Hindu mythology not only has some of the most interesting human characters ever, but a huge kingdom of animals too. From fish that save the world to horses that fly higher than birds, every animal in Hindu mythology has a story to tell and a lesson to teach.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘Pashu’ dives into this bizarre, wonderful world of mythological animals and unravels a secret or two about it.
Here’s a snippet from ‘Pashu’ that is sure to make you want to find out more!
Brahma, the creator, had a son called Kashyapa. Kashyapa had many wives who bore him different types of children. Aditi gave birth to the devas—gods who live in the sky. Diti gave birth to the asuras— demons who live under the earth. Kadru gave birth to the nagas, slithering serpents and worms that crawl on trees and on earth. Vinata gave birth to garudas, birds and insects that fly in the air. Sarama gave birth to all the wild creatures with claws and Surabhi gave birth to all the gentle animals with hooves. Timi gave birth to all the fishes and Surasa gave birth to monsters. Thus, all gods, demons, animals and even humans have a common ancestor in Kashyapa. They call him Prajapati, father of all creatures. His story is found in the Puranas, books that are at least two thousand years old.
There are also other theories of how animals came into being. Some can be found in earlier books, while some have never been written but passed down orally by stargazers and storytellers.
Brahma and Shatarupa: The first man, Brahma, saw the first woman, Shatarupa, and fell in love with her. He tried to touch her. She laughed and ran away. He followed her. To avoid getting caught, she turned into a doe. To catch up with her, he turned into a stag. She then became a mare. He became a stallion. She transformed into a cow. He turned into a bull. She became a goose and flew up into the air. He followed her, taking the form of a gander. Every time she took a female form, he took the corresponding male form. This went on for millions of years. Thus, over time, all kinds of beasts came into being, from ants and elephants to dogs and cats. So say the Upanishads, conversations that took place nearly three thousand years ago.
Yogasanas: Shiva, the great yogi, was at peace with himself. In his joy, he assumed many poses, known as asanas. Many of these poses resembled animals. For example, the ustra-asana resembled a camel. When Shiva took this pose, camels came into being. From the matsya-asana, fishes came into being. From the bhujang-asana, snakes came into being. From the salabh-asana, locusts came into being. From the go-mukha-asana, cows came into being. Shiva thus stood in millions of poses, giving rise to millions of different kinds of animals. So says the lore of yogis.
Avatars: From time to time, Vishnu, who resides on the ocean of milk, descends to walk on the earth. He takes the form, or avatar, of different animals when he does so. Sometimes he is a fish, sometimes a turtle, sometimes a wild boar, sometimes a swan . . . In memory of the many forms he took, various animals came into being. So the next time you see a fish, remember that it was once a form of Vishnu. And when you see a swan, remember that, too, was once a form of Vishnu.
Rashi: A cluster of stars is known as a constellation. Ancient rishis divided the sky into twelve equal parts, each occupied by a constellation. The constellations are called zodiacs in English and rashis in Sanskrit. Some of the rashis take the form of animals. There is the Mesha or ram constellation that the sun passes through in early summer. Then there is Mina, the fish; Vrishchika, the scorpion; Simha, the lion; and Vrishabha, the bull. After the sun passes the Makara constellation, whose tail is like a fish and head is like an elephant, the days grow longer and warmer, heralding the approach of summer. After the sun passes the Karka or crab constellation, the days become shorter and colder, indicating the approach of winter. This information comes from Jyotisha Shastra, or the books of astrology. Poets often wonder what came first: the constellations or the animals. Did the design of the stars inspire the gods to create the animals?
Yoni: Many Hindus believe that a being gets a human life only after passing through 84,00,000 animal wombs. Astrologers say that one can find out which was the last animal’s womb or yoni one was born in from one’s time of birth. That yoni determines an aspect of one’s personality. Some of the yonis are: elephant, cow, mare, snake, cat, dog, rat, monkey, tiger, goat, buffalo and deer. Which yoni came first—that of man or that of an animal? Are humans the ancestors of animals or is it the other way around? There is no escaping the fact that we are related to the birds and beasts of the forest. They may be our ancestors or they may be our descendants.
Have more questions on the origins of the mythological animal kingdom? Get your copy of ‘Pashu’ now!