Classical Sanskrit literature has references to World Elephants as mythical animals supporting the world in Hindu cosmology. This image augments the stock of mythological world-bearers over the earlier World Turtle (Kurmaraja) and World Serpent (Nagaraja or Shesha). Indeed, Wilhelm von Humboldt suggested that the idea of a world-elephant was due to a confusion, caused by the Sanskrit noun Nāga having the dual meaning of "serpent" and "elephant" (named for its serpent-like trunk), thus representing a corrupted account of the world-serpent. The various Hindu myths of the world being carried or enclosed by either a tortoise, a serpent or an elephant were referred to by Taylor (1878:339). In the epics and major Puranas, there "is no myth of a world-upholding elephant", and Al Biruni makes no mention of it, only quoting Brahmagupta who states "the earth is the only low thing".
The elephants are supposed to be guarding (and supporting) the earth at the compass points of the cardinal directions, and they cause earthquakes when shaking their bodies. Thus there are four, eight, or sixteen of them. The Amarakosha (5th century) lists the names of eight male elephants bearing the world (along with eight unnamed female elephants). The names listed are: Airavata, Pundarika, Vamana, Kumunda, Anjana, Pushpa-danta, Sarva-bhauma, Supratika. Four names are given in Ramayana 1.41: Viru-paksha, Maha-padma, Saumanas, Bhadra.
Mahapadma also appears as the name of a treasure-guarding naga (serpent, dragon) in Harivamsa and Vishnu Purana. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists Maha-pudma and Chukwa are names from a "popular rendition of a Hindu myth in which the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma, which in turn supports the world". The spelling Mahapudma originates as a misprint of Mahapadma in Sri Aurobindo's 1921 retelling of a story of the Mahabharata,
Love and Death.
- On the wondrous dais rose a throne,
- And he its pedestal whose lotus hood
- With ominous beauty crowns his horrible
- Sleek folds, great Mahapudma; high displayed
- He bears the throne of Death. There sat supreme
- With those compassionate and lethal eyes,
- Who many names, who many natures holds;
- Yama, the strong pure Hades sad and subtle,
- Dharma, who keeps the laws of old untouched.
- Sadashiv Ambadas Dange, Glimpses of purāṇic myth and culture (1987), p. 70.
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- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 15th ed., revised by Adrian Room, HarperCollins (1995), p. 1087. also 14th ed. (1989).
- "Love and Death: Love and Death". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 2013-04-14.