by Jayaram V
Do animals have souls? Yes say the Hindu scriptures. Every
living being, from the animals down to the insects and tiny organisms,
possesses souls. Like humans, they are also beings (bhutas) subject
to the laws of Nature and the cycle of births and deaths. We may
consider them ignorant, but they have their own language and intelligence.
They also perform an important duty in creation and occupy an important
place in the manifestation and evolution of life. Their duty is
to nourish the humans through milk and through self-sacrifice. This
article examines the importance of animals in Hinduism and how they
are treated in general by various sections people. Animals occupy
an important place in Hinduism. They are frequently mentioned in
the Hindu myths and legends and enjoy a place of their own in Hindu
pantheon as vehicles of many gods and goddesses, as divinities and
also as incarnations or aspects of Vishnu or Siva. They embellish
and beautify Hindu decorative art and temple architecture, adorning
the outer walls and towers of temples as objects of beauty or being
installed inside as objects of veneration. Animals appear in Buddhism
and Jainism both as divinities and as a part of their decorative
art and architecture. Before Mahayana Buddhism became popular the
Buddha was depicted symbolically as an elephant. Mahavira, the founder
of Jainism, is often shown under the hood of a multi headed serpent,
a practice, according to some, was later followed by Vaishnavism.
Treatment of animals in Hinduism
Hinduism is a compassionate religion and treats all living beings
from animals down to insects and tiny creatures with great respect
as aspects of God, having souls of their own, going through the
same process of births and deaths as human beings. Depending upon
how they are born, they classify all living beings into three kinds:
those who are born from seeds and sprouts, those who are born from
eggs and those who are born from womb. The scriptures urge us to
treat the animals fairly and, not harm them and not subject them
to cruelty and pain. Non-violence towards all, including plants
and animals is the highest virtue. Non-violence means not even having
the intention to disturb others. Sacrificing animals to appease
the deities was a prehistoric tradition which continued in the tradition
for long, but as time went by became increasingly uncomfortable
with such practices to the extent that it is no more appreciated
in Hinduism by all sections of people. The historical attitude of
Hindus towards animals can be guessed from the fact that until the
arrival of the British into India, the Indian forests were teeming
with all kinds of wildlife. It was the British who made hunting
a great sport and virtually wiped out the wildlife population from
The status of gods, humans, and animals in creation
According to various schools of Hinduism, spiritually there is
no distinction between human beings and other life forms. All life
forms, including plants and animals, are manifestations of God as
limited beings (jivas) and possess
souls. All beings are children of Prajapati
only. There are no exceptions. God is the lord of the animals (pasupati).
All humans are also animals until they learn to use their intelligence
and overcome their ignorance and delusion. Like humans, animals
are also subject to the cycle of births and deaths, karma, triple
gunas, aspects of Nature, mortality and the possibility of salvation.
All are subject to mortality and food for Death who rules the mortal
world. Even microorganisms are jivas,
having souls of their own.1
The difference is in terms of their physical bodies
and the number of tattvas (principles),
gunas (qualities), elements (mahabhutas)
and senses associated with them. The jivas are subject to
the limitations of consciousness and capacity, induced by the activity
of Prakriti or nature. When they
overcome their limitations and regain their true consciousness,
they become liberated. Saivism
goes one step further and considers all living beings as pasus (animals)
in contrast to pati or Siva
who is the lord of all (pasupathi). The pasus are Siva differentiated
as individual beings subject to the bonds (pasas) of
karma. When they overcome these bonds
and realize their true consciousness they become liberated.
According to Hinduism. animals are not inferior creatures, but
manifestations of God on the lower scale
of evolution compared to man,
each containing a spark of the divine, capable of becoming human
and achieving salvation like the
rest of us. Human life is precious because it comes after many
lives of existence in the lower life forms. In the whole creation
only human beings, not even devas
(gods), have the opportunity to achieve salvation or ascend to the
planes of divinity. Human life is therefore very valuable and unique.
