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Elephants in Mongolia

July 08, 2015


For well over twenty years, I have had a close involvement with Mongolia and must say I never imagined there was any elephant presence in that vast and sprawling country.  Moreover, it is inconceivable that Mongolians could even conceptually relate to elephants in a country that by Mongolian accounts has two seasons-three months cold and nine months very cold.  However, I now realize that there is strong elephant karma in what is a growing Buddhist faith there that had been suppressed for sixty years.  Some years back, we bought a rather unusual looking carved elephant in Mongolia assuming it had some Buddhist significance.

I sought clarity from my close friend, Steve Saunders, aka Stevedorj, a well-known American scholar of Mongolian and Asian Buddhist art and antiquities.  The wooden elephant was carved as a Buddhist ritual object most likely early in the period of communist persecution of Buddhism in Mongolia, which began in 1930 and continued until the peaceful overthrow of the Politburo in 1990.

 

In 1922, Mongolia became the first satellite state of the Soviet Union and the second communist country in the world.  The Mongols invited the Red Army into the country to repel a Chinese invasion and they stayed for almost seventy years.  By 1929, Marshal K. Choibalsan had consolidated his grip on power as Communist Party Secretary-General and remained as paramount national leader and a surrogate for Stalin. He served in that capacity until 1952 when he was executed by Stalin in the Soviet Union as several of his predecessors had been.

 

At the direction of Stalin, Cholbaisan killed some 35,000 fellow Mongolians over his 22-year term as Prime Minister, the majority being Buddhist clergy and virtually obliterated the Buddhist faith from the country-but not quite.

Many Mongolians risked their lives to continue to practice Buddhism in secret so as to preserve their religion for their descendants.  Images of the Buddha were outlawed so some underground Buddhists chose the elephant as a ritual object for focusing mindfulness.  In turn, the elephant doubled as a stand-in for the most important figures of Lamist Buddhism: Bodhisattva Chenrezig, the Bogd Khan and the Dalai Lama.  Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment.  The Bogd Khan was both the secular leader of the nation and spiritual leader of Mongolia’s Tibetan Lamist Buddhists from 1911 until his death in 1924.  Both the Dalai Lama and Mongolia’s Bogd Khan are believed to be reincarnations of Chenrezig.

 

The elephant entered Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist iconography through Hindu influences.  In some Buddhist pantheons, the Hindu elephant-headed deities Ganapati and Ganesh are transformed into emanations of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Mongolian Chenrezig.  The historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, was said to have been an elephant in some of his previous incarnations.

 

In the Gandan Monastery in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, a statue of Chenrezig was erected in 1996 as the tallest indoor statue in the world to replace the original image having been dismantled by Choibalsan as a gift to Stalin during Word War II.  The author saw the replacement statue on several occasions during its creation by the artist.

In Buddhism, the elephant is a symbol of mental strength.  At the beginning of a meditation, the uncontrolled mind is symbolized by a gray elephant who can run wild any moment and destroy everything in his way.  The theory is that after practicing mindfulness or dharma and taming one’s mind, the mind is brought under control symbolizing a white elephant, strong and powerful to be directed as one chooses.

 

If you accept the premise that brave hidden Buddhist believers carved and venerated this wooden elephant in the last century, and that this carefully preserved object also represented for them the original statue of Chenrezig enshrined at Gandan Monastery, then today Mongolia has the largest indoor 26 meter tall statue in the world, that of an elephant-at least inferentially.

The practicing Buddhists who survived the purge had the last laugh on the Communist soldiers who lacked a basic grasp of the faith they were seeking to destroy.  They simply did not realize that the innocent looking carved elephant was the embodiment of that very faith. On the other hand, what would you expect from soldiers of a brutal communist regime built on a foundation of compounded lies under the direction of a Stalinist stooge.  The author thanks Stevedorj for all of his enlightenment and assistance while apologizing that some of the background information he generously provided had to be truncated given the spatial limitations of this blog.