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Buddhism and Elephants in India

June 06, 2016 Buddhism and Elephants in India


Recently Joey and I were in India where we go at least four times a year. As we had a free day, we decided to go to Khan Market to source new elephant products for the store. When a friend heard we were going there, he said we had to drop in Bahrisons Booksellers which had recently been written up in The Financial Times.


It was a great recommendation: a true diamond in the rough, a funky book store where we discovered a great book that tied together our interests in India, where Buddhism originated, Buddhist religion and culture, and, of course, elephants.


The Buddha and the Sahibs tells the fascinating story of the British colonials called the "Orientalists" who devoted most of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries to re-discovering India's wealth of Buddhist culture and history that had been overshadowed, suppressed and obliterated by Hinduism and to a certain extent by the Islamic faith followers of the Moghul emperors.

At the time, few Buddhist landmarks, historic sites or temples were visible as they were either overgrown, abandoned or converted to other uses. The Orientalists relied on the writings of two Chinese monks who travelled on foot throughout India in the fifth and seventh centuries in search of sites associated with Lord Buddha. As a result, of the Orientalists' restless efforts, Lumbini, was proved to be the 623 B.C. birthplace of Prince Siddharta, who upon enlightenment became Gautama Buddha. This site was uncovered in the late 19th century in southern Nepal. How strange that a religion that migrated to such a vast area of Asia had been lost in the Indian sub-continent from whence it began.

Now, back to the elephant connection-the book taught me a new bit of historical information, which is the tradition that immediately before giving birth, Siddharta's mother had a dream about a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity. She died seven days afterward.

This antique Chinese figure below, which was given to me by our daughter Katie, depicts a Buddhist monk on an elephant. According to Khun Steve, The Elephant Story personal advisor on Asian antiquities, it is an image of Kalika, seventh of the sixteen original disciples, or Arhats, of Buddha. Kalika was called the "Elephant Riding Disciple" because he rode an elephant chanting sutras and looking over the four corners of the world-much like we do in elephant polo.

In a shop in the small village of Mae Sai on the Thai/Burma border we discovered a wood carving of a Burmese monk riding a white elephant, which is also a representation of the Arhat Kalika. Joey always had difficulty with the monk being out of proportion to the size of the elephant. Despite repeated visits to the shop and prolonged negotiations with the shop owner, the owner would not reduce his price despite my "out of proportion argument." Eventually I relented and this carving sits next to me as I write. Some versions of the birth story have it that Prince Siddharta entered his mother on that white elephant. This concept of Prince Siddharta entering his mother on an elephant had to be a spiritual sort of thing but, no matter what, the elephant could not have been full size.

In the late 19th century, the individual who probably did the most to promote Buddhism in the west was Edwin Arnold, best known as a journalist for the London Daily Telegraph. Before writing for that newspaper, Arnold, had taught in India and studied Sanskrit. His writings on India and Buddhism helped propel the Daily Telegraph to become a serious contender to The Times where it remains today as the two leading newspapers in the UK. You would never be embarrassed on a British Air flight to request either the Daily Telegraph or The Times.   

Lastly, the world owes a massive debt to Sir William Jones, linguist, jurist, founder of the Asiatic Society in the 18th century in India and the leading British Orientalist of his time. You would be shocked to know that his nickname was "Oriental Jones." His favorite theory was that many languages sprang from the same source, with which subsequent scholars have come to agree. Have you ever noticed the similarity of numbers in Sanskrit and Latin? Also, have you heard that Hollywood is looking for an aging look-alike to "Indiana Jones" for an "Oriental Jones" movie on Buddhism and elephants?