But if human beings choose to ignore the great opportunity earned
by them through their previous karma
and indulge in irresponsible actions, they may very likely regress
into animal existence and have to start all over again. We have
therefore a special responsibility to practice dharma and work for
Hinduism upholds all acts of kindness. Since Hinduism recognizes
all animals as beings with souls, it has been a tradition in Hinduism
since the earliest times to protect them and nourish them. Nourishing
the animals along with gods and ancestors has been a traditional
practice and part of the five daily sacrifices of Hindu tradition.
Just as humans depend upon gods for their protection, the animals
depend upon humans for their welfare. Just as we nourish gods through
sacrifices, animals nourish humans through milk and their flesh.
Killing animals except for rituals or for food was a taboo. Even
in case of the latter, the law books prescribed many restrictions.
Hindus consider compassion for animals (bhuta daya) one of the highest
virtues and mark of divine quality. It has been a tradition in Hinduism
since long not to slaughter cattle that are past their prime. Even
if they serve no purpose, they are allowed to die naturally. Hindus
(who practice their religion, not the namesake Hindus) care for
sick cattle and take are of their welfare. iItentionally they do
not harm animals, because they know the consequences of such bad
In ancient India people used various types of animals for domestic,
military, commercial, recreational or medicinal purposes. Hindu
scriptures mention the use of cows, sheep, oxen, buffaloes,
rhinoceros, camels, asses, elephants, birds, boars, pigs, dogs,
snakes, fish, tigers, lions and many mythical creatures. Animals
were used in trade and commerce, hunting, animal fights, gambling,
defense, transportation, sacrificial ceremonies, medicines and as
gifts and food. Snakes or snake poison were used to kill enemies
or even kings. Animal science (pashu vidya) dealt with various aspects
of animal life and how to tame them, train them and use them for
domestic or military use. There were separate treatises on taming
and training elephants. Animals were classified into groups
based on their origin (oviparous or mammalian), anatomy, number
of legs, number of sense organs, diet, behavior, dominant quality
(guna), habitat and so on.
People believed that animals had the ability to communicate in
their cryptic languages and that gods had the natural ability to
communicate with them while human beings needed to develop psychic
ability to do so. In the Hindu mythology we find animals trying
to acquire spiritual knowledge from enlightened masters by loitering
around them and listening to their discourses. Animals such as cows,
lizards, crows, cats, vultures and owls were used to read signs
and portend future or determine auspicious and inauspicious moments.
There was a whole branch of science dealing with the medicinal value
of certain animal parts and products.
The Animal Within and Without
In ancient India ascetics and religious teachers lived in forests
surrounded by wild life, practicing tapas (austerities) or teaching
students in the gurukulas (religious schools). The adverse and difficult
conditions in the forests offered them an opportunity to practice
the virtues of detachment, humility, equanimity and compassion.
Living in harmony with nature, carrying no weapons and embracing
the insecurity and fear they tried to tame and transcend their animal
nature and achieve liberation.
Animals in History
Excavations at the Indus valley sites show that animals played
an important role in the religious and economic lives of the Indus
people. The Indus people domesticated cows, buffaloes, sheep and
bulls and probably worshipped animals along with mother goddess
and a prototype of Lord Siva who is depicted in the seals as a yogi
seated in a meditative pose surrounded by animals. Unfortunately
the Indus seals have not been deciphered so far. So we do not know
much about what the Indus people did or how they lived.
Vedic people valued cattle as wealth and preferred to receive
them as gifts. The scriptures repeatedly emphasize the virtue of
donating cows to Brahimins on every opportunity. But they were not
much into worshipping animal divinities. They used animals for milk,
ghee (clarified butter), leather, medicine, barter, gifts, cooking
and sacrifices. The early vedic people sacrificed cows, sheep, oxen,
buffaloes and horses 2.
