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Hinduism & Animals


Elephant Stone Monument Ellora Caves


Animals as vehicles of the Gods

Treatment of Animals in Hinduism

  • The Hindu scriptures say that animals have souls. Starting from animals down to the insects and little creatures, every living being has soul. Just like human beings they are also subject to the cycle of births and deaths. We might consider them oblivious, but they have their intelligence and language. They also carry out an important duty in production and have an important place in the evolution and manifestation of life. In Hinduism, animals occupy an important place. They are often mentioned in the Hindu legends and myths and enjoy a place in Hindu pantheon as vehicles of several goddesses and gods as divinities as well as aspects or incarnations of Siva or Vishnu. They beautify and embellish Hindu decorative art adorning the towers and outer walls as items of beauty or fixed inside as objects of worship.
  • Hinduism treats all living beings with great reverence as aspects of God, passing through the same procedure of births and deaths like human beings. Based on the way they are born, they are classified into 3 types: those who are born from womb, those who are born from eggs and those who are born from seeds and sprouts. The scriptures urge us not to harm animals. The highest virtue is nonviolence to all, including plants and animals. Sacrificing animals to appease the idols was a prehistoric tradition which is no more encouraged in Hinduism by all sections of people. Teeming of Indian forests with all kinds of wildlife until the arrival of the British into India is a proof of attitude of Hindus towards animals. Hunting was made a great sport by the British and practically wiped out the wildlife population from India.

  The status of gods, humans, and animals in creation

  • As per different schools of Hinduism, spiritually there isn’t any difference between human beings and other life forms. All life forms are signs of God and have souls. All human beings are also animals until they learn how to use their brain and triumph over their delusion and ignorance. Like human beings, animals are also subject to the cycle of births and deaths. All will die one day. Even microorganisms are a life form and have their own souls. All life forms have limited consciousness and capacity. As soon as they triumph over their limitations and recover their real consciousness they get liberated.
  • As per Hinduism, animals aren’t low-grade creatures, but indicators of God on the lower scale of growth compared to man. Human life is valuable and unique since it comes after several lives of existence in the lower life forms. In the whole creation just human beings, not even gods, have the opportunity to attain salvation. However, if human beings decide to disregard the great prospect earned by them through their earlier karma and make a fuss of reckless activities, they might very likely revert into animal existence and have to begin all over once again. For that reason we have a special responsibility to practice dharma as well as work for our liberation.

Animal Welfare

  • Hinduism advocates all actions of sympathy. Hinduism recognizes all animals as beings having souls since the earliest times it has been a tradition in Hinduism to protect animals and nourish them. Nourishing the animals together with ancestors and gods has been a traditional practice. Humans depend upon gods for their protection and animals depend upon humans for their protection and welfare. We nourish gods through sacrifices. Animals nourish human beings through their milk and flesh. Compassion for animals was considered by Hindus as mark of divine quality and among the highest virtues. Hindus take care of sick cattle. They do not harm animals intentionally, since they know the outcomes of such bad karma.  

  Animal Science

  • In ancient India people used different kinds of animals for medicinal, recreational, commercial, military or domestic purposes. Hindu scriptures mention the use of lions, tigers, fish, snakes, dogs, pigs, boars, birds, elephants, asses, camels, rhinoceros, buffaloes, oxen, sheep, cows and a number of mythical creatures. Animals were used in medicines, sacrificial ceremonies, transportation, defense, gambling, animal fights, hunting, commerce, trade and as gifts and food. Snakes or snake poison were used to kill enemies. Animal science dealt with different features of animal life and how to tame them, train them and use them for military or domestic use. Animals were categorised into groups depending on their behavior, diet, number of sense organs, number of legs, anatomy, origin and so on.
  • People believed that animals had the capability to communicate and gods had the capability to communicate with them while human beings required developing psychic capability to communicate with animals. In the Hindu mythology animals acquired knowledge from masters. Animals such as owls, vultures, cats, crows, lizards and cows were used to foretell future or determine unlucky and lucky moments. 

The Animal Within and Without

  • In ancient India religious teachers and ascetics resided in forests, practiced tapas or taught in religious schools. The difficult and adverse conditions in the forests provided them a chance to practice the advantages of compassion, equanimity, humility and detachment. Residing in harmony with nature, embracing the fear and insecurity without carrying weapons, they attempted to excel and tame their animal nature and attain liberation.  



