There once lived a king named Indradyumana, who was a great bhakta of Bhagawan Vishnu. As is the nature of devotees, he considered his puja as the most significant part of his daily routine. Once as he was engaged in puja, a saint came to visit him. However, because of his preoccupation, Indradyumana was unable to attend properly to the saint. The latter was enraged at the king’s behaviour and cursed him saying: “Since you behave like an imperious elephant, become one.”
When he was reborn as an elephant, even then Indradyumana was the king of his herd. Because of his worship of Bhagwan Vishnu, he lacked no creature comforts even in this lowly birth. He had numerous female elephants with him, and also several children.
One hot summer day, he was leading his herd, the thump of their feet seemed to loosen up even the mountains. Soon they all felt extremely thirsty and hurried to a nearby lake, entering its waters. First Indradyumana, who was now known as Gajendra (literally ‘king of elephants’), quenched his thirst along with his obedient companions and then they all bathed in the waters. Like a true householder attached to his family, Gajendra sported in the water with his wives, children and friends, sprinkling each other with showers and playfully pouring water into their mouths. Under the spell of Bhagawan’s maya, the poor elephant did not realise that there was danger looming over him.
Suddenly a crocodile emerged from the waters, caught hold of Gajendra’s leg and started dragging him into the lake. Finding himself in this calamity by the will of God, the mighty elephant tried to extricate himself. However, since the crocodile is a marine creature, its strength is maximum in water. An elephant on the other hand, being a land animal, has a greatly reduced strength in water. Therefore, inspite of his immense efforts, Gajendra was unable to rescue himself.
His companions, seeing the plight of their beloved master, started shrieking. Some of the elephants tried to help by attempting to pull him from the back; but to no avail. In this way, the struggle continued for a long time. His helpless companions, now extremely tired, realised that they were fighting a losing battle. Understanding that his end was imminent, they all slowly withdrew, till Gajendra was left alone. He was the titan of a big clan; but all deserted him at the end. He pondered over this for a long time, and through the grace of God came to the following conclusion: “Even my most powerful male friends could not rescue me from this plight; what then to speak of my poor female elephants! Indeed, this is nothing but the noose of providence tightening around me. Nobody in this world is truly mine. Kala is all powerful. It slithers across like a serpent, consuming all that comes in its way. Only the creature who, though fearful of Kala, takes refuge with Bhagwan Vishnu, is definitely saved by the great Lord. Even death fears Bhagwan Vishnu. He is the refuge of all. It is to Him that I now surrender myself.”
If we reflect on it calmly, we will realise that there is no house in the world where the story of Gajendra does not play out. It happens in every house. Gajendra is the individual soul who is enjoying a material life in the lake of life. In the same house where we enjoy ourselves, Kala lies in wait. We are careless, but Kala is ever vigilant. Kala grabs a man by his legs and they start weakening. Indeed when our legs start weakening, we should realise that the end is near.
The one who is careful towards the end is able to reform his death. The one who is careless, spoils it. When Kala grabs a man by the legs, his family tries to protect him, but they are not successful. Only when Bhagwan, who is the ‘Kala’ of Kala comes carrying His Sudarshan-chakra, are we freed from the pangs of suffering. The word sudarshan means the ‘true way’ (su) of ‘seeing’ (darshan). The ‘true way of seeing’ is seeing God in everything. This is the liberating vision given by God to His devotees. When Kala grips us by the legs, our family will try their utmost to save us. However, when many days will pass and no progress will be observed, exhausted by serving the patient lying on the bed, they too will get on with their lives, leaving us to the will of God. If even at that moment, we do not make efforts to remember Bhagawan Vishnu, then God help us!
The bhakti Gajendra had performed in his previous birth came to his rescue and He was granted the memory of Bhagawan Vishnu at the end. Gajendra sung out: “I take refuge in You O Lord, Who remove all fetters of those surrendering unto You. I bow to You Who exist in the hearts of all creatures. God! Take me to the abode where Kala can never grab me again.”
How can there be peace where the entry of Kala is imminent? Where there is Kama there is Kala. Where Kala has entry, there is also fear. The only One who can save us is the One who is Himself beyond Kala. It is significant to observe here that all of Gajendra’s prayers at the end were directed to the Supreme God Who is beyond the restrictions of space and time. Indeed, Gajendra’s hymn of praise is one of the greatest philosophical poems in the annals of world literature.
Gajendra began by stating his present position and then describing what he thought God was like: “(Due to my leg being caught by the alligator) I can but offer my salutations only mentally to the glorious God Who is denoted by the symbol OM. God!, though devoid of any form, You are not only in all forms, but are also the forms themselves. Though we cannot see You with our eyes, the fact that this temporal world exists, points to Your eternal presence, because You are the cause of everything, but Yourself are without a cause.”
Then Gajendra specified what he wanted from God: “Lord! You are difficult to be attained by people who are attached to material wealth like wife, children, money etc. May You, the Lord of infinite mercy, rescue me from the clutches of samsara (the alligator). However, my wish is not to extricate myself from this alligator and continue to survive here in this body. What interest have I in this elephant body which is forever enveloped in the darkness of ignorance? What I crave for is eternal emancipation from that veil of ignorance which shrouds the spiritual light of the soul; a veil, which can be destroyed only by the knowledge that You, the Supreme Soul, is the soul of all.
“I bow to You, Who protects those who resort to You for shelter; but Whose path is inaccessible to those whose senses are directed towards material objects.”
Here we must observe that Gajendra did not call out to God by any specific name. He addressed himself to the highest God, who is cause of all names and forms, but is Himself beyond any name or form. So, none of the other deities like Brahma etc came to his rescue, because they all identified themselves with a particular name and form. It is only the Supreme Bhagawan Narayan who is beyond all manifestation, who replied to Gajendra’s call and seated on His bird Garuda, came surging to liberate him.
With great difficulty, Gajendra picked up a lotus in his trunk and offered it to Bhagawan. All creatures of the world rejoiced on seeing God’s vigilance in answering the distress of those who ask for His help.
The story of Gajendra occurs in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 8, Chapters 2-4.
References & Further Reading:
- G. P. Bhatt & J. L. Shastri (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes): Delhi, 2002
- Dongre, Ji. Bhagavat Rahasya: Delhi
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Bhagwatamrit: The Elixir of the Bhagawat:Mumbai, 2005.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes):Gorakhpur, 2004.