Elephants Everywhere

elephants in Buddhism

Queen Maya, the mother of Buddha, dreams of a white elephant

Elephants are the national animal of Thailand. Their cultural importance is rooted in history and religion, but remains visible throughout modern Thailand, being embedded in all aspects of Thai traditions and customs – some Thais even believe that walking underneath an elephant will bring luck. Elephants are incorporated in art, clothing, adverts and even beer bottles. They have appeared on coins and are central to the design of many of Thailand’s ensigns. Indeed, until 1917 they were part of Thailand’s national flag.

Elephants are considered a symbol of justice and loyalty, and have long been a symbol of Royal power in Thailand. Traditionally, the number of elephants owned by a ruler reflected his status. In 1861, King Mongkut heard that the American president, Abraham Lincoln, had no elephants and couldn’t believe it! He wrote and offered to send some, but Lincoln declined. White elephants are very rare and especially sacred, and any white elephants found in Thailand are automatically presented to the reigning monarch. The late King Bhumibol (who reigned from 1946 to 2016) owned 21 – an unparalleled achievement. White elephants are used in Royal emblems – for example, the famous Order of the White Elephant is an honour often awarded to government officials in Thailand.

In Buddhism, the main religion of Thailand, elephants protect Buddha and Earth. Their physical strength represents both mental strength and responsibility. In ancient times, Buddhists supposedly noticed how elephants exhibited thoughtful behaviour, which led to their association with the enlightened Buddha. Buddha is said to be reincarnated from elephants, so they are one of ten animals which Buddhists must not eat. Queen Maya, the “mother” of Buddha, apparently had a dream of a white elephant before becoming pregnant with Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago. White elephants are said to have brought Buddha from heaven, meaning he would be a powerful leader. White elephants are also associated with the Buddhist and Hindu god, Indra. He has a flying white elephant, named ‘Erawan’, which is often depicted with three heads, and sometimes 33 heads. Indra and Erawan are said to control the weather, so many believe elephants bring rain and good fortune.

You can read more about the role of elephants in Thai culture here .
The next post in this series will explain how Thai people’s love for elephants led to their incorporation into the Thai way of life and how, thanks to education, this has evolved.

[Photos and images acquired from Wikimedia, Pixabay and Buddhistelibrary]