Animals in Indian Culture create an 'inclusive universe'

Every civilization  looks at animals, birds and sea creatures in its own special way. In India,  generations over the millenniums have seen all species as their friends and  partners with whom they share the earth. They have been presented in beautiful  forms in paintings and sculptures as companions of deities, as symbols of power  and beauty or simply as decorative embellishments…

“The Romans saw  animals as fierce creatures which had to be killed or controlled for human  survival. The Greeks saw them as symbols of power living in a separate world of  their own. But ancient Indians saw them as they should be seen – friendly,  loyal and graceful.” says Dr. Kumud Kanitkar, who has conducted an exhaustive  study of animal sculptures and motifs in Indian culture, “Animals have not  undergone any major changes in their shapes or bahaviour, but their perception  by human beings has changed from age to age. The depictions of animals, birds  and sea creatures in sculptures, paintings and arts like dance and fabric  printing as well as architecture are expressions of human imagination and are  often used as religious symbols of power, grace, beauty, dignity, opulence and  wisdom.”

One of India’s  fundamental fables of creation concerns the churning of the cosmic ocean by the  gods on one side and demons on the other. The many sculptures or paintings of  this event show that they used a gigantic snake named Anant – the cosmic  serpent that entwines the whole world, to hold it together. This motif has  fascinated the entire orient and is seen in huge sculptures in Thailand and Cambodia. In addition, the cosmic  ocean yielded a divine elephant (Airawat), horse (Uchaisravas) and cow (Kapila)  during the churning. All these attained the stature of being divine companions  of the gods and thus were considered an integral part of the human as well as  the spiritual world.

Later in the Puranic  period, each deity represented one or more aspects of divinity and was thus  accompanied by one or more animals to ‘complete’ the bonding of gods, humans  and animals. Over a period of time, the Vahanas or vehicles of gods and  goddesses came to represent their qualities or a means of instantly recognizing  the deity which could be presented in different poses, forms or aspects. For  instance, any goddess accompanied by a tiger or lion is instantly recognized as  Durga. Archeologists have depended on animal sculptures to research sculptures  of divinities as well as the historical period during which they were created.  Animals and birds also became symbols of the duties and powers of gods and  above all, they were the artistic expressions of the human perception of the  animal world.

Most important, they  proved that animals, birds and sea creatures were considered an integral part  of the human universe as equal partners who shared the earth. Each animal,  stylized according to the form of the deity with which it was teamed, became an  instantly recognizable motif and was sometimes separately worshipped through  dance, music, paintings and sculptures. Animals or birds also were considered  protectors of shrines and human society.
  Many Western writers  like E M Forster have expressed wonder at the powerful presence of animals in  Indian culture. His novel ‘Passage to India’ portrays animals as inspiring  growth, promoting unity and love between animals and human beings and shown as exotic  symbols of Indian culture. The use of these symbols proves the incomparable  diversity of India’s  forest landscapes and wealth. Hinduism worships many animal-related deities. The  most popular among these are Ganesha with an elephant head and Hanuman, with a  monkey body. Ganesha is the auspicious remover of obstacles, the god of wisdom  and auspiciousness while Hanuman stands for strength, single-minded devotion  and power.

Important western  thinkers have wondered at the role elephants play in Indian culture. Apart from  being a part of Ganesha’s personality, the elephant is invariably seen as the  companion of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and opulence. Buddhists venerate  the elephant as a symbol of the Buddha and thus this concept spreads across  many oriental countries where Buddhism is practised. The elephant plays a  cultural role beyond religion too. Researcher Heinrich Simmer says that  elephants are so omnipresent in Indian art that they have come to symbolize India as a  nation. Indeed, India has  highest population of the Asiatic elephants – over 33,000 – or 60 per cent of  all elephants in the world and the ‘elephant corridor’ from Kerala, Karnataka,  Andhra to Orissa, Assam  and then to Burma  is a famous concept among wild life lovers. Indians rarely kill an elephant  even if destroys crops because of their belief in its divine qualities.

Even today, in this  age of hi-technology, owning an elephant is considered a symbol of wealth and  opulence. Reportedly, the King of Thailand owns the largest number of ‘white  elephants’ which are rare and considered lucky in India. Sculptures in Ajanta, Ellora and various schools of paintings including  the Maithili, the Kantha, the Mughal miniature and even folk style Warli  paintings feature elephants. Priceless textiles use the motif to celebrate good  fortune.

