Sacred animals

While animals are, in general, considered divine in India, the holiest one is the cow. This is in keeping with the tradition of assigning divinity to animals, which provide a livelihood. The importance of the cow was pointed out by a young Sri Krishna as he encouraged the cowherds of Vrindavana to worship the Govardhana mountain rather than Indra.

He said, ‘We are forest-dwelling herdsmen, living on the wealth of our cows. Know this, divinity for us is our cows, mountains, and forests. The skill upon which one concentrates is one’s highest divinity. I suggest, therefore, that we worship cows, the brahmins, and this hill, which goes by the name Govardhana—the nourisher of cows.’ 

In the Rigveda, the cow is called aghnya—not to be killed. Killing a cow was considered worse than killing a human; the only exception being when the animal was killed for sacrifice. Later, even this was stopped. In the villages, cow dung was, and is still, used to smear homes, which are then considered sanctified. The bull is also considered holy because of its association with Lord Shiva in the form of Nandi. Since the cow is docile by nature, it has come to represent the value of ahimsa or non-violence.

With Ganesha as their popular mascot, elephants are considered divine in Hinduism and Buddhism. Elephants are believed to bring good luck and prosperity and remove hurdles in one’s path. In many South Indian temples, they are reared to participate in temple rituals.

Airavata is a spotless white elephant, that came out of samudra manthan, and was chosen by Indra to be his vehicle. It is said that in the olden days, elephants used to have wings and could fly between the three worlds. Once a flying elephant disturbed the meditating Sage Dirghatamas who cursed elephants to lose wings. 

Elephants played an important role also in wars. In the Mahabharata, Sri Krishna got Bhima to kill an elephant named Asvatthama, and got Yudhishthira to give the news to Guru Dronacharya in a way that made the teacher misunderstand it as his son’s death. A heartbroken Drona gave up his arms, and was easily beheaded.

Monkeys are also considered divine in Hinduism, and the most famous of them, of course, is Hanuman—the son of the wind god. He led an army of monkeys to help Sri Rama in first searching for his abducted wife Sita, and later in defeating Ravana’s army. Through his utmost dedication to Sri Rama, Hanuman has come to be seen as the epitome of devotion. In areas around Hanuman temples, and at many other places, monkeys can be seen acting boldly because they know that humans will not dare punish them for their mischiefs.

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