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Motifs Zoological – Animals in Indian Mythology

Is there any difference between man and animal? Indian mythology does not think so.

A sage of great learning once watched a pig and her piglets all ay. The next day he told his disciple that he would soon be taking birth as a pig since he wanted to know what goes on in their life. Are they happy scavenging? The sage, however, told his disciple to kill him once he reached adulthood so that he would be released from that birth. So he was born a pink piglet. The disciple tried to be a reverential as possible to the tiny pig that was his master even as he watched him roll in filth. Finally the little one had grown and it was time to raise the slaughterhand, but the pig stopped the disciple.” A pig’s life is fun too, let me live it fully,” he told his disciple.

Pigs and snakes, cows and elephants, horses and monkeys, all animals seem to have a life of fun according to Indian mythology. The underlying philosophy is that the soul in man and animal is much the same. A man could well be born an animal in is next birth or vice versa. No wonder then that the Indian farmer is seen talking to his ox and the devout priest praying to different kinds of animals.

If one just looks into ancient literature for reference, animals seem to occupy a very prominent place in Indian mythology. Going by sculptural evidence, animal figures seemed to have entered the world of stone around the beginning of this millennium. Scholars feel their absorption into the Hindu pantheon happened later, but there is some debate on which happened first. The beginning of the millennium is early enough, however, for our story to begin.

When Buddhism gained popularity many Jataka tales were told. The Jataka tales are stories which relate the thousand births of the Buddha in the form of animals. They gained tremendous popularity and the Pancatantra and other folk stories followed this idea. In terms of mythology, this set a new trend for it established direct contact with the people and translated the esoteric into easily comprehensible ideas. The ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu is an example of how Hinduism incorporated animals. Vishnu’s was believed to have been first born as a fish, then a tortoise and then a boar. Then we reach the stage of half man, half animal in the Narasimha avatar when he took the form of half lion and half man. The story of evolution is thus told in the descent of God and the ascent of man.

Every God, has a vehicle, a vahana which is an animal. The animal is not a mount because of its muscle power, but because of its qualities. The mouse which carries the Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed God, is known for its qualities that are similar to that of its master. It can reach anywhere! The Garuda or eagle that is the mount of Lord Vishnu is said to be an embodiment of wisdom. This symbol has found popularity all over Asia so much so that the Indonesian airlines itself is called the Garuda!

The horse is believed to be swift as thought, follows the path of the sun, lucky and exceedingly pure. And so it is on a while steed that Kalki, the final incarnation of Lord Vishnu, yet to come, will arrive in the world of disorder to bring back peace. The elephant is known for its memory, loyalty, gratitude, strength and gentleness. The King of Kings, Indra who rules over the heavens ride the elephant called Airavata. Lord Shiva rides the bull; the epitome of strength.

It will be of interest to note that the whole epic, Ramayana, begins with an incident from the world of animals. Two birds were playing with each other when suddenly a hunter shot one down. How the other suffered. How she lamented. The sorrow of separation was watched by a sage by the name of Valmiki. So deep was the impact that from his words poetry came. It had awakened the deepest recess of his emotions and that was nothing but godliness.

Compassion towards animals is thus woven into the psyche of man. It is true that today, as we watch the number of tigers decreasing or the many animals that are being labeled as extinct, one wonders where the inbuilt idea got lost. But that is because in many ways the modern man is divorced from his traditional way of life. In ancient times, the day in many parts of India would begin with a line drawing made at the entrance of the house. This was made with rice flour and the idea was that ants got something to eat. Even today in traditional homes. You will find people keeping aside one mouthful of food, which they will later throw out, either on to the terrace or the open ground. That is for the crows. Crows are believed to come from the world of the ancestors and so they often carry the spirit of the dead. In their memory, one mouthful is always left for the crow. Greens are fed to the cow or other such animal that is domesticated. This is apart from the daily meal, the greens are a special gift which is equated to the richest of donations.

Of course the last word has to be on the idea of zoomorphism in Indian mythology. The monkey faced god and the elephant faced god are favourites of Hindu devotees while being classic examples of zoomorphism.