The Role of Animals in Hinduism
After reading A
Passage to India by E.M. Forster, I became intrigued by the frequent and
powerful references to animals in India. I learned that their role is crucial.
In the novel, animals are impetuses for growth, conduits of unity and love, and
symbols of Indian culture. Through the diversity of the animals featured in this
novel- hyenas, wasps, elephants- we begin to comprehend the immense diversity of
The Hindu religion worships many animal deities. One of these deities is a short, stout man with a one-tusked elephant head named Ganesh. Ganesh is a popular Hindu god, and the story of his birth is a common folktale. The goddess Parvati created Ganesh so that he could guard the door against surprise visits from her husband, Shiva, while Parvati bathed. When Ganesh would not allow Shiva to enter the room, in his anger, Shiva cut off Ganesh's head. Happily, Parvati's messengers retrieved a new elephant head for him (Klostermain 78). Ganesh is believed to be a remover of obstacles. Before beginning any task, be it daunting or quotidian, Ganesh smoothes the path for his worshipers. He is also an excellent scribe. He wrote the Indian epic Mahabharata while the sage Vyasa dictated it to him. Ganesh is believed to have made this work more
eloquent and clear so that Vyasa's words were understandable and powerful (Ions 128).
Elephants play a large role in other aspects of Indian life beyond religion. Author Heinrich Zimmer says of elephants in India, "In Hindu miniatures and present-day popular drawings [elephants are] a constantly recurring motif" (Zimmer 103). In A Passage to India, elephants are a symbol of India itself. Mrs. Moore, an English traveler in India, and her young companion Adela Quested, see elephants so often in India that they think they are cliché and not representative of the "real" India. The characters visit a local sightseeing spot, the Marabar Caves, and enjoy an elephant ride that proves to be a majestic, spiritual experience. Forster writes, "As the elephant moved towards the hills, a new quality occurred, a spiritual silence which invaded more senses than the ear" (Forster 155).
|A statue of Ganesh, an elephant Hindu Deity
The majestic quality of this experience can be traced back to ancient India when owning elephants was a royal habit. Often, Kings kept elephants to use in war. Elephants were assigned to royal stables to be mounts or kept for purposes of magic (Zimmer 105). In an interview with Coralynn Davis, Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Bucknell and an expert on Maithil paintings, I learned that elephants are a powerful symbol in the Maithil culture. In the state of Bihar in India, where the Maithil people live, women paint pictures of pregnant elephants for good luck and fertility in marriage (Davis).
Like the elephant, and many other animals in India, the bird can represent a number of different ideas and concepts. In the interview with Davis, I learned about the symbolic importance of parrots in the Maithil culture: "Some animals are considered good luck in different ways. For instance, parrots are a sign of fertility, so when people get married women make paintings that often include depictions of parrots, in the hopes that this will contribute to the bride and groom's having a life with many children" (Personal Interview, Davis). In the Maithil culture birds represent conjugal happiness, and in ancient India, birds were associated with heaven and infinity. While other animals like the snake were tied to earth, the bird represented spiritual freedom and disentanglement from earthly concerns (Davis).
In A Passage to India, two characters notice a bird during a pivotal moment of their relationship. As Ronny Heaslop and Adela Quested are deciding not to get engaged, they spot a small green bird that they cannot identify. " 'Do you know what the name of that green bird up above us is?' she asked, putting her shoulder rather nearer to his. 'Bee-eater' 'Oh no, Ronny, it has red bars on its wings 'Parrot,' he hazarded… But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge in something else" (Forster 91). As Englishmen in India, Ronny and Adela are unable to identify or understand the bird. They suggest referring to a bird book, but both know the identity of the bird will not be revealed. Their befuddlement as to the identity of the bird represents their misunderstanding of Indian culture. To an Indian, the bird could represent a number of different meanings, but to the English people, it is a mystery.
One of the most beautiful and powerful images in A Passage to India that illustrates the importance of animals is the recurring reference to a wasp in connection with the character Mrs. Moore, one of the few English characters willing to experience and understand India. One night, as she hangs up her cloak, she notices a wasp on the peg on the wall. "Perhaps [the wasp] mistook the peg for a branch-no Indian animal has any sense of an interior. Bats, rats, birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle 'Pretty dear,' said Mrs. Moore to the wasp" (Forster 34). As a visitor intent on seeing the "real" India, Mrs. Moore honors all animals she encounters. Revering all animals is a major Hindu belief. Her acceptance of animal life, even insects, is an extension of her receptiveness to Indian culture. To be open to Indian culture is to be open to the beauty of animals, and Mrs. Moore is willing to understand both..
