What Is the Significance of Deer Skin in Meditation?
Deer appear frequently in Hindu epics and Puranas. A golden deer was responsible for the abduction of Sita.
Question: What Is the Significance of Deer Skin in Meditation? Is it necessary that we use it for meditation for better results?
It is true that in ancient times sadhus and sanyasis used a variety of animal skins for seating purposes to practice meditation. The idea was that they would spread the skin on a clean and high ground and sit on it in a solitary place and practice self-control and meditation (atma samyama). The Bhagavadgita specially mentions deer skin for the purpose in the following verse (6.11).
“In a clean place, having established a firm seat of his own, neither very high nor very low, covered with cloth, deer skin and kusa grass…”
The use of tiger skin is also popular in some sects of Hinduism, especially in Shaiva, Shakti and Tantra sects. Now, the question is whether the deer skin or other skins have any special significance in meditative and contemplative practices. There seems to be no particular significance other than that deer skins were most commonly available in ancient times and our ascetics resorted to them for convenience. However, a little research on the Internet provided me with the following answers, which I believe are worth mentioning.
First, it is said that the deer skin prevented unwanted intruders such as ants, snakes, insects and scorpions from crawling on its surface and harming the meditating yogis. It is doubtful how far a deer skin would have saved the yogis from such calamities especially when they were lost in meditation. Since ants and venomous creatures were abundant in the forests of ancient India, the yogis who lived there should have taken care of that problem by choosing safe and clean places and elevated grounds for their living and practice. The main reason seems to be that the deer skin offered a soft and cushioning experience, which helped them concentrate better. Apart from the deer skin, they used two other materials, a cloth and kusa grass. The kusa grass was first spread on the ground, on which the deer skin was placed. Then it was covered with a piece of cloth on which the yogis sat. Together, the three provided a sort of cushion to the yogis so that they could quickly relax their minds and bodies and enter tranquil states.
Second, it is said that deer are herbivores or vegetarian. They are also very gentle (sattvic) creatures. The energy which is stored in their skin is considered pure and sattvic. Therefore, unlike many animal skins which are highly impure and can potentially pollute the mind and body, a deer skin is deemed ideal and relatively safe for use, and does not transmit any impurities or bad energies to those who sit upon it. This may be true. However, by the same logic the skin of animals such as cows, buffalos, bulls, or even horses can be used, since they too are vegetarian only. Probably deer skin is preferred because it does not emit any bad odors which are common to dead skins, easier to cure, dries up faster and lasts longer without decomposing or decaying.
Third, it is most likely that deer were the most commonly found animals in wild in the forests of ancient India. The literature of those times speaks of deer and antelopes loitering in the gurukuls and hermitages and enjoying the quiet atmosphere of such places and sensing no harm from the nonviolent nature of the sadhus who lived there. This could probably be the most important reason why deer skin was preferred. Deer were abundantly found in the forests of those times throughout the subcontinent. Their skin was also easily available since they were the most hunted prey by humans and predators such as tigers, lions, wolves, hyenas, etc. Since ascetics lived frugally and renounced all material possessions and since they were abundantly available and served the purpose, they probably resorted to their use.
Another reason which is given is that deer skin is soft, clean and easy to carry due to its lightness. It also serves as a barrier between the earth and the meditator’s body, preventing the discharge of the energy (prana) which accumulates in the body during meditation into the earth, the great absorber of all kinds of energies. There is a reason for this belief. It is believed that meditation facilitates the transformation of physical and sexual energies (retas), which manifests in the yogis as mental brilliance (medhas), physical vigor (tejas) and spiritual power (tapobalam). There is no scientific or rational basis for this argument. However, if you believe in metaphysical truths which science cannot explain, you may hold it as true. It is true that by the same argument any other material which prevents direct contact between the earth and the body can accomplish the same result. One can use any animal skin provided it is as good as the deer skin and does not emit bad smells.
Now, to the final question. In today’s world, after we have successfully and irrevocably destroyed nearly 80% of the world’s life forms in the air, in the seas and on earth, should people still use animal skins for meditation? The answer is certainly negative. First, we do not have too many deer, while the number of meditators is increasing by millions each year. Second, for the sake of Nature and our own peace of mind, we cannot afford to kill more deer to help meditators achieve nirvana or peace. We now have several alternatives such as yoga mats, planks and cushions, which are abundantly available in almost every town and city. They equally serve the purpose. It is not necessary that one should have the best mats or exotic-animal skins to practice yoga or meditation. A yogi or a renunciant is supposed to be a poor person, free from the longing for material possessions (aparigraha) and live a simple life with high principles, practicing renunciation, equanimity, sameness, etc.
Ultimately, the quality of meditation is more important than the quality or the price of the materials we use or the place where we practice it. The purpose is we have to return from the materiality and superficiality to which we are accustomed to the self and spirituality which yoga and meditation aim to accomplish. The important qualities one must have are the degree of purity and the attitude of renunciation. Without them, no yoga teacher or spiritual guru or equipment or place or ashram will be of much help in one’s self-transformation. If people practice yoga out of curiosity or just to calm their minds and nerves or overcome daily stress, it is fine. They have the freedom to wear whatever fancy dresses the like, and buy whatever materials that suit their tastes and make them happy. However, if you want to go to the end of that road, know that it is a lonely road on which you have to travel alone, leaving everything behind and leveling everything in your mind, to be lost in the aloneness (kaivalya) of the transcendence, that pure state, which is without a second and exists by itself.
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