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About Animals, Part 2 

In images of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, what does an animal represent ?

Part 3:  Iconography

Animal Attributes

Attribute is the term used in iconography and symbolism in general to refer to the objects, weapons and other items that stand for a deity’s qualities or kind of activity.

For example, Hevajra, the multi-armed tantric Buddhist deity, raises kapalas (bowls of bliss) and one of those contains eight different animals. They are a cat (or maybe, a rat or a mongoose,) a lion, a man, a camel, an ox, a donkey, a horse, and an elephant.  They stand for various conditions of being.

Divine Vehicle

A major iconographic role played by animals is that of the Vehicle (Sanskrit: vahana.)  Animal vehicles appear in all the world's mythologies.  Consider the Norse goddess Freya whose sleigh is drawn by grey cats, and the Roman’s Venus, who was conveyed by a covey of doves.

In Indian cosmology, which is similar to the Tibetan one, there is no Beginning in the sense of a starting point for linear time.  Therefore, the creation of the various life forms has no chronological pattern indicative of a hierarchy. All beings, including the gods and their  animal vehicles are very closely related.

In the Hindu Puranas is reflected an entirely different view of animals from that of Judeo-Christianity. Brahma initiates all coming-into-existence and his very breath or spirit manifests as a hamsa, usually translated as "the wild gander." He travels throughout the universe upon this bird that is also referred to as a swan. This bird is the prototype of all vehicles of deities that manifest in reality.

Perhaps you are reminded of the Greek sky god Zeus who, as a magnificent swan,  engenders Helen of Troy (and her 3 siblings) on poor unwilling Leda.  Or you are thinking of the poor Trojans who drew the gigantic horse-rupa inside the gates of their besieged city.

The following description by Himalayan Arts' Jeff Watts which accompanies a tangka of Hayagriva on the Rubin Museum web site, gives a good indication of the importance of the role of the vahana:

At the lower right riding a wild bear is the consort, Lhamo Dong Marwa - The Goddess with a Red Face, naked, blue, with one face and two hands holding a heart and kila (peg). At the lower left is the son, Lekhan Srog Dag Marpo, riding a wolf, holding a lance and lasso, dressed in the raiment of a warrior. At the upper left is the worldly protector Setrap (also known as Tshangpa), red in colour, holding a wooden club in the upraised right hand and a lasso in the left. Dressed as a warrior, he rides a brown horse. At the right is Damchen Garwa'i Nagpo, blue, holding a vajra hammer in the upraised right hand and a blacksmiths bellows made of tiger skin in the left. Dressed in long flowing garments and wearing a broad hat he rides a brown goat with twisted horns.

Part 4: The Status of Animals

The world-view of most of Europe and America is called Judeo-Christianity since its foundations lie in The Bible that contains both Jewish and Christian writings. Many people do not realize the Old Testament, which is the name Christians gave to Jewish scripture, contains two distinct versions of the ancient Hebrew myths. There is a puzzling contrast regarding the human-animal relationship here. It may seem at first glance that the view of animals is consistent – that they do not share any qualities with human beings -- but as you will see, (Genesis 1: 20, below) that is not strictly the case.

The 7-day creation story, which in Hebrew is called B’reshith (Genesis is a Greek way of translating that phrase*) relates in the first chapter, that living creatures appear in the morning of the 5th day. Verse 20: "Let the waters swarm with living creatures, and let the fowl fly above the earth ... ." 

On the 6th day (v. 24) "Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle and creeping thing, and beast of the earth." Then, in v. 26: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion ... over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." This is followed by verses that leave no doubt that the food for humans was to be of a vegetarian sort. Also, v. 30 says, "... and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food."

However, in the alternate version of creation that begins with verse 4* of the second chapter, Adam, the first human being is already caring for the Garden of Eden when, in v. 19, "Out of the ground the Lord formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them; and whatever he would call them, that was to be their name."

We can see that the ancient Hebrews shared the belief with many other peoples that by the process of naming, we acquire or access a certain kind of power. Indeed, this "sounding of names" is at the very root of practices such as praying and the saying of mantras.