The wasp imagery is later revisited in the novel when Professor Godbole, the sole Hindu character, has a vision of Mrs. Moore and the wasp. Godbole subconsciously understands Mrs. Moore's acceptance and interest in Indian culture, and lovingly conjures up her image. " 'One old Englishwoman and one little, little wasp… It does not seem much still it is more than I am myself,' says Godbole." (Forster, 326). In an explosion of goodwill, Godbole loves Mrs. Moore and the wasp more than he loves himself. In this passage written outside of the novel, Forster gives us clues as to why Godbole loves both the wasp and Mrs. Moore without previously having had close connections to them. Forster comments on the Maharajah of Dewas Senior's words: "He believes that we- men, birds, everything- are part of God, and that men have developed more than birds because they have come nearer to realizing this." Godbole loves the wasp and Mrs. Moore equally because his Hindu faith impels him to believe that the insect and the human are part of one unified God: "His senses grew thinner, he remembered a wasp seen he forgot where, perhaps on a stone. He loved the wasp equally, he impelled it likewise, he was imitating God" (Forster 321). In Godbole's spiritual fervor, he plays the role of God by loving all forms of life equally. By loving both the wasp and the woman, Godbole is taking his Hindu beliefs and putting them into action (Ganguly 201).
Although I had studied the Hindu belief in the sacredness of animals, it wasn't until I read an art book that I began to understand the role animals play in individuals' lives. I studied a collection of paintings by Indian women accompanied by short first-person passages about their lives and their art. Nearly every one of the brightly-colored and intricately designed paintings includes animal figures.
This elephant statue illustrates the prevalence
of animals in Indian art.
Fish, elephants, peacocks, goats, camels and horses are vibrantly featured in scenes of everyday Indian life. One woman cites the traditional and ceremonial importance of animals as a reason they influence her art. "I like to paint elephants, camels and horses-what you used to see when there was a wedding. Lots of people from the groom's side would ride on top of these animals on their way to the bride's house." One artist combines human and animal features into one figure, thus suggesting the Hindu belief in the unity of animals and humans. "I like to use bold colors. My animals have human faces, and they are often smiling" (Master Artists of
Janakpur). The women express the importance animals hold in their lives through their reverent words and ravishing art. Coralynn Davis also emphasized the importance of animals in the lives of Maithil women. "For instance, cows are sometimes seen as an animal incarnation of the goddess
Laksmi. Once a year there is a big celebration for this goddess, and at that time women paint cows on the wall of their homes as a way of enticing the goddess to come and bless their homes" (Davis).
The Hindu belief of the sacredness of animals is a dominant and beautiful aspect of Indian culture. Hinduism has many animal deities, modeled after the animals Indians see in life everyday. For the female artists, saturating their art and their words with animal images is as natural as breathing. A Passage to India captures the prevalence of animals in India, and the holiness Hindus associate with them. In a key scene of the novel, Adela Quested and Ronny Heaslop are enjoying a car ride after deciding not to marry. Suddenly, the driver hits an unidentified animal. In the commotion of the minor accident, the two young people accidentally touch hands, and feel a thrilling wave of exhilaration. They search for the mystery animal with a spirit of excitement. After this electrifying adventure, the two decide to marry. Forster depicts how an animal
indirectly brings the two lovers together. The intervention of nature and animal life impels the characters to make choices that shape their lives. For the characters, like many Hindus, animals are an important force in life. Understanding the role that animals play in all aspects of Indian and Hindu life allowed me to understand the universal essence of the Indian spirit. Indian culture is extremely faithful and spiritual and respects and cherishes life in all its forms.
Personal Interview. 30 Sept
Ganguly, Adwaita P.
Mystic, Complex, and Real- An Interpretation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to
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Ions, Veronica. Indian
Mythology. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1967.
Klostermain, Klaus K. A Consise
Enclyclopedia of Hinduism. London: One World, 1998.
Master Artists of Janakpur. Janakpurdham, Nepal: Janakpur
Women’s Development Center, 1998.
Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civlization. Washington, D.C.:
Pantheon Books, 1963.