BOOKS: Sacred Animals of India

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2008:

Sacred Animals of India
by Nanditha Krishna
C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre
(c/o C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation,
1 Eldams Road, Alwarpet,
Chennai 600 018, India), 2008.
Order c/o <>.
244 pages, paperback, illustrated. $21.00 U.S.

“Sacred Animals of India was to have been
ready in time for the Asia for Animals conference
held in January 2007 at Chennai,” prefaces
author Nanditha Krishna. “However, when I began
researching the subject, I discovered a wealth
of material that was impossible to ignore. So I
decided not to rush, and to cover the subject in
greater depth.”

A prominent cultural anthropologist,
Nanditha Krishna had actually been researching
Sacred Animals of India, if not in a specific,
focused way, for most of her life. She is
author of many previous books on related
subjects, is a nationally distributed newspaper
columnist, is a longtime member of the board of
directors of the Central Zoo Authority in India,
and has served on the board of World Wildlife
Fund-India. Her husband is Blue Cross of India
chief executive Chinny Krishna. All of this
background informs Sacred Animals of India.
“The ancient religions of India–
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, apart from
several sub-sects–have never differentiated
between the soul of a human being and the soul of
an animal,” Nanditha Krishna opens. Many and
perhaps most of the prominent people in Indian
history and mythology are believed to have had
multiple animal incarnations. Stories of their
animal past are often incorporated into their
biographies. The Buddha, for instance, is
believed to have been a white elephant before his
birth as the human prince Siddhartha, and to
have been a golden peacock and to have had 18
lives as a monkey before becoming the elephant.
“In Indian tradition there are several
types of roles assumed by animals,” Nanditha
Krishna explains. “First, there are those who
are gods themselves: the elephant god Ganesha
and the monkey god Hanuman are the better known
ones, although animals like the tiger and the
blackbuck are equally sacred in their local
milieu. The qualities of the animals are assumed
by the animal deity, and an elaborate mythology
built around them.
“Then there are the vahanas or vehicles
of the gods,” who “may be equals, inferiors,
or companions. Some like the bull and eagle
started off as equal companions of Shiva and
Vishnu, respectively, although they were
relegated to minor roles as the cults of Shiva
and Vishnu grew. Many were probably totemic
figures who acquired a lower position as they
were absorbed by the wider Hindu pantheon. The
totemic tradition was more widespread than is
generally perceived,” Naditha Krishna notes,
pointing out the animal origins of many common
Indian names.
“The third role played by animals is as
friend and companion,” Nanditha Krishna
continues, observing that many Indian
mythological figures had animals in roles filled
in other cultures by human associates–and many
also had at least one dog.
“Some animals were regarded as demons.
This is best illustrated by Mahisha the buffalo
demon, ruler of ancient Mysore, who was
defeated in a terrible battle by Durga,” a myth
embodying the conflict between herders and
agrarians. The herders lost. Their god became a
demon, “but Mah-isha lives on,” Nanditha
Krishna mentions, as the buffalo god of several
tribal minorities.
Being regarded as a sacred animal helps
to protect some species, but not always.
“In many Indian societies, especially in the
rural parts of the country,” Nanditha Krishna
explains, “animals are sacrificed to deities.
Each slaughtered animal receives divine honors,”
but this is of little value in preventing animal
On the other hand, some reformers have
succeeded in persuading practitioners of animal
sacrifice that slaughter is not an essential part
of veneration. Most of the animals who are
today protected by Hindu, Buddhist, and/or Jain
tradition were once commonly sacrificed,
including cows in early Vedic times.
Abolishing animal sacrifice and
meat-eating were among the earliest themes in
recorded Indian history.
“A unique aspect of Indian culture is its
abhorrence for killing very early in its
development,” Nanditha Krishna writes.
“Although the Aryas,” who were among the
earliest literate Indians, arriving around 1,500
B.C., “were not vegetarians, the concept of
non-killing enters Indian thought process very
early. The earliest literature, the Rig Veda,
condemns all forms of killing, even for food,
even to the extent of preferring vegans to
drinkers of milk.”
Indian cultural evolution has centered on
conflicts between meat-eaters and vegetarians
ever since. Examples include the development and
divisions of castes, which are differentiated by
diet as well as ancestry and traditional
occupations; the anti-sacrificial movements that
became Buddhism and Jainism; and resistance to
meat-eating foreign influences, including
invasions by Muslims and governance by Britain.
Sacred Animals of India could conceivably
be expanded into an encyclopedic history of
animals in Indian culture, especially by delving
further into regional nuances which Nanditha
Krishna mentions mostly in passing. As it
stands, Sacred Animals of India is a succinct
introduction, briefly outlining the beliefs
associated with 52 species, noting major
variations of belief and associated
controversies, but not lingering long on any one
In the beginning
The opening chapter, to a non-Indian,
can be a bit like landing in India as a
first-time visitor. Few of the polysyllabic
names will be familiar. Allusions to characters
and legends known to almost every Indian, but
little known elsewhere, come with dizzying
frequency. The alphabetical organization of the
book doesn’t help, since several species of
relatively minor significance are introduced
ahead of those whose chapters help to put the
rest in context.
In view of the competing beliefs of
adherents to different branches of Hinduism,
organizing Sacred Animals of India alphabetically
may have been unavoidable to avoid offense, but
non-Indian readers will probably find it easier
to read if they begin with the mid-text chapters
on cows and Lord Krishna, Ganesha and elephants,
and Hanuman and monkeys, including the story of
“The true hero of the Ramayana is
Hanuman,” Nanditha Krishna writes, “who is
flawless, with superhuman skill which he uses
for the triumph of truth and goodness and the
destruction of evil represented by demons. So
popular is Hanuman that he and his exploits have
been held up as role models through centuries,”
and is even credited as “the ninth author of
Once these relatively universal stories
are understood, the rest sort themselves out.
Indian mythology is not really unfathomable
chaos, contrary to initial impression. The
mythical and historical roles of animal species
ubiquitous to the subcontinent are among the
links that hold the otherwise bewildering
variations of Hindu identity together.
Explanations of Hinduism typically begin
with a shared belief in reincarnation, but could
as easily begin with a structure that for
thousands of years has enabled the mainstream to
assimilate minority beliefs by grafting their
teachings into shared mythology. Roles have been
found for each totemic species in the stories of
Krishna, Ganesha, Hanuman, and Rama,
reflective of the roles and status of the people
who venerate the totems.
Along the way, Hinduism has shared or
absorbed huge portions of the mythology of other
cultures. Nanditha Krishna frequently notes
parallels with Zoroastrian traditions native to
Persia, and some similarities to Egyptian
beliefs emerging in early pharonic times. The
Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood
appears in Vedic literature as the story of Manu,
and in a variant, the story of Satyavrata. The
role of the dove in the Biblical version belongs
to the blood pheasant (so-named for coloration)
among the Lepcha people of Sikkim.
The apparent migration of mythology from
the Middle East through Central Asia to India is
consistent with the evidence that India was
peopled by successive invasions from the west,
as well as with the importance in more recent
times of two-way trade between India and the
Middle East.
There are hints, which Nanditha Krishna
does not explore, that some of the myths
underlying Hinduism were carried farther to the
east and then north, in very early times, by
ancestors of the people who eventually inhabited
the Americas. The role of the tortoise who swims
with a mountain on his back during the “churning
of the oceans,” a creation story, closely
parallels the Native American belief that the
earth is carried on the back of a giant sea
turtle. The stories of Garuda, the great
raptor, and Naga, the snake, resemble Navajo
and Hopi myths, and have similar variations in
interpretation among tribes of conflicting totems.
The major point of interest in cultural
teachings about animals from an animal advocacy
perspective is the potential use of popular
stories as a foundation for advancing the general
idea that animals should be kindly treated, and
where possible, advancing specific prohibitions
of cruelty.

