Elephant stories

I have been watching the latest David Attenborough wildlife documentary on the BBC – Africa. Like many other viewers, it is the elephants that fascinate me most, and this week they got me thinking about how elephants are portrayed in Indian narratives. One cannot help thinking that the authors of the stories had real first-hand experience of the animals they describe.

In this week’s episode of Africa we saw that forest-dwelling elephants had created a large clearing in the middle of the rainforest by pushing over all the trees, in order to provide a space for social contact. It set me thinking about the story of Megha in the Svetambara Jain Jnatadharmakathah Sutra: In a past life the monk Megha was an elephant. Frightened by a forest fire he decided to create a clearing that would provide refuge when fire next hit. During a future fire he rushed to the clearing with all the other animals. At one stage he lifted his foot to scratch himself, and when he came to put it down again he saw that a hare had squeezed into the space. So he stood on three legs for the full duration of the fire – several days – and as a result he fell over and died. This greatly compassionate act resulted in a human rebirth.

The compassion of elephants also featured in Africa – last week we saw the touching story of an elephant forced to choose between following her herd on the search for water during a severe drought, or staying behind with her dying baby who was too weak to carry on. She chose the latter. Stories of elephants sacrificing themselves for others are fairly common in Buddhist literature too, with several jātakas showing elephants looking after their parents or helping lost humans.

The choice to tell stories about animals is doubtless motivated by many factors. Animal stories are arguably better able to serve as fables, for human audiences are forced to view “human” situations in a different light by seeing animals act them out. Such tales may also pick up on the audience’s knowledge about animal characteristics, for example the playful nature of monkeys or the grace and care of elephants, prompting real engagement with the narrative. In addition, in the Buddhist and Jain contexts, where animal birth is a possibility for all beings, animal stories serve to remind the audience that there is not as much difference between humans and other animals as we might like to think.

I think I need to watch a documentary about Indian animals now…


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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