They protected their farmlands from birds, pests
and insects and hunted animals both for recreation and protection
of their villages and cattle. They tanned the hides of animals and
used the leather to make bags, reigns, slings and bowstrings. Animals
were also used for meat. Cooking was considered an art. Both Bhima
and Nala excelled in the art of cooking. As time went by, sacrificial
ceremonies became increasingly symbolic with the exception of horse
sacrifice. Cows became sacred animals which cannot be killed both
for religious and economic reasons. Killing cows became a social
taboo and a capital offence.
Animal fights were a regular feature in the post vedic India.
People participated in animal fights for betting and recreation. Hunting
was a regular sport in which the kings and his family participated.
Hunting provided them with a good opportunity to perfect their skills
in archery, chariot racing and marital arts, get acquainted with
the conditions of the region and clear the forests of wild animals
which menaced the people living there. Accompanied by an entourage
of soldiers, officials, ministers and entertainers, they went out
on hunting expeditions either to kill or capture wild animals such
as lions, tigers, bears, elephants, wild boar, deer and wild bulls.
On occasions they visited the ascetics who lived near by and engaged
them in spiritual conversation.
Use of Animals in Warfare
Elephants and horses constituted a significant part of a king's
military might, which were replenished regularly through hunting
and conquests. The Greek historians accounted 4000 horses, 300 chariots
and 200 elephants in the army of Porus who ruled a small principality
in the Punjab region. The Nandas and Mauryans who ruled vast empires
maintained huge armies consisting of hundreds of thousands of bulls,
bullocks, horses and elephants. Chandragupta Maurya sent a gift
of several hundred elephants to Selukas who was appointed by
as the viceroy of the territories he conquered east of Hindukush.
Animals were used in military either for warfare or in transportation.
Hindu law books declare that it was king's responsibility to
protect his people from wild animals and pestilence. According to
a king should protect his territory from eight kinds of adversities
namely, fire, flood, pestilence, famine, rats, snakes, tigers and
demons. He should create separate departments to manage the forest
and cattle wealth of his kingdom. Megasthanese, who was an ambassador
in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, mentioned in his
Indika that the Mauryan King
went on hunting expeditions on the back of an elephant surrounded
by women bodyguards. The king was fond of animals and enjoyed animal
fights involving bulls, rams, elephants and other animals. Bullock
carts were used in the transportation of food and other materials
to the soldiers during war time. People used various types of animals
for riding including horses, camels, asses, elephants and tigers.
Shepherds and cowherds lived in open in tents. In post Mauryan period
there were professional guilds of hunters, snake charmers, bird
catchers and pig dealers. The growing popularity of
Vaishnavism created a new awareness
among people about animals and the need for compassion towards them.
But their influence was not sufficient enough to stop animal
sacrifices. Ancient Indians regularly indulged in animal sacrifices and
rarely in human sacrifices. In some remote areas of India animal
sacrifices continue even today. The raise of
in the post Mauryan period and the integration of folk religions
into Hinduism contributed to the
rise animal sacrifices. Kings sacrificed animals to appease divinities
seeking their blessings and support. Inscriptions belonging to the
Gutpa period suggest that people had an obligation to supply sacrificial
animals on demand to their king. Sometimes the kings exempted some
villages from this obligation. Sri Adishanakaracharya disapproved
extreme methods of tantric worship which included animal and human
sacrifices. During his travels in the subcontinent, he encouraged
the worship of shaktis through the
traditional methods of rituals and
puja rather than sacrifices and
offerings of blood and flesh.
Animal as Divinities
Hindus revere many divinities in animal form.
Lord Vishnu incarnated upon earth first
a fish, then as a tortoise and next as a boar. In another
incarnation he appeared as half
lion and half man. He is worshipped in all these forms.
