The Sacred Animals of Hinduism
In Hinduism animals occupy an important place. It is said that when Brahma created the animals, he hid a specific secret in each of them to signify their spiritual importance to humans. It is also said that Shiva imparted to each of them specific states of yogic awareness. In ancient India, knowledge of the animals, or pasu vidya was considered an important subject of study. Hindus believe that animals may contain the souls of their ancestors or may be reborn as friends and family members.
Therefore, animal abuse is not encouraged. India is probably the only country in the world where life in all forms is honored and revered, and where you will find temples and rituals for animals. Hinduism also acknowledges the importance of animals in the transmigration of souls, since they facilitate ritual worship serving as sacrificial food (bali) or as the source of sacrificial offerings such as milk, butter, or ghee. By giving them an opportunity to serve them, they also enable humans to earn merit (punya) for their services and daily sacrifices (bhuta yajna).
However, not all animals enjoy the same status in Hinduism. A few of them such as the elephant, horse, cow, bull, boar, tiger, and lion are considered sacred and spiritually evolved. Hence, they enjoy an exalted status, and share the honors during worship with major Hindu deities. Others represent mixed qualities or lower nature. Since they have the predominance of rajas and tamas and lack well-developed subtle bodies, they serve well as examples for humans to shape their own character and conduct and avoid an animal birth.
Many animal seals were found in the Indus Valley excavations, which suggest to their importance in the ancient world. Vedic people gave a lot of importance to animals in their lives and associated them with the deities they worshipped. The Vedas mention several animals by name, such deer, boar, foxes, antelopes, boars, gazelles, jackals, lions, monkeys, rabbits, wolves, bears, beavers, rats, etc. They knew the importance of horses, elephants, cows, bulls, sheep, goats, and other domesticated animals in both religious and economic activity.
The seers and sages of Vedic India lived in remote forests in harmony with wild animals. In no other part of the ancient world nonviolence and compassion to wild animals received so much emphasis and nowhere else animals were treated better or on par with humans than in India. Buddha’s compassion stemmed from the spiritual ethos of India. Hinduism distinguishes itself from other faiths with regard to the importance it gives to animals in God’s creation. In the following discussion we will present the ritual, spiritual and symbolic significance of a few important sacred animals of Hinduism and what roles they play in the evolution of life upon earth.
In the religious traditions of India, elephants symbolize royalty, majesty, strength, divinity, abundance, fertility, intelligence, keenness, destructive power, and grasping power. The souls in elephants are said to be highly evolved and ripe for evolution. The Hindu Puranas suggest that elephants in the past had wings. Elephants appearing in dreams to mothers before the birth of an important person or sage is a common cultural theme of India. An elephant is kingly. Hence, the head of an elephant herd or the royal elephant of a temple goes by the epithet, gajaraj, king of the elephants. Since they represent royalty, power and strength, in the past India had dynasties named after elephants. For example, a dynasty named Gajapathis (lord of the elephants) ruled parts of southern and eastern India. From the writings of Megasthanese, a Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, we know that kings employed people who excelled in the art of capturing, taming and domesticating wild elephants. Elephant care was an important subject for which there were treatises. The Vedas do not directly refer to the elephants, but we know that elephants were native to India and existed in the subcontinent even before the Vedic civilization. Indra's vehicle is a white, elephant known as Airavath, which according to the Puranas emerged during the churning of the oceans by gods and demons. It was given to Indra as a gift. Ganesha, the lord of the Shiva ganas, has the head of an elephant. His large head symbolizes knowledge, intelligence and thinking power. His trunk represents grasping power, while his large ears denote his attentiveness. In ancient India, elephants played an important role in warfare. Alexander had a great difficulty in fighting with Indian kings as they maintained a large herd of trained elephants that served the same purpose as the tanks in modern warfare. They crushed his army and ended his plans to march farther into the interiors of India. Kings employed elephants not only in warfare but also in construction work and clearing of forests. Until recently, elephants were used in India to lay roads in inaccessible places and haul timber. Even today, many Hindu temples maintain one or more elephants and use them during festivities, and public processions. In a way, it is a sad situation since the elephants remain captive and exposed to the risk of unwanted human attention, negligence, and unintended cruelty.
