Hindu cosmology

World Elephant

Ashtadiggajas in Hindu Cosmology

The Ashtadiggajas (Sanskrit: अष्टदिग्गज) are a group of eight legendary elephants in Hindu cosmology. They serve as the guardians of the eight zones of the universe. These elephants are complemented by their female counterparts, known as the Ashtadikkarinis.

An 1877 American drawing of the world supported on the backs of four elephants, themselves resting on the back of a turtle.

Guardians of the Eight Zones

The Ashtadiggajas and Ashtadikkarinis are listed according to the direction they guard:

Supporting Elephants from the Netherworld

Apart from these, there are four additional elephants mentioned in the Ramayana that support the earth from the four cardinal directions of the netherworld:

  1. East: Virūpākṣa
  2. South: Mahāpadmasama
  3. West: Saumanasa
  4. North: Bhadra

Cultural Interpretations

  • The concept of the World Turtle supporting elephants has appeared in various cultures. One notable account from 1599 by Emanuel de Veiga describes this imagery.
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt suggested that the world-elephant might have originated from a confusion between the Sanskrit word Nāga, which can mean both “serpent” and “elephant” due to the elephant’s trunk resembling a serpent.

Literary References

  • Sri Aurobindo’s 1921 retelling of a story from the Mahabharata includes a description of the elephant Mahapadma, which was mistakenly spelled as Maha-pudma in some renditions. This elephant, along with the tortoise Chukwa, is said to support the world according to some mythological interpretations.

These elephants and their roles are deeply embedded in Hindu cosmology and mythology, symbolizing the stability and structure of the universe.

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