The intoxicated elephant

Aug 31, 2014, 06:24 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

A friend of mine brought a bottle of wine that he called Madeira from the Madeira islands of Portugal

Devdutt PattanaikA friend of mine brought a bottle of wine that he called Madeira from the Madeira islands of Portugal. These islands were the port of call since the 16th century for ships making their way to and from East Indies or India, where Madira was the Sanskrit word for alcohol. The term came from the root word ‘mada’, to be intoxicated. The god of lust, Kama, was called Madan, and his wife, Rati, goddess of erotica, was called Madanika.

Mada, very specifically, referred to the dark fluid that oozes out of the temple of a male elephant in mushth. This fluid came to embody the spirit of extreme intoxication seen in mushth elephants who are highly aggressive and unstoppable. In Kalidasa’s works, and in earlier Sanskrit and Tamil literature, elephants in mushth were always described to evoke moods associated with extreme hedonism, masculinity, power and pleasure.

Ganesh idol
Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Scientists, however, are not sure what mushth truly is. They are not sure whether the bull elephant is erotically aroused or just in severe pain due to swelling of the temporal glands that press against his eyes. Or whether the temporin fluid, which is rich in protein and fat and other chemicals, flows into its mouth causing it to get aggressive and agitated. It is difficult for scientists to study mushth as the ‘intoxicated’ bull elephant is extremely dangerous, uncontrollable and is known to kill other male animals, even the female elephants, that are close by.

Philosophically, the state of ‘unmada’ is associated with extreme sensual arousal when all good sense evaporates and one is obsessed with pleasure and power. It referred to extreme attachment and possessiveness, a loss of control that is in a way pleasurable. The monastic orders and practices such as yoga were designed to combat mada, calm the mind and bring back perspective and focus.

Thus there are stories of the Buddha calming an elephant in mushth, and of Krishna killing Kuvalayapida, an elephant in mushth directed at him by Kansa. In a way, Kuvalayapida embodies Kansa’s madness born of fear of death prophesised at the hands of his nephew. In the Mahabharata, an elephant called Ashwathama is killed and Drona assumes it is his son. Symbolically, the writer is referring to Drona’s obsessive love for his son that colours all good judgement. Drona is in mada and Krishna stops him. Ravana is described as being in mada when he refuses to let Sita go even though Ram has killed his son, his brother and Hanuman has set Lanka aflame. Shiva is called Gajanataka — he who flays alive the elephant-demon whose mushth threatens the world.

From mushth comes the words mast and masti, which in colloquial language also refers to irreverent fun. It is an elephant that is happy, a hasti in masti, whose head is used by Shiva to replace the severed head of Vinayaka, the son of Gauri, and resurrect him as Ganesha. If Gauri embodies the domesticated desires of the forest, then Shiva embodies the tempering influence of the hermit. Together they create the perfect son, in whom passion is balanced with good sense.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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