May 21, 2010

Sacred history of elephants isn't being recognized, scholar says

Dr. Raman Sukumar, Chairman of the Indian Institute of Science, discussed the twelve-thousand year relationship between man and elephant in a lecture Monday in Classics.

The focus of elephant conservation efforts should be on this history, Sukumar said, because understanding the “nature of the elephant–human relationship and its change over time [is the most] scientifically pragmatic and culturally appropriate ways of conserving elephants.”

As seen in cave-paintings from the Mesolithic era, the first human–elephant interactions go as far back as 7,000 years ago, said Sukumar, who has been studying the Asian elephant as an ecologist for over thirty years. By around 2,000 B.C.E., elephants were being tamed by the Indus, who were also the first to consecrate an elephant-like god. The image of an elephant-god stuck as elephants began to appear again in Buddhism and Hinduism with Ganesha, a well-known elephant-headed god known as the “remover of obstacles.” Sukumar argued that Ganesha is the symbol of the entire Asian elephant culture because it is sacred to all of Asia.

But even though elephants were sacred, the first instance of protection for the elephant did not appear until the Arthasastra, the Indian manual on statecraft, in 300 B.C., in which elephant use was strictly utilitarian—as a tool in war. Elephants served as both beasts of burden and weapons, Sukumar said, being used for their “psychological effect on the enemy.” Most famously, the Indian general Porus fielded 80 elephants against Alexander the Great in 326 B.C.E. Thus, Ganesha can then be seen as a “deity born out of conflict.”

Elephants came to be protected as well as venerated for their role in ecological processes, Sukumar said. He concluded that the very same issue underlies today’s social conflict over conservation, with the elephant threatened by loss of habitat and poaching.

The talk, titled "Elephants, Gods and People: The Cultural History of the Asian Elephant", was sponsored by the Program on the Global Environment.