All Hindu mythology is intertwined with animals. Thousands of stories abound in all the texts, and the largest of wars is often due to a small insect being killed. Devdutt Pattanaik has put some of these stories into a book called Pashu. Of these myriad stories that exist in all the 300 versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, in the Vedas and Puranas, here are some of my favourites. They carry lessons to live by:
The Pandava prince Arjuna saw an unusual creature in the forest. It had the head of a rooster, a peacock&’s neck, a lion&’s waist, the hump of a bull, a snake&’s tail and various limbs of a tiger, deer, elephant and human. Arjuna raised his bow to kill it. Then he thought — just because a creature is unfamiliar, why suppose it is a monster? He lowered his bow and the creature raised its human hand in blessing. It was God himself, testing Arjuna&’s wisdom and tolerance.
Tumburu, the Gandharva, was a great and vain musician. He and Narada competed for the title of best singer. They went to Vishnu to decide. Vishnu, mischievously, said that he thought Hanuman was a better singer than both. Insulted, they went in search of Hanuman and found him on a snow-covered peak. Sing for us, they commanded, and Hanuman&’s low and beautiful voice caused the snow to melt. When he finished, the molten snow froze again. Not good enough, they said. Hanuman bowed his head humbly and left.
When they got up to leave, they found their feet sealed in the snow. They called to Vishnu in distress. If you are better than Hanuman, sing and melt the snow, he said. They did — with no impact. Finally, they conceded that Hanuman, who sang out of devotion and not to show off, was better.
Gandhari accidently stepped on the 100 eggs of an insect. Heartbroken, the mother insect cursed Gandhari that she would see her 100 children die before her eyes. The cries of animals are heard by the gods as clearly as those by humans and it takes one act like this to change a person&’s life.
Mandavya, the hermit, was arrested by the king, who had him impaled on a stick. His crime was that he had stolen goods in his hermitage — something he was unaware of. He died during the torture and when he stood before Yama, the record-keeper, he demanded to know the reason for this unjust punishment. Not unjust, said Yama, when you were a child you tortured birds and pinned them to the ground with sticks. The pain you caused animals has to be understood and paid for in the same way.
When Rama&’s army was building the bridge across the sea to Lanka, a little squirrel carried grains of sand on its back in order to help the bridge come up faster. When the others laughed at his efforts, Rama picked him up, stroked him while thanking him and left the marks of his hand as stripes. No good deed is too small that it is not noticed.
King Yudhisthira held a great yagna and thousands of people were fed. A mongoose, with a half-golden body, entered and lay on the ashes of the yagna fire saying, “If this is a true sacrifice, let my body become all golden.”
It didn’t happen and the mongoose was sarcastic. The priests were curious and he explained, “During a drought, a farmer had a few rice grains left for his family. A stranger — old, tired, hungry — knocked on the door. The farmer gave him the entire family&’s food and he left, satisfied. The family died of starvation that night. I entered the house and rubbed my face on the plate and it turned golden. I have travelled the world looking for a sacrifice as great as the farmer&’s so that the rest of my body would change. I have not found it till today.”
The king realised that the meaning of a sacrifice was more than mere ritual.
Gunakeshi, the daughter of Indra&’s charioteer Matali, fell in love with a Naga, Sumukha. He couldn’t marry her as Garuda, the eagle, had been promised one Naga a day as his food, so that he wouldn’t kill all of them together. It was Sumukha&’s turn the next day. Matali begged Indra, who went to Vishnu for help. Spare him, said Vishnu. Garuda refused — I will remain hungry, he said. Vishnu placed his hand on Garuda and the eagle found he could not flap his wings any more. He was pinned. Have compassion on me, he begged Vishnu. For that, you must show compassion to another — for that is how all life is sustained.
Garuda let the Naga go.
(My absolute favourite): The Pandavas and Draupadi, after ruling for 36 years, decided to climb the mountains and enter the home of the gods. “If we have lived virtuous lives, the gods will let us enter,” said Yudhishthira. But as they walked, one by one they fell down till only Yudhisthira and a dog, that had come unbidden with them, stood before the gates. “You can enter, not the dog,” said the gods. “But he has equal rights since he has come on the same arduous journey and has never faltered in his desire and diligence,” argued Yudhisthira. “The flesh may be different but the soul is the same. If he can’t come in, I will stay out as well.”
The gods smiled and blessed Yudhisthira. “The dog is Dharma and you have demonstrated your innate spirituality in recognising that all creatures are the same.” They welcomed both in to Paradise.