Gajendra Moksham, Ganjendropakhyanam or Liberation of the elephant lord is a story from the eighth canto of the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. This is one of the famous stories extolling the glory of Lord Vishnu. In the first chapter of the 8th canto, Sri Shuka begins with a brief description of the number of Manvantaras in a Kalpa, the names of the Manus who ruled the earth etc. The second chapter details the episode of Gajendra, that took place during the fourth incarnation of Manu, the son of Priyavrata. Here goes the story.
Gajendra Moksha Story
Long ago, there was a huge mountain called Trikuta. With a height of ten thousand yojanas, it was surrounded by an ocean of milk. It was tall and wide, and had three peaks made of silver, steel, and gold, respectively. The other peaks were beautiful and decked with precious stones and a variety of colored minerals, and covered with trees, and all kinds of shrubs. Its feet were constantly washed by the waves of the ocean. The caves in the mountain were regularly visited by Siddhas, Charanas, Gandharvas, Vidyadharas, Nagas and Kinnaras. It was home to various animals and birds and was adorned with rivers and fresh-water lakes, whose banks were covered with gems, and had fragrant breezes blowing, which attracted the celestial ladies to play and bathe.
Lord Varuna had a magnificent garden called Rituman in the mountain. It was home to acacias, coral trees, mango trees, bred-fruit trees, hog-plum trees, arecas, coconut trees, date-palms, citrons, soapberries, banyan trees, sandal trees, pine trees, deodars, vines, sugar-canes, plantains, rose-apples, plum-trees, yellow-myrobalan, myrobalan, wood-apple, lemon, marking-nut trees and many more. The garden also had a beautiful lake adorned with lotuses and lilies, and the air was filled with the music of bees and chirping birds. Swans, ducks, ruddy geese, cranes, paddy birds and many more used to live in the lake. Fish and tortoises that shook the lotuses caused the water to be topped by a fine layer of pollen. Around the lake were trees like jasmine, red amaranths, and spring flower that bore flowers and fruits throughout the year.
One day, a family of elephants that inhabited the forest, entered the garden. The herd, that consisted of many elephants including females and calves, was led by their great leader Gajendra (the name itself means the greatest among elephants). The jumbos broke trees, bamboos, and canes. Sensing this, animals including lions, tigers, other elephants, serpents, and rhinoceroses fled in fear. The weaker ones like wolves, boars, hares, bears, porcupines, baboons, hyenas, and monkeys moved to other parts of the forest.
The elephants were drinking water in the large lake and cooling themselves. Gajendra, having a temporal leak (mata) during that time, was having a jolly good time in the lake and was playing with female elephants and calves by spraying streams of water with his mighty trunk. Proud and mighty, he was enjoying the pleasures of the world like a householder ignorant of (spiritual) pitfalls or the impending peril, so to say. As fate would have it, an alligator suddenly grabbed one of his legs and began to drag him under the water. Gajendra tried his best to free himself from the crocodile but to no avail. The elephant’s wives and children shouted, trumpeted, and tried to extricate their leader from the crocodile’s jaws, but all their efforts were in vain. The severe torture lasted for a thousand years, which left the unfortunate victim weakened both physically and mentally.
When all hope of rescue had faded and death was staring at him in the face, Gajendra turned his thoughts to the Lord and was reminded of a hymn which he had learned in his previous birth when he was king Indradyumna. Having centered his mind in the heart, he then recited it very sincerely, praising the many mercies of the Lord, and ended with a prayer to hear his cry for deliverance.
The prayer runs over to about 29 verses whose gist, when loosely put would be, “Lord Almighty, I salute the Lord who forms the bodies of beings as Prakriti and dwells in them as Purusha, who is represented by the mysterious letter Aum. I bow to that Lord of the universe, who is attainable by the pure mind that has divested itself of all worldly activities, the Lord of the final beatitude, the Lord of infinite compassion, who is subtle, imperishable, all-pervasive, infinite, perfect, beyond senses, who releases from bondage the souls that have completely surrendered themselves to Him. May that Lord of infinite mercy effect my deliverance.”
