The Significance of Animals in Hinduism

A Hunging Scene

Gajendra Moksha

by Jayaram V

This essay is about how animals are treated in Hinduism and their importance in Hindu ritual and spiritual beliefs and practices.


Animals occupy an important place in Hinduism. Hindus firmly believe that animals possess souls and are in different states of physical and spiritual evolution. Like humans they too are made up of the same elements. However, in them the higher realities of Nature (tattvas) such as the senses, the mind, the ego and the intelligence, do not fully manifest. Hence, their knowledge, speech, intelligence, and mental skills remain limited. From Hindu Puranas, folk tales, and legends we understand that there can be exceptions to this rule, especially if the birth of an animal is related to a celestial event or if a soul purposefully takes birth in an animal body for a specific reason. Nonetheless, since all beings are manifestations of Supreme Brahman, they deserve to be treated well, and allowed to evolve in their own natural ways.

Animal souls are not inferior. Hinduism regards all souls as equal. Their presence in animal bodies may pose some problems to them with regard to their chances of liberation, but it does not alter their essential nature. Beings differ in their ability and intelligence because of the presence or absence of certain aspects of Nature, but not because of souls, which are the same in all.

The Hindu law books and moral code lay down specific rules, suggesting how animals should be treated, and which animals should or should not be used for human consumption. Compassion to animals (bhuta daya) is an important virtue for those who seek liberation or those who want to lead virtuous lives on the path of righteousness to cultivate divine qualities. Killing animals without reason has the same karmic consequence as killing humans, since every living being upon earth has an opportunity to evolve into higher life forms and work for their salvation.

Although animals enjoy the same spiritual status as humans, they are not well qualified to achieve liberation, since they do not possess the higher mind or discriminating intelligence (buddhi) to make intelligent choices. Since they are guided mostly by the modes of Nature (gunas), their subtle bodies remain weak. Hence, to achieve liberation they have to take birth as humans. In some extraordinary circumstances, due to past karmas or the grace of God, they may rarely achieve liberation.

In the following discussion we will examine the ritual, spiritual, symbolic significance of animals in Hinduism and Hindu spirituality. Most of these statements may also hold true in case of other faiths such as Buddhism and Jainism.

1. Spiritual nature of animals

Animals are spiritual beings who are subject to the same laws of creation, dharma and karma as humans. Their intelligence may not be the same as ours, but the soul in them is the same witness consciousness as ours. Since they possess souls and are caught in the cycle of births and deaths just like us, they deserve to be treated with respect and consideration and given an opportunity to evolve. Evolution of animals usually happens from lower life forms to higher life forms. However in special circumstances there can be retrogressive evolution due to karma, or divine intervention when it becomes necessary that a god or a human being has to take birth in an animal body to accomplish certain tasks or undergo penance. It is also said that in the end part of each time cycle more animal souls are released into human bodies to give them a chance to achieve liberation or create chaos.

2. Classification of beings

The Vedas and other scriptures classify beings based on the criteria of how they are born, such as those born from seeds, eggs, or wombs, and based on the number of senses they possess, such as those with one sense, those with two senses, etc. Depending upon where they exist they are divine, mortal, and demonic. They exist not only in the mortal world but also in the higher and lower worlds. Their divinity and spirituality is directly in proportion to the world which they inhabit. For example the animals that exist in the world of gods are immortal and divine, worthy of worship and devotional service, whereas the animals that exist in the lower worlds of daithyas, rakshasas and asuras and serve their masters are influenced by their evil nature and do not enjoy the same status. However, we do not clearly know what happens to the animals souls when they die, where they exist, and whether they go to the same ancestral world as humans or to a different world. There is also no tradition of cremating animal bodies.

3. The value of interdependence

We understand from the Vedas that gods, humans, and animals have a special relationship. They are meant to be interdependent as part of the divine play, so that they cannot ignore or neglect each other. Just as humans are created for the enjoyment of gods, animals are created for the enjoyment of humans. Humans have to serve gods by nourishing them through sacrifices, and animals have to serve humans by providing them with milk, etc., and nourishing them, whereas gods have to serve them both by protecting them from evil forces and natural calamities.