In a ritual sense, in the Vedic world, horses carried greater importance than the cows or any other animals. Horses were used in sacrifices, in warfare, travel, and probably trade and commerce. In the Vedic tradition, horses symbolize speed, beauty, purity, the expansive power of Brahman, freedom, grace, and strength. The Asvins, who symbolize the divinity of horses, are extolled in the Vedas as the gods who rescue people when they are caught in accessible places or lost in wilderness. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the sacrificial horse is compared to Brahman, with each of its bodily parts representing a particular aspect of him. In the Hindu or Vedic calendar, the Star Asvini and the month Asyayuja are popular terms related to horses. The twin gods, Asvins, were excellent horsemen and proven physicians. They implanted a horse head on a sage to save him from a curse. During the churning of the oceans a white horse arose from the waters which was gifted to Indra. Indian folk tales refer to horses that could fly to heaven, and horses that possessed wings. The Sun god, Surya, goes on his daily tour of the heavens from the East to the West on a chariot driven by horses. The Horse sacrifice was an important Vedic ritual during the Vedic period, in which kings used to make offerings to gods, expressing their gratitude for their success and victories in wars and conquests. Wild horses were tamed and used in warfare, rather than agriculture since they were expensive and difficult to maintain. There is no unanimity among scholars whether horses were native to India or imported from outside. Hindus worship Hayagriva, an incarnation of Vishnu who has the head of a horse and who played an important role in saving the Vedas during a conflict with the demons. Horse riding was an important art and martial skill in ancient India. Even women from noble families used to practice it. Horses are used in Hindu marriages to carry the bridegroom to the marriage platform. Horses are associated with many Hindu deities as vehicles such as Indra, Surya, Vayu, the Rudras, and Maruths.
The cow symbolizes wealth, compassion, motherliness, righteousness (dharma), motherhood, divinity, sattvic nature, sacrifice, service, purity, and auspiciousness. In ancient India, a person’s social and economic status depended upon the number of cattle he possessed. One of the prime duties of the students in ancient India who studied the Vedas in the gurukulas was to help their teachers by looking after their cows. From the Upanishads we know that served their teachers by taking their cows into the forest for grazing and returned in the evening. Lord Krishna grew up in a family of cowherds and personally tended the cows and other domestic animals in his childhood. The Puranas suggest that the animals and friends around him were mesmerized by the melody of his flute and stayed calm. Shiva is known as Gorakhnath, means the lord of the cows. He is also known as, Pasupathinath, the lord of all animals. According to some scholars, Shiva’s association with cows and bulls might date back to the Indus Valley period. Cows have a special significance in Hinduism, as aspects of Mother Goddess and as symbols of selfless service. Mahatma Gandhi declared the protection of cows a central feature of Hinduism. Hindus worship cows as the Mother Goddess and symbol of motherhood, kindness and forbearance. Kamadhenu, the heavenly cow, is considered the mother of all cows and several gods. She is also considered the source of all abundance with the power to grant the wishes of her devotees. The killing of cows and eating cow meat are strictly prohibited in Hinduism and considered mortal sins with severe karmic consequences. The cows are mentioned in many Vedic rituals such as ashtaka, sulagava, vajapeya, arghya, etc. Cow milk is used in Hinduism in ritual worship as an offering, and for cleansing the ritual objects, and bathing the deities, besides in the preparation of sacrificial food, such as panchamritam, curd, paramannam, etc. Cow urine and cow dung are used in some Vedic rituals in expiation ceremonies to cleanse past sins and in Ayurveda to prepare traditional medicines. Because it is a sacred animal, gods do not use it as a vehicle, but only as the source of auspiciousness, peace, and prosperity. Kamadhenu is a celestial cow, which represents abundance and sacrifice.
