Siginificance of Animals -A Vedic Perspective


There are several outstanding features among the lessons one can learn from the Vedas. One of the major features existing in the Vedas is the love for nature in all its glory. The Hindu does not view nature as something that is subservient meant for our use. On the contrary he views nature as a part of Divinity. There is therefore no conflict between Divinity and Nature. It is this view that makes the Vedic man treat nature and all its bounties as a part of the greater truth of which he is also an integral part. His love and respect for animals is therefore born out of this awe and total respect for his environment.

One will therefore note animals mentioned in the scriptures that include the Vedas, the Puranas and the Upanishads. One can also appreciate that all gods have ‘vahanas’ that are all animals and birds. One has to only visit temples to appreciate the repeated use of animals, fish, serpents and birds adorning these in carvings and frescoes. We know that the cow is sacred and therefore worship her. We also attach divinity to all living beings and yet there is the uneasy truth regarding animal sacrifices that one has to come to terms with. All these ideas are discussed in detail in this essay.

The Theory of Evolution According to the Vedas

In Animal Rights A History (http://www.think-differently-about- Friedrich Nietzsche discusses the manner in which the Vedic philosophy of evolution differs from that propounded by Charles Darwin. According to the Vedic philosophy “there are 8.4 million different species of living beings in the whole of creation”. Among these there are 4, 00,000 species of human beings. All these species were created by God and we evolved from the animals by the process of transmigration of the soul “from one body to another”.

According to the Vedas the human body is the highest of all forms of bodies. Therefore, the soul takes one body and then the next and goes through all the species in the plant and animal kingdom finally taking a human body. In this aspect Shri Krishna’s teaching to Arjuna on the battle field is relevant. He says

Vasangsi jirnani yatha vihaya nabani grihnati narohparani

Tatha sharirani vihaya jirnanyanyani sangjati navani dehi

(Shloka No 22 Second Chapter ShreeMad Bhagwat Gita)

Just like man discards his old and tattered clothes and wears a new set of clothes, similarly the being discards his old and weak body in preparation for its new mantle. This only reinforces the Vedic philosophy that animals are also in the same chain of development shared by man.

How the Vedic Man Views Nature

In the Hindu View of Nature by Vamadeva Shastri ( the cosmic reality is compared to the ocean wherein nature or the world as we see it “is like the waves on the surface of the sea”. It is therefore all water and it is the same single ocean. According to the Upanishads “Everything is Brahman”. The forces of nature are therefore not to be worshipped mindlessly born out of fear or superstition. In the ecological approach the “entire universe (is) part of our own higher self”. We therefore need not protect nature as we would protect creatures that are inferior to us. We need to honor nature as we would every living being on this universe.

The Status of Animals

Jayaram V in his essay “Treatment of Animals in Hinduism” has dealt with this subject from different angles. According to the author “every living being, from the animals down to the insects and tiny organisms, possesses souls”. All these creatures are also subject to the same laws of nature and its cycle of births and deaths, much in the same manner as humans. Although they appear ignorant, these living beings are also evolved and have their own level of intelligence and instinct as well as their individual language. Animals occupy a very important place in Hinduism. One will find mention of animals in various Hindu legends and myths. They also enjoy a pride of place in the “Hindu pantheon of many gods and goddesses, as divinities and also as incarnations or aspects of Vishnu or Siva”. “The soul takes one body then quits it to take another and so on. The human body is the highest and most elevated of all bodies”.

The Manifestation of Animals

One will find animals beautifying Hindu decorative art and in temple architecture. They adorn the outer walls and towers of temples of great beauty besides being installed inside temples as objects of worship and veneration such as the Holy Bull of Shiva. In certain cases animals have been deified as in the case of Hanuman who is worshipped throughout not only India but also in certain other countries in Asia.

Treatment of Living Beings with Compassion

In the Vedas animals have been treated with great compassion. This feeling of compassion stretches to not only the animals but also to insects and even tinier creatures that are all respected as “having souls of their own”. The scriptures have classified these living beings in three sub-sections depending upon whether they have taken birth through seeds or sprouts, from eggs and those who have taken birth through the womb. The scriptures have urged men to treat animals with fairness and not harm them or subject them to pain or cruelty.

The sacrifice of animals was an old Vedic tradition that was resorted to in order to appease the gods. This tradition is no longer acceptable to the Hindu society and it is both a legal offence as well as considered to be barbaric in today’s society. Two pertinent quotations are placed below and these reflect balanced views of the devout Hindu today.

“Meat cannot be obtained without injury to animals, and the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to Heaven; let him therefore shun the use of meat.”
The Laws of Manu

Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh.
Manusmriti 5.49

How were/are Animals to be Treated?

The scriptures have explained that “the jivas are subject to the limitations of consciousness and capacity… When they overcome their limitations and regain their true consciousness, they become liberated”. In Saivism all living beings are considered to be pasus with inherent limitations in terms of “egoism, delusion and karma”. Once these are overcome their true consciousness is realized and they are liberated.

