The Elephant is symbolic of power, single-minded determination and exaggerated memory. As such, yet in an extreme sense, the elephant may represent the blind rage of vengeance, enacted as retaliation for some ‘past’ insult or injury. However, in a dream, an elephant primarily epitomizes will-power and fierce tenacity. The elephant, despite its size, is rarely a threatening force. The animal is grand in both its stature and its character. Moreover, in their archetypal imagery, the long ivory tusks of the magnificent elephant are symbolic of longlife and sexual vitality.
Unfortunately, this latter symbolism has caused man to dwindle their species by destroying thousands of males for their splendid tusks. Man needs to understand that symbols are meant for the heart, mind and soul, not the mantle piece.
According to Jung, an elephant may be a symbol of the self.
Particularly for anyone acquainted with Indian religious ideas or iconography, an elephant may represent some power, available within you, to clear away whatever prevents you from achieving your goal. (Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, is the great ‘obstacle remover'.)
In many regions, and particularly in the monsoon countries, the gift they desire is rain, which is one of Heaven’s blessings. For Indra is also the storm-god and his elephant wears a rich jewel - the lightning - on its forehead.
The elephant is also a symbol, not of excessive weight, but of unchanging stability. Yoga attributes it to the chakra mUladhara, where consequently the elephant corresponds to the element Earth and the colour ochre. It was also a companion of the Boddhisattva Akshobhya, the Changeless One. Elephants are also to be found on some Tantric mandalas, set either at the gates of the cardinal points, or at points beside them. At Angkor they are to be seen on the eastern Mebon and especially on the Bakong. Their significance is that of the dominion of the centre of kingship extending to the four corners of the Earth. The presence of elephants, among other symbols, next to Vasudeva - Vishnu as Lord of the Three Worlds - would seem to indicate his sovereignty over the terrestrial globe.
If this interpretation is accepted, the elephant is the beginning and the end, and this applies both to the evolution of the world manifested at the sound of the syllable от (and therefore of the non-manifested), and also of the yogi’s inner creation. Ga-ja, the elephant, is alpha and omega.
Elephant symbolism is a common feature of Buddhist thinking. Queen Maya conceived the Buddha as an elephant calf. It would seem to play an unexpectedly ‘angelic’ part, were one not already aware that elephants were instruments of heavenly intervention and blessing. An elephant is sometimes depicted on its own to signify the Buddha’s conception. When set on the top of a pillar, it evokes enlightenment. This echoes Ganesha as the symbol of knowledge. Lastly, and this is very significant, the Boddhisattva Samantabhadra rides an elephant in a display of the power of knowledge. Incidentally, brute strength is exhibited in the episode of the mad elephant, Nalagiri.
Like bulls, tortoises, crocodiles and other animals in India and Tibet, elephants are also cast in the role of animals which hold up the world and carry the universe upon their backs. Because they were believed to support the cosmos, they are the caryatids in the architecture of many ancient monuments. The elephant was also regarded as a cosmic animal because it was itself in the shape of the cosmos - four pillars holding up a sphere.
In Africa, Baule beliefs make elephants the symbol of strength, prosperity, long life and wisdom. To the Ekoi they symbolize violence and ugliness. From them, the Ibo of southeastern Nigeria borrowed the worship and religious organization of the Ekkpe. But in their case the elephant symbol barely rises above the level of metaphor.
It is also at this level that it is employed as an attribute of kingly power, in consideration of their massive bodies, or as symbols of the monarch who avoids foolish and rash action, in consideration of the elephant’s vigilance and wariness. If one were to believe Pliny and Aelian, elephants are also symbols of piety, since they reported that at the time of the new Moon they could be seen gazing up at the planet, softly waving freshly plucked branches as though praying to the Moon-goddess for her favour and blessing. According to Aristotle, the cow elephant’s pregnancy lasts two years and during that time the bull neither attempts sex with her nor with any other cow. The elephant may thus be seen as the symbol of chastity; while a seventeenth-century engraving depicts modesty, in the guise of an elephant fighting a wild boar, symbolizing lust.