Lord Siva appeared once in the form of
a sharabha a mythical monster with multiple horns, legs and spikes
instead of hair on the body. Hanuman
is a monkey god who assisted Lord Rama ably in the battle of
He is worshipped through out India and, though of a lesser god,
ranks among the foremost in the Hindu
pantheon. Ganesha the elephant
headed god and son of Lord Siva and
Parvathi is equally popular, if not
Adishesha is a thousand hooded primeval serpent associated with
Lord Vishnu, who arises from the primeval
waters (ksiramudra) in the beginning of creation resting on his
endless coils, his thousand hoods providing him the canopy. The
serpent symbolically represents the time and the thousand hoods
divisions of time.
Besides Hanuman, animals played an
important role in the epic battle of
Jatayuvu, a mythical bird, loses his life fighting against Ravana
when he is carrying away Sita after kidnapping her. During his wanderings
in search of Sita, accompanied by his brother Lakshman, Rama comes
across Sugriva, the monkey king of Kishkindha whom he helps against
his brother Bali. Jatayuvu's brother provides a clue to the search
party of monkeys headed by Hanuman that Sita was held in captive
by the demon king Ravana. Then accompanied by an army of monkeys,
bears and other animals Rama leaves for Lanka to rescue his wailing
wife. The monkeys and other animals build an incredible bridge across
the ocean to the island country of Ravana. They destroy the vast
army of Ravana and help Rama in rescuing his wife. The story of
is a reminder of the Hindu belief that in the universal scheme of
things God does not distinguish between
humans and animals and that all living beings have an equal status
but play different roles.
Animals as Vehicles of Gods
In the Hindu pantheon each
god and goddess
is associated with an animal as a vehicle.
Symbolically the vehicles represent
the animal energies or qualities or skills which need to be strengthened
or sublimated in our lower nature with the help of the divinities
who can transform them. The knowledge of vehicles is therefore very
useful in knowing which divinity can help us in transforming our
inner energies. The list of gods and
goddesses and their
vehicles are mentioned below:
||Garuda or eagle
||Nandi or bull
horses, antelope, lion.
||A chariot driven
by seven horses
Parvathi or Durga or Chandi
||A two or three
wheeled chariot drawn by ten horses
||A chariot drawn
by four horses
drawn by eight horses
buffalo or an iron chariot drawn by eight horses,
a man or a carriage drawn by men or an elephant or ram,
Animals as Symbols
Animals serve as symbols in Hinduism.
We have already discussed the symbolic
significance of animals as vehicles of gods and goddesses. The
elephant is used as a religious symbol by the Hindus, the Buddhists
and the Jains. The symbol of ashta diggajas or eight elephants standing
in eight different directions represent the
ashtadikpalas or rulers of the eight
directions of space. The elephants are also associated with goddess
Lakshmi as symbols of abundance. The
fish and conch shell are associated with
Lord Vishnu. The conch is an attribute
of Lord Vishnu while two fish juxtaposed to each other is considered
as a symbol of fertility and good luck. Makara, a mythical figure,
with the head of a crocodile, body of a reptile and tail of foliage,
is a symbol of the zodiacal sign of Capricorn. It is also depicted
as the vehicle of the river goddess Ganga.
In northern India the lion, bull and elephant are included among
the ashtamangalas or the eight auspicious objects.
Animals as Source of Food
Meat eating was
not forbidden in ancient India. The Vedic people ate cooked meats
of certain animals. Meat was also cooked and consumed at the end
of certain sacrificial ceremonies such as the horse sacrifice. Vedic
people ate fish, buffaloes, oxen and various other animals. Cows
were often sacrificed but they were subsequently banned from slaughter.
Jainism exercised a great influence in changing the food habits
of the people of the subcontinent. The Jain monks lived austere
lives and encouraged people to avoid animal food. Many ancient
rulers of India were Jains including Chandragupta Maurya which must
have contributed greatly to the increasing preference among urban
people for vegetarian food. Although Buddhism emphasized the
virtues of compassion and non injury to animals, meat eating was
not disallowed by Buddhism altogether. The monastic rules of Buddhism
provided a code of conduct for the monks to follow in choosing vegetarian
and non-vegetarian foods of various types without craving.
his law of piety (dhamma), which was a mixture of Vedism,
Buddhism, in which
he emphasized the need for compassion and respect for animal life.