Therefore, according to the scriptures each animal has “a spark of the divine and is capable of becoming human and achieving salvation like the rest of us”. Similarly, if “human beings choose to ignore the great opportunity earned by them through their previous karma and indulge in irresponsible actions, they may very likely regress into animal existence and have to start all over again”.

Bhuta Daya one of the Highest Virtues

The animals depend upon humans for their survival and welfare just as humans depend upon gods. Animals nourish humans through their offerings such as milk and flesh just as humans nourish their gods through the act of sacrifices. Killing of animals other than for rituals and food was considered to be a taboo and even the law stepped in with several restrictions. It is pertinent to note that Hindus consider the compassion for all animals (bhuta daya) as one of the finest virtues and is actually a mark of divine quality. Therefore, practicing Hindus not only do not slaughter cattle that are past their prime but let them die naturally and indeed look after the sick and ailing.

Viewing Animals Down the Ages

Truly, a lot can be gleaned about Hinduism in the way ancient Indians used to treat animals. From recorded history one can appreciate that animals have been used in India not only for domestic purposes but for recreational, military, medicinal and commercial use as well. In the Hindu scriptures one will come across mention of the use of different species of animals from cows to lions and sheep to snakes as well as birds, fish, pigs and boars and even mythical creatures. One will find animals being used in trade and commerce besides hunting and in animal fights, sacrificial ceremonies, and defense and as gifts. Pashu Vidya or Animal Science dealt with different aspects of animal life, how they were to be tamed and trained or used for various domestic or military applications. There are old manuscripts wherein animals were classified into various groups depending upon their origin, their diet, behavior as well as their dominant quality and habitat.

There was a belief that animals could communicate and while gods found it easy to speak with them, mere mortals needed to develop their ability to be able to do so. There is mention in mythology, of animals acquiring spiritual knowledge from their enlightened masters by simply listening to discourses. There was also a branch of science that dealt with the medicinal values of certain parts of animals while hermits in India while living in harmony with nature have survived when surrounded by wild life.

During Indus Valley Civilization animals played an important role in both the religious and economic lives. People not only domesticated cows, buffaloes and sheep but also worshipped them along with Mother Goddess. While the Vedic man used domesticated animals for milk, leather and sacrifices, as time went by the sacrificial ceremonies reduced other than horse sacrifices. Soon cows became sacred and could not be killed for any reason at all. Killing cows quickly became taboo and thereafter legally not permissible.

Deification of Animals

As briefly mentioned, Hindus have been in reverence of divinities in the animal form. Lord Vishnu’s first incarnation was in the form of a fish and then as a tortoise and after that as a boar. He has appeared in another incarnation as half lion and half man in the form of Narsimha Avatar. Lord Shiva too appeared once in the form of “a mythical monster with multiple horns, legs and spikes instead of hair on the body”. Hanuman, one of the principal characters in Ramayana is in the form of a monkey and in this form he is worshipped all over India to this day. The other popular god Ganesha has the head of an elephant and as the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati occupies a very important status among the gods in India.

Adishesha, the serpent, representing time, has thousand hoods and is associated with Lord Vishnu, as he rises “from the primeval waters in the beginning of creation resting on his endless coils”. Other worthies include Jatayu, the mythical bird that loses the fight against Ravana as he kidnaps Sita. There is the monkey king of Kishkindha, Sugriva, who also enjoys a significant role in Ramayana by supporting Rama. The role of the monkey army in Rama’s fight against Ravana is well known to all who have read the epic Ramayana.

Animals have also served as the vehicles of gods. While the list is long, some of the more important ones include the mouse as the vaahan of Ganesha, swan for Brahma, the eagle for Vishnu, Nandi the bull for Shiva, the elephant Airavatha for Indra, owl for Lakshmi, peacock for Kartik and the swan for Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

Animals have also been used in the form of symbols in India. The Hindus, Buddhists and the Jains use the elephant as a religious symbol. One can see the elephant carved in numerous temples all over the country. One will also find elephants associated with the goddess Lakshmi as a symbol of abundance. While the conch shell and the fish are associated with Lord Vishnu, the juxtaposed fish is considered as a symbol of fertility and good luck.

The subject will be incomplete without a mention of snakes and their worship. Even in modern India Naag Panchami is a day celebrating the worship of serpents. Some of the “tribes became popular as Nagas because of their association with serpent deities”. Snakes are also worshipped as icons of fertility. “The Hindu Yogi can discern the same supreme Reality in the human being, a snake, a particle of dust or a distant star, as well as beyond all time and space!”


The major thrust of the Vedas has been that of harmony. Man has always been reminded that he is a part of the entire system, his environment. He has been advised never to exploit nature but use its resources judiciously. The relationship between man and animals has been a part of this greater symbiosis. It is for this reason that one can see animals in a deified form, as an icon and as the vaahan or vehicle of the gods. It is also for this reason that man has been worshipping animals during the Vedic times and even today.