Who would have dreamed Joe Don Looney would experience more frustration getting along with an elephant than he had minding the coaches during an unrequited career bashing heads in the National Football League back in the '60s?

Yet, the discord between Looney, the rebel halfback who bounced through five pro teams in just as many years - hinting at, but never realizing his full potential - and Vijay the two-ton behemoth he tends for his guru, had been brewing for months.

It was the kind of conflict, however, that is said to engender growth, even in an enigmatic athlete sportswriter regarded as pro-football's James Dean. A "marvelous misfit," they called Looney, for a determination to go his own way on and off the field - no small brand of craziness in the era before Joe Namath discovered mink and other players sprouted pukka shells.

And growth - along with the rigors of meditation the monsoon season's midnight sweats and a vegetarian diet - is why Looney's torso, once the Charles Atlas 230-pound comic-book promise, has shunk to a lean 165. It is also why the ex-Giant-Colt-Lion-Redskin-Saint, now 35, his brown crewcut recedings has shrugged off the aura of an unfulfilling past to seek inner peace on this sleepy ashram, two hours by bumpy roads from Bombay, a sort of spiritual training camp run by one Swami Baba Muktananda, 69, his Cosmic Coach.

Consider the lesson of the elephant.

It was 3 a.m., feeding time, one recent morning, when Vijay's gray trunk came lashing out of the stillness at him. Fast. So fast, it whooshed through the air like a dull saber, a vicious snout that suggested a menace for more alarming than Big Daddy Libpscomb's forearm ever was.

Whooooooosh. Again, the trunk cut through the pre-dawn darkness, rattling Looney's inner calm. He forgot his mantra and cursed. Vijay missed, but Looney later said the attack triggered a synapse deep in the memory well - some of the old fears, anxieties, paranoia - and the bad football days came rushing back . . .

. . . The time he slugged an Oklahoma University coach and the players voted to kick him off the team . . . The day he refused to take a play for the Detroit Lions bristling to the coach, "If you want a messenger boy, call Western Union . . ." The times he ignored his blockers, preferring to prove himself by running over tacklers rather than around them . . . the countless fines for refusing to tape his ankles, for skipping chalk talks he considered pointless, for breaking training curfew . . . The needling (he chose to read Ayn Rand and listen to his stereo over fraternizing with fellow bruisers) because he was moody; he really was different . . .

And the old angers welled up; the face turned red and - WHAM! - Looney slammed his fist full steam into Vijay's side, a shattering blow that made the elephant . . . grunt. On the spot Looney understood what it meant to run flat up against a brick wall. He asked for a transfer to work in the garden.

The guru grinned: "Say his name with love and he will be yours." A Forced Surrender

"I just couldn't quit then," says Looney, sitting cross-legged on his bed in a saffron lungi . "I realized that you can win anything with love. Now I get along with Vijay just fine. I learned the same lesson Rommel learned in World War II - when to attack and when to retreat. I'd always been used to not retreating; that was hard to get away from, but now I let others keep score. Baba forced me to surrender." Spiritual Blast-Off

Swami Muktananda, affectionately called "Baba" by devotees whose ranks are peopled with doctors, lawyers, and psychotherapists from the West (along with the smattering of ex-hippies still seeking heaven on earth), is considered one of India's leading holy men. A dark little man who favors orange beanies and red socks and speaks through an interpreter, he has been likened in appearance to jazz great Dizzy Gillespie.

Initiation by his touch, glance or a swat by a magic wand of peacock feathers - "Shaktipat ," the act is called - is said to transmit a powerful, life-transforming energy, the local rocket fuel for spiritual blast-off.

It is a matter of bettering yourself; you are because you have been. And if things go better on this trip, as Looney and the others hope, they will be close to snatching the ultimate prize: self-realization, cosmic consciousness, enlightenment. Which is the reason they have trekked to this tiny village ringed by low mountains - reputed, down through the ages, to have been the hermitage for giant cobras and mysterious sages - to ask Baba to punch their ticket on the cosmic merry-go-round, delivering them from the cycle of birth and rebirth.

On the way, though, some have dined on rich foods and slept in down beds and loved beautiful men and women and raised fine children with straight teeth and banked lots of cash - which is all hunky-dory by Baba, but they're not satisfied. They want the truth, to see the blue flame Swami Muktananda says flickers within if they'd just meditate upon the self, instead of racing about for it out there. That's how Joe Don Looney has come to understand it, anyway, as he goes about tending Vijay - a task he says he doesn't mind because it's all part of "getting there."

Asked recently why he gave Looney the job of cleaning his elephant, Baba said, "Joe and Vijay are very much alike; they are like brothers. When Joe was younger and got angry, he used to elbow like this and that." (Here, say witnesses, the holy man attempted to imitate a gesture of gridiron violence.) "Vijay does the same thing. I felt they would be great friends.

