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In Reverence Of The Animal Kingdom

In Reverence Of The Animal Kingdom

Sacred Animals in Hinduism

In Hinduism, numerous animals are regarded as sacred and therefore are worshipped - from snakes to cows, from monkeys to elephants, from birds and to squirrels. Rainer Krack investigates the more ‘beastly' aspects of this ancient religion.

As religions go, few are as reverential of the animal world as Hinduism. Animals feature in countless legends and religious tales, and many a species has attained a divine or semi-divine status. According to Hindu lore, Lord Shiva created the different animals by simply assuming their typical stances or asanas. Shiva is also known as Pashupatinath or ‘Lord of the Beasts'. However, Lord Brahma, regarded as the creator of the Hindu universe, lent a bit of a helping hand in the creation process. Within each animal he concealed a profound secret, such as the secret of longevity in the crow, and the secret of the mantras or mystical syllables in the horse, etc. In due time, many animals became the vahanas or ‘vehicles' of the gods on which the latter travelled and as such were almost regarded as god-like themselves.

The reasons why certain species of animals are worshipped do vary. Some animals are revered for their enormous strength (lion, elephant etc.), others because they are considered incarnations of deities. Some tribes or families adopted a certain animal as a kind of totem, a protective force which was to see them through hardships and keep evil spirits at bay. Since Hinduism venerates such a large variety of animals - if one looks hard enough, one probably finds religious tales about all animal species - it comes as no surprise that many Hindus are strict vegetarians. The respect for the animal world even resulted in the inception of animal hospitals, a tradition established by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. Ashoka had actually converted to the then new faith Buddhism, but Hinduism took up on the idea. In the 17th century, the French traveller Jean-Batiste Tavernier observed that there were two or three houses near Ahmadabad, ‘which serve as hospitals for cows, oxen, monkeys and other sick or disabled animals ...'.

Among the most revered of animals in Hinduism are man's closest cousins (arguably), the monkeys. They owe their lofty position to Hanuman, the gutsy monkey god and hero of the epic Ramayana, in which he helped Rama free his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana. Hanuman became one of the most worshipped gods in Northern India, and he was particularly popular with soldiers who were inspired by his courage and valour. Given Hanuman's exalted standing, it was only natural to also worship his earthly representatives. Till today, monkeys are regarded as incarnations of Hanuman, and for the killing of a rogue simian (and there are many) a special permit has to be issued. Rogue monkeys were reported already by Tavernier, who noted that every Tuesday and Friday, hordes of unruly monkeys would descend on the city of Ahmadabad. The inhabitants would have to place ample gifts of sugarcane, millet and rice on the roofs, otherwise the monkeys would smash up the tiles of the roofs! On a happier note, occasionally maharajas would celebrate the ‘wedding' of a pair of monkeys, marrying them off with great pomp and at enormous cost, just as if it was a real maharaja's wedding. These monkey weddings could be interpreted as a somewhat eccentric form of Hanuman worship. Today, good old Hanuman is still worshipped by countless car drivers in India: One of the most popular Indian car brands is called ‘Maruti', which happens to be just another name for Hanuman.

One of the most widely worshipped animals is the elephant, mostly in the shape of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. Ganesh is the embodiment of good luck, and considered the remover of obstacles. Consequently, he is often invoked before a new enterprise or undertaking. Ganesh's personal history was not entirely happy, though. Born as the son of Shiva and his wife Parvati, the latter had actually produced Ganesh out of her scurf. After Ganesh was born, all the gods came to congratulate the couple. When the ill-fated god Shani, who had been cursed by his wife that very same morning, looked at the child, Ganesh's head was reduced to ashes (some versions say, it simply fell off). Inconsolable, Parvati asked Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu mounted his vehicle, the mythical bird Garuda, flew away and when he returned he brought an elephant's head with him. He placed the head on the child's trunk and thus the elephant-headed Ganesh was created. Understandably, Parvati was hardly comforted by the unorthodox solution, but to placate her, Vishnu promised her that Ganesh would be worshipped before all other gods of the pantheon.

