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The role of Animals in the Hindu Tradition

By Vishal Agarwal

In many other religions, animals are just considered an ornament to human beings. It is even questioned if the animals have souls. Therefore, there is no guilt attached to eating meat. In Hindu Dharma however, animals are regarded as living creatures with a soul like human beings, even though their minds are not as evolved as human minds. This section describes how Hindu scriptures treat animals with respect. Animals as Recipients of Divine Grace: In the Hindu tradition, animals and plants are not regarded as mere objects for wanton human use and consumption. Rather, they are equally alive just as human beings are, and deserving of Divine grace and human compassion. Numerous Hindu prayers include animals as beneficiaries of Gods blessings and mercy. The traditional recitation of the Rigveda (the first of the four Vedas the most authoritative scriptures of Hindus) ends with the benedictory words sham chatushpade (May God give peace to the quadrupeds). The very first section of the second Veda, the Yajurveda 1.1, ends with words yajmaanasya pashuunpaahi, which asks God to protect the animals belonging to the worshipper. Several Hindu scriptures such as the Puranas describe instances of animals earning salvation due to their devotion to God. For example, the Gajendramoksha episode in the Bhagavata Purana 8.3 narrates the miraculous devotion of an elephant, which caused Lord Vishnu to manifest and grant salvation to the creature. It is a very common Hindu practice to have animals blessed by priests in temple compounds. God in Animal Form, Animals as Helpers of God: In Hinduism, God himself is said to have manifested in the animal form several times to save human beings and the creation in general. For e.g., Lord Vishnu incarnated as a tortoise, fish, boar and a half-lion.

Even when God is said to have manifested in a human form to protect truth, animals are said to have contributed in many ways in furthering His purposes and tasks. As a result, many animals are considered sacred by Hindus, and killing them is forbidden. For e.g., monkeys are sacred creatures for Hindus because one of their kind Lord Hanuman, a very popular Hindu deity, is considered an exemplary devotee who served Lord Rama (a manifestation of God) and helped him achieve His divine goals as narrated in the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Sundara Kanda section of this epic narrates the deeds of Hanuman and is singled out for public recitation by Hindus even today. Animals as Teachers of Mankind: The good qualities of animals are sometime held as examples for human beings. In such sacred narratives in Hindu scriptures, these animals are likened as teachers of mankind. For example, Lord Krishna, in his last sermon (called the Uddhava Gita), narrates the tale of a Hindu ascetic who learns numerous ethical and spiritual values by observing the good characteristics of animals such as bees, ants, pythons, spiders and so on. For example: The ascetic should live the life of a bee, accepting little alms from several homes, so that he does not burden any particular home too much, and take only that much which fulfills his hunger. A clever man takes the essence from multiple sources and scriptures, just as the bee extracts nectar from several flowers. Bhagavata Purana 11.8.9-10 The ascetic calls these animals as his teachers (Bhagavata Purana 11.9.24). In Hindu spiritual traditions, the fact that animals also have spiritual potential is narrated through several stories. For e.g., Adi Shankaracharya (~700 C.E.) is said to have seen a vision of the Lord and his speech, the four Vedas, as a barbarian accompanied by four ferocious dogs in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. The vision made him realize that the same Soul pervades the entire creation,

and prompted him to compose the Maneeshapanchakam hymn, whose verses narrate this incident. Hindus also have several collections of parables and fables (similar to Aesops fables) such as the Hitopadesha and the Panchatantra (~200 BCE) in which the actors of the stories are animals. These animals act and behave like humans, and their dealings with each other convey enduring edifying teachings for human beings. Hunting of Innocent Animals: Hinduism condemns hunting, when it is practiced as a sport or as a source of livelihood. Hunting was permitted only for members of the martial class so that they could enhance their archery skills. Nevertheless, Hindu scriptures consider hunting as a royal vice and offer numerous examples of instances where even Kings had to suffer terrible consequences as a result of their addiction to hunting. E.g., King Dasharatha accidentally killed the devoted son Shravanakumar mistaking him for a dear during a hunt. The parents of Shravanakumar cursed the king that he too will die from grief of separation from his son. The curse materialized later when Lord Rama, his son, was exiled by the machinations of his step-mother Queen Kaikeyi. King Dasharatha could not bear the departure of Rama, and died of grief. The composition of the famous Hindu epic Ramayana is said to have been triggered by the melancholy felt by Sage Valmiki when he heard the piteous wails of a female bird whose male partner was killed by a hunter (Ramayana 1.2.9-41). Draught Animals: Likewise, Hindu scriptures advocate compassion for animals when they are used as means of transportation or as beasts of burden. Some relevant verses might be cited below He shall not travel without rest with animals that are young, diseased or in some other pain. Nor with animals that are deficient in limbs (or have injured limbs); nor with weak animals; nor with young bulls (or cows); nor with untrained animals. Vishnu Dharma Sutra 63.13-17 He should not satiate his hunger and thirst without first giving water and grains to his animals. Vishnu Dharma Sutra 63.18 He should always travel with animals that are well trained and swift, and have good characteristics, color and appearance, without whipping them too hard to drive them. Manu Smriti 4.68 Hindu scriptures lay limits on how cattle can be used to plough land. These rules are based on the premise that draught cattle must be treated with compassion and kindness. Some rules may be cited below:

