William Blake's (1757-1827) poem: The Tyger with explanatory notes.
The tiger is the vehicle of, and sacred to, the Hindu goddess, Durga. From a certain perspective she is India's Mother Nature, for she is the deification of Energy. Her consort, Shiva, sometimes evoked as Shambo, wears a tiger skin to indicate that he is beyond the bounds of the natural world.
He came by this vestment in a myth that recounts how the consorts of forest-dwelling sages were so taken with his physical beauty as he wandered naked through the jungle that they considered abandoning their husbands. The men felt they had to eliminate him at whatever cost, so they dug a great pit into which they conjured, by means of mantric magic, a great and ferocious tiger. The Great God easily slew the beast making of its skin a loincloth.
In his most ancient form, Lord Shiva was known as Rudra, the Howler, and the Yajur Veda describes him as clothed in a tiger skin. Thus a tiger pelt was once the typical mat (Skt. asana) of the meditating yogin up until the mid-20th century. Now we are more conscientious and would never contribute to the rapid disappearance from the world of this impressive solitary animal.
Instead of an actual tiger skin, today a rug depicting the animal is sometimes used as a seat/mat for doing tantric practices. These are available in 3 main designs from various Tibetan and Nepali companies. One is a stylized pelt, another has a "happy tiger" motif -- the animal or a pair in the a forest; the third kind is just an abstract striped field.
Tiger as Protector
The tiger is one of four animals associated with the Kagyu lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Bodhisattva Vajrapani wears the skin of a tiger and sworn dharma protectors such as Mahakala follow in this tradition that combines yogic symbolism with the Buddhist association of the tiger to compassion and generosity.
From a material perspective the bodhisattva vow (to forego one's own enlightenment until others can also achieve it) can be expressed by the donation of the body for the purposes of furthering the Buddha's Dharma. In legend, literature and art, there appears a motif in which someone makes a gift of his/her body to an animal, often a tiger, that evokes the Buddha's gift of Dharma. This can be underlined by having the "same" individual -- either an ascetic or a wayward monk -- receive both gifts. Although the parallel is not explicit, Reiko Ohnuma ("The Gift of the Body and the Gift of Dharma," History of Religions, 37:4 (1998) 323-59) demonstrates there is an implicit identification between the Buddha's gift and the offering of the body. The Mahamudra Chod [pron.: cheu] is a practice that uses this offering in a powerful way.
Khenpo Karthar, in Dharma Paths (Snow Lion, 1992/2006):
As a result of this karmic connection, the five cubs were reborn in the human realm where they attended that first teaching of the Buddha in the form of his first and only human students. They attained the level of arhat. (The others were 80,000 inhabitants of the god realm and they became first-level bodhisattvas.)
The second tale in the Tibetan collection The Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish (mdo mdzangs blun) tells how the Buddha, at the behest of a distraught mother, saves two young thieves from execution by accepting them into the monastic community.
When Ananda expresses amazement, Buddha replies, "Not only have I benefited these three, the mother and her sons, at this time alone; I also benefited them at a previous time as well." He tells how the prince Mahasattva encountered a tigress so weak with starvation that she is contemplating devouring her newly born cubs.
The man slits his throat with a piece of wood and lets her drink his blood. Finally, he lets her devour him completely which saves the lives of all of the tigers. Following the usual Jataka pattern, at the end of the story, the Buddha reveals that he himself was that prince while the two youths he had just saved from execution were none other than the two tiger cubs -- the mother, of course, was the starving tigress.
Namo Buddha is the name of the site in Nepal, where legend says the Buddha performed this supremely compassionate act of generosity. It is known to Tibetans as Tag-mo Lu-jin.
Bhadra of the Buddhist scriptures was a cousin of the Buddha and one of his great disciples. He is described as a good preacher able to explain the dharma in clear, simple language. Often depicted holding a book, he is also the arhat in images of the 16 who is accompanied by a tiger which he soothes or restrains.
Samantabhadra [All-good] Buddha is also associated with the tiger.
Dharmata, the upasaka (Tib: gen nyen dhar ma ta) or Dharmatala is one of the attendants often appearing in images of the 16 arhats. He is usually shown seated, often in a chair, in the company of a tiger.
Other Tibetan Buddhist Deities
One of the 5 Long-life Sisters converted by Padmasambhava is Mikyo Losangma [top right of prev. link] (Immovable Noble Mind) whose mount is a large young tiger. She is yellow and offers food with her right hand and a full golden bowl with her left.
