Gajendra Moksha: The parable that best explains rising India

India’s salvation and liberation lie in turning its mind and faith to its abilities and its destiny and allow for the discus to eliminate the last shreds of reptilian doubt

Hindol Sengupta January 09, 2022 16:41:05 IST
Gajendra Moksha: The parable that best explains rising India

A depiction of the liberation of Ganjendra from Life or Gajendra Moksha. Image courtesy Gita Press Gorakhpur

The Rutgers University professor of Chinese studies, and specialist in Buddhist philosophy, Tao Jiang has recently written, “If the Allegory of the Cave [of Plato] has shaped Western understandings of knowledge, truth, reality, ethics, & politics, the Fable of a Frog in the Well has played a similar role in the Chinese approaches. There is some overlap but the differences and their implications are fascinating. The primary setup in the Cave is illusion/ignorance vs reality/knowledge while in the Well the primary tension is between limitation/small-mindedness and limitlessness/capaciousness. Such a sharp contrast is fundamental in appreciating Plato and the world he's shaped vs Chinese.”

The suggestion is that while the West constructs a journey from ignorance to knowledge as the foundational direction — even if aspirational — of its society, the Chinese think in terms of what limits them, and how to overcome those limits. This is seen not least in the Chinese construction of their national journey from the ignominy of the “century of humiliation” (by the Western powers and Japan between 1839 and 1949, they say) to the dream of fulfilling what the Middle Kingdom believes is its manifest destiny, world leadership.

Is there such a parable which could help us understand India’s turbulent rise? This essay argues that such a story is to be found in the ancient sacred tales of Puranas, and the Panchatantra, which are some of the oldest stories — often described as ‘animal fables’ as animals feature most prominently in them — of Hinduism which spread around the world to many peoples and cultures.

One of the most popular stories which appears in multiple texts including the Panchatantra is called Gajendra Moksha or the enlightenment (or liberation) of Gajendra, the elephant.

Not only does it feature as its lead characters an elephant — the animal India is most often compared with — but it also makes a telling point about lacking faith. The first time this story appears is perhaps in the Puranas, some of the most ancient texts of Hinduism, full of fables and myths. This one appears in the Bhagavata Purana which details the stories about Vishnu, the preserver, as it were, in the Hindu trinity.

The story of the liberation of Gajendra was told by the sage Shuka to the great king Parikshit, according to the sacred texts. This story is so popular that not only does it appear in the Bhagavata Purana and in the Panchatantra, but it was also painted by Raja Ravi Varma, the great 19th Century Indian painter.

It appears as a mural in the Krishnapuram palace in Kerala, and as an intricate carving on the walls of the Gupta-period Dashavatar temple at Deogarh.

The story is simple. The grand elephant Gajendra goes to a lake where a crocodile traps one of the elephant’s legs within its mighty jaws. Try as he might, Gajendra, this prince among tuskers, is not able to free himself.

There he remains trapped as his friends and family gather around him but is unable to free him. As Gajendra, frightened, wounded and angry, thrashes about to free himself, and fails miserably, he is confronted by an imminent sense of doom which brings him face-to-face with death.

As he lashes about in fear, Gajendra turns his mind towards Vishnu and prays to the God, even plucking a lotus from the lake with his trunk to hold up as an offering. The elephant had — in some versions of the story — gone to the lake to pick lotus flowers (Vishnu’s favourite) to offer to the God.

Pleased by this turn in the mind of his devotee, Vishnu appears on his steed Garuda, the man-eagle, and uses his Sudarshan Chakra, the infallible disc-weapon, to slay the crocodile, and save Gajendra.

The moral of the story seems to be that Gajendra — when faced with a crisis — initially lost faith, and when he regained it, he found his salvation. In some versions of the story, saved and redeemed by the divine, Gajendra rises with Vishnu to Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu. He attains moksha or freedom from the cycle of life and death, and all the associated fears, trials, and tribulations. He is liberated.

How is this story an apt depiction of India’s journey towards its rise? It is befitting because in the course of its rise, India has often lost its faith in its destiny, and indeed its abilities. The divine here is a metaphor for the collective conviction of the people of India, a sense of common purpose towards a common destination and destiny.

One of the most apt examples of this is the continued criticism that economic liberalisation faces in the country, often from its elites. The single biggest act of freedom — after liberation from British rule in 1947 — was economic liberalisation in 1991. The process in fact had started through the 1980s, and it should be nobody’s case that this process has been perfect.

Yet, it is undoubtedly true that it is the one thing that has transformed India. Similar of course is the story of India acquiring nuclear power — some of the most vicious and trenchant criticism came, and still comes, to this, one of the most important assertions of the country’s rise, from its most entitled citizenry.

Therefore, like Gajendra, India has for long trashed about, its leg firmly in the clutches of its own citizens and others who somehow cannot and will not allow its rise to power in the world, condemning it forever to being trapped in a swamp of hesitation and poverty, of material goods and imagination.

Every move India has made to turn its head, like the elephant, and offer the tribute of the lotus, has made the crocodile of indecision tighten its jaws.

There have undoubtedly been some moments when the Sudarshan Chakra has been used — for instance when India brushed off global threats to acquire nuclear weapons, and more recently, when it crossed the so-called Rubicon, binning the ‘stability-instability paradox’, to send fighter jets across the border inside Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack.

But the broad analogy holds. India’s salvation and liberation lie in turning its mind and faith to its abilities and its destiny and allow for the discus to eliminate the last shreds of reptilian doubt. Therein, the path of its rise.

The writer is a multiple award-winning historian and author. The views expressed are personal.

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