Historians explain the reason for the deification of the elephant quite differently: When the Aryans, who invaded the Indian Subcontinent in the first millennium B.C., for the first time came across elephants, they were simply dumbfounded - never had they seen anything like this before. Lost for words, they called the unknown creature mriga-hastin or ‘animal with a hand'. Soon, the Aryans accommodated the elephant in the pantheon of their Vedic religion, which was a form of nature worship and the precursor of Hinduism.

At the time of the Aryan invasion in India, elephants were already being captured and tamed by the ‘unsophisticated ‘and ‘demonic' (in Aryan eyes) aboriginals of the Subcontinent. Later, the Hindus themselves became adept at the techniques and they wrote treatises and manuals on the pachyderms, such as the Hastayurveda, a health manual attributed to the saint Palakapya, or the Matanga-lila by Nilakantha. Further treatises were written in Sri Lanka, which also produced numerous experts in the field. Once domesticated, the elephants were used for work, war and as stately mounts in royal or religious processions. With the exception of warfare, they are still used in the same manner today. But the elephant was also of great help on the metaphysical level. The hairs from the elephant's tail, for example, were widely used as good luck charms. When an elephant passed through North Indian villages, the children would follow the animal and recite the following rhyme:

                             Hathi, hathi, bal de,

                             sone ki talwar de.

                            “Elephant, oh elephant, give us a hair,

                             for it is as good as a sword of gold.”    

The most auspicious elephants were the so-called ‘white' or albino elephants (mada) which are still revered in present-day Thailand. (Many Thai customs and beliefs are of Indian origin.) The white elephant was said to be capable of bringing rain and fertility; it was believed that if a woman stood for an hour with her feet in the dung of a white elephant, and then had intercourse with her husband, she would become pregnant. The sweat from the elephant's temples was esteemed as an aphrodisiac and its urine, applied to a man's forehead, was said to increase his virility. In Buddhist mythology, the elephant came to be a symbol of the Buddha, and until today, during the annual Kandy Perahera procession in Kandy (Sri Lanka), a richly decorated male tusker is used to carry a sacred tooth of the Buddha. 

Less popular than elephants are the snakes, but even they are worshipped. Snake worship is chiefly an appeasement of a possibly lethal force of nature. Given the high number of deaths attributed to snake bites on the Indian Subcontinent, this response is quite understandable. At present, almost 50,000 Indians die from snake-bite annually (or 5.2 persons in every 100,000), which makes it the second-highest snake-related death rate in the world (number one is Sri Lanka, with a ratio of 5.7:100,000). In the 1880's, India recorded at least 25.000 snake-bite deaths per year, which - given the much smaller population then - was an even much higher death ratio than today's. No wonder, if snakes, especially the deadly cobras, were turned into deities, which had to be pacified by prayers and offerings. Cobras became to be seen as manifestations of Shiva, the God of Destruction and Renewal. In some parts of India, the festival of Nag Panchami (around July/August) is celebrated, in which people give offerings of milk to the serpents. Though some of the villagers virtually hand-feed the snakes, nobody seems to get bitten. At any given time in the year, barren women may place bowls of milk in front of snake-holes in the ground and pray to them for fertility.   

Only rarely are snakes killed in India, and if so mostly in self-defence. Popular belief has it that the mate or the mother of the dead snake will take revenge on the perpetrator. For that reason, if a snake did have to be killed for one reason or the other, its body must be burned and the remains buried; otherwise, it is believed, its ‘family members' could guided by the smell of the dead relative and launch a revenge attack.

India's best-known sacred animal is of course the cow. The Puranas (written from ca. 50 A.D. onwards), link the cow to the creation of the universe, and in Hindu iconography, the universe is often depicted as located within the belly of a cow. The Mahabharata (ca. 500-200 B.C.) threatens anyone who kills or eats a cow with hell and propagates the gifting of cows to Brahmins as highly meritorious.  

The cow's elevated position that is doubtlessly due to the manifold uses it renders to an agrarian society. She provides milk and other dairy products, she is a tireless beast of burden, and her dung serves as burning material in the household hearth. To simply eat her would be economic suicide. So what better way than to place the cow under the protection of religious injunction? The deification of the cow was a gradual development though, and in early Hindu society cow's meat was still eaten, even by the Brahmins or priests. One word for ‘guest' in the ancient Sanskrit language was goghana, literally ‘the one, for whom a cow is slaughtered'.