The Dombi Heruka, one of the 84 great tantric masters (a.k.a. Dompipa) had been a king of Maghada (9th century Bengal) when he decided to take up tantrism full-time, particularly the practice of Hevajra. He took a tribal or gypsy girl as his consort and vanished into the jungle with her for 12 years.
Rumours of his scandalous life sent his former ministers after him, but when they saw the consort walking on lotus pads, they were discouraged from approaching. A further 12 years later, people went to fetch him again, and this time the embracing couple emerged from the forest waving a snake as a whip seated on a pregnant tigress.
A similar story is told of Padmasambhava, according to A. M. Butters (The Ancient History of Taktsang):
Taktsang, which is above Paro in Bhutan, is only one of 13 "tiger's nests" (Tib. sTag-tshang) or sites where Guru Rinpoche is believed to have revealed tantric teachings; here most notably, the cycle of Vajrakila (indestructible dagger.)
From the 9th to the 12th centuries ,the Cholas were a powerful dynasty that ruled over half of India, from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu [South India.]. Their empire also extended south to Sri Lanka and as far east as Indonesia. The Sri Lankan Tamil separatists call themselves Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) not only after the animal's reputation for ferocity and fearlessness, but in their identification with the Cholas, whose dynastic emblem was the tiger.
China promotes several places as the Shangri-la of Hilton's political novel, Lost Horizon. One of the candidates is Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan. Getting there requires a 5-hour bus ride from Lijiang that climbs through the Hengduan mountains and cuts across a great river system that rushes down from the Tibetan plateau. It winds through dramatic forests and isolated villages, at one point passing a place where the banks of the Yangtze narrow. This legendary spot is called Tiger Leaping Gorge after an animal that successfully managed to escape its pursuers by leaping across the river.
Chinese Tiger Symbolism
In Chinese iconography, tigers are used to stand for the cardinal directions:
Among the Chinese 12 symbols of sovereignty, there is a pair of bronze sacrificial cups. They stand for filial piety towards father and mother; one features a tiger to symbolize strength and the other, a monkey for cleverness.
Among the 12 animals of the Chinese calendar, the tiger is not only noted for strength but also for courage and perseverance.
Chinese deities riding tigers include Chang Tao-ling, the Taoist Immortal who is also the god of wealth and hence, of gamblers. The goddess of the wind also has a tiger as her mount. The constellation Westerners know as Orion is seen as only part of the constellation known to Chinese as the White Tiger.
Miao-shan, the daughter of a Chinese ruler, rose to heaven on a tiger at the time of her martyrdom. She was reborn as Kwan-yin, so they say. Is it this smiling tiger that is believed to care for the welfare of children and so, is embroidered on children's clothing? Her story is told in Alice Getty's The Gods of Northern Buddhism:
Judgment by Tiger
In Thailand not so long ago, when several people were suspected of the same serious offense, they were all thrown into a tiger pit. The first one killed by the tiger was considered the guilty party.
In Japan, the tiger is said to live a thousand years and was one of the emblems of the samurai, perhaps because of the story which follows:
A gosho of the Nichiren tradition
In a letter to a samurai patron in 1278, Daishonin gave this example of the power of confidence in the Teachings:
In Malaysia and Indonesia, there are also tales about were-tigers, perhaps because the actual Sumatran tiger -- now almost extinct -- is so mysterious. However, tales are also told of the friendly tiger.
The Skin of the Tiger King a Mongolian were-tiger tale.
The Bluebeard motif appears in the Indian tale of a Brahmin girl who married a tiger.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell: " If you're raised as a tiger, do you have to live like one?"
The Tibetan version of the race between un-equals is told of a tiger and a frog.
Vietnamese tale about a boy and the tiger's child.
Biology, Ecology and Natural History
Panthera tigris is the largest of all the cats. It reaches lengths of 13 ft. (4 m) - tail included, and can weigh 650 lb (290 kg), much larger than any lion. According to Project Tiger, there used to be 8 varieties of tiger; four have "gone extinct" -- one just recently -- in 2000, there were five.
The eight tiger subspecies that once were: The heavily furred Siberian or Amur tiger, the South China tiger, the Indo-Chinese tiger, the broad-faced Sumatran and the Royal Bengal. Differences relate to size, habitat and range.