He also banned animal fights and made provision for animal care.
The post Mauryan period saw a revival of Hinduism. The Sungas,
the Nagas, the Guptas and the Vakatakas, who ruled large parts of
India patronized Hinduism and revived many ancient traditions. They
participated in vedic sacrifices,
worshipped Hindu gods and goddesses
and built temples in their honor.
The Dharmashastras prescribed elaborate rulers regarding food
Sutras forbid meats of certain animals such as the one hoofed
animals, camels, certain birds, fish, deer, village pigs and cattle,
but allowed the meat of cows and oxen, tortoise, porcupine, hedgehog,
the rhinoceros and the hare were allowed 3.
sutras forbid meat of animals that had five toes, or double
rows of teeth or excessive quantity of hair, but exempted the meat
of hedgehog, hare, porcupine, the iguana, the rhinoceros and the
tortoise. Certain animal parts such as the testicles of bulls and
the meat of rhinoceros were used as aphrodisiacs.
The worship of snakes has been a very ancient tradition in India.
The vedic people did not worship snakes. But many native people
across the length and breadth of the subcontinent worshipped them.
Some of the tribes became popular as Nagas because of their association
with serpent deities. In the urban settlements snake worshippers
worked as snake charmers and medicine men. They entertained people
with magic and cured snake bites using a combination of prayers
Between First century BC and second century AD, a group of Nagas
claiming themselves to be Barasivas rose to prominence in central
India. They established an empire that stretched from Jabalpur
in the south to Mathura in the north. They contributed to the downfall
of the Kushana empire and freed parts of northern India from foreign
rule. They revived many vedic traditions including the horse sacrifice
and played an important role in the reemergence of
Saivism in the Gangetic valley
and central India in the face of growing popularity of
Buddhism. Their contribution
to Hinduism is perhaps never fully appreciated as they left no monuments
of their own. The Puranas mention names of several Naga rulers who
ruled central and northern India. The Nagas initiated a process
of revival of Hinduism that was later taken up by the Satavahanas
in the south and the Gutpas and the Vakatakas in the north. As pointed
out by Dr.Jaiswal 4,
had there been no Nagas perhaps there would have
been no Gutpas.
According to Hindu mythology, the the serpent deities are semi-divine
beings who descended from sage Kashyapa and Kadru. They live in
the subterranean world of Nagaloka ruled by Ananta with Bhogavathi
as its capital. They act as guardians of subterranean treasures
such as gems, precious stones and minerals. Known for their quick
temper, wisdom, skill and magical powers, they are depicted in Hindu
iconography with a lower snake body covered by bejeweled garments
and a human head adorned by three to seven cobra hoods. The snake
deities are charming personalities, who can bewitch human beings
with their grace and beauty. Garuda, the celestial bird and vehicle
of Vishnu, is their cousin with whom they have an eternal enmity.
In certain parts of southern India, the serpent deities are associated
with fertility and tree worship. Women, desiring offspring, worship
snake stones having the images of a snake goddess carrying two offspring
in her arms. The stones are installed under either a pipal or a
neem tree after keeping them submerged under water for six months
and worshipped with flowers and vermilion.
Prominent serpent deities include Ananta, Kaliya and Vasuki.
Ananta is the king of the serpent world. Kaliya was a five headed
serpent who was subdued by Lord Krishna after a prolonged fight.
Vasuki was a giant serpent who helped both gods and demons in the
churning of the oceans for the
nectar of immortality.
The serpent deities constitute an important aspect of
Hinduism even today. Devout men and
women in the rural areas of both northern and southern India worship
them with milk, incense and flowers, seeking their help and grace.
In some parts of the country killing a snake is a bad
karma and a bad omen. People avoid
killing cobras because of the belief that they can recognize their
attackers and take revenge. If a snake, or a cobra, is killed by
an accident, it is customary to perform certain rites before cremating
or burying it to avoid retribution from the serpent deities.
