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What Humans Can Learn From the Spiritual Life of Elephants

Throughout history elephants have been revered. They are a sacred symbol of loyalty, power, wisdom, and fertility in Hindu and Buddhist religions, and in addition to being Earth's largest mammals, they are one of our planet's most intelligent creatures, honored by many cultures for their strength, intelligence and nobility. Buddha picked the form of a white elephant as one of his many incarnations, and the rare appearance of a white elephant is still heralded as a manifestation of the gods. The Hindu god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, has the head of an elephant.

Elephants live in a family structure and they are fiercely loyal to their tribes. They are lead by female elders, whom all the other elephants revere, and they stay in their family units for their whole lives. They also have some of the longest lives in the animal kingdom, with life spans of 60+ years. The matriarch is responsible for overseeing the protection of the group and guiding their travels in search of food and water.

When an elephant dies or when they come across a dead elephant, their behavior changes too. They will become silent, and stay with the deceased for a long period of time, and sometimes they will pick up a piece of their fellow elephant and keep it with them for a while like they are mourning.

Researchers in Thailand are now proving that, because elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror (joining only humans, apes and dolphins as animals that possess this kind of self-awareness)  they also have the capacity to see the world from someone else's point of view. Psychologists call this "theory of mind." And they believe it's the basic ingredient of religious behavior, because in order to imagine the mind of god, you must have a theory of mind.

In both scientific and ancient spiritual terms, elephants serve to teach us that gentleness, commitment, and communication in relationships is both powerful and necessary to honor our relationships and to demonstrate trust and love, whether it be friends, family or partner. Deeply committed to all creatures with whom they have relationships, elephants are tough when protecting others and gentle when nurturing them. The matriarch (the oldest, most experienced female leader of a herd) leads in a way that is both gentle and inclusive. Elephants are able to communicate with each other telepathically. This can teach us not only greater self-awareness, but how to truly see…and hear others.

This fascinating video explains how elephants demonstrate that they have the mental tool that underpins spirituality in humans:



A philosophical question of our own human evolution and self awareness is....are we smart enough to recognize and respect the intelligence of other species?   

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