Relevance today

Nanditha Krisha notes many examples where
the treatment of supposedly sacred animals is at
odds with their divine status. “India had a rich
tradition of respecting all life forms,” her
preface concludes. “This respect has been
destroyed: we have lost our ancient traditions
without replacing them with anything similar or
better. Unless we protect our wildlife from
hunting and extinction, and our domestic animals
from cruelty, we are not fit to call ourselves
educated, or even a people who inherited a great
legacy of ahimsa or non-violence.”
A less pessimistic view would be that as
India modernizes and becomes better-educated,
teachings about animal divinity are evolving in a
manner gradually replacing empty ritual with more
meaningful measures to prevent cruelty and
protect habitat.
For example, the ancient concepts of the
roles of temples, gaushalas (cow shelters), and
sacred groves provide the cultural basis for
establishing charity animal hospitals, shelters,
and protected nature areas. Temples meanwhile
mostly long ago ceased functioning as
quasi-shelters, hospitals, and hospices, many
gaushalas have become commercial dairies barely
pretending to shelter any cattle in need, and
ancient sacred groves guarded by custom rather
than law may now be just a few trees shading
outdoor markets.
In ancient times, the wisest and
best-educated Indians might have recognized the
ecological value of protecting snakes and the
economic value of protecting cattle, but even
when these ideas were accepted by the public,
they tended to take self-contradictory forms.
Two examples still commonly seen are
“worshipping” snakes by giving them milk, often
by lethal force, and leaving surplus bull calves
to starve or dehydrate as temple “offerings,”
rather than kill any bovine.
Re-educating Indians to practice
authentic kindness toward animals, sacred or
otherwise, requires breaking traditions that
were always at odds with their intent, on the
one hand, and introducing more appropriate
practices on the other.
The present is a time of transition, in
which many old beliefs and practices are visibly
eroding, while their replacements have yet to
take hold firmly enough to discourage such
excesses as animal sacrifice made possible on an
unprecedented scale by the advent of trucks to
deliver more animals to the altars, from farther
Nanditha Krishna mentions in passing the
good-humored aspect of Ganesha, and the comic
notion that his steed is a mouse, or in some
regional variants of his story, a rat.
Discussing humor in religion can be a
particularly sensitive issue because of the
seriousness with which devotees often take their
beliefs, to the point that even mentioning that
major religious figures used comic metaphors and
made puns tends to be disputed. Depicting
religious figures in cartoons–most recently but
not exclusively Mohammed–has provoked deadly
Yet humor of the ironic, slapstick, and
self-effacing varieties figures prominently in
the stories of many species considered sacred in
India, including in some traditions which appear
to emphasize the importance of kindness over
ritual, even if these traditions originally had
another meaning.
For instance, Nanditha Krishna writes,
“In the town of Deshnoke, in Rajasthan, the
Karni Mata temple is devoted to the worship of
rats. The 600-year-old temple is dedicated to
Karni Mata, a famous mystic of her times,
believed to be an incarnation of goddess DurgaĆ It
is believed that the rats will reincarnate as
sadhus or holy men in their next birth.”
Eccentric as the Karni Mata temple practices are,
they remind visitors that no animal is unworthy
of kindness, and that no human, however
exalted, is above kinship to the humblest and
most reviled of animals.

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