In line with her divine status, countless rituals have sprung up around the cow, as well as her products. In order to expediate sins or to counter ritual pollution, many Hindus used to take panchagavya, literally ‘the five products of the cow'. This was a mixture of cow-dung, cow's urine, milk, yoghurt and ghee (clarified butter). Depending on the severity of the case, either only a few drops were taken or several spoonfuls. Since even some of the most devout Hindus had reservations about the concoction, another mixture was invented, panchamrita. In this, the two offending items were replaced with sugar and honey.

Until the recent past, when a Brahmin was about to die a curious rite was performed. As death was approaching, a cow would be brought into the Brahmin's room, and her tail would be tied to his hand. Thus, the cow was supposed to lead the dying man over the dirt-filled river Vaitarni to the kingdom of Yama, the God of Death. As the Brahmin's soul could get easily lost along the way, the cow acted as a sort of divine travel guide.

Another rite around the cow was, and still is, grihapravesham, literally the ‘entering of the house', performed during the inauguration of a new home. In grihapravesham, a cow, regarded as a representation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Good Luck, is led into the new house and fed with delicacies. Her sheer presence is considered to ensure good fortune. Occasionally, the ancient rite is performed by South Indian Hindus in the modern city-state of Singapore, who in most cases have to travel all the way to Malaysia to find a cow in the first place. After her arrival in urban, high-rise Singapore, the cow has to be squeezed into a lift and then travel up to, say, Floor 11, Apartment 7C. Certainly a novel experience for a venerable old milch cow!

One of the few birds to be worshipped in Hinduism is the Garuda, the giant half-eagle, half-man and vehicle of Lord Vishnu. By way of the Ramayana, the Garuda was even ‘exported' to Thailand, where he - under the name kruth - is a national symbol, and to Indonesia, where he has lent his name to the country's state airline. Smaller birds were often regarded as messengers of the gods, and the interpretation of their sounds was an esoteric science. None too well-liked, though, were the crows. One Sanskrit term for a ‘rotten person' was tirtha-kaka, literally ‘a crow in a holy place'. Often in India, the sanctity of a holy place - or any place for that matter - is disturbed by the incessant croaking of the brash and brazen crows and on top, crows had a reputation to be harbingers of ill luck. Generally, crows were believed to be purveyors of ill omen, and ‘crow-watching' became the key to know the shape of things to come. If a crow crowed at the beginning of a journey, the trip would be beset by bad luck. If a crow hopped and cawed on one's roof, a guest would be arriving soon. The observations had to be conducted furtively, as it was believed that if the crows realised they were being watched, they would mislead the diviners. As the crow was considered in possession of the secret of immortality (one Sanskrit word for the crow is chirajiva, ‘long-lived'), its brain was used as a remedy against ageing. Crow's Brain Curry anybody?

Rather rarely worshipped is the rat, which in other parts of the world is only popular with pest control services. In Hinduism, the rat is considered the vehicle of elephant god Ganesh, and as such gets a fair share of adoration. At the Ganesh temple in Ganpatipule in Maharashtra, a grandly oversized golden rat statue is showered with flower petals by visitors, and many bow down in prayer. The Karni Mata Temple in Deshnokh, Rajasthan, dedicated to the 15th century female mystic Karniji, is the refuge of thousands of mice and rats. These are regarded as reincarnated saints. The rodents are swarming all over the place - also all over the pilgrims! - and are fed a sumptuous diet of milk and sweets. For most non-Indian visitors (and for many Indians, too) it's a disconcerting sight.

One of the less sacred animals is the squirrel, which sometimes used to be called Ramachandra ka bhagat, or ‘Ramachandra's saint'. According to a legend, while god Ramachandra was building the ‘Adam's Bridge' between India and Sri Lanka (actually a series of sand or stone reefs and small islands), the squirrel helped him by shaking dust from its tail, which then was used in the construction. In gratitude, the god stroked the squirrel's back, and thus came about the stripes which some species of squirrel have to this day. Later, some South Indian tribes claimed descent from this helpful, if jumpy and nervous little craeture - quite a refreshing change from all those greats claiming descent from lions and tigers and the like. All power to the tiny squirrel!   

Text by Rainer Krack; Photos by Rainer Krack & Pictures From History - © CPA Media