By Roozbeh Gazdar
Superbly instinctive, embodiments of innocence, naturalness, beauty and love, with unique gifts and qualities, animals can teach us invaluable lessons in living.
It was as a young boy that I heard the story of King Bruce and the spider. The valiant king of Scotland had already been beaten five times in battle by invading English forces. Now, after another failure, his army routed, he sought refuge in a forest cave. About to give up, he received help from an unusual source.
His eye fell on a spider intending to spin a web across the cave entrance. Six times, as Bruce watched entranced, the tiny creature swung its yarn and failed. Then, as he watched with bated breath, the spider tried once again, this time just managing to complete its mission. Inspired, hope surging within him, Bruce prepared for another battle and this time successfully drove back the English. He regained his throne and ruled wisely ever after…
After hearing this story, every time I saw a spider spinning its orb, I would watch mesmerized. And each time the moral it taught me of never giving up, but persistently striving towards the goal without being daunted by failure, was driven home deeper.
If the fate of Scotland literally hinged on a strand of spider silk, how many of us realize how closely our destiny is influenced by early lessons learnt, directly or indirectly, from animals? The Panchatantra tales, Aesop’s fables and, of course, Walt Disney and Tom and Jerry cartoons form an indelible part of our growing years. The ongoing feud between the cat and the mouse, interspersed with moments of golden truce, no doubt concealed within it important lessons about the futility of war and the joys of harmonious co-existence.
Animals were surely amongst mankind’s first teachers. While early man feared and hunted them, he also admired them and sought to emulate their useful traits to help him survive in a wild and primitive world. Ancient art, right from the Paleolithic and Neolithic societies, to the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, Aztecs, Greeks and Romans leave little to doubt about the close influence that animals have held over the human psyche. Aboriginal tribes, even today, have totem animals and conduct rituals to invoke their spirits and develop shamanistic powers.
Closer home, the ancient sages of India were intimately associated with the natural world, and eagerly observed its inhabitants. The repertory of hatha yoga includes several asanas, poses, which are named after different animals. Doubtlessly the yogis sought to summon within themselves coveted qualities, such as the buoyancy of the fish, the poise of a cobra, the tautness of a scorpion ready to sting, the grace of a peacock and courage of a lion. Amusing however, for our anorexic age, would be Kalidasa’s extolment of Gajagamini, ‘woman with the graceful gait of an elephant’!
Animals in Religions
Many religious texts touch upon teachings received from animals. In Bhagvata Purana, Lord Dattatreya mentions among his 24 teachers, the pigeon, the python, the grasshopper, the bumblebee, the honeybee, the elephant, the deer, the fish, the osprey, the snake, the spider and the wasp. The Kalpa Sutra describes Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, as having developed the exemplary qualities of various animals.
The Buddha, a master storyteller, often narrated parables about animals to bring home the message of the dhamma. In the Jataka tales, presumably stories from his own past lives in animal forms, he offers strong lessons of kindness, compassion, non-violence and generosity. The monkey king who saved his troop, the golden deer leader with compassion for the pregnant doe, and the other stories, in fact, describe the life one should lead to attain Buddhahood.
Ramana Maharishi, a saint of modern India, took exceptional interest in the animals who shared his ashram at the foothills of the holy hill Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. In Ramana Maharishi and the path of Self-Knowledge, Arthur Osborne describes how the sage often nursed the squirrels who nested around him. He understood the code of behavior of monkeys, and mediated in their feuds. He would often make insightful remarks about the individual characters of the ashram dogs. Always referring to all animals as either ‘he’ or ‘she’, never ‘it’, he would say, ‘We do not know what souls may be tenanting these bodies and for finishing what part of their unfinished karma they may be seeking our company.’
A poignant story concerns the cow Lakshmi, a favourite of his amongst the animals. When she was nearing her end, the gentle sage, as he did with many other animals, was around comforting her. Writes Osborne, ‘Sri Bhagavan took her head in his lap, gazed into her eyes and placed his hand on her head as though giving her diksha and also over her heart. Holding his cheek against hers, he caressed her. Satisfied that her heart was pure and free from all vasanas and centered totally on Bhagavan he took leave of her. Lakshmi was conscious upto the end; her eyes were calm… She left her body, quite peacefully.’ Later the Maharishi had an epitaph engraved on her tomb in the ashram compound, saying that she had obtained liberation. When asked about it, he confirmed that she had indeed attained enlightenment.
Friends in Life
Ever watched a dog determinedly dig up a freshly laid flower-bed with single-minded absorption? Then, when scolded for it, plead remorse, tail wagging and eyes gazing adoringly at his master? Or a cat’s relaxation ritual? A long drawn stretch of the spine, complete with extended claws, followed by the inimitably feline indulgence of slumber. Observe a row of ants effortlessly maneuvering a leaf through a hole, with the coordination of an army drill. Animals provide us with umpteen lessons to live everyday life… well, at least to those open to them.
Says writer and teacher of tarot and psychic powers, Rohini Gupta, ‘Animals teach us how to be non-judgmental. They respond to people without evaluating their looks, money, status and other such rubbish. Their remarkable ability to cope with pain is another thing we can learn from.’
Dogs, horses and even dolphins are today increasingly used in therapy. Children with autism or learning disabilities, and even adults with physical disabilities, respond surprisingly well to animals who have the effect of calming them and drawing them out of their shell.
Sharing the secret of his fingerstyle technique, guitarist Tuck Andress says on his website, ‘I …spent countless hours practicing in my back yard, where I would be entertained by our cats …they all had a very beautiful non-human way of moving characterized by moments of stillness broken up by motions too sudden to follow. …I began studying the motions of these animals, and they became the biggest influence on my technique.’
