Gaja (गज), a Sanskrit word for elephant, is one of the significant animals finding references in Hindu scriptures and Buddhist and Jain texts. In general, a gaja personifies a number of positive attributes, including abundance, fertility and richness; boldness and strength; and wisdom and royalty. In European Portuguese, it means "physically attractive female"; its origin in the Portuguese language can be related to a personification of fertility, as mentioned.
In the context of the history of Ancient India, the earliest depiction of gaja is found on the seals discovered at sites (like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro) of the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 BC – 1700 BC). Some scholars believe that by that time elephants had been tamed and domesticated, and used for peaceful and possibly for other purposes. Rigveda 8-33-8 mentions a Wild Elephant. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya reports use of war elephants during warfare.
Over a period of time encompassing several centuries, elephants became an important part of Indian life and society, particularly of religious tradition, the royalty, and the aristocratic segment of the society. Capturing, taming and training of elephants developed into a specialized skill. In Ancient India, a number of treatises were written about caring and management of elephants, which included the following:
- Palakapya's Hastayurvea dealing with the management of good health of elephants.
- Matangalila by Nilakantha
The Buddhist tradition states that Buddha came into the womb of his mother in the form of an elephant having six tusks. According to Jaina tradition, each of the mother of the twenty-four thirthankars dreamt of fourteen auspicious objects, which included an elephant. In Hinduism, Ganesh, a god with the elephant's head has been an object of reverence and worship for more than two millennia. He is therefore called as Gajānana (Gaja=elephant, ānana= faced). Several deities and mythological figures have elephants as their conveyance (vahan) including Balarama, Skanda and aiyanar.
An elephant is also one of several attributes of a Chakravartin, which he is expected to own to be bestowed with the title of Chakravatin, that is, the supreme and universal ruler.