Animal worship or zoolatry is the worship of animals who are regarded as deities or those animals who have a connection with a deity. Many cultures believed that there is a connection between God, animals and humans. This connection was expressed in the form of statues or pictures of gods and goddesses with animal heads or masks of animals over them. Some cultures realised that God did not really have animal heads and that within animals, God existed.
Historically speaking, humans have lived in close quarters to animals as they have been dependent on them. Over time, these animals were considered to be more smart, to have certain secrets of nature that humans have no access to. Animals were stronger than man, they could live on land, water or air and possessed abilities that man could not even fathom of having. Many cultures like the Native Americans. Egyptians, Japanese, Indians, Greeks have worshiped animals from time immemorial and some of them worship similar animals who represent similar powers. For example, cows represent love and giving, lions represent power and protection.
When we look at India, animals are worshipped in different ways. Worship of animals has been observed since the Indus valley civilization where seals with animals on them depicted animal worship. The people of the Harappan culture were very religious, but due to the unavailability of the ruins of temples or idols of deities. But fortunately, many seals with images of goddesses and animals gave us an insight to the prevalence of animal worship during that time period. Images of ox and bull showed that even they might have worshipped Lord Shiva. Other seals include elephant, tiger, antelope, humped Bull, buffalo, one hom Unicorn, hare and rhinoceros.
It was said that when Brahma created animals, he did so with a secret hidden within them to signify the spiritual importance to humans.
Animals are worshipped as the incarnation of God (Avatars) on Earth. Lord Vishnu, in his Dashavataras, the first avatars were in the form of animals. Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar), Narasimha (half lion and half man). Why did Lord Vishnu take the form of animals? Each avatar has a story as to why he chose these specific animals. Matsya or fish was chosen due to the fact that the Gods had flooded Earth. The Vedas were stolen and Lord Vishnu had to retrieve it from Earth which led him to take the form of Matsya. Kurma or tortoise was chosen when Mount Mandara was sinking during the churning of the ocean. Lord Vishnu took the form of the tortoise and held the mountain on his back which is the hard and strong shell of the tortoise. If you have looked at a picture of the Varaha avatar, you would have observed that the boar has the Earth on his nose. Hiranayaksha, a demon had submerged Earth into the ocean. As Brahma meditated praying to Vishnu to protect Earth, a tiny boar fell out of his nose that grew to a giant size. This boar was none other than Lord Vishnu who removed Earth from the ocean with his long tusks and placed it back in its axis following which he killed the demon. Narasimha avatara is a very famous avatara which led to the death of the demon Hiranyakashipu, the brother of the demon Hiranyaksha. But why did he choose half-lion and half-man? Hiranyakashipu had gotten a boon from Lord Shiva that a man or animal would not be able to kill him. So, Lord Vishnu took up half of each and killed Hiranyakashipu. The last avatara of Lord Vishnu that hasn’t occurred yet is supposed to be that of a horse, Kalki. This avatara is said to take place at the end of Kali Yuga.
Painting by Sudhindra GS
Today is Narasimha Jayanthi. Out of the several avatars of Lord Vishnu, Nrusimha avatar has attained a rare significance and importance says author Dinesh Parikh. “All His avatars are generally of a single form (apart from Varaha). But Narasimha avatar is of a dual form, Nara + Simha. Nara means man and Lion is an animal.” This was the 4th avatar among the Dasavatars and it was a Sathya Yuga Avatar said to have taken place in Chakshuva Manvantar. References to Lord Narasimha are found in as many as 15 Puranas, and a separate Purana (Upa Purana) itself has been scripted in his name called Nrusimha Purana writes Parikh.
“It was an instant avatar, called as Aavesa avatar (no prior preparations were made) where Lord Narasimha appears in a very ferocious and fascinating form. Narasimha Avatar is referred to as a very powerful, precious avatar and is depicted as a great protector at the time of need. He is the God of Gods. He is Mrithyu for the Mrithyu (one who eliminates the death cycles),” adds Parikh.
Some animals are worshiped as deities themselves. Lord Ganesha was given the face of an elephant by Goddess Parvati after Lord Shiva beheaded his son in anger. Lord Hanuman, born to Anjana and Kesari, is the monkey God, which is why most Indians don’t harm monkeys and consider them to be Hanuman himself. It is believed that Lord Hanuman will visit those places where the Ramayana is read and many times, people have seen a monkey in the vicinity where Ramayana was read. We also revere the Vanaras because of their contribution to finding Sita. Kamadhenu and Nandhini, the divine cows are worshipped in many places and are considered to be givers of plenty. Vasuki is the king of serpents. Vasuki was used as the rope to churn the ocean by the Gods and Asuras.
Dogs are worshipped as well in the form. Lord Bhairava, the fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva is known to have incarnated as a black dog. You might have heard elders pray to Lord Bhairava when they see a black dog. Lord Dattatreya is seen to have four dogs around him always. These four dogs represent the four Vedas. In some parts of West Bengal and Sikkim, dog festivals are conducted where tilak is placed on their foreheads and flower garlands are hung around their necks. People conduct puja to them and pray to them to bless them with good health and welfare. Many girls who have the Mangal dosha are married to dogs. Lord Yama is apparently known to have four dogs guarding his treacherous abode.