Creatures of refined instinct, most animals, wild as well as domesticated, never fail to amaze us with their incredible power of cognizance. They navigate their way home over miles of unfamiliar terrain. They recognize those receptive to them and in fact are excellent character judges; an aunt of mine never hired domestics who did not meet her dogs’ approval!
Incredible stories abound of animals who predict calamities such as fires, warning people, and in case of children or handicapped people even physically helping them to escape. During the tsunami that hit South East Asia, it was recorded that animals such as elephants, as if through premonition of what was to happen, retreated inland to safety.
Says Shahin Ashraf Ali, a journalist who is also a tarot and runes teacher and reader, ‘Animals teach us about instinct, a faculty which our rationality and education has completely obfuscated in us humans. By helping us connect to this deeper intuitive seat, animals help us manage our lives more efficiently as well as to become better people.’
Living in the Moment
Once in Ranthambhore, during one of our frequent jaunts in the wild, we saw a tigress making a kill. A mother with growing cubs, she paused in her casual stride to ‘pick up’ the scent. Her muscles quivering ever so slightly, she bounded off into the bush, bringing down a young chital male as the rest of herd scattered, leaving us to marvel at her refined responses, superlative efficiency and economy of movement.
As she fed, we couldn’t help but wonder at the incredible synchrony between hunter and prey. Both were playing the role nature had designed them for, in the interdependent web of life. The tiger kills the deer acting out of supreme instinct, totally bereft of notions of greed, hate or lust … no fuss, no mess. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but animals are so completely ‘in the moment’, their motives so pure and innocent, that we just couldn’t feel any revulsion.
Shares Shahin, ‘Animals have always empowered me in the learning of the ‘here’ and ‘now’. Whenever I find worry fast-forwarding me into the future, I sit with my cats and feel relaxed. Trust and surrender are the other lessons they teach me. We humans, with all our belief in the Almighty, worry so much. Animals, on the contrary, provide us with a beautiful example of total faith and trust in the providence of nature.’
Says Theologian Matthew Fox, in an interview on the Internet, ‘Animals love. They love their being. They strive to survive, to celebrate, to propagate. So certainly something we learn from animals is love. To survive and to celebrate, propagate and to love life.’
Zoroastrians, as part of their funereal rites, expose the corpse to the gaze of a dog. While this could be a remnant from an era when, lacking sophisticated medical equipment, a dog was the only reliable indicator of whether life was actually extinct, many still believe it has the purpose of warding off evil.
Rohini Gupta does believe that animals can help us connect to the spirit world. ‘Animals are extremely sensitive to spirits and can pick up subtle changes in energies. Dogs, and even more so cats, can even actually see spirits.’
She narrates an incident where a dog helped protect its family from ostensible evil. ‘The family pet would fall sick without there being any explicable reason. Later, we realized that it was the result of a ‘spell’ to harm the family, cast by a relative. Thereafter, the dog became an effective indicator to be alert and carry out cleansing to ward off any evil effects,’ she says, asserting, ‘Who says animals are a lower species? They are just different from us, and we stand to gain by learning from them.’
Allies on the Path
If the cow Lakshmi could attain liberation as affirmed by Ramana Maharishi, then surely animals around us can be important allies on the spiritual path? The story of how Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s spiritual quest began when he watched a flock of white cranes flying against an overcast sky is well-known.
In an article on her website, www.anaflora.com, animal communication specialist, Sharon Callahan, writes, ‘It often seems that it is we who chose to have an animal of a certain kind at a certain time in our life. The animal, however, on a higher level has chosen to incarnate in its particular form at a particular time so that its life will touch our own. …I have become convinced that there are no ‘chance meetings’ in this universe of ours.’
Shahin describes how, as she and her husband got more involved in caring for the stray dogs and cats in their colony, it became the important focus of their lives. So when people around objected to this, they took the radical decision of relocating outside the city where adequate land could accommodate these animals. It wasn’t easy, the least of their tribulations being the daily commute to the city faced by her husband who is in advertising.
But, says Shahin, ‘The animals helped us become more aware of the validity of our convictions and the need to believe in them. I can never thank God enough for this opportunity to believe in our own capabilities.’ Also, she says, ‘An awareness grew that in our relationship with animals there is an important emotional and spiritual exchange happening. It makes me feel so empowered. People who are closed to animals can never access this.’
Shyam from Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, shares the beautiful story of how a dog badly beaten up by some drunks, brought to him by a friend, led to his own self-awakening. He says, ‘Here I was tied down to a sick, disabled and demented animal who couldn’t walk, relieved himself wherever he sat and did not eat a meal without a huge drama. I couldn’t leave him alone and go anywhere, couldn’t find anyone to adopt him and surely didn’t have the heart to put him to sleep. I was stuck in a situation I did not want to be in.’
‘Months passed this way till one day I saw something new. Gathering all his strength about him, striving to keep balance, fighting his disabilities, he managed to stand up. Balancing on his swaying legs, he looked up at me… a moment which silenced me with awe… I had no words to express as I simply became a witness from then on.’
Says Shyam, ‘It was not he who healed. I guess I was. I healed from my frustration, I healed from my inability to foresee good and I healed from my madness of despair and agony that I lived with in relation to him. What was I left with now? This very moment of seeing him brought such intense joy and happiness, a gratitude for having him, for without him, this moment that I have now would not have come into existence.’
The words of French novelist and playwright Anatole France ring true: ‘Until one has loved an animal, part of one’s soul remains unawakened.’
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