Feb 12, 2013

Dogs: Legalistic ritualism vs. Epic freedom

Some anthropological attitudes are shaped by ancient beliefs and culture, and it becomes insanely irrational when the theory and reason behind it is lost. I found this an interesting comparative study in piecing together a case in point:

Probably the worst place on Earth for a dog is the Middle East and North Africa. Admittedly, this is mainly due to Islamic hadith traditions about dogs being possessed by devils, and due to shari'ah laws that require several ablutions to restore ritual purity after contact with a canine. Still, many great Afghan and Persian Sufi wanderers loved dogs and even shared their meals with them. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), too, loved dogs at one time. As he and his followers were once marching off to war, he reacted protectively when one of his soldiers was cruel with a pregnant canine lying by the wayside. But undeniably, a famous hadith narrates that on one occasion the Prophet had been expecting a visit from the Archangel Jebrail, who arrived three days late. Surprised by this, the eager Prophet wanted to know why. To which Gabriel said that neither He nor Allah ever enters a house in which a dog resides. Muhammad immediately kicked a puppy hiding under his bed squealing out of his quarters. Later he narrated to his followers many other things about dogs, mostly negative. Black dogs especially were surely possessed by devils. Shari'ah does allow one to use dogs for some specific purpose, such as to guard the fields. But without a doubt, no prayers are answered if a dog is in the home. It could really kill one's chances of entering heaven, and there is no lack of mercy in kicking them out. Some historians also point out that the Prophet was exasperated by people who worshiped other contemporary deities popular in that region, such as the Goddess Hekate - one of whose heads is canine - and because of which female canines were superstitiously considered good luck in that culture. They indicate that this competition against other cults explains the Prophet's targeting of dogs in society, particularly females. These may be interesting speculations, but whatever their validity, the upshot of it all is a rather cruel vilification of an entire species that obtains in the present day and age.

Probably the second worst place for a dog is India, especially northern India. That's partly due to the influence of Islamic culture in those parts. But is it also partly due to Hindu traditions about ritual purity, or how contemptible a creature it is? All these interesting Arab ideas are echoed in another famous episode in a different tradition - the Mahabharata - but with a decisive twist (quoted at the end). A different civilization, one more ancient and more vast - and most importantly, one not deracinated from a continuous, recorded, cultural context.

In Vedic tradition, dogs certainly are a hindrance to ritual purity, such as around a Yajna. That is logical and hygienic, then as now, whether its a religious protocol or in the home. But apart from this protocol, dogs seem to not only be tolerated, but much loved and admired. It may be possible that as the ages rolled past, an obsession with ritual purity may have caused a degradation of the status of dogs as something that threatens one's spiritual prospects. Its the same moronic attitude that later also lead to "women" and "wealth" being looked down on as a distraction.

I'm taking a few quotes out of "The Dog in the RigVeda", by Edward Washburn Hopkins. Its worth reading in full.

Dogs seem to have been a part of the average household in Vedic Hindu culture. Here's a nightly benediction:

सस्तु माता सस्तु पिता सस्तु श्वा सस्तु विश्पतिः ।
ससन्तु सर्वे ज्ञातयः सस्त्वयं अभितो जनः ॥ ~ ऋग्वेद ७.५५.५

"Sleep the mother,
May father sleep,
Sleep the dog,
May the chief of the clan rest,
May all one's friends and acquaintances sleep well,
And all those gathered around here!" ~RigVeda 7.55.5

In the RigVeda, a famous Rishi is named Shaunaka, which means "son of a bitch" (okay, its "dog's son"). Also, it turns out that "dog's tail" (kutte ki dum?) is a respectable name, and a Brahmin gave this name in three different forms to his three sons: Shunakshepa, Shunahpuccha, Shunolaangula. For his sake, I take it they were all incorrigibly good.

In the RigVeda, Dogs were considered the companions and allies of Man. Dogs are part of the homestead, and not just on duty outside or to herd sheep - rather, she is so intimate that she pokes her familiar head into the dish at mealtimes and has to be struck aside and reproached as a selfish creature.

The chariot of the Maruts is drawn by dogs. Dogs are used for hunting. A visiting chieftain gifts a kennel of 100 dogs to his host, and it is gratefully acknowledged. The dog is never spoken of with scorn, and is deprecated only when he barks or offends by too great an eagerness - and then the prayer against him implies familiarity rather than contempt. However, eating the flesh of the dog is frowned upon and treated with contempt in Vedic culture.

Saramaa is the "devashuni", the Dog of the Gods, and Rudra goes about accompanied by his own dogs. Sri Aurobindo proposes that Saramaa also symbolizes the spiritual Intuition - She is the special nose that senses the depths of the subconscious and tracks down what was once known and now forgotten.

Finally, the story of Yudhishthira's ascent to heaven is instructive, and ties up the legalistic ritual with the epic character. The monarch Yudhishthira is ascending to heaven with his brothers, wife and his dog Dhruva. The way up is long and one by one his human companions quit and fall behind, but his dog stays with him to the end. At the entrance to heaven, the angel appears:
"Enter O King!"
Yudhishthira replies, "But not without this faithful dog."
"Desert the dog; there is no lack of mercy in doing so," the angel reassures him.
The King is humble but clear, "Thank you, but I will either not share in your heavenly world, or share it with this faithful attendant."
The angel states matter of factly, "There is no place in heaven for men with dogs."
Says Yudhishthira: "To desert a faithful friend is as great a sin as to slay a priest."

In the end, the angel at the portals to heaven was pleased. Dharmaraj had passed a test - The ceremonial impurity attached to the dog is united with the epic freedom of regarding the dog as a "friend". Dharma is forever sookshma, subtle.

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