The horse was not indigenous to India. It was either imported
from outside by the Indus valley people or came along with the Rigvedic
people. In the early vedic period horses and chariots were used
mainly for transportation but in the later vedic period they became
an integral part of the army. Horses were also used in sacrificial
ceremonies such as horse sacrifice.
According to the vedic mythology, horses originated from
Ucchaishravas a mythical horse that was white in color and had wings.
It emerged out of waters during the churning of the oceans by gods
and demon and was taken by Indra,
the leader of the gods, who cut its wings in order to restrict its
movements and donated it to the mankind for their welfare and convenience.
The horse played an important role in the formation of large
empires by facilitating efficient and effective functioning of the
administrative machinery in consolidating the monarchies and ensuring
better control in collecting taxes, mobilizing large armies and
maintaining hold over border areas that were often the centers of
Ancient Indian rulers made adequate arrangements for the maintenance
and procurement of horses. The Mauryan rulers had separate department
for this purpose. Horses were used both for transportation and warfare
but rarely in agriculture. They were drawn by reins as saddles were
unknown in ancient India. During war time they were given
fermented drinks before taking them to the battle field.
Cows occupy an important place in Hinduism. Hindus consider killing
cows and eating their meat a serious taboo. Every part of a cow's
body is said to be occupied by a divinity and everything it produces
is considered sacred including the cow dung and urine which are
used in certain rites and
rituals. Cows are worshipped on
certain occasions. Hindus do not appreciate the idea of sending
old cows to slaughter house. Certain charitable Hindu trusts maintain
cow pens to keep old cows and look after them till they die naturally.
Though India is a secular country where the government does not
interfere in the religious affairs of the people, no political party
would like to hurt the sentiments of Hindus by making any adverse
statements on the cows or passing laws permitting their slaughter.
It is no exaggeration to say that if cows have a mind of their own,
perhaps they all would like to migrate to India and make it their
The cows were considered sacred from the early Rigvedic period.
The Vedas expressly prohibit the killing of cows either for religious
or secular purposes. Vedic people regarded cows as wealth and demanded
them as donation from the rulers and merchants in return for their
priestly services. Cows were used in barter and as dowry. Cow products
such as cow dung, cow milk and ghee were used in ceremonies and
medicines. During the Gupta rule, cow slaughter became a capital
offence and remained so for a long time under successive generations
of Hindu rulers.
According to Hindu mythology, the cows were created along with
Brahma, the creator. Kamadhenu and Surabhi were considered sacred
cows that emerged from the churning
of the oceans. They had the ability to grant any wish to their
owners. Cows played an important role in the life of
Lord Krishna who spent most of
his childhood in the midst of cowherds tending the cows. His flute
had a soothing effect on the cows causing them to produce more milk.
Goloka or the land of cows is another name for Vaikuntha the world
The dog is associated with Indra, Yama and Siva. Indra had a
bitch by name Sarama whose progeny became the watchdogs of Yamaloka
the nether world of Lord Yama. In the epic
is a story in which Lord Yama accompanies the Pandavas all the way
to the paradise in the guise of a dog to test the wisdom of Dharmaraj,
his god son and the eldest brother of the Pandavas. The dog is also
associated with Lord Siva who is known as svapathi or the lord of
the dogs. Bhairava a fierce form of Siva, has a dog as an attendant.
Khanoba, an aspect of Siva, who is worshipped in Maharashtra, had
a dog as his vehcile. Lord Dattatreya who is a personification of
the Brahma, Vishnu and Siva is always accompanied by four
dogs who symbolize the four Vedas.
Suggested Further Reading
1. Jainism goes one step
beyond and declares that both animate and inanimate objects have
2. This is based on literary
evidence found in the hymns of the Vedas. But we do not know for
certain whether they actually sacrificed cows.
3. Apastamba Sutras, Prasna
1, Patala 5, Khanda 17
4. Jayasvwal K.P., History
of India (150AD to 350 AD)