Airavata elephant.
Then Gandhari, wife of Dhritarashtra, invited all the eminent women of the city to worship the Airavata elephant. However, she didn’t invite Kunti, the mother of Pandavas. Seeing their mother depressed, Arjuna used his weapon, and from heaven came the elephant Airavata.
All the women gathered in Gandhari’s palace came to Kunti’s palace and worshiped the Airavata elephant. This way, the mighty elephant Airavata helped Arjuna save his mother’s honor.
Ocean Churning and Airavata
The sage Durvasa brought a fragrant garland of flowers to Indra as a gift. But Indra was too drunk to pay attention to this gift. He hung the garland on Airavata’s trunk for some time, he then threw it to the ground, trampling it with his feet.
Outraged by this display of disrespect, Durvasa cursed that Indra would lose all his splendor. At the same moment, Goddess Lakshmi disappeared from Amravati. Darkness descended on the world. Everything has become fruitless and devoid of joy.
The saddened Gods came to Lord Vishnu, who said that since Lakshmi dissolved herself in the primordial milky ocean, she could only be brought back by churning the ocean. And thus, the ocean churning began with both gods’ and demons’ involvement.
Airavata in Jain Religion
Airavata is depicted not only in Hinduism but also in the Jain religion. According to Jain legend, during the birth of Rishabha Deva (considered the 24th avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the first Tirthankara of Jainism), King Indra and Airavata took part in the celebration.
Power of Airavata
It is said that the power of the lordly elephant Airavata is unparallel and incomparable. Narration about his power can be found in several Puranas.
According to Harivamsa Purana, once Lord Krishna went to Swarga to get a parijat flower, where he had to face Airavata, who stopped him at the gate. After numerous efforts, when Lord Krishna couldn’t defeat Airavata, he had to use his Sudarshan Chakra to calm Airavata.
Likewise, one day when Garuda proceeded to Swarga to release his mother Vinata, he also had to face Airavata.
His roar is often compared to Indra’s Vajra’s (weapon of King Indra) lightning bolt. Like Sheshnaag (Bed of Lord Vishnu), Airavata can also hold Earth alone on its axis.
He also accompanies Lord Indra in his battle, where he first faces the strike before it reaches lord, Indra. The air force released from his trunk is equal to that of Lord Vayu (God of Wind).
It is also said that Airavata can produce clouds because he reaches the watery underworld with his long and powerful trunk, where he absorbs all the water on Earth and then pulverizes it creating rain.
Temple dedicated to Airavata
One of the Shiva temples located near Tarasuram of Tamil Nadu state is Airavataeshwar Linga. Legend has it that after suffering from a curse of sage Durvasa, Airavata bathed in the sacred water of the temple and worshiped Lord Shiva. An image of Airavata with King Indra can be seen in the inner shrine to commemorate Airavata. King Rajaraja Chola II built the temple.
Airavata in Other Regions
- Airavata is known as Erawan (Pāḷi Erāvana) in Thai culture, where he is depicted as a three-headed white elephant with wings, often seen as a symbol of royal power and protection.
- In Cambodia, Airavata is known as Airawan and is considered a sacred creature associated with water and rain, symbolizing fertility and abundance.
- In Balinese Hinduism, Airavata is known as Airawata and is considered a divine creature associated with rain, fertility, and agriculture, often depicted in traditional Balinese art and sculptures. It is the same as the connection of elephants with water and rain in Indian culture.
- In Sinhala, Airavata is known as Erawana and is considered a sacred elephant associated with water and rain, believed to bring blessings and prosperity to the land.
- In some African cultures, elephants are revered as sacred animals with divine attributes, often associated with fertility, strength, and wisdom, showcasing the universal significance of elephants in various religious and cultural beliefs.
- Wat Arun temple in Bangkok, Thailand, is dedicated to Airavata, where he is portrayed with 3 heads. The flags of Thailand and Laos have the image of Airavata.
Symbolism and Significance of Airavata Elephant
The Airavata Elephant holds deep symbolism and significance in Sanatan. It is considered a sacred and divine creature, representing various qualities that are admired and revered in Hindu culture.
Airavata is a symbol of wealth and abundance
Airavata is often associated with wealth and abundance. His pure white color and majestic appearance are believed to symbolize purity, prosperity, and fertility. He is considered the embodiment of divine wealth and is often depicted with a pot of nectar, which represents abundance and prosperity.
The belief in Airavata’s association with wealth and abundance is deeply ingrained in Hindu culture, and he is often revered and worshipped during festivals and rituals related to prosperity and wealth.
Airavata as a representation of strength and power
Airavata’s immense size, strength, and power make him a symbol of strength and resilience in Sanatana. As the King of Elephants, he is believed to possess unmatched physical strength and wisdom.
He is often depicted with six pairs of tusks, which are considered a symbol of his invincibility and power. Airavata is seen as a source of inspiration for those seeking strength and courage to overcome challenges in life.
Airavata as a guardian of the heavens
As the ride of Indra, the king of gods, Airavata is believed to guard the heavens and protect the celestial abode from evil forces. He is often depicted as a loyal and devoted servant of Indra, carrying him on his back and taking him to battle against demons and asuras. Airavata’s association with the heavens and his role as a guardian symbolize his divine protection and the belief in his ability to ward off negative energies.
Airavata is a symbol of devotion and loyalty
Airavata’s unwavering loyalty and devotion toward Indra are considered his defining qualities. He is often depicted as a devoted servant who follows Indra’s commands without question and serves him with unwavering loyalty. Airavata’s loyalty and devotion are seen as a symbol of the ideal disciple in Sanatana, representing the importance of obedience, faith, and devotion towards one’s chosen path or master.
Airavata makes it Rains
Thanks to Airavata we have rainwater! Airavata reaches down his trunk into the watery underworld, sucking up its water. He then sprays this water into the clouds, which Indra, the King of Devas and the Lord of Rain, cause to rain forth cool water, thereby linking the waters of the sky with those of the underworld.
The concept of Airavata making it rain is symbolic of the cyclical nature of water and its connection to the elements of the earth and the heavens. Airavata’s ability to draw water from the underworld and spray it into the clouds represents the transfer of water from the depths of the earth to the heavens, where it can be released as rain.