Swans represent purity and truth. Swans have a connection to Advaita Vedanta. In sanskrit, Swan means Hamsa. The highest monks of the advaita order are known as Paramhansas, for example Guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The word Hamsa is a variation of so’ham which means I am He. This conveys the basic teaching of the Yajurveda Mahavakya- “Aham Brahmasmi”. Oil lamps in temples and in many households have the swan. The swan is also known to separate milk from water- the underlying meaning behind this is the separation of eternal atman (milk) from the non-eternal world (water).
Lord Shani’s vehicle is the crow. Crows are known to have thieving habits. Shani is the repressor of thieving which is why he chose the crow to control its nature. He is also the teacher of righteousness and punisher of those taking evil paths. Crows are also considered as our pitra divas. They represent our ancestors, which is why on Mahalaya amavasya, we feed the crows to appease our Pitrus. In many households, the first serving of rice is offered to the crows.
Sharada Devi holds the parrot in her hand which represents Kamadeva the god of love, desire and sexuality. Suka Deva, the son of Veda Vyasa enters the womb of Vyasa’s wife while fleeing from Lord Shiva. Refusing to come out, the parrot grows in the womb for twelve years. Unable to bear the pain, Vyasa prays to Lord Vishnu to help his wife who had then taken up Krishna Avatara. The parrot is born in the form of a human and is named Shuka which means Parrot in Sanskrit. Suka maharishi is known to have narrated Srimad Bhagavatham to King Parikshit who was on his deathbed.
Some animals are worshipped as the vehicles or vahanas of God. Nandi is Lord Shiva’s vehicle, Mushika or the rat is the vehicle of Lord Ganesha. Lord Subramanya uses the peacock as his vehicle. Lord Subramanya also has two other animals by his side always which are the rooster and the snake. The rooster is the demon Tarakasura who was defeated by Lord Subramanya and Tarakasura wished to always be under the Lord's feet. Tarakasura represents ego and the Lord defeats ego that must always be kept subdued. There was a time when Vasuki, the serpent king and Garuda engaged in a fight and with the help of Sage Kashyapa, Vasuki was able to escape. He then performed penance to Lord Shiva to save his life. Shiva, pleased with his penance, told him to merge himself with Lord Subramanya. Kukke subramanya, a small town in Karnataka is known to be the hallowed land of snakes. Many devotees visit Kukke to be relieved of Ashlesha dosha or Sarpa dosha. Nag-panchami is celebrated by many in India and in Nepal where milk is offered to snakes. Lord Vishnu rides Garuda, the king of birds. Brahma and Saraswati ride the white swan. Surya, the sun god rides a chariot that is pulled by seven horses that represent the seven days of the week. Lord Indra rides the white elephant, Airavata. Agni rides the Ram, Varuna rides the makara (half fish and half land creature), Vayu rides the gazelle which represents swiftness and Yama rides the buffalo.
Shakti is represented in many forms- Parvati, Sharada, Lakshmi, Durga, Saraswati, Kali and so on. Goddess Durga is known to ride the lion that signifies fearlessness and power which is used to protect virtue and destroy evil.
Lord Ayappa who was born from the union of Lord Shiva and Mohini (an avatara of Lord Vishnu) and hence he is known as HariHaraputra. Lord Ayappa is known to have mounted a tiger, who was actually Lord Indra in the form of Indra.
Goddess Sheetala who is worshipped mainly in the North is known to protect children from smallpox, pustules, measles, She is mounted on a donkey. During Sheetala ashtami which falls during the months of March-April, women folk of Rajasthan pray to the donkey to protect their children from diseases.
Animal worship outside India
Native Americans believe in Animism which means that every natural object in the universe such as humans, animals, birds, rocks have souls or spirits in them. The term Spirit animals that has taken a different meaning in pop culture, actually means that there is a spirit within the animals that guides and helps man walk through different stages of life while teaching them some aspects of life and also protecting them. The eagle is considered the animal of leadership. It soars high in the sky and the tribe believes that they are the carriers of their prayers to the heavens. Killing an eagle will only bring upon one’s downfall. The Buffalo is considered sacred and also the giver of life. The hide and horns of the buffalo are used as sacred regalia during many ceremonies. They are associated with creation, medicine and believed to bring sacred messages told by ancestors.
In Egypt, animals were considered to be incarnations of Gods that came down to Earth to help man. However, their way of worship was slightly different. Some animals were reared to be killed and mummified that were sent to be installed in temples. This way, when people went on a pilgrimage, they worshiped the mummified forms of the animals. The falcon is worshiped as if it were the actual god, Horus. The baboon is believed to be the manifestation of Thoth, the Lord writing and Khonsu, the youthful moon God. The cobra was considered to be Wadjet, who represented Lower Egypt. The cobra goddess Renenutet was the goddess of fertility.
The Greeks worshiped the Sphinx who had the head of a woman and the body of a lion. Some even had the wings of the bird. In Greek tradition, those who were unable to answer the riddles of the sphinx were killed and eaten.
However, India is probably the only country in the world where you’ll find temples and rituals for animals. Hinduism teaches one to respect all animals as spiritual beings. Hindus do not harm animals since it is ingrained in one that harming animals will suffer consequences in the next birth. Animals play a role in liberating one from pain and suffering and thus it is our duty to serve them and treat them with the utmost compassion. Each and every animal, however insignificant in other eyes, attracts the attention of a devout person.