"It is a disgrace to the human, the most elevated being on earth, that the elephant, the biggest creature on the land, is exploited, harnessed, and tortured in captivity to such inexplicable proportions."
Powerful words from a spiritual institution led by a revered world renowned spiritual leader, who has launched a petition in the Supreme Court of India to ban elephants in festival and temple rituals. The overarching question is "whether the holding of elephants in captivity and using them in festivals and temple rituals is dharmic and necessary at all."
The Thrissur-based NarayanashramaTapovanam, founded by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha argues that there are no Hindu scriptures that purport use of elephants in temple rituals, and suspects that the practice has crept insidiously into the cultural landscape due to "ill-directed instigation of some class of people".
Elephants are exploited under the veil of culture and religion, and denied adequate water, food and shelter. In order to restrain the gigantic animal the handlers use heavy shackles around their hind ankles, toss them around their back and tether them to a front leg. Often the shackles are tightened so severely that they cut through the flesh, causing raw bleeding wounds that are seldom treated.
"Can we think of chaining a human similarly, in any circumstances, in prison or captivity?"
They are paraded beneath the scorching sun, decorated in heavy caparison, and forced to carry unbearable burden on their delicate spine, including three to four men on their back weighing approximately 300 kilos, and a heavy plaque depicting the temple deity.
"Does a beast that serves man so much, by carrying him on his back, by responding to his multiple commands and cues, deserve to be tortured and pained mercilessly, only to meet man's selfish ambitions, fueling his undue pride and ego?"
In dispelling arguments that elephants were used for royal defense since time immemorial, and therefore should be used in cultural festivals, the petition quotes ancient texts such as Mathangaleela written in eighth century A.D. It offers 45 synonyms for the word "elephant", each derived from its physical and mental aspects. Synonyms like vaarana, (obstructs, resists and eliminates the enemies), and ashtapraharana, (beats and attacks with eight limbs (4 legs, 2 tusks, a trunk and a tail) explain the science of taming elephants for kings and emperors.
"But nothing in these names, or the qualities and merits of the elephant, apparently indicate that they were to be a part of Temple worship or festival, and the sacrosanct replica of the installed idol is taken from the sanctum sanctorum and mounted on the tusker, in order to ornament or enhance the installed Deity's divine brilliance."
The temple authorities are ignoring this ancient wisdom, and turning a blind eye to the suffering of the embodiment of Lord Ganesh. When elephants are forced to perform unnatural rituals, it sometimes drives them insane and they run amok. So the torture is intensified using vicious weapons such as bull hook, and dagger. If he deems it necessary, the handler also uses extreme measures to control the elephant,
"There are instances when the mahout collects the inflammable chemical from match stick buds, heaps it on the back foot of the elephant, and lights it. One can imagine how the animal will be writhing in pain to bear the torture. Elephants are mortally afraid of fire."
Citing a wide range of ancient Hindu tenets, the petition argues that violence has no place in our society, let alone in temples where the defenseless elephants, considered the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, are subjected to unimaginable torture.
"The basic dharmic tenet is best expressed in the following proverbial verse, which summarizes the entire gamut of dharma effectively: 'Listen to the entire code of dharma, and after listening, bear it constantly in mind: Do not inflict on another whatever is unfavorable or torturesome to oneself.'"
"Manu, the ancient law giver, summarizes the virtues and restraints all people have to adhere to in their life: "Non-hurting, truthfulness, non-stealing, cleanliness and sensory control; these are the common codes of life for all the four varnas, as told by Manu." (Manusmriti 10.63)"
"The spirituo-moral, ethical and administrative manual of Bhagavadgeeta has the following to say with regard to non-hurting as a fundamental and ultimate virtue or discipline that any thinker, moralist or devotee or devotional proponent should not miss at all:13.29 'Seeing the equally present God equally in everything and all, one, the devotee, does not hurt another, and hence, thence, attains to the supreme state.'"
The elephants have not committed any crime against humans to be captured from the wild and torn from their families in order to quell the insatiable selfish drive for money and status-quo.
"What did the elephant, living in the forest, do to man to deserve this kind of torturous treatment and enslavement? If religion holds anything immoral or sinful, elephant persecution should be counted as the first and the worst."
But the harsh reality is the elephant lobby groups are too conceited to humbly follow their dharma and obey the laws of the land.
"The laws of the country do not allow anyone to hurt another. Does not the same apply to animals also? Merely because these mute creatures cannot raise their voice of protest, should man be allowed to inflict cruelty on them?"
Left to the Temple authorities or the Tantris, the issue will not be rectified. As such, the judiciary is the only haven for elephants. Therefore, in consonance with the Constitution, especially the fundamental duties enshrined in Article 51A (f) (g) & (h):
"Captivity and persecution clamped on elephants should be outlawed forthwith, if the Act against cruelty to animals and its intention, namely 'to prevent the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering on animals', is to be fulfilled scrupulously. The use of elephants in temple festivals should be prohibited forthwith forever."