On The Etymology Of Airavata – The Elephant Of Indra

Airavata is the Vahana [‘Steed/Mount/Vehicle’] of Lord Indra; and with a rather apt etymology to connect it to the Thunderer.

It effectively works out as ‘Rain-bearing Cloud’ ; which is rather apt, given that a stormcloud is, of course, large, grey, and may make a thunderous noise [‘Garja’] … like an Elephant (indeed, गर्ज can refer to this aforementioned roaring sound … or to an elephant, for reasons that ought be obvious).  

To render it into its constituent components –

इरावत् [Iravat, for readers not following Devanagari], as in ‘Ocean’ or ‘Water’ .. although it also has the meaning of ‘providing liquid/sustenance’.

Now, for what it is worth, I don’t disagree that ‘Vata’ is figuratively relevant [i.e. वात – ‘Vaata’ for people not following the Devanagari .. which is indeed cognate with English ‘Wind’], as it is, after all, the high atmosphere where a cloud does rise to immediately prior to the thunder and rainfall occurring. [in Sanskrit , and Hindu cosmology – there is a bit of a distinction made between the more ‘regular’ Wind, i.e. ‘Vayu’ … and the higher atmospheric layer closer to the border of Space – that is the ‘Vata’ zone aforementioned]

However, the ‘Vata’ in ऐरावत is rather ‘वत’, which I would suggest to be वत् [ ‘-vata’ as in .. well, the ‘adjectival’ – like -‘ful’ or ‘-ous’ in modern English .. the latter of which it is interestingly cognate with; although ‘-full’ .. as in ‘full of’ would be another way to approach the Sanskrit term in question]

Thus giving us, in effect, Ira + Vata [ इरा + वत् ] – meaning ‘Water-full’ / ‘Water-ful’ .. I suppose ‘Aqueous’ would be another more English grammatically correct translation.

To this we add an A-/An- Sanskrit prefix – producing an “Of the-“

So … Of The (Nourishing) Water. [which is also held to pertain to the mythic origination of Airavata in the Sea of Milk]

And, to see this ‘Ira’ in context, [the word i mean], it may be interesting to consider RV V 83 4, addressed to Parjanya :

प्र वाता वान्ति पतयन्ति विद्युत उदोषधीर्जिहते पिन्वते स्वः ।
इरा विश्वस्मै भुवनाय जायते यत्पर्जन्यः पृथिवीं रेतसावति ॥

There, to quote Griffith, we find ‘Ira’ used to mean ‘Food’ in his translation – although as we can see, ‘nourishment’ (in the sense that the rains are thusly so) is perhaps more apt in general terms:

“Forth burst the winds, down come the lightning-flashes: the plants shoot up, the realm of light is streaming.
Food springs abundant for all living creatures, what time Parjanya quickens earth with moisture.”

Although as we have previously covered in a number of pieces, and lest there be any confusion – Parjanya is a Sky Father Aspect/Facing … thus rendering Indra as His Son.

Nobody ever said that the Striker/Thunderer deific had a monopoly upon Thunder, Lightning, and Rainfall.

Or, as it happens, having an Elephant Vahana [Brihaspati, another Sky Father Form, is also depicted riding an Elephant, for instance].

Although I do not think that there are any quite like Airavata !

One thought on “On The Etymology Of Airavata – The Elephant Of Indra

  1. Pingback: On The Etymology Of Airavata – The Elephant Of Indra – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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