Hearing the cry of the royal Gajendra, Sri Hari rushed to the spot. The Lord carried his Sudarshana chakra (discus) in his hand and flew down on Garuda, the king of birds. Beholding the lord, Gajendra pulled out a lotus and offered unto Him. Sri Hari, out of his infinite mercy, pulled out both the elephant and the crocodile from the lake by its trunk, slit open the jaws of the alligator with his discuss and set the jumbo free.
Hailing this feat of Lord Śri Hari, the Devas, Rishis, Gandharvas, led by Brahma and Lord Siva discharged a shower of flowers. The heavenly drums sounded; the Gandharvas danced and sang praises; while Rishis, Charanas and Siddhas glorified the supreme Lord.
Chapter four of the 8th canto gives us an important epilogue to the story narrated above. Going into the history of the case, Mr. Shuka said that the alligator was formerly (in its previous birth), a chief of Gandharvas (celestial musicians), by the name of Huhu. He was cursed by Rishi Devala for some fault. Now, by the touch of the Lord’s discus, he was released from the curse and he regained his original Gandharva form. Grateful to the Lord for being liberated from the karmic consequences of his past-life sins, he bowed down to the Lord and circumambulated Him in utmost devotion and reverence. The pantheon of sages and gods who were present there, stood watching this scene in wonder.
On the other hand, Gajendra in his previous life was Indrayumna, a Pandya king of Dravida region (identified with modern day Tamilnadu) and a great devotee of the Lord. Later, he turned an ascetic and was meditating on the Lord on the Kulachala mountain on a certain day. By sheer coincidence, Rishi Agastya, accompanied by his numerous disciples, entered his hermitage while he was rapt in meditation. As he did not rise to receive the Rishi, the latter thought that the host had deliberately disregarded him and cursed him to turn into a dull-minded elephant in his next life as he was currently dull-witted not to welcome the guest (Rishi) with due respect. Though he was in an elephant body, by virtue of his past ascetic devotion, Indrayumna regained consciousness of the Lord in his dire extremity, when life was ebbing by inches and his mind in limitless sorrow. The Lord not only saved him from death but granted him immortality by endowing him with a form like His own (with yellow attire and four arms) and took him on Garuda’s back with Him to Vaikuntha, where he was made His personal attendant.
Gajendra’s story is an integral part of Indian mythology, which has great symbolic value. Let’s now look at the story philosophically. Vyasa is trying to tell us something in cryptic terms. Gajendra represents a human being (a typical householder who loves to enjoy worldly pleasures, and having a strong sense of agency and individuality, believes that his physical strength and that of his kit and kin would protect him during crisis). On the other hand, the crocodile represents sin (karmic consequence of past life actions), and the water of the lake signifies samsara (world) which overpowers the free will and almost drowns the elephant. Nothing of what the elephant relied on hitherto- its own strength, that of friends and relatives, proved to be of any use in the dire hour. But when the elephant gives up all its efforts and calls out to the Lord and surrenders himself unto Him, the Lord manifests and saves the elephant from danger. This means, human efforts have limited outcomes and it glorifies the importance of unconditional surrender, sharanagati, to the supreme being. Sharanagati, Prapatti, Realization, Samadhi, attainment of jnana, etc. by and large mean the same state. In the parlance of devotion (bhakti), it refers to a state in which the devotee has no ounce of ego left, does a complete and unconditional surrender to the will of God, has exhausted all other options in life and has naturally renounced everything due by realizing their ultimate futility. That’s when the Lord manifests Himself to save the devotee from the cycle of birth and death. In terms of knowledge (Jnana or Vedanta), when the devotee has developed sufficient dispassion towards worldly affairs (vairagya) and focuses his mind inward with one-pointed attention, the self (Brahman), which is pure consciousness, reveals itself. In other words, it’s a state in which there’s no ego and there’s absolute inward focus and purity of the mind, the mind ceases to exist and shines in a self-effulgent manner as pure consciousness.
This is a puranic story. Purana means, old yet fresh (new). This is a metaphorical message to every seeker like you and me, to develop unbounded devotion to the Lord so that He would liberate us all from the never-ending cycle of birth-and-death.