Images of bulls were found in several Indus Valley seals. They suggest that since the earliest times bulls had a socio-religious significance in ancient India. In the Vedic world, the bull represented masculinity, virility, strength, aggression, and fighting power. The Sanskrit word vrishan, derived from the root world, vrish, was originally used in the Vedas to denote all males, including men. However, another of its derivatives, Vrishabha was used to denote various types of bulls, including horse bulls and male boar. The Vedas describe Indra as a strong bull of manliness and mighty strength. They also signify the sexual prowess of the bulls by stating that Agni or Indra descend from the heaven to the earth roaring like a husband to his wives. The bull has a special significance in Shaivism and Hindu Tantra. Lord Shiva is known as Vrishabhanath, lord of the bulls. His vehicle is Nandi, the divine bull, also known as Basava, who is worshipped by devotees individually as a personal god and in association with Shiva as his vehicle. According to some, Nandi is not a bull in the ordinary sense, but a divine being, and a close confidant of Lord Shiva, whose anthropomorphic form is represented by a half human and half bull body. He is known for his knowledge, devotion, obedience, surrender, virtue, and dedication to Shiva and his devotees of Shiva, and fought many battles to protect the gods, slay the demons and uphold dharma. The images of Nandi are invariably found in every Shiva temple. There are also some famous temples in India which are exclusively dedicated to Nandi. As the vehicle of Shiva, Nandi represents knowledge, scholarship, devotion, surrender, renunciation, obedience, strength and virility. However, in Hinduism bulls symbolically represent both positive and negative qualities. On the positive side they represent manliness, virility, manly strength, sexual prowess, and fighting spirit. On the negative side, they symbolize darkness, brute power, excessive sexuality, lust, anger, aggression, promiscuity, waywardness, ignorance, and delusion. On specific occasions, Hindus worship bulls and make them offerings of food. Since they are considered sacred, as in case of cows, hurting or harming them is strictly prohibited in Hinduism.
There are no references to tigers in the Rigveda. However, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda contain a few references to them. They contain prayers and spells to subdue tigers and protect people, cowherds and shepherds from the menace of tigers, besides invocations that extol gods by ascribing to them the power and the qualities of tigers. For example, a hymn (5.7) in the Yajurvdea to Rudra and Agni describes that they possess the ferocity of a tiger. Another hymn (5.21) suggests that a tiger is worthy of sacrifice to Indra. In some hymns the domestic fires are compared to the tigers that guard the house. Lord Shiva is shown to wear a tiger skin. Indian forests were home to Asiatic tigers. Tiger hunting was a favorite royal sport. Kings were allowed to hunt them to protect the people from their menace. Vedic humans unambiguously described the tiger as the foremost animal among the beasts of prey. A spell (4.6) from the Atharvaveda suggests that in rural areas tigers and lions were a menace to the cattle owners as they frequently attacked their cattle and carried them away. Tigers also figure prominently in many Indian folk-tales, Jataka-stories, and the Panchatantra. Like elephants, tigers represent royalty, majesty, fearlessness, strength, and ferocity. On the negative side they represent death, aggression, anger, cruelty, and violence. The tiger is the most popular and well-known vehicle of Shakti and her numerous manifestations. In the images and sculpture she is shown as riding or sitting upon a tiger. Spiritually, tigers are considered advanced beings. Some of them might be humans in their past lives or may assume a human birth in their next lives. For example, Manusmriti (12.59) declares that those who take pleasure in hurting others will be born as carnivorous animals such as tigers, whereas those who eat forbidden food become worms. In many tribal traditions of India, the tiger (or lion) is worshipped as a god. The Gonds in Central India worship a tiger god named Bagh Deo, who is considered savior and protector of his devotees. The Murias worship Chitan Deo, who is a hunting tiger god, while the Bharias worship Bhageshwar. Worship of the tiger god under different names is prevalent in many other tribes of India.