4. The virtue of service to animals

The Hindu code of conduct suggests that humans should not live selfishly, caring for themselves only. They must show kindness to all animals (bhuta daya) and help them on their evolutionary path. Any kindness shown to them will be richly rewarded in afterlife. Hence, the scriptures recommend nourishing animals and other living creatures through daily sacrifices (nithya karmas) as an important obligatory duty for humans.

5. Symbolic importance

In Hindu spirituality and symbolism, animals represent both divine and demonic nature and different forms of universal energy. Many gods, planetary deities, and demons of Hindu cosmology have animal bodies and anthropomorphic forms. Animals also serve as vehicles (vahanas) to gods and goddesses and are worshipped in numerous temples as associate gods. In the human personality, with some exceptions, they represent the lower nature and the impurities of ignorance, delusion, etc. However, some birds like swans, and animals like cows represent higher nature, purity and spirituality. Among the Vedic gods, Pushan is considered to be the lord of the animals and Shiva as the lord of all living beings. Dharma is compared to a cow.

6. Relationship with God

Myths and legends from the Puranas and other scriptures suggest that highly evolved animals may express love and devotion to God and seek his help by praying to him when they are in trouble. The story of Gajendra Moksha in which Vishnu comes to the rescue of an elephant to save him from a crocodile is a good example of how God may have a hidden connection with the animal world. Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva, and Sugriva and Hanuman from the Ramayana, who are known for their devotion, also exemplify the extraordinary, personal relationship between God and animals.

7. Animal incarnations of God

The ten incarnations of Vishnu show how God does not discriminate between humans and animals. It seems if the situation demands, he has no problem choosing an animal body for his incarnation. Therefore, it is no wonder that three out of nine of Vishnu's incarnations of Vishnu were in animal form (tortoise, fish, and boar), while one was part human and part animal, or man-lion (Narasimha). According to Vedic legends, once Vishnu assumed the form of Hayagriva, with a horse head and rescued the Vedas from two demons, namely Madhu and Kaitabha. We also read in the Puranas that gods may often appear on earth in animal form to test the devotion, virtue or faith of devotees. In the Mahabharata a dog accompanies the Pandavas to the next world. As stated before the Hindu pantheon consists of several gods in animal form.

8. The role of karma and fate

Since karma is a predominant factor in deciding how souls evolve upon earth and take birth, Hinduism acknowledges that souls may be born in animal bodies as part of their natural progression or ascendance into higher life forms, or due to fate and circumstances. Gods and humans cursed by seers and sages for their transgressions or those who commit grave sins such as adultery or homicide may reincarnate as animals to undergo suffering and pay for their sins. It is also believed that those animals which suffer death in the hands of humans may earn merit (punya) while those who kill them commit sin. There is also the belief that animals that are offered to gods and goddesses as sacrifice (bali) attain liberation. It is one reason why animal sacrifices are justified in Hinduism.

9. Treatment of animals

In Hinduism many animals are worshipped for their divine qualities and auspicious nature and treated with respect and humility. Hindus have the tradition of worshipping animals on particular days in a year, or on specific occasions. It is obligatory in certain Hindu rituals to make offerings to animals, birds and snakes for peace and prosperity or to cleanse past sins and bad fate (dhoshas). In the past  animals were used as royal emblems during wars and as symbols of royal authority. For example, boar was the royal emblem of Sri Krishnadeva raya. The lion was the symbol of royal authority of the Mauryas. The Pandavas used the emblem of Hanuman in the Mahabharata war. The elephant was another important symbol of authority and kingship. Some animals are considered auspicious and some inauspicious. Many superstitious beliefs are also associated with animals, which influence the attitude and behavior common people towards them.