Similarly, other  animals and birds symbolize ideas and concepts. Some important symbols:
    1. The lion or tiger, the companion of Durga, the goddess of power.  They help her in destroying the demons of darkness and ensure the victory of  good over evil every year during Navaratri.
    2. Saraswati, the beautiful river goddess of knowledge and arts, is  accompanied by swans or peacocks – both symbolizing grace and beauty.
    3. Shiva, the lord of the Himalayas,  rides the powerful Nandi or bull who symbolizes power and strength.
    4. Krishna, the eternal lover, is  a cowherd and attracts cows with his divine flute music. 5. Karthikeya, the son of Shiva-Parvati, has a peacock with him.

Apart from these major  religious animal and bird symbols, Indians believe several birds and animals to  be messengers of good luck. When a koel begins her song, romantic poetry is  written to welcome the flowering of springtime. Her passionate cry heralds the  much-awaited fragrant mango season. Parrots are used in literature as  messengers of romance between lovers. Snakes are worshipped as holders of the  earth’s treasures and symbols of fertility. The graceful swan represents the  soul and its spiritual freedom.

Birds and animals in  Indian culture are also harbingers of seasons – they foretell coming events and  changing climate. They are also messengers between lovers. Just the koel sings  for springtime, cranes and other birds flying among black clouds symbolize  rain. The romantic Krishna himself is  portrayed as the dark clouds which rain and bring plentitude on a parched,  thirsty land. The swan is a messenger in the immortal love story of King Nala  and the beautiful princess Damayanti. Parrots carry love messages between  separated lovers. In all miniature paintings of India, birds and animals are  presented as an integral part of the human world – as graceful, loving, loyal  companions of human beings.

No wonder then that India has a  huge treasure of wild life. The country is home to a huge number of monkeys of  many species. The famous heritage Elephanta  Island off the coast of Mumbai alone has more than 10,000 monkeys that live on  the generosity of locals and visitors. India possibly has the highest  number of wild life sanctuaries in the world – a total of 551 – spread over the  sub-continent. Of these many are tiger habitats. Though declining due to poaching,  the number of tigers in India  is presently over 1400. The Asiatic lions in Gir, Gujarat  are also a huge international attraction.

Indophile E.M.Forster  says, "Indians believe that birds, animals and human beings – as indeed  everything else – are an integral part of divinity. This is the central belief  of all Indian religious and cultural thought and thus, all forms of life must  be respected equally. Thus human beings and elephants, horses, cattle and  birds like the mynah, the peacock, the parrot and the koel are woven into many  fables and religious treatises. Water creatures like the crocodile, the turtle  and fish are considered sacred and are associated with sacred rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna. India’s belief that animals, birds  and sea creatures are sacred is a dominant and beautiful aspect of Indian  culture for millenniums. They are earthly and spiritual companions of human  beings and thus equal sharers of the world and its resources.”

According to Western  thinkers, very few cultures are so deeply associated with animals, birds and  sea creatures as well as trees like the Indian culture – which is a confluence  of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh thought. All these traditions recognize the  right of all living beings to co-exist peacefully and to be loved and cherished  for the welfare of the world. This is perhaps why animals are shown as  companions of gods and goddesses. Famous kings and emperors of Indian history  chose different animals in their emblems. Several festivals of India are  observed to pamper animals. Possibly, to engender love for animals among all,  animals have been made heroes in mythology and folk literature. Powerful rulers  also encouraged artists at their courts to promote animal motifs in their art  and architecture.

Unfortunately, today  we have forgotten both India’s  compassionate attitude and the alarm bells rung by present-day scientific  research about animals. We continue to ignore the desperate need to conserve  their habitats and their depleting populations. No wonder there is a sense of  panic all over the world!

The author was Editor of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among  India's senior most Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle  pieces, women's concerns, travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces  about India. Visit her site

Also see:
Lions of Sasan  Gir
Dance of the  Peacocks
Sacred Trees of  the Hindus
Eco religion of  the Bishnois of Rajasthan
Ganesha Global  God

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