Monkeys from the Ramayana
Monkeys do not have that much ritual or spiritual importance in Hinduism as cows, bulls, tigers, horses, or elephants have, but they do enjoy a prominent place in public perception because of their association with lord Rama and their mischievous antics. India is home to many species of monkey, and home to some prehistoric tribes that worshipped monkeys or held them in high regard as their totems. Monkeys were tamed and used in recreation. The Bhagavata Puranas (5.14.30) states that since sex is prominent among animals, those who indulge in excessive sexual pleasure might have been monkey in their past lives. The Panchatantra and the Jataka tales contain many stories with the monkeys as the principal characters. They point to their fickleness, mischievous nature, lack of discretion, and foolish behavior. In the Ramayana they played a prominent role in assisting Rama in searching for his queen, Sita, who was held in captivity by the demon Ravana and rescue her. They helped him to cross the ocean by building a bridge across the waters and participate in a war under his command against the demon’s army. From the epic we learn that the monkeys, were not just monkey but monkey faced humans, known as Vidyadharas or Vanaras, with the ability to understand the spoken language, even Sanskrit and follow the commands of their generals. They inhabited a forest called Dandaka in central India, which was then ruled by a king in exile named Sugriva. Lord Rama earned his trust and support by helping him win back his kingdom from his more powerful brother Vali. Because of their association with Rama, Hindus treat monkeys with compassion and respect, and offer them food, despite their menacing behavior in public places. There is a monkey temple at Varanasi where they are even worshipped, and allowed to have their way. Symbolically, they personify such positive qualities as obedience, loyalty, duty, divinity, righteousness, courage, and selflessness. However, even the Ramayana does not gloss over the easygoing lifestyles of the monkeys, and their lack of discipline and focus in accomplishing tasks. Hindu scriptures compare the instability of the mind to monkeys who are easily distracted and prone to mischief. In the past, there used to be northern school of Hinduism, known as the Monkey school, which believed that devotees were required to make an effort to achieve liberation. Monkeys also appear in several Hindu folktales, and stories from the Panchatantra and Jataka tales. Hanuman is one of the most popular deities of Hinduism who exemplifies exemplary courage, immense strength, humility and the highest devotion. Monkeys are well protected in India despite the problems they create in urban areas, because Hindus do not like to see monkeys being hurt or harmed in any way.
India is home to some of the deadliest snakes in the world. Hindus, therefore, have an ambivalent attitude towards them. They fear them and at the same time worship them. However, unlike in other traditions, they do not consider them evil, but divine. In Hinduism, serpents represent both death and infinity. Many gods are associated with serpents. Serpents are worshipped in their own right as gods and demigods. The Vedas contain numerous invocations and spell to protect both humans and animals from snake bites. The Mahabharata refers to a special snake ritual (sarpayaga) to attract them to the ritual place and offer them to the fire god Agni, the devourer. Serpents figure prominently in many Hindu folktales, Puranas and ancient legends. Ancient Indians probably excelled in the art and science of taming snakes, and using snake poison for various purposes such as making poisonous arrows (Pasupathas) for use in warfare, or prepare deadly concoctions to kill enemies or cure illnesses. People believed in the possibility of snake spirits possessing human beings and influencing their behavior, by taking revenge against them for their past cruelties. Snakes occupy an important place in Hindu pantheon as celestial beings as well as subterraneous beings. Both Shiva and Vishnu have a close affinity with them. Vishnu rests in the ocean upon a bed made by the coils of the infinite primal serpent, Adi Shesha. Shiva is the lord of the snakes with the ability to cure snake bites and heal people. A snake adorns his neck with his hood raised, while his throat appears blue because of the snake poison (halahal) he consumed during the churning of the oceans, and held it there to save the worlds. Snake worship is an important feature of Hinduism. Men and women worship snakes in temples and under trees, offering them prayers, milk, incense, and flowers, under the belief that it will help women conceive or overcome past sins (dhoshas). The anthropomorphic forms of many gods have serpents as their lower bodies. In Hindu cosmology, snakes are believed to inhabit a subterranean world and protect the treasures that are hidden in the earth. Hindu myths and legends point to the possibility of interaction between humans and snakes, the ability of snakes to assume human form and enter a conjugal or romantic relationship with humans. In Hinduism snakes also symbolize sexuality, Kundalini power, fertility, weapons, and destructive power. Snakes appearing in dreams is considered a spiritual significant event for the renunciants, while common folk may consider it an ill omen.