10. Animal as sacrificial material

Animals sacrifices have been an integral part of Hindu ritual practices for centuries. It is one of the anomalies of Hinduism, where you are told to have compassion for animals on one side, and at the same you are allowed to perform animal sacrifices as part of your duty to appease gods and propitiate them. One of the justifications for it is the belief that it is beneficent for those who perform it and the animals that are sacrificed since they are believed to qualify for instant liberation, which otherwise may take several births and deaths. Not all gods are bloodthirsty. Animal sacrifices are made to only certain aspects of God and some local deities who are known for their ferocity and destructiveness. Animal sacrifices are strictly prohibited in right hand (vedachara) methods of worship, but allowed in left hand practices (vama chara). However, due to increased awareness, and the influence of modern education, many educated Hindus do not support or participate in animal sacrifices.

11. Animals for charity

The gifting of animals, especially cattle, to the poor and needy is considered an important human virtue, having the merit to wash away grave sins. It is highly recommended in Hindu ritual tradition to cleanse one's past sins or neutralize any past transgressions. In the past kings and influential people used to gift away a large number of cattle to Brahmanas and poor people during sacrificial ceremonies and on auspicious occasions. It is mentioned in several Upanishads. Cows and cattle were also given away as a reward to those who won religious debates or impressed the king with their knowledge and wisdom. It was customary in Vedic tradition for a groom to offer one or more cows to the bride's father as a bridal price. Kings used to donate cattle, and even elephants to the temples to be used for devotional service. The real or symbolic gifting of cows is still considered a very beneficent act, which is prescribed in some rituals. At times kings used to gift elephants to the people they wanted to punish since it was difficult for ordinary people to maintain them and those who received them had an obligation to keep them in trust and return them whenever the king recalled them for his use.

12. Hunting and recreation

Hunting is another anomaly you will find in Hinduism. Hinduism discourages killing of animals except for ritual purposes or as part of a king's obligatory duty to protect people. Kings are therefore allowed to hunt wild animals or capture elephants for their armies. They are also allowed to consume the meat secured through hunting or to give it away to others. However, even they are not allowed to hunt or kill certain animals like the cow, the bull, the cat, the monkey, or the dog. Killing them or killing pregnant animals, young animals, or killing a mother with young brood was considered a sinful act with grave consequences for those who indulged in it. Hunting purely as a sport or pleasure is also not allowed in Hindu Dharma. Both Ramayana and Mahabharata contain stories about hunting and how gods may often participate in them to keep the forests safe for the seers and sages who lived there. Hunting as a profession or livelihood was practiced in ancient India by some tribes and castes. The epics and the Puranas contain stories where hunting innocent animals or inadvertent actions during hunting expeditions, as in case of king Pandu, often led to life changing events for the people who indulged in it and their descendants.

13. Training and taming

Hindus do not like to see animals suffering. They also dislike the idea of seeing captive animals used for entertainment and recreation. It can often invoke strong emotions, and wild reactions among people especially in this age where animal right activists are very vocal and wild life conservation is an important issue. However, historically, birds, snakes, and animals were captured and trained in India for recreation, gambling, and sports. People enjoyed (and still enjoy) animal and bird fights, racing of elephants, camel, bulls and horses, and the antics of monkeys, bears, parrots, elephants, magicians, and snake charmers. Parrots are still used in fortune telling. In the past queens and royal women used to keep in their palaces and private gardens deer, antelopes, and birds such as swans, geese, parrots and peacocks, as pets. The knowledge of taming animals such as horses, elephants, wild animals, snakes and birds constituted a specialized skill and was highly prized in ancient India both by kings and common people. There used to be special branches of study for the purpose, and people who possessed such knowledge were in great demand.