"Now, Vijay cannot clean himself, so his friend helps him. And in the morning, Joe rides him and walks him three or four miles. I know the story of Joe's whole life, so I thought it would be a good thing." A Tripped-Up Career

Fans might recall Looney as the high-school star from Fort Worth, Tex., whose football genes somehow failed him. He made coaches drool, but what tripped Looney up was Looney. In 1964 the New York Giants snapped him up in spite of his reputation at Oklahoma but almost as soon as he arrived at training camp he was slapped with fines for breaking training. The Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts.

On election night in Baltimore his man, Barry Goldwater, faring poorly, Looney graduated from a saloon argument to a party he crashed by kicking in the door; a local judge fined him $150. Baltimore packed him off to the Detroit Lions, who forwarded him to Washington. Redskins coach Otto Graham let him retire to his 240-acre farm in Texas.

It was 1967, Looney married his wife later giving birth to a daughter. His Army Reserve unit was activated: he spent nine months in Vietnam guarding a fuel depot. He smoked grass for the first time, but says he didn't like it. He came home and tried football again with the New Orleans Saints, but three months later an injury forced him to retire. He got divorced.

Looney and a high-school buddy - they'd promised each other, no matter what they'd drop whatever they were doing and sail around the world before they hit 35 - split for Hong Kong. He describes life on a Chinese junk as an experience straight from a Harold Robbins novel.

Back in Texas, there was a brief flurry with the law; police arrested a companion for plotting to assassinate a U.S. District Court Judge. They locked up Looney for possession of a submachine gun (and some grass), but later found that he was not connected to the alleged contract.

Looney became a vegetarian and dropped to 180 pounds.

Vietnam was the killer, he says, the turning point. "I saw a guy die and said, "To hell with it; I'm not ever going to jump through the hoop for anybody." "I've Been Crazy Till Now"

Houston, April 7, 1975. Looney asked his father to drive him to the second day of a retreat with Swami Muktananda then touring the states. As they pulled into the parking lot, Looney heard the delicate strains of Indian sitar music and started to cry.

"What's WRONG with you, boy?" demanded his father. "They'll drive you CRAZY if you don't watch out!

"Crazy!" said Looney, through a veil of tears. "I've been crazy till now. I'd been INSANE until I met this traveling bunch of gypsies." Posters of His Guru

Looney fires up a stick of sandalwood incense. His room is sparse, simple. A ceiling fan to keep away the flies, India's national bird. Posters of his guru smile from the walls.

There are stacks of tapes - Carol Kings, Sly and The Family Stones, Dylan. Books about war and yoga including something called "The Lazy Man's Guide To Enlightenment."

"My father is a worldly man, but he's got a good heart." says Looney. "He just doesn't know that it's enough for me to feel GOOD, after feeling bad all those years.

"I liked playing football when I did it, but I just lost my heart for it. That happened to a lot of other great atheletes on the teams I played on, but I didn't understand . . . intil I lost mine.

"Doing yoga made everything better. I remember when I was a little kid and had an uncle Bill who practiced breathing exercises. They'd hear Bill breathing heavy and say, 'Bill's vrazy,' But I knew he wasn't. Kids and dogs know where it's at.

"Later, when I read Alan Watts' 'Wisdom of Insecurity," I began jumping up and down yelling. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' I just dug that this was the way it was."

Looney's day begins before dawn: Vijay requires a lot of attention. Along with the meditation and chanting there is little time for little else except work - and everyone works. Skilled biilders work in the carpentry shop; medically trained devotees work in the dispensary.

"There was always an emptiness in me until I met Baba," he says. "He tells you to love yourself and see God in each other. I had a gnawing inside when I got hurt playing for the Saints. I had a No. 1 wife and child, I had everything but I just wasn't happy."

"I like the disciplined life," he says, getting up to turn over a tape of Carol King. "I like eating regular meats.Everything here is taken care of. The place is clean. The food is on time.

"It's a matter of getting free. Sure, I liked the wind in my face. Atheletes are spontaneous people. I don't know what it's like now with all the bucks and the popularity contests but I did it because I loved to cut loose. That was all I knew. That was my paoff."

Looney plans to stay at the ashram for a while, maybe return to the State with Baba when he goes on tour next year. Beyond that, he has no plans.

"Plans," he says, "can only take you so far. "Then the heart cuts in and interrupts the plans. I'm just beginning to learn the payoff is the here and now. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference what I do."

What does his guru say about Joe's progress? "He's an inner athlete now," says Baba. "It doesn't matter if he didn't make it in football. He made it here. He's a champion."