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Why animals play little part in early Vedic tradition?

Prof. C. Kunhan Raja
One contribution of the non-Vedic religions to Indian thought is the position assigned to animals, birds, trees, etc. In the Vedas, animals and trees play very little part. This is natural in a city civilization. Animals and trees have a higher position in a civilization evolved in the forest. In the Vedas, there is the horse which drew the chariots of the gods, there is the cow that gave milk. Many other animals and birds are also mentioned as well as fish. There are also references to soma and its juice, and the log of wood from which the sacrificial pole is made. Animals, birds, fish, trees and plants, however, come into the picture only incidentally in the Vedas. They are referred to as a subordinate material in the life of man and not as integral parts in the scheme of the total world.

We see a different picture in later Hindu thought. Cow-worship becomes one of the most important features in Hindu life, but this is an aspect that did not appear in the Vedas. Various other animals and birds appear as vehicles (vahana) of the different gods, and they are also the banner signs for the gods. Thus Siva has a bull and Vishnu has a kite (Garuda, which is the Sanskrit form of the Dravidian word kazhugan, a vulture). Brahma has swans. Vishnu rests on the coiled body of the serpent Shesha or Ananta that supports also the earth. Siva has the serpent Vasuki as his ornament. Elephant, lion, tiger, buffalo, etc., come into the picture as associated with divinities. The vehicles of the gods are also objects of worship along with the gods. Trees also began to be worshipped by the Hindus in the post-Vedic times. Especially is this the case with the banyan tree. Other trees and plants and creepers also were associated with various powers. The scope of Divine emanation was thus extended and increase of time gave rise to the doctrine of tirthas (holy places, especially in rivers and oceans). It is not merely in temples that the Divine was present, but also in certain localities in this world. Contact with such localities contributed to the spiritual elevation of man.

The deification of man is another feature of post-Vedic religion. Great heroes, considered as gods, came down to the earth as men for the protection of humanity, and were worshipped as gods in temples erected for them. A typical instance of this process which continued till recent times is the goddess Karniji in Rajputana. In the Vedas also human beings became gods like the Maruts and the Rbhus and human beings attained to divine powers and some of the divine rights, e.g. the rsis known as Angiras. But there is no mention in the Vedas of gods coming down to earth as human beings. In post-Vedic Hinduism God appeared also in the form of animals. There is Hanumana, the monkey god. There is Ganesha, the man-elephant god. Nandin, the attendant on Siva, has the form of a bull. Skanda or Subrahmanya has the form of a serpent. The avatara doctrine associated with Vishnu is, however, a later development.

There is only one avatara of Vishnu for which there is a trace in the Vedas. That is the Dwarf, who measured out the whole world in three steps. From the word varaha which occurs in the Veda, commentators have tried to show that this is a reference to the Boar incarnation (varaha), but there is no basis for this interpretation. All the other avataras of Vishnu are extra-Vedic.

The gods in the Vedas have little individuality and hardly any concreteness. But the entire conception of God changed in later Hindu thought. There is greater clearness owing to the more concrete nature of the divine form and the greater differentiation in the functions of the gods. Brahma was assigned the function of creation, but as this remained an abstract conception he dwindled in religion though he continued to find a place in mythology. Siva and Vishnu, on the other hand, became concrete and highly individualized and took the highest position in Hindu thought. The image of Vishnu reposing on the coiled body of the serpent Shesha, with his two consorts Sri and Bhumi, and with his functions of preserving and protecting the world cannot be derived from the conceptions of God we find in the Vedas. The same applies to Siva on the Mount Kailasa, with his consort Parvati, and his sons and attendants, and charged with the destruction of the world so that there may be a better creation. Ganesha, Skanda and other deities acquire distinct individualities and distinct functions.

The growth in personification helped in the development of the doctrine of bhakti in Hinduism. We find traces of bhakti also in the Vedas, especially in the hymns to Varuna; but how can true bhakti evolve with the Vedic gods who are incorporeal and abstract and cannot be seen even in the form of idols? Vedic sacrifices remained domestic or village institutions and it was temple worship that assumed the form of national institutions.
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