Only ancient wisdom can save India’s ‘sacred’ animals


New Delhi : Many “sacred” animals of India – a concept most visible in Hindu religion – may become extinct one day unless the ancient respect for all creations returns.

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“Respecting these sentiments would certainly improve the lives of domestic animals and the chances of survival of India’s endangered wildlife,” says “The Sacred Animals of India”, a new book by Nanditha Krishna (Penguin).

The philosophers of yore, the book says, created elaborate mythology to protect many species – birds and animals. This worked as long as what were seen as good values remained important and greed was regarded as vice.

“Ancient India used religious sentiment to protect animals, and it worked: animals survived,” says the author, a historian and environmentalist based in Chennai.

But values have changed.

This is why, the book says, domestic animals were suffering unbelievable acts of cruelty while wildlife was getting wiped out although modern India has laws to protect animals.

“Unless the ancient respect for all creations returns, unless India restores and respects her tryst with the biological diversity of creation, the sacred animals of India will remain sacred only in name…

“Respecting these sentiments would certainly improve the lives of domestic animals and the chances of survival of India’s endangered wildlife,” says the path-breaking book based on extensive and in-depth research.

The author says that by recognizing their divinity, Indian religions gave birds and animals a unique position that helped to protect many species. Many animals were seen as ‘vahanas’ or vehicles of Hindu gods.

“The deification of a particular animal did not depend on its numbers, but on the qualities and uses that made it unique.”

This led to the protection of the animal, a safeguard lost in the British period when many animals were described as vermin and earlier when emperors killed wildlife for pleasure.

While Moghul kings wiped out the rhinos and tigers once encountered on the Yamuna, the British killed about 20,000 animals a year, deliberately targeting the cheetah.

In the process, the cheetah was exterminated while the lion, tiger and leopard came close to extinction.

The cult of Ramayana helped give special status to the monkey, squirrels and the vulture – all of which play a key role in the Hindu epic.

The concept of ahimsa or non-violence and contemporary Hinduism’s emphasis on equating vegetarianism with spiritualism protected the wildlife.

Although the bull is immortalized by the Nandi in Shiva temples, the animal “probably lives the worst life in India”, being whipped, beaten and poked and his tail broken to make him work harder, the book says.

While the cow enjoys a unique place in Hindu religion, it is over-milked in its lifetime and butchered for its skin and meat, points out the author.

“If the elephant – an animal that needs vast spaces – continues to exist in Indian forests, it is only because of the people’s reverence for the elephant as Lord Ganesha… the most beloved of all Hindu deities.”

Yet the animal is forced to perform stupid antics in circuses, undergo terrible cruelties when put to work and made to stand for hours on granite or concrete floods at temple festivals.

“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 the great legacy of non-violence,” the book says.