Airavata (Samskrit : ऐरावतः) is the celestial white elephant, which arose during ksheerasaraga mathana (churning of the milky ocean) and was offered as the mount for Indra, the swargadhipati according to Vishnupurana (1.9.7, 25). Said to be the son of Iravati, according to another version Airavata was instrumental in bringing about the churning of the ocean. Here we present different aspects of Airavata.
While in general context Airavata is referred to as the celestial elephant conveyance of Devendra, it also refers to
- Name of a serpent that accompanies Surya in his ratha (chariot) during the month of Kartika in the Sharat season (52.14)
विभावसुभरद्राजौ पर्जन्यैरावतौ तथा । विश्वाची-सेनजित्संज्ञौ कार्त्तिके चाधिकारिणाः ।। 11 ।। (Vish. Pura. 2.10.12)
vibhāvasubharadrājau parjanyairāvatau tathā । viśvācī-sēnajitsaṁjñau kārttikē cādhikāriṇāḥ ।। 11 ।। (Vish. Pura. 2.10.12)
- Name of an important serpent born to Kashyapa and his wife Kadru (mother of all serpents). Arjuna's father-in-law, Ulupi's father, Kauravya was a noble serpent born of Airavata. (Maha. Adi Parv. 213.18). Shesha was the first born, Vasuki after him, followed by Airavata, Takshaka, Karkotaka and Dhanajaya (names of the snakes given below)
शेषः प्रथमतो जातो वासुकिस्तदनन्तरम्। ऐरावतस्तक्षकश्च कर्कोटकधनञ्जयौ।। (Maha. Adi. 1.35.5)
śēṣaḥ prathamatō jātō vāsukistadanantaram। airāvatastakṣakaśca karkōṭakadhanañjayau।।
- An asura killed by Sri Krishna as per Mahabharata (Sabha parva adhyaya 38)
One can come to know the form of this divine elephant as given below.
- white elephants with four tusks, swift-footed belonging to the lineage of Airavata (Bhag. Pura. 10.59.37)
- a large elephant (Sarga 14, Aranyakanda, Ramayana)
Legends of Airavata
Lineage of Airavata
Valmiki Ramayana in the Aranyakanda 14th Sarga, the wounded Jatayu describing his family history to Sri Rama, gives the following account about the origin of Airavata :
Kasyapa, one of the Prajapatis, married the eight daughters of Daksa. One of them named Krodhavasa had ten daughters by Kasyapa.
दश क्रोधवशा राम विजज्ञे अपि आत्मसंभवाः । मृगीम् च मृगमंदाम् च हरीम् भद्रमदाम् अपि ॥३-१४-२१॥ (Valm. Rama. 3.14.21)
daśa krōdhavaśā rāma vijajñē api ātmasaṁbhavāḥ । mr̥gīm ca mr̥gamaṁdām ca harīm bhadramadām api ॥3-14-21॥
मातंगीम् अथ शार्दूलीम् श्वेताम् च सुरभीम् तथा । सर्व लक्षण संपन्नाम् सुरसाम् कद्रुकाम् अपि ॥३-१४-२२॥ (Valm. Rama. 3.14.22)
mātaṁgīm atha śārdūlīm śvētām ca surabhīm tathā । sarva lakṣaṇa saṁpannām surasām kadrukām api ॥3-14-22॥
ततः तु इरावतीम् नाम जज्ञे भद्रमदा सुताम् । तस्याः तु ऐरावतः पुत्रो लोकनाथो महागजः ॥३-१४-२४॥ (Valm. Rama. 3.14.24)
tataḥ tu irāvatīm nāma jajñē bhadramadā sutām । tasyāḥ tu airāvataḥ putrō lōkanāthō mahāgajaḥ ॥3-14-24॥
Meaning : They were: Mrgi, Mrgamada, Hari, Bhadramada., Matangi, Shardule, Sveta, Surabhi, Surasa and Kadruka. Of them Bhadramada gave birth to a daughter, Iravati. Airavata the large elephant is Iravati's son.
Mahabharata (Adi Parva Adhyaya 66) describes the origin of all creatures, and mentions that Airavata is the son of Bhadramana.
UttaraRamayana - Samudra-manthan Story
This is one anecdote of how Airavata was responsible for the churning of the milk-ocean. According to Uttararamayana version Once the sage Durvasas went to Devaloka. The devis gave him a grand reception at which Menaka presented him with a garland made of fragrant flowers. Durvasa on his way back meets and gives the sacred garland to Devendra. Indra, in all arrogance placed it on Airavata's tusk. The fragrance of the garland attracted a large number of bees to it. They swarmed round the head of the elephant and annoyed it. Airavata pulled the garland to pieces, trampled it and threw it away. Insulted Durvasas pronounced a curse that all the devatas would be subjected to the ills of oldage. Upon request by Indra the rishi relented and told him that if the Devas drank Amrta obtained by churning the ocean of milk they would remain ever youthful. Accordingly, the ocean of milk was churned by the joint effort of the Devas and Asuras and in the end the Devas cleverly took part of it. When the Devas drank Amrta, they regained their youth and immortality.