14. Commercial and medicinal value

Ancient Indians were well aware of the commercial and medicinal value of animals and used them in trade and commerce, healing, and making of traditional medicines. Animals were bought and sold or used in barter for domestic, business or commercial purposes. Certain animal parts, such as blood, bones, skin, teeth, tusks, horns, etc., were used in making medicines, perfumes, aphrodisiacs, jewelry, vests, clothes, utility items, ornamentation, shields and weapons. Animals such as elephants, snakes, and tigers were used in carrying out capital punishment. Elephants were used to carry weights, clear forests and transport timber. They were also used in the construction of temples, roads, and royal buildings to move heavy stones from the quarry to the place of construction. There were special classes of sorcerers and chemists who specialized in the art of making poisonous concoctions using snake poison which were used to eliminate enemies, potential rivals, secret lovers, spies and traitors.

15. Bonding with animals

Hindu folktales myths and legends suggest that animals may have their own subtle languages, which gods and celestial beings can understand with their subtle senses. From the epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata we may conclude that through their positive attitude and loving nature humans can have a very positive and calming influence upon animals and develop a special relationship with them. The same approach was used in taming and training animals. The tamers, trainers and snake charmers used to build a special bond with the animals they trained rather than torturing them and forcing them into submission which was the standard practice in other parts of the world. Their belief in karma would not allow them to practice animal cruelty. The idea is also well exampled in the behavior and attitude of Indian seers, ascetics, and sages who used to live peacefully in forests in the company of dangerous animals and wild serpents.

16. All beings are but animals only

Human beings may take pride in their human birth and consider themselves distinct from the animals. However, Hinduism does not distinguish between the two unless humans are enlightened and practice virtue and righteousness through self-purification. Indeed, in Shaivism all living beings including humans are considered animals (Pashu) and Shiva or Ishvara as their lord (Pashupathi). The pashus (all living beings) are subject to the triple impurities of egoism, bondage, and delusion whereby they lack discretion and accept the unreal for real. When they overcome them through the grace of God, they cease to be animals and become Shiva. According to Vedic tradition, a human being has two births. His first birth is in an animal body. He remains an animal until he is initiated into ritual or spiritual knowledge and becomes aware of his essential spiritual nature. When he reaches this stage, it constitutes his second birth, or birth in a subtle body. Only those who are twice born are qualified for liberation or the practice of Dharma.

16. The Hindu Dharma of saving animals from destruction

Animals come into your life as part of your karma. They have a role to play, lessons to teach, and reconcile their karmic account with you. Therefore, you cannot afford to ignore them or miss any opportunity to interact with them. You have to show them your human side, because the animals give you an opportunity to evolve and manifest your higher nature. You have to treat them with kindness and compassion as you would treat other human beings. You can truly practice nonviolence only with regard to animals that are weak and powerless against you. It is in relation to them that you have a unique opportunity to practice compassion.

In the last few centuries human beings have indiscriminately destroyed forests and wildlife in many parts of the world. The karmic consequences of such actions will be very grave for the humanity in future, and future generations will have to deal with them collectively to square off the sins of their ancestors. The earth is the only planet in the known part of the universe with the abundance and diversity of life. Human beings cannot ignore this truth in the hope of ascending to heaven upon the destruction of the world or finding life on another planet. There will be consequences for the destruction of Nature we have caused, and they are not going to be very pleasant. It is an irony that we are trying to establish colonies on Mars and probing for life on other planets, while we are letting the life forms on earth become extinct one by one. We have just a few hundred tigers and elephants left. Yet poaching of these animals by the most heartless people continues. We have destroyed many plants and natural species and replaced them with genetically modified ones.

The elephants are the last surviving dinosaur like large animals on this planet. While we watch movies on Dinosaurs with great fascination and fill the pockets of film producers, we are letting the largest surviving animals upon earth getting killed in the hands of unscrupulous people. In both Hinduism and Buddhism the elephants are considered the highest evolved beings among animals with souls that are eady for liberation. We cannot be humans, and Hindus who worship Ganesha and Mother Goddess, while we let elephants and other exotic species become extinct because someone wants to make use of their bones or skin. It is time for Hindus to unite in their demand for capital punishment for those who kill tigers and elephants, and ensure animal rights for those animals that consciously experience pain and possess some degree of self-awareness.

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