One of the seals found in the Indus Valley shows a seated deity in a yoga posture with the horns a buffalo. It refers to the possibility that in those days, buffalo horns signified a person’s social status, royalty, authority, or divinity. Some of the seals show human figures in a conflict with a buffalo figure, who may be a prototype a buffalo demon or a rival king. The Vedas contain references to the buffalos and their ritual significance. The buffalo is a savage beast. Unlike the cow, it has a dark mane, and a gross body, suggestive of its tamasic nature. However, buffalos in Hinduism represent both positive and negative qualities. On the negative side, buffalos represent darkness (tamas), delusion, ignorance, lust, demonic nature and brute power. On the positive side, they represent strength, divinity, support, and ferocity. The water buffalo is the vehicle of Lord Yama, the lord of the underworld, who is regarded as lord of justice. Mahisha is a buffalo god whereas Mahishasura is a buffalo demon. The he-buffalo (Mahisha) represent a king, or the ruler of the earth, while the she-buffalo (Mahishi) his wife. Hence, the first wife of a king in Hinduism is called Patta Mahishi. In the Vedic ritual of horse sacrifice (Asvamedha yajna) she used to have a prominent role as the sacrificial offering to the divine horse, Brahman. Mahishasura, who represents the brute force of the he-buffalo was a powerful demon who became a tormentor of the worlds. None of the male gods could defeat him due to a boon he obtained. He was eventually killed by Durga, the Mother Goddess. In a broader sense the buffalo symbolizes all mortal beings who live upon earth and who are a mixture both positive and negative qualities. According to Kalika Purana, a buffalo is an auspicious animal with an excellent form which gives life, wealth and fame. There is a story in devotional Hinduism, according to which a saint named Jnaneshwar once taught the Vedas to a buffalo to prove that the same spirit that pervaded all and existed in all. One may not take that story literally, but it does point to an important belief of Hindus and their attitude towards animals. Both commercially or spiritually, the buffalo is not as popular as the cow or the bull, but it has its own place in Hinduism. Compared to the cows and the bulls, the buffalos are sturdier and better suited to the harsh conditions of temperate climate. Hence, they are widely used in rural India as beasts of burden and in the cultivation of lands. Traditionally, buffalos have been used in Vedic rituals, next to the horse, and offered as a sacrifice to appease gods. They are also the main sacrificial animals in the worship of Shakti, especially during the Durga puja. However, although buffalos are sacrificed during rituals, as in case of cows and bulls Hindus are prohibited from eating buffalo meat.
