Dantabhumi Sutta in Modern Context

I do not know his name nor to which temple he belonged. I made friends with him three months before he died.
My great fascination for elephants made me jump up from my seat whenever I heard the mahout’s voice shouting orders to him and the jingling of the bell round the elephant’s neck every morning about ten. I would then run outside my room to the balcony and wave to him as he plodded up the hillock on his way for his diurnal bath at the river close by. He would return in the late afternoon carrying with his trunk a goodly mid-day meal of tender green palm leaves. I soon noticed that he was sick. Each day he would plod up the hillock slower than on the previous day with measured , concentrated steps. Sometimes he would pause by a tasty clump of grass growing on the bank of the road to feed on the delectable sweet greens and the mahout would patiently wait till he had had his fill of the appetizer before lunch. Then at the peremptory command he would swing around to the path again and plod on. Sometimes I did not see him for days and I was told that he had been taken for treatment to the Veterinary Hospital at Peradeniya.

The mahout’s sergeant-major orders that brooked no opposition and the jingling of the bell would send me out of the seat and on to the balcony in a jiffy from where I would wave to the patient joyfully as he returned from his treatment. Once he was tied to a tree by the granary. (We have on campus not only a patch of wilderness by a small lake for sick elephants but also the Temple of the Tooth’s granary to where farmers cultivating rice fields belonging to the Temple of the Tooth would bring a portion of their newly harvested grain to store. Later, on the full moon of the month of Duruthu, pingo loads of grain would be taken in procession to the Temple of the Tooth to be distributed to all the temples in the Kandy district under the purview of the Temple of the Tooth) It was about fifty yards from our main building block on campus. I waved to him and was surprised when he looked directly towards me and waved back with his large fan shaped ears (like winnowing baskets as the saying goes) and even lifted up his trunk and curled it on his forehead. He was saluting me! I tried waving to him again, later, when a member of the staff was standing by me and he too was surprised at the responding salute. On another day, when the mahout happened to be talking to a member of the staff on the balcony, I asked the mahout what made the sick elephant respond to me from so far away and he replied it was because of my robe. The elephant had great respect and affection for the robe having been brought up by monks at the temple to which he belonged.

I used to go and give him fruits sometimes which he gratefully, joyfully accepted, saluting me always. After eating his fill, he would extend his horny, wrinkled trunk towards me for a warm hand shake and I would gingerly stroke it. Once I went to meet him with a nun from Myanmar who was a M.A.student at SIBA and she took photographs of him. He died two months later and I never got to know his name or his antecedents. I was sure he was a special animal. My opinion of him was correct for I learnt afterwards that he belonged in that charmed circle of noble elephants, giant tuskers, who had borne the sacred tooth relic casket in the annual procession during the July-August festival procession.

Over the weeks I watched him becoming thinner and gaunter than ever before, his head projecting its sculpted skull from a black rock, as it were, with deep frightful basin like concaves on either side of his forehead, the spellers of doom, and the points of his lightless eyes stared out from the deep recesses of nearing death. He could no longer stand straight on his thin hind legs and leaned to a side like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I spoke gently to him and chanted the Loving Kindness meditation . He listened motionless. He died that very night and the following afternoon he was buried with full funeral rites with the “Mataka Vatta” and drumming accorded to human beings with the special dignity of monks from the Temple of the Tooth chanting pirit and with several funeral orations from prelates of the Temple of the Tooth. I heard one prelate saying that the noble ‘being’ was extraordinarily obedient and docile and had borne the sacred tooth relic casket in the festival procession several times. I was also surprised to see a crowd of devotees dressed in white attending the funeral .

The question comes to my mind whether it is cruelty to animals when they are domesticated by humans for their (the humans’ own needs)? Yet do we also not go through a training that go against the stream, through many births of training sometimes, to become better human beings? Is it not an arduous practice to which we also submit ourselves in order to follow the exalted Trainer of Trainers to become more evolved human beings?