People with conviction in Dharma yoke eight (8) bulls to pull their plough, although some might just employ six (6) to be practical. A cruel man yokes only four (4) bulls to plough his field and he who employs just two (2) bulls is guilty of killing a cow. Atri Samhita 1.219 (Apastamba Smriti 1.22 has a similar verse. See also Parashara Smriti 2.8b9a) A ploughshare drawn by two (2) bulls should be used only for three (3) hours, by four (4) bulls only till mid-day (i.e., for 6 hours), by six bulls for nine (9) hours whereas one drawn by eight (8) can be used for the entire day. Atri Samhita 1.220 Dairy Cattle: Milk and milk products form an important part of the diet of Hindus, even if they are vegetarian. Once again, Hindu scriptures prescribe compassionate treatment of dairy cattle. The colostrum of a cow was reserved for the newly born calf. Riding cattle was prohibited (Manu Smriti 4.72), and a portion of milk from the cow was first collected specifically to feed the calf, before milk was collected for humans. It is well known that the cow is considered a sacred animal by Hindus. Killing a cow intentionally was a punishable capital offense. Humane and loving treatment of dairy cattle was implied in Hindu teachings contained in the Mahabharata according to which cattle should be protected from blazing sun by constructing roofed sheds for them, no obstruction should be placed in their path, and they should not be injured in anyway. Some verses in Hindu scriptures also state that a calf must not be disturbed when he is suckling milk, and that if a cow gets stuck in mud, every attempt must be made to extricate it (Parashara Smriti 11.41-42). Moral and Legal Rights of Animals: Although animals can be sold and purchased, they are living creatures and have a right to life and happiness. Hindu scriptures prescribe atonements and penances for even accidental killing of animals, birds, insects and aquatic creatures (e.g., Manu Smriti 11.69, 71). These penances are required to atone for killing not just domesticated creatures, but even for wild creatures (Manu Smriti 11.132-142). The intentional killing of a cow in particular is considered a cardinal sin in Hinduism, especially if that cow is pregnant. Animals also have legal rights in Hinduism, and the state can punish a person who assaults not just a human being, but also an animal. For e.g.,

If someone hits a human being or an animal in order to cause them pain, the King shall impose a punishment on the perpetrator of the assault in proportion to the severity of the pain caused. Manu Smriti 8.286 Likewise, if a vehicle driver kills or injures animals by running over them, he is punished by the state his carelessness (Manu Smriti 8.295-298). In Love with Animals: Hinduism does not treat animals in a condescending manner, even while recognizing the fact that humans are endowed with superior intelligence and power. The notion that animals possess a soul just like human beings is considered an obvious truth by Hindus. Hindu scriptures ask us to love animals, and also crave their love. For instance, Atharvaveda 17.1.4 prays - May I be dear to all animals. The love that man can have for animals is depicted in several Hindu scriptures such as the Vishnu Purana 2.13, which narrates the story of an ascetic Jada Bharata who forsakes his spiritual practices and therefore risks his own salvation so that he could take care of an orphaned fawn who would have died otherwise. The second Hindu epic named Mahabharata narrates the story of King Yudhishthira, an embodiment of truth, who is accompanied by a black dog till the very end. When the gods come to welcome the King, he refuses to enter Heaven till his faithful dog is also allowed to accompany him (Mahabharata 17.3.9-11). The gods are so enthralled by Yudhishthiras gesture of justice and compassion towards his dog that they declare that there is no equal to him in the entire heaven (Mahabharata 17.3.20). Several Hindu scriptures contain idyllic description of forest hermitages of Hindu sages where animals gathered to escape from hunters and lived peacefully. Mans Duties towards Animals: According to Hinduism, the compass of our moral duties includes acts that benefit animals. Hinduism recognizes the fact that humans have to indulge in some inevitable violence against animals to produce and process food (Manu Smriti 3.68-69). Hindu scriptures therefore prescribe feeding stray animals, insects and birds before eating every meal as a daily duty (Manu Smriti 3.92). This duty is termed as the Balivaishvadeva Yajna (or Worship to All Deities) to indicate its importance. Hinduism promises great rewards for philanthropists who construct wells, ponds, lakes and gardens. In fact, such acts are considered one of the hallmarks of a true worshipper in this verse said by Lord Vishnu-

They, who lay out gardens, get ponds and wells dug and exert for their protection and preservation - these are the best devotees of God. Narada Puraa 1.5.62 The important point to note here is that the intended beneficiaries of these gardens etc, were not just humans, but also stray and wild animals. This section of the scripture, enumerating the virtues of true worshippers as narrated by God himself, starts with the words They who work for the welfare of all creatures (Narada Purana 1.5.50), and not with the words They who work for the welfare of all humans. Often, a portion of the banks of a pond constructed was designed in such a way that stray animals could also walk down to water hole to quench their thirst. Hindus also considered it very meritorious to sponsor hospitals for treating animals in ancient times, a fact that is noticed by foreign travelers such as the Chinese traveler Hieun Tsang, who visited India in the 7th century C.E. Just as Hindu scholars composed texts on human medicine, they also compiled compendiums on veterinary medicine. For e.g., Sage Palakapya wrote the Hastyaayurveda on the treatment of elephants. This work still exists. Five works on Ashvaayurveda (or medicinal texts dealing with treatment of horses) were authored by Hindu scholars, and at least 3 of them still survive.

Humans and Animals Members of One Family:


Animals are like ones own family members, and Hindu scriptures declare: Deer, camel, donkey, monkey, rats, creeping animals, birds and flies one should consider them like ones own children, and not differentiate between ones children and these creatures. Bhagavata Purana 7.14.9

Hindu scriptures ask us to show kindness to animals and refrain from injuring them or killing them without any valid purpose. And this duty must be pursued not just for preventing extinction of species and for preserving our biodiversity, but because animals also have as much birth-right to share Mother Earth as we humans have.