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lakshmi-nrismha-karAvalamba-stOtram- 13

From: sudarshan madabushi (
Date: Thu May 20 1999 - 01:27:50 PDT

Dear bhAgavatOttamA-s,

In Verse#6 of the "lakshmi-nrismha-karAvalamba-stOtram" Sankara 
bhagavathpAdA cries out:


The terrors of life and the pain of death…
The mysteries of life evermore --
Like an ireful tusker in the wilds --
Have maimed me in their hold.

***        *******         ***********

In this verse there are 2 expressions which, if you notice, immediately 
attract our attention:

(1) "prANa-prayANa-bheethi" i.e "the fear of death…"


(2) "Bheekara-kareendra" i.e. "ireful tusker"

By conjoining "Bheekara-kareendra" and "prANa-prayANa-bheeti" in the same 
verse of the LNKS Sankara skilfully summons up a rather unusual metaphor, 
the "tusker", to predicate the deep and primal "fear of death" that lurks 
beneath the human psyche.

Rarely, if ever, is the elephant seen as a symbol of Death. Since the god of 
Death in the Hindu pantheon, Yama rides it, it is the buffalo that is widely 
considered to be an icon of death in the popular imagination of India. A 
pigeon is said to serve as Yama's personal courier. Yama is also known 
mythically to have two four-eyed black dogs guarding his doorway. (This is 
perhaps why, I guess, orthodox Hindu families never allow dogs into their 
homes… not even as pets! Also, I have always liked to think Yama's watchdogs 
are perhaps the philological inspiration behind coining the English word 

In the mythology of the Christian/Semitic cultures it is usually the raven 
or the werewolf that are quite often regarded as the dark symbols of Death.

A tusker, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a benign giant 
("saadhu", in Tamil). Even in the wild this particular pachyderm is hardly 
ever seen to be vicious or predatory in its behaviour. In fact so gentle and 
retiring is this animal that both in the jungles of Africa and the Asian 
sub-continent, where it once prospered, it is today rapidly approaching 
extinction thanks to poaching by humans who ruthlessly hunt it down for 

Why then, we may well ask ourselves, why does Sankara bhagvatpAdA choose to 
invoke the horrible spectre of Death through the metaphor of the docile 
elephant… apparently, a rather inappropriate archetype?

The elephant is, no doubt, by nature a benign giant. Man has in fact 
domesticated it so easily to serve him as a beast of burden in several ways… 
The creature is today put to the hard labour of pulling logs or stacking 
them up in the timber industry, to carry loads or perform tricks in the 
circus, to carry kingly palanquin and temple idol….

But when aroused to rage a tusker is known to easily turn into a terrible 
death-dealing machine. In Tamil there is a well-known proverb, 
"saadhu-mirandaal, kaadu-kOLLaadhu!"… "When the tame go berserk, no force on 
earth can contain them!". A "tame" tusker normally weighs 8 to 10 tons; it 
is 10 to 12 feet tall at the shoulder; it eats daily close to 350 to 400 kgs 
of food. You can well imagine what an animal with such formidable statistics 
characterising it, is capable of doing when it becomes angry and runs amuck! 
You better not be anywhere around it when that happens… Not if you don't 
want to witness utter mayhem!

Those of you who have read about him, and his wonderful poetry, will surely 
remember how the great Tamil poet, Subramanya Bharati met with death. One 
day in Triplicane, Madras, where he was residing near the Parthasarathy 
Temple, he walked past the temple-elephant. It suddenly scooped him up and 
clubbed him to death with its trunk before anyone even noticed what had 

In the Hellenic and Roman periods of European history, when bloody 
gladiatorial fights were staged for public entertainment in amphitheatres, 
it is said elephants were used as "executioners". Defeated slave-warriors 
were buried to their necks in the ground and then crazed bull-elephants were 
allowed to tread on their heads… the animals then proceeded to do to skulls 
what housewives do with potatoes --- they mashed them!

In the "purAn-ic" story of the Nrsimha-avatAra, we all know how 
Hiranyakashippu ordered his courtiers to have the palace elephants brutally 
trample Prahalada to death.

In the great epic, the Mahabharatha, in the chapters relating the War 
between the Pandavas and Kauravas, there are many memorable accounts of how 
hundreds of infantry and horsemen on both sides were stomped and mauled by 
advancing hordes of battle-crazed elephants. When you read Vyasa's vivid 
accounts of that great mayhem you cannot but help recall the lines of the 
English poet describing the scene of death on a war-field (in a different 
context, though, and at an entirely different time in the history of man):

"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the (soldiers) waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still.

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride,
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf."
                 (Lord Byron, "The destruction of Sennacherib")

Now, for a brief minute, if you were to mentally transport yourself through 
Time to the killing fields of Kurukshetra, and were to borrow Byron's lines 
above to describe what you saw there, then your "Angel of Death" would 
surely be an enraged, blood-smeared elephant, tearing and lashing, right and 
left, through ferocious battle-fields, and mowing down, as it were, both 
Pandava and Kaurava alike that came in its way…!

******     *******       *********

It is the impression of precisely that kind of awesome, death-dealing 
ferocity displayed by the elephant in the above instances that Sankara 
bhagavathpAdA seeks to evoke in Verse#6 of the LNKS and in the poetic 
expression, "Bheekara-kareendra-karABhiGhAta-nishpishta-marma-vapushaha 

"prANa-prayANa-bheethi"… Man's fear of Death too, the bhagavatpAdA tells us, 
is of the same nature as an elephant running amuck.

We will discuss this verse further in the next post.

adiyEn dAsAnu dAsan,

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