It is only afterwards that the first woman, Eve, is created. Since her name in the language of this tradition is Hyyah, meaning Source of Life, and the word for animals is hyyoth, there seems to be a relation here that contrasts with the account granting Adam his power.

Clean and Unclean

In previous times, one of the favourite toys of Western children was the Noah’s Ark, a shoe-box sized wooden model of a covered multi-storey barge that contained several pairs of carved animals. It provided hours of play during which they could re-enact the Biblical story of "The Flood," a tale that appears to have roots in Mesopotamia, and which exists in a similar version in Hindu Puranas.

This myth, too, appears in two forms.  In Genesis 6, Noah, a descendent of Adam, is told that it would rain for 40 days and nights so that the unrighteous people of earth would all perish, and only he and his family would remain to repopulate the earth. His orders were: (v. 19) "... two of every sort [of animal] shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive; they shall be male and female." But in Genesis 7 (v. 2) "Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the beasts that are not clean two [and two], each with his mate; . . .  ."

It is frequently held that the pairs of differing versions reflect two distinct Hebrew traditions, a northern and a southern one. At a time when the Israelites came under threat of overwhelmingly dire conditions such as an invasion by the Assyrians or more likely, about the time of the Babylonian exile (587-539 BCE) a compilation was made by one or more redactors, so that Jewish tradition could be preserved for future generations.

In the case of Noah’s Ark, the reference to clean and unclean beasts shows a sensitivity to symbolic associations that the first account lacks. The northern inhabitants of Israel had contact with bull worshippers and perhaps, those who venerated the sow, and the southerners with their capital of Jerusalem in Judea had a more austere and conservative way of life.

Accurate modern English translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew "Bible.")

Animal Sacrifice

We can see from the Golden Calf incident in Genesis 32 and later on in Deuteronomy 9: 21, that any totemic, or symbolic animal connection between the highest spiritual realm and mundane existence was abhorred. Nevertheless, in the Biblical tradition, animals were sacrificed to provide burnt offerings at altars (the word literally means "high place")  and later on the practice was continued in the Temple of Jerusalem.  However, no species of animal symbolized, or was especially dedicated to, the Lord of Israel.

Christians who view Jesus’ subsequent death as a sacrifice that redeems human beings, refer to him as the Lamb of God. However, it is not certain that the epithet would have found favour with his early followers. Some scholars view Jesus' overturning of the tables of moneychangers inside the Temple precincts not as an objection to commerce, but rather as a condemnation of the purchase of animals for what many people would consider senseless slaughter. John 2:13-16 says that:

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 

In the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the Temple, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get out of here."

Various kinds of animals have been offered as sacrifices to the gods, and this practice continues.  On television, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq conflict, we saw sheep being killed as part of a blessing ritual for the young soldiers being sent off to fight in the salt marshes.

In stark contrast with the ancient Hebrews, and some Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists are prohibited from making sacrificial offerings of animals.

Animal Pests

It is helpful to think that we are in their territory, rather than the other way around. Try to get them to move without doing harm.  While there is still some uninhabited (by humans) space left in this world, we can catch and release them.


*vehicle: Here the word refers not only to a means of transportation, but sometimes it is used for any animal that is especially associated with a deity. As we shall see in the chapters about the various kinds of animals, the ones that support the lotus thrones of the Buddhas of the Five Families,  function as both type of Vehicle.

*tangka or thangka: A painted scroll used by Himalayan Buddhists as an aid to visualization.

*phrase: Hebrew is an extremely concise and efficient language.  A few letters can stand for a phrase.  For example, B'resh -ith  the first word in The Bible seems best rendered as, "When, in the beginning ... ."

*myths: The word is used here in its scholarly sense of "traditional sacred explanation."

*beginning with verse 4: The use of chapters is a medieval Christian invention. In Jewish practice, scripture is divided into 54 daily portions, each called by its introductory phrase

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