The Śrīmadbhāgavata speaks of the elephant, Gajendra, as the epitome of surrender, and uses the episode of Gajendra’s rescue from the grasp of a crocodile to exemplify Lord Viṣṇu as the ultimate refuge of devotees. This particular episode has captured the imagination of both artists and philosophers of the Bhakti school of thought alike. Who was Gajendra and why is this particular episode of the Bhāgavata so significant?
There was once a great king in the southern Pāṇḍya kingdom, called Indradyumna. He was supremely devout, and dedicated himself to the religious observances of lord Viṣṇu. He retired to the peaks of the Malaya mount and resorted to penance there. One day, having completed his morning ablution, Indradyumna was engaged in worshipping lord Viṣṇu when sage Agastya arrived at his hermitage. Although Indradyumna was devout, he was yet guilty of arrogance. Driven by pride, he failed to receive the sage with the due hospitality and honor dictated by the scriptures. Incensed by the king’s lack of humility and dedication to scriptural dictates, the sage cursed Indradyumna thus – “You have shown yourself to be dull (due to pride) like an elephant. I hence curse you to the life of an elephant.”
Indradyumna was soon born an elephant. He had no memory of his devout past as the Pāṇḍya king. Once, he resorted to the ethereal lake neighboring the Trikūṭa mount, along with his herd of elephants. The mighty tusker put fear in the hearts of all the animals of the surrounding forest, as he marched towards the wondrous lake. Drawn by the fragrance of the lotus pond, the herd of elephants that was scorched in the heat, entered the pellucid waters. Gajendra sported in the water and drank to his heart’s content, little aware of the danger that lurked.
To his horror, Gajendra soon discovered that his foot was being tugged by something immensely more powerful than himself. It was a crocodile. The mighty elephant who was the head of the herd, struggled with all his strength to escape the grasp of the crocodile. He tugged with all his might, but to little avail. The herd of elephants, alarmed by the distress of their head, ascended the bank and tried to save Gajendra. In the tug-of-war that ensued between the crocodile and the tuskers, the crocodile had the upper hand. Dejected that their effort was worth little, the herd finally abandoned their head. Gajendra struggled on for a thousand years, endeavoring to release himself. Exhausted beyond measure, the elephant who identified himself with his physical body recognized that there was no escape. He became all too aware of his powerlessness. Births of devout worship came to his rescue at this desolate moment. Wisdom of past lives came streaming in. He recognized that surrender would redeem him. He recognized that the powerlessness he experienced was owing to his identity with the limited physical body. He recognized that with surrender would arrive strength, for the responsibility of protection would then lie with the absolutely powerful, Supreme. He cried aloud –
यस्मिन्निदं यतश्चेदं येनेदं य इदं स्वयम्।
योऽस्मात् परस्माच्च परस्तं प्रपद्ये स्वयम्भुवम्॥
yasminnidaṁ yataścedaṁ yenedaṁ ya idaṁ svayam|
yo’smāt parasmācca parastaṁ prapadye svayambhuvam||
He from whom this (creation) has evolved, He to whom this (creation) will return (to rest), He owing to whom this (creation) evolved, and He who verily is (this creation), to Him who transcends (creation), and is the self-born Supreme, I surrender.
He further pleaded, “I have no desire to live on in this world, in the form of an elephant, deluded by the veil of māyā. I do not seek to be released from the deathly grip of this crocodile. I seek to be liberated from this ignorance that restricts me from recognizing my true self. Time will rid man of the physical body, but not ignorance. It persists until your grace descends.” –
इच्छामि कालेन न यस्य विप्लवः तस्यात्मलोकावरणस्य मोक्षम्॥
icchāmi kālena na yasya viplavaḥ tasyātmalokāvaraṇasya mokṣam||
I desire to be liberated from that abysmal ignorance, which time alone cannot cut asunder.
In a trice, the lordly elephant had transcended name and form. Not only had he forsaken identity with his own physical form, but had pledged allegiance to the Absolute Supreme who transcends name and form. In so doing, he wiped out the hold of creation that is bound by name and form. His surrender was absolute. It became the duty of the Supreme Entity called upon, to thus rush to the rescue of this devotee.
The Śrīmadbhāgavata states, when the lordly elephant appealed thus to the Supreme who was beyond attributes, the celestials and other gods did not step forward. The Supreme being, Hari, hastened to the presence of the elephant amount his avian chariot, Garuḍa. He released his formidable Śudarśana-cakra to slay the crocodile and save the elephant. Not only was the elephant rescued from the curse, but from ignorance, and hence rebirth. He was blessed to become one of the attendants of lord Viṣṇu at Vaikuṇṭha. Having blessed the elephant thus, the lord declared,
ये मं स्तुवन्त्यनेनाङ्ग प्रतिबुध्य निशात्यये।
तेषां प्राणात्यये चाहं ददामि विमलां मतिम्॥
ye maṁ stuvantyanenāṅga pratibudhya niśātyaye|
teṣāṁ prāṇātyaye cāhaṁ dadāmi vimalāṁ matim||
I shall bless him, who shall extol me with this hymn (addressed to me by Gajendra, the lordly elephant) at night, with flawless understanding at the end of his life.