Why Worship Animals?
For the pious Hindu of the ancient times, who perceived God even in mountains, rivers and seas, forms of life such as animals and birds, were also worthy of worship. He saw divinity in the cow that provided milk, the dog that kept a watch over his property, the bullocks that ploughed his field… the list is endless.
GOD IN ALL BEINGS
This was because of his conviction that all life forms are manifestations of God in the lower level of evolution and that human birth itself is a step forward from past existence to animal form. The difference between man and animals was only in terms of tattvas (principles) and gunas(qualities).
Thus human life is precious because it is attained after many levels of existence in lower form. If the value if such an opportunity is ignored he will only degenerate into lower level again. This belief continues even today among the pious.
Not merely that. The devout person has a sense of gratitude towards all beings that help out in his existence. He values cattle as wealth. The cow, especially, is God for him. He calls it Gomata (mother cow) , evincing as much respect towards a cow as for one’ s mother.
The cow gives staple food (milk) for him; ghee from its milk is used for sacred purposes such as havans; even its urine and dung are consumed in the form of panchagavya (five ingredients for purification). In fact, the Ayurveda system of healing finds medicinal properties in cow’s urine.
For the pastoral people of the ancient days sustenance depended very much on diary products. No wonder there is respectful reference to the cow in the Vedas and the Puranas. All devas are said to reside in its body – Sarvadevatastitadehesarvadevamayeehigau. (The legendary Kamadhenu could provide an unlimited supply of food requirements).
The Atharva Veda says the cow’s body represents various devas and other divine beings. The Mahabharata, Harivamsa Purana, Manu Smriti and other literature eulogise the cow. In short, Lord Krishna is referred to as Go-pala – sustainer of the cow, and Govinda, who brings satisfaction to the cow.
Not merely the cow, but so many other animals , such as the horse and elephant, which aided travels and formed part of the armed strength of the rulers, were intertwined with human life. People had deep knowledge of their behaviour, strength and vulnerability, intelligence and susceptibilities, helpfulness and obduracy.
Their vast knowledge of animals and their behaviours been recorded in scriptures of those times. The Upanishads contain detailed descriptions of horses and cattle. There is reference in the Garuda Purana to the life and activities of fish and turtles. Many religious books are dedicated to specific animals ; for example, the Nagamahimya, Nandi-purana, Mayuramahimya and Pashu-purana.
Leave alone domesticated animals; wild and vicious creatures were also revered. Pujas were performed for them. The cobra was and is considered to have divine elements.
The ancient familiarised their children also with the intelligence and industrious nature of birds and animals through tales, such as the famous Panchatantra and Jataka tales. Who is not familiar with the cleverness of the monkey that saved its life from the crocodile by a smart ruse of going back to the tree to bring its liver, or the sense of gratitude of a rat which bit to pieces a net in which a lion was trapped. Just because the lion had earlier spared its life when it provoked the king of animals by its pranks!
The Dasavatara of Lord Vishnu also provides insight into the concept that the human form is an evolution from water bound life to existence full of intelligence and the good and bad effects thereof.
In Maschavatara the Lord emanated as a fish to save mankind from extinction. In Kurmavatara he took the form of a tortoise and saved the world. He also supported the Merumountain assuming the form of a tortoise when the Ocean of Milk was churned to bring out nectar.
Next , the progression was from water to earth in the form of a boar which brought out Bhoodevi from under the sea, holding her on its horn. The next development was the half – animal – half – man form of Narasimha, which the lord assumed to honour the words of his devotee, Prahlada, and to destroy evil in the form of Hiranyakasipu, who had declared himself to be God and was terrorising the whole world.
Then came Vamanavatar, the Lord donning here the form of a dwarf. The later avatars in human form indicate the total evolution of man.
Saga of Animal Help
The Ramayana, one of the two great epics of the Hindus, gives substance to the importance attached to animals. Primarily Hanuman, an intelligent monkey, was the trusted lieutenant of Lord Rama. It was he who took up the daunting task of flying across the sea to locate Sita in Ravana’s captivity. Hanuman himself was not aware of such strength in him. It was given to Jambavan, the bear, to make him realise it.
Earlier, Lord Rama, even after an exhaustive and exhausting search, could not find a trace of his beloved Sita. It was Jatayu, son of the divine eagle, Garuda, who told him of the abduction of Sita by the demon, Ravana.
Jatayu had earlier fought valiantly with Ravana to foil the abduction bid, but could not stand before the strength of the wily demon. Jatayu managed to hold his breath till he saw Rama and breathed his last at the feet of the master. No wonder Rama himself rendered the last rites of the loyal eagle.
Again, even tiny squirrels helped Rama to construct the floating bridge to Lanka, which was a marvel talked about even today.
Such intelligent and important service endeared animals to men. Ancient kings adopted them as emblems in their flags. The Pandya kings of the Tamil region adopted fish as their emblem and the Chera king had tigers in their flags. Animals and birds occupied prime of place in art and architecture.
With so much respect for animals it was natural that numerous festivities were observed to honour them. At the beginning of the harvest season in the south, puja is performed to bullocks in gratitude for their role in the production.
In Maharashtra also there is Bali Puja (bullock festival). Nag Panchami in the north is a festival of worshipping snakes. There are also GajaPooja (for elephants) and Asva Puja (for horses).