Albinos tigers are well-known, especially since they have been bred in cpativity. They have also been bred with lions due to genetic similarities. However, unlike the lion, they are solitary and perhaps it is this characteristic that makes of the tiger a symbol of chastity. Unlike their cousin the lion, they enjoy bathing in water and generally hunt at night. The wide range of a male permits it access to a few females who give birth to two or three cubs for which they care for two years.
In 2000, there were estimated to be only about 5,000-7,000 wild tigers left in Asia. Found in a variety of habitats, even in Himalayan valleys at a height of 3,000 meters, tiger require sufficient vegetation for camouflage, ready access to water and a population of ungulates to serve as prey.
In 2003 in Nepal, according to Nepal News, the Bengals found there preyed primarily on deer and wild cattle. Although they are the strongest of the cat species, an old or "renegade" animal will occasionally take domestic cattle or become a man-eater.
A tiger chudders when it encounters its den mates. Your domestic cats can be encouraged to imitate that greeting, if you make a high gurgling as you meet them.
Survey Says? 0 Wild Tigers by 2015
Dec. 18/05, London's Sunday Telegraph, "Survey raises fears India's Bengal tigers may be wiped out in 10 years":
A new survey of India's tiger population has established there are many fewer of the animals than previously believed, prompting fears that increased poaching could lead to their extinction within a decade.
The Wildlife Trust of India has revealed there are few or no tigers left in at least six of the country's main reserves. According to official statistics, Namdapha in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh had 61 tigers in 2002, but the trust assesses that there is only one animal left now.
In Buxa in West Bengal, where 32 Indian tigers, also known as Royal Bengal tigers, were reported in 1997, none is thought to remain.
The disturbing new figures come a month before a planned national survey of tigers in India. "This is an extremely worrying development," said Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India. "We're afraid that the poachers will now move on to the other, better-known reserves where tigers are still doing well."
Unless the current rate of decline is reversed, the country's tiger population, 3,500 officially but perhaps as low as 1,500, could be wiped out by 2015.
"There's very little chance of saving the tiger now," said Belinda Wright, the British director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "It's got to the stage where it's beyond a crisis and the Indian government is in complete denial about what's going on. We've lost the battle."
The current wave of poaching is being driven by the escalating demand for tiger skins in Tibet. The skins are much sought-after as fashionable additions to traditional garments worn to weddings, horse festivals and at New Year.
The Wildlife Trust of India is pressing for the establishment of a wildlife crime bureau and for the government to hold talks about the illegal trade with the Chinese authorities.
"It's a huge criminal racket," said Kumar. "A villager can earn as much in one night from poisoning and skinning a tiger as he could earn from farming in five years. Eventually, that skin can sell for up to $6,000 US in Lhasa."
Other reserves from which tigers have disappeared include Dampha in the eastern state of Mizoram, Sariska in the western state of Rajasthan and in Indravati in the central state of Chhattisgarh.
"There's only one lonely tigress left in Palamau," said Kumar, referring to the reserve in the central state of Jharkhand. "It's very sad. She can be heard calling out for a mate, but there's no response."
Conservationists are particularly critical of the failure of India's wildlife authorities to bolster its forestry service. There has been little or no recruitment of forestry staff in more than 20 years and no training in a decade. The aging guards are no longer equipped to deter highly motivated, well-organized bands of armed poachers.
The majority of tigers living outside the reserves, up to half of the total tiger population, have already been destroyed.
Death Comes to the King
There will soon be no more tigers.
One reason is the fact that, in Chinese mythology, the tiger is the King of Beasts.
However, we can no longer blame solely the Chinese for the dwindling tiger population.
Sept. 24. 2005, The Telegraph, "Tibetan trimmings ring tiger knell: Fashion stokes demand for skin:
The Circle of Life: Mr. Caterpillar Wins Mrs. Tiger
Sept. 24, 2005, India's The Daily Telegraph, Outlook, "Can't Hide The Stripes," by Pramila N. Phatarphekar: " The Indian tiger gets a macabre afterlife in Tibet":
Vyaghra: Sanskrit word for tiger; thus, Viagra -- clever choice of name for a medication to aid in "erectile dysfunction." Perhaps the availability of this drug will deter men from encouraging the traffic in tiger parts that comprise traditional Asian treatments for what was formerly known as "impotence."
Little Black Sambo is a children's classic written in 1899 by Helen Bannerman where a boy cleverly gets the better of a tiger by getting it to chase its tail until it melts into butter. It is often taken to be a racist tale, but should rather be understood as a version of an Indian folktale about Lord Shiva, commonly saluted as Shambo. Here is a link to the 1994 revised Little Black Sambo.