Buddha as Elephant: Dhauligiri to Dindikal and the Mystery of Ganes
// January 2nd, 2016 // Cultural Politics
Asoka represented the enlightened one as an exquisite elephant or Gajotama at Dhauligiri near the Kalinga war site by the river Daya near Bhubaneswar in Odisha. This BC 3rd century rock cut idol is one of the earliest archaeological representations of the Buddha that is still surviving and is one of the earliest examples of Indian art, sculpture and architectural expressions. The Gajotama is also called Ganapati, Ganes or Vinayaka.
The Buddha is imagined as the exquisite elephant because in the dream of Mahamaya he entered the body of his mother Mahamaya in the form of an elephant. The dream of Mahamaya also tells us about the elephants giving her a bath while she was pregnant that became the Gajalakshmi in Hindu pagan appropriation. The Buddha is called Ganes or Ganapati as he was the leader of the Gana or democratic sects or Sangha. He is called Vinayaka as he is the master of Vinaya (the very first Pitaka), the rules of ethics that form the base of the democratic Sangha. It is also remarkable that even in those Asian countries where the elephant is absent Buddha is worshiped in the form of elephant as in Korea and Japan in the Mahayana shrines we find a lot of elephant forms and figures.
It was a hegemonic embrace and appropriation from the part of the Hindu Saivite violent forces to assimilate the image of the Vinayaka as a child of Siva through narrative strategies and iconographic alterations after the 6th and 7th centuries AD in the north and after the 8th century in South India. It is very much like the Pasupata Saivites in the north who came to existence in the 5th or 6th century AD, claiming that the BC 1500 image of the Padmasana Yogi of Indus valley is Siva in the form of Pasupati. In Tamilakam Appar and Sambandha Moorty who converted from Jainism to Saivism in the 8th century claimed that Siva was the chairman of the first Sangha or Chankam that was existing in BC 5th century or before. Such bogus claims are also part of such hegemonic Hindu Brahmanical appropriations.
The compassion, conservation and Maitri of the enlightened one are also exemplified in the icons from the natural world. From fish to fig and bull to lion, the exquisite animal motifs and natural imagery represent the Buddha in myriad organic ways. He is also called the Sakya Simha and his voice of ethics is termed as the Simha Nada, the roar of the lion or the voice of ethics and justice that cant be undone or deconstructed. The conservationist spirit of Buddhism and the Mauryan spirit of universal conservation that spread throughout the peninsula during Asokan age are also epitomized in the animal motifs and icons of early Buddhism.
I was fortunate enough to stay and study in Bhubaneswar in February 2015 while doing the UGC Refresher Course in History and Literature at Utkal University. I visited the Diamond Triangle of Lalitgiri, Udayagiri and Ratnagiri Mahaviharas. I could also go to Dhauligiri on the suburbs of Bhubaneswar to admire the World Peace Stupa made by the Japanese monks in 1970s and the elephant idol and Brahmi inscriptions on Dhamma created by Asoka in BC 3rd century. It is one of the earliest edicts in the world where an emperor proclaims the virtues of ethics and views his subjects as humans and equal; as equal as his own offspring. The pagan Chandasoka became a Dhammasoka through these ethical edicts and the practice of the higher ethics, non violence or Ahimsa.
When I visited the Gandhigram Rural University in Dindikal or Dindigul in Tamil Nadu recently in Dec 2015 to inaugurate and deliver a keynote at the National Seminar on Short Fiction on “C Ayyappan’s Short Fiction with Special Reference to Ayyothee Thasar and Poykayil Appachan” I could see a similar idol of Ganes now worshiped as Swayambhu Ganes or self incarnate Ganes at the margins of the campus in the lap of Sirumalai by a small stream.
This is a rough and course idol of Gajapati shaped out of a granite boulder by the stream, five feet tall. The Boddhi tree and Naga idols also testify the Buddhist antiquity of the region. The Kal or rock image in the place name Dindikal is also a Chamana marker. The ancient rock temple on top of the Kallu or rock fort of Dindikal city was originally a Chamana Pally and only after the 8th century was turned into a Saivite and Vaishnavite one. Later it was taken over by the Mysore rulers and then it went to the British.
The Swayambhu or self incarnate Ganes is clearly an ancient Teravada or early Buddhist Gajotama or Vinayaka, the master of Vinaya. The self incarnate status itself testify the existence of this idol prior to the Brahmanical Saivite takeover. Now the Hindu Saivites and their Brahman priests are using a lot of silk robes and ornaments to cover the idol completely so that the elephant emerging out of the rock is less visible. But it has the remarkable similarity with the Dhauligiri elephant of Asoka. It is also important to note that such Swayambhu or self incarnate Ganapatis are abundant in many parts of South India that are clearly pre Hindu and Brahmanic and are part of the ethical and cultural discursive geography and aesthetic genealogies of early Buddhism and the Asokan legacy in the peninsula.