Elephants in Khajuraho Temple Design


Animals in History

  • Animals played an important role in the economic and religious lives of the Indus people. The people of Indus tamed bulls, sheep, buffaloes and cows.
  • Vedic people considered cattle as wealth and preferred to receive them as gifts. The scriptures put emphasis on the virtue of donating cows to Brahmins. However they were not worshipping animals. They used animals for sacrifices, cooking, gifts, barter, medicine, leather, ghee (clarified butter) and milk. The early Vedic people sacrificed horses, buffaloes, oxen, sheep and cows. They protected their farmlands from insects, pests and birds and hunted animals both for protection of their cattle as well as villages and for recreation. They used leather tanned from the hides of animals to make bowstrings, slings and bags. As time passed, cows became sacred animals which cannot be killed.

   Hunting   

  • In the post Vedic India animal fights were a regular feature. People took part in animal fights for recreation and betting. Hunting was a sport participated by kings and their family members. A good opportunity was provided by hunting to master their skills in marital arts and chariot racing, archery, clear the forests of wild animals which terrorised the people residing there and get accustomed with the conditions of the region. Accompanied by an entourage of entertainers, ministers, officials and soldiers they went out on hunting expeditions either to capture or kill wild animals like wild bulls, deer, wild boar, elephants, bears, tigers and lions.   

   Use of Animals in Warfare

  • Horses and Elephants formed an important part of a king's military might, which were replaced on a regular basis through conquests and hunting. The Greek historians accounted 200 elephants, 300 chariots and 4000 horses in the army of Porus who ruled a small territory in the Punjab. The Mauryans and Nandas maintained big armies consisting of hundreds of thousands of elephants, horses and bulls. Chandragupta Maurya sent a gift of elephants to Selukas who was Alexander’s viceroy of the areas he occupied east of Hindukush. In military, animals were used either for transportation or warfare.
  • According to Hindu law books, it was king's responsibility to safeguard his people from pestilence and wild animals. As per Kautilya's Arthashastra, a king must protect his area from 8 types of difficulties namely, demons, tigers, snakes, rats, famine, pestilence, flood and fire. He must make separate departments to manage the cattle and forest wealth of his kingdom. Chandragupta Maurya, the Mauryan King went on hunting tours on the back of an elephant encircled by female bodyguards. The king was devoted to animals and took pleasure in animal fights involving elephants, rams, bulls and other animals. During war time, bullock carts were used to transport food and other supplies to the soldiers. People used different kinds of animals for riding including tigers, elephants, asses, camels and horses. Cowherds and shepherds resided in open in tents. In post Mauryan period there were formal organisations of pig dealers, bird catchers, snake charmers and hunters. The increasing popularity of Vaishnavism, Saivism, Buddhism and Jainism created a fresh consciousness among people regarding animals and the requirement for sympathy towards them.   

   Animal Sacrifices

  • Ancient Indians sacrificed animals regularly. Animal sacrifices continue even today in some far-flung regions of India. In the post Mauryan period, the rise of Tantricism and the amalgamation of folk religions into Hinduism contributed to the increase of animal sacrifices. In order to appease divinities looking for their support and blessings, kings sacrificed animals.

   Animal as Divinities

  • Lord Vishnu personified upon earth first as a fish, after that as a tortoise and then as a boar. In one more personification he appeared as half lion and half man. Once Lord Shiva appeared in the form of a sharabha. Hanuman was a monkey god.
  • Adishesha was a thousand hooded primeval serpent linked with Lord Vishnu.
  • In addition to Hanuman, animals played an important part in the battle of Ramayana. Jatayuvu, lost his life fighting against Ravana when he was carrying away Sita after abducting her. To rescue his wife, Rama left for Lanka accompanied by an army of bears, monkeys and other animals. The animals built bridge across the ocean to Ravana. They destroyed the Ravana’s army and helped Rama in rescuing his wife. The story of Ramayana tells us that God doesn’t differentiate between animals and human beings and that all living beings have an equal standing but play different parts.



Elephants in Khajuraho Temple Design