Mahabharata - Samudra-manthan Story
However, we find another story in Mahabharata of how Airavata rose as one of the treasures during samudra- manthan. It is said that when the devas and asuras churned the ocean of Milk, the four tusked, huge elephant also came up along with the other treasures such as Kalpavriksha, Kausthuba and Apsaras.
ततो जज्ञे महाकायश्चतुर्दन्तो महागजः। कपिला कामवृक्षश्च कौस्तुभश्चाप्सरोगणः। (Maha. Adi. 1.18.52)
tatō jajñē mahākāyaścaturdantō mahāgajaḥ। kapilā kāmavr̥kṣaśca kaustubhaścāpsarōgaṇaḥ।
The Bhagavata Purana also describes the emergence of Airavata from samudra-manthan.(Bhag. Pura. 8.8.17) According to Ramayana, Indra's elephant Airavata was responsible for the churning of the ocean of Milk. But in the Mahabharata, it is said that a white elephant with four tusks arose during the churning of the ocean of Milk and that Devendra caught and tamed it. An explanation for this discrepancy may be seen in Visnu Purana, 3rd Section, Chapter 1. Now six Manvantaras have passed. This is the seventh Manvantara. Each Manvantara has a new Indra. According to this, different Indras have their own Airavatas. 
In the Visnu Purana we are told how Airavata was made the chief of all elephants. When the Maharsis had crowned Prthu as the sovereign King, Brahma gave new posts of honour to many of the devatas.
पितृणां धर्मराजं तं यमं राज्येऽभ्यषेचयत् । ऐरावतं गजेन्द्राणाम् अशेषाणां पतिं ददौ ।। ५ ।।
pitr̥ṇāṁ dharmarājaṁ taṁ yamaṁ rājyē'bhyaṣēcayat । airāvataṁ gajēndrāṇām aśēṣāṇāṁ patiṁ dadau ।। 5 ।।
पतत्रिणाञ्च गरुडं देवानामपि वासवम् । उच्चैःश्रवसमश्वानां वृषभन्तु गवामपि ।। ६ ।।
patatriṇāñca garuḍaṁ dēvānāmapi vāsavam । uccaiḥśravasamaśvānāṁ vr̥ṣabhantu gavāmapi ।। 6 ।।
शेषन्तु नागराजानं मृगाणां सिंहमीश्वरम् । वनस्पतीनां राजानं प्लक्षमेवाभ्यषेचयत् ।। ७ ।।
śēṣantu nāgarājānaṁ mr̥gāṇāṁ siṁhamīśvaram । vanaspatīnāṁ rājānaṁ plakṣamēvābhyaṣēcayat ।। 7 ।। (Vish. Pura. 1.22.5 - 7)
Summary : He made Soma (Moon) the chief of the Stars and Planets, of Brahmins, Yajnas and herbs, Kubera over the rajas; Varuna the master of the seas and all water; Visnu, chief of the Adityas. Along with these Brahma made Yama the chief of pitrs, Airavata of the innumerable elephants; Garuda of the Birds, Indra of the devatas, Ucchaisravas of the horses, Vrshabha of the cattle, Sesha of the serpents, Lion of the beasts and Plaksha (fig tree) of the medicinal trees.
One of the Astadiggajas
There is a belief that Airavata is one of the eight elephants guarding the eight zones of the universe. These eight elephants are called the Astadiggajas. Airavata is supposed to guard the eastern zone. (Chapter 66, Adi Parva, Mahabharata).
Airavata and three other diggajas are supposed to reside in Puskara Island. (Chapter 12, Bhisma Parva).
There is a story of how the tusks of Airavata were broken, narrated in the Asurakanda of Skanda Purana. Once an asura (demon) named Surapadma attacked devaloka. A fierce battle ensued between the devatas and asuras. In the course of this battle, Jayanta, Indra's son, was hit by an arrow and at once he fell dead. Enraged by this Airavata rushed at Surapadma's chariot and shattered it to pieces. Airavata then attacked Surapadma who broke his tusks and hurled him down to the earth. Airavata lay paralysed for a long time; then he got up, retired to a forest and prayed to Lord Siva. With the grace of Siva, Airavata regained his lost tusks and was able to return to devaloka.
- Vettam, Mani. (1975). Puranic encyclopaedia : A comprehensive dictionary with special reference to the epic and Puranic literature. Delhi:Motilal Banasidass.
- The Vishnu Puranam (English Translation) (Amsha 2 Adhyaya 10)
- Vayu Purana (Adhyaya 52)
- Vishnu Purana (Amsha 2 Adhyaya 10)
- Mahabharata (Adi Parva Adhyaya 35)
- Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo. The Bhagavata Purana, Part 4 (Skanda 10). Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd.
- Valmiki Ramayana (Aranya Kanda Sarga 14)
- Mahabharata (Adi Parva Adhyaya 18)
- Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo. The Bhagavata Purana, Part 3 (Skanda 8). Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd.
- The Vishnu Puranam (English Translation)(Amsha 1 Adhyaya 22)