How Animals Humanize and Sanctify?

Why is it that children get ecstatic on seeing or contacting or playing with animals? Why is it that our dream imagery involves animals? Why is it that human history in general and sacred history in particular isa also a history of our relationship to animals? What a misfortune that as we grow old our encounter with animals is often reduced to museum space only.

Animals humanize and sanctify. Our salvation is linked with them in many ways. If we fail to comprehend how and why of our fellowship with animals that we enjoyed as children or all normal children exposed to contact with animals enjoy due to our sharper perception of higher world, don’t be surprised. We have almost lost sense of a vital treasure of symbolism..

Our Symbolism Illiteracy and Kashmir

We fail to be humans invited for deciphering symbols. By being guilty of symbol illiteracy we  are guilty of  crass culture, religion, art, mythology, literature literacy. Symbolism is the largely forgotten science of symbols to which the Quran and other scriptures call addressees. Kashmir is one of the last bastions of traditional Sacred centric cultures that has yet to fully relinquish this priceless heritage. Kashmir’s legacy of honouring prophetic-mystical understanding of animals is now forgotten by even some professionals of development departments, not to speak of common Kashmiris.

Symbolism and Rituals of Animal Sacrifice

Man lives by virtue of symbols – he is a symbol-making being (homo symbolicus) – and all great religions, myths, arts  and philosophies are an comprehensible in terms of engagement with them. David Cane, a Mircea Elade scholar  aptly notes in his Mercia Eliade’s Vision for a New Humanism “The nostalgia for paradise, of that time of first beginnings, unity,sacrality, and bliss is one of humans’ most basic longings, and the symbols for that nostalgia persist in people’s unconscious aspirations, in their dreams, ideals, and in their literary and artistic creations.

That these nostalgias were driven into the unconscious is, itself, an indictment of the spiritual condition of modern society.” And  “Insofar as primitives consciously lived their symbols, everyday life held the potential to manifest the real and give meaning to a person’s actions.

To a primitive agriculturalist, for instance, the spade represents more than an implement for cultivation. It is at the same time symbolically homologous to the phallus impregnating the fertile womb. The act of sowing assumes greater metaphysical significance than what the simple act itself suggests.

Joseph Campbell also clarifies in his The Way of the Animal Powers: Hunting and gathering societies that originally religion was suffused with a view of nature as being infused with a spirit or divine presence. “At center stage was the main hunting animal of that culture, whether the buffalo for Native Americans or the eland for South African tribes, and a large part of religion focused on dealing with the psychological tension that came from the reality of the necessity to kill versus the divinity of the animal. This was done by presenting the animals as springing from an eternal archetypal source and coming to this world as willing victims, with the understanding that their lives would be returned to the soil or to the Mother through a ritual of restoration.”

Campbell sought to show in his extensive and comprehensive work that “throughout history mankind has held a belief that all life comes from and returns to another dimension which transcends temporality, but which can be reached through ritual.” Islamic teaching about some kind of posthumous life/accountability for living creatures makes the same point.

Animal sacrifice motif is at the heart of key narratives – in Cain and Abel story, in Abraham’s sacrifice, in hajj, aqeeqa and other events in life in Muslim cultures from birth to death – marriages, urs celebrations. In the 15th āhnīka of Tantrāloka, Abhinavagupta, authority of Kashmir Savism, states that rituals involving animal sacrifice were to be performed “by an elevated master and only for the sake of those disciples who were not able to experience the benefits of the practices of āṇavopaya.” In Kashmir there is a common practice of sacrificing animals at the time of inaugurating construction of new house as an apology to the subtle world’s denizens and animal world including insects and rats that previously inhabited the place.

Secularization, Industrial Farming and Symbolism

Regarding animal farming and mythic-symbolic framing of animals, a few more points I wish to press.

The Muslim world has embraced secularization to a large extent, unconsciously mostly, and this is evident in its treatment of animals and criminal silence regarding ethics and environmental implications  of industry farming.

Myths have largely fled, angelic world only a matter of faith as the faculty for smelling subtle world fading, not to speak of transcendent world as noted by a Sufi scholar and more generally expressed by Shaykh Isa Nuruddin (Frithjof Schuon) who observed that modern man has lost the ability to smell the perfume of the sacred.

Mythic animals are mostly gone or subject of idle curiosity and their meaning  as that of meaning of ritual sacrifice and beliefs in interconnected destiny of animals and man – ram replaces