Although dogs do not enjoy an exalted position like the animals mentioned above, they do carry some importance as companions and faithful servants. Dogs are worshipped in Nepa, and parts of India as the guardians of ancestors during the five-day festival of lights called Tihar. On the second day of the festival, people worship dogs, decorating them with flowers, applying sandalwood paste on their foreheads as the third eye and offering prayers. They are also fed with food. It is believed that dogs guard the doors of heaven and hell. Symbolically, they may also personify Yama, the lord of death, and Yami, his sister. The heavenly dog Sarama is considered the mother of all dogs. Bhairava, a fierce form of Shiva, who is worshipped in Tantra, has a dog as his vehicle. He is also depicted in some images as having the face of a dog. Images of dogs are also worshipped in some Bhairava temples, in addition to feeding the dogs that loiter near such temples. In the Kali Bhairava temple at Varanasi one can see Shiva riding a white dog, and paintings and statues of several dogs. Dogs are worshipped there with garlands, etc. In some folk traditions of southern India, god Mallanna is worshipped as a dog by shepherds who take hounds along with their sheep into forests and mountains during the grazing season. In parts of Maharashtra dogs are often invoked during the worship of Khandoba. Symbolically, dogs represent loyalty, obedience, devotion, and the Vedas. According to Hindu superstitions and omens, dogs yodeling in the night is considered inauspicious. Hindu myths and legends suggest that gods may often appear before humans disguised as dogs either to test them or help them. The Chandogya Upanishad contains a satirical passage, a kind of an allegory, in which insincere worldly priests who perform rituals for money and food are represented as dogs. Dattatreya, who is said to be a manifestation of the triple gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha is always seen in the company of dogs, who are said to be personification of the Vedas. Since Hindus believe in reincarnation, they believe that dogs may represent past affinities or relationships. For the same reason they do not like the idea of killing or abusing dogs. Streets dogs are huge menace in contemporary India, but because of religious beliefs they are not allowed to be euthanized. Hindus also abhor the idea of eating dog meat. According to Hindu laws, those eat dog meat are considered outcasts (Chandalas) and will suffer from a terrible fate.
The rat is a symbol of destruction, timidity, nervousness, ignorance, fear, and confusion. They can overcome obstacles in their search for food and remain underground in tunnels and crevices. In ancient India, next to elephants, rats posed a major threat to crops, vegetables, and orchards. It is no wonder that Hindus have long tradition of worshiping them both, the anthropomorphic form of elephant as Ganesha, and the rat, known as Krauncha as his vehicle. Both are propitiated by farmers to save them and their crops from obstacles such as pests, locusts, diseases, floods, storms, and gales. In the worship of Ganesha, his vehicle is not directly worshipped, but he gets his due share from the offerings that are made to his master. Because of their association with Ganesha, rats enjoy a lot of freedom in Hindu households, as people do not like to kill them or capture them, unless they pose an extreme nuisance. It is said that during the British times, many Indians resisted the idea of killing rats even when the country faced the threat of bubonic plague. There are numerous temples for Ganesha, but there are no temples specifically built for the rats. However, the Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan is famous for its tradition of revering the rats. Rats roam freely in the temple premises and receive offerings of food from the devotees who visit the temple to worship the goddess. It is believed that the rats that roam there have an affinity with the hereditary priests and servants of the temple and may be reborn in their families. Hence, they are treated with a lot of compassion and offered food. India has some traditional tribes, such as the Chenchus in the South, who specialize in capturing rats form agricultural fields and help the local farmers. They also consume rat meat, as the reward for their hunting skills.
Lioins and tigers enjoy an exalted status in Hinduism as symbols of royalty, strength, and ferocity. However, because of the large size of their population and their wider geographical presence, tigers receive more attention and religious importance than lions. One of the ten incarnations of Vishnu is Narasimha, who has the head and shoulders of a lion, but the torso of a human. Narasimha is one of the fiercest forms of Vishnu in his aspect of Kala, or Death. He manifested as a lion to destroy the demon king, Hiranyakasipu and save his son Prahlada from his father’s abuse. Many Shaktis have either a lion or a tiger, or both as their vehicles, suggesting that from a symbolic perspective they represent the same qualities and energies. Lions are mentioned in the Vedas and the Puranas. Goddess Durga, a fierce form of Parvathi or Shakti, has a golden lion as her vehicle, while Rahu, a planetary guard, rides upon a black lion as his vehicle. Like the tigers and elephants, lions represent royalty, ferocity, majesty, strength, courage and commanding power. Lions form an important part of Hindu religious art. The face of the lion (simha-mukha) is used in images and sculpture in many Hindu temples to decorate the doors, walls, arches, and windows. Their fierce form, bloodshot eyes, and large teeth, represent Kala, the devourer. A similar form is used in the masks, kirti mukhas, which are worn by actors in traditional Hindu dance dramas to enact ancient legends and stories from the Puranas and the epics. Lions also appear in the art of ancient India as symbols of royal authority. The memorial pillar at Saranath which was erected by Ashoka after his conversion to Buddhism contains four beautifully carved standing lions at the top on a round abacus representing the imperial power. They now constitute the official emblem of the government of India.
In the main stream Hinduism, cats do not enjoy much importance. However, they are not harmed or hurt because of various beliefs associated with them. They are not considered truly loyal as in case of dogs. Hence, they are used to symbolize deception and insincerity. Although they are violent and hunt rats, rodents and birds whose remains they hide in lofts and roofs, many Hindu households in rural areas let cats live amidst them, knowing well that they will keep the houses free from rats and other pests. As stated before, Hindus have an ambivalent attitude towards cats. Hindu texts use the symbolism of cats to suggest religious and ascetic hypocrisy. They label those who are insincere, impure and indulge in evil practices as cat ascetics, and the gullible devotees who trust them and fall into their trap as rat devotees. There is a stone relief at Mahabalipuram in Tamilnadu, depicting the descent of Ganga. It contains the statue of a cat ascetic in a meditative pose, standing on one leg and holding his hands above his head, with a few rats praying to him at his feet. It is based on a story from Tantropakhyana, a tantric text, which describes how a cat posing as a pious ascetic before a group of mice kept eating them until they realized their folly and escaped. In ancient India cats were also used to refer to certain outcasts and low castes, who were unclean or ate forbidden food. Manu characterized cats as covetous, deceptive, harmful and hypocritical, suggesting that one should stay away from those who represented such qualities. On the positive side, Hinduism has an ancient school of devotional theism known as the cat school. Followers of this school base their conduct upon the example set by the kitten in allowing themselves to be carried by their mothers by the scruff of their necks. They believe that just as the kitten totally surrender to their mothers and let them carry them across several obstacles to a new home, devotees should totally surrender to God and let him carry them across the ocean of Samsara. Some superstitious beliefs are also associated with cats in Hinduism. For example, killing a cat is considered a grave sin, for which one may have to offer prayers and give in charity at least seven golden images of the killed cat. You can now understand why Hindus let cats live in their households or do not harm them. Many Hindus also believe that encountering a black cat before going on a journey, or staring a new day or a new project is considered highly inauspicious. There is no widespread practice of worshipping cats in Hinduism. However, in folk tradition, a local goddess named Shasti has the cat as her vehicle. The frequent movements of cats from one home to another carrying their kitten is often compared to a soul's journey from one birth to another.
Apart from the above, the animals mentioned below also occupy an important place in Hinduism as vehicles of gods, celestial beings, or divinities. They are also known for their symbolic, spiritual, or ritual significance. The following is a brief description of them.
Owl (uluka), the vehicle of goddess Lakshmi. It symbolizes adversity or misfortune, which only the goddess can remove as she is the goddess of wealth and abundance. On the positive side, it symbolizes discretion, or discerning wisdom, since it can stay in control and penetrate through darkness. In many cultures, the owl represents wisdom. However, in Hindu folk traditions, the owl (ullu) also symbolizes delusion and stupidity and used as an abusive term.
Crocodile, the vehicle of Varuna, Kama, Ganga, and Narmada. The Crocodile in Hinduism symbolizes divinity and Brahman. It is said that Vishnu appears in the sky as a crocodile filled with stars. Images of crocodile are found in the Indus pottery paintings. It is also said that in the past rural women in some parts of India used to pray to the crocodiles standing on the banks of the rivers for progeny.
Fish, which represents an incarnation of Vishnu and a special class of water fairies. Indus seals contain pictograms that resemble fish. Images of fish are also found in the paintings on the Indus pottery. The Vedas contain references to fish. Hindu cosmology refers to a world inhabited by fish. In tantric tradition, offerings of fish to the deities are allowed. In Hindu iconography, ancient sculptors often combined the bodies of crocodiles and fish and showed them as one animal.
Antelope, the vehicle of the moon god. Images of antelopes are found in the Indus seals, in particular in the seal that depicts the image of a seated deity. They are also associated with Shiva, who is the lord of the animals. In the past antelopes were used as offerings in animal sacrifices. The Apastamba Sutra sanctions the ritual offerings of antelope meat to ancestors (pitrs) during the sraddha ceremony.
Deer, which is part of many folktales, myths and legends, including the Ramayana
Ram, the vehicle of Agni, and in some descriptions of Chandra, the moon.
Swan, the vehicle of Brahma, and Saraswathi. Swans symbolize purity, discernment, sattva, grace, beauty, artistic ability, and the individual Self.
Garuda, the celestial half bird and half human, which is the vehicle of Vishnu. Symbolically, Garuda represents keenness, swiftness, service, divinity, and devotion. Images of Garuda are invariably found in the Vishnu temples or temples dedicated to the aspects, manifestations, and incarnations of Vishnu.
Peacock, the vehicle of Skanda, which represents aggression, ferocity, and war like qualities. In Hindu tradition peacocks represent the contradictory qualities of both purity and impurity. In association with Saraswathi, they represent grace, beauty, artistic ability, agility, and harmony.
Parrot, the vehicle of Kama (Manmadha), the god of love and lust. It appears in many folk tales as a messenger between forlorn lovers or a companion of the lovesick.
Hinduism teaches people to respect all the animals as spiritual beings and part of God's creation, whose existence and services are vital to the order and regularity of the worlds. They play an important role in the alleviation of human suffering and in facilitating the liberation of human beings by giving us an opportunity to serve them and help them, and in the process earn good karma. Most Hindus do not like to hurt or harm any animal since it is strongly implanted in their minds that whoever hurts an animal or kills it incurs bad karma and suffers from its consequences, sometimes taking birth in their next lives as that very animal which they hurt, and undergoing similar suffering. Nowhere in the world, you can see compassion at play on such a large scale. Recreational hunting is a punishable crime in India. Every year the government spends a lot of money on wildlife preservation. However, on the negative side you hear instances of evil people, who indulge in animal cruelty, poaching, and illegal trade in endangered species. Poachers in India kill exotic species, including tigers, lions and elephants, for the value they fetch in international market.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Significance of Animals in Hinduism
- Advaita For Practical People
- Treatment of Animals in Hinduism
- Ascetic Traditions and Practices in Hinduism
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God Vishnu
- Caste System and the Varnasrama Dharma in Hinduism
- Shedding Light on Atman, the True Self
- Om, Aum, Pranava or Nada in Mantra and Yoga Traditions
- Atheism and Materialism in Ancient India
- Solving the Hindu Caste System
- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary process
- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary Process
- Devotion and Meditation in Hinduism
- Do You Have Any Plans For Your Rebirth or Reincarnation?
- Fate And Free Will In Hinduism
- Four Types of Intelligence
- Science and the Future of Hinduism
- Understanding Death and Impermanence
- The Symbolism of Time or Kala and Death in Hinduism
- Lessons from the Dance of Kali, the Mother Nature
- Letting your God live in You - The True Essence of the Hindu Way of Life
- Hinduism - Upanishads - Mahavakyas
- The Defintion and Concept of Maya in Hinduism
- Dhyana or Meditation In Hindu Tradition
- The Meaning of Nirvana
- The Eternal and Temporal Aspects of Hinduism
- The Construction of Hinduism
- The Meaning and Significance of Heart in Hinduism
- The Origin and Significance of the Epic Mahabharata
- The True Meaning of Prakriti in Hinduism
- Three Myths about Hinduism
- What is Your Notion of God?
- Why Hinduism is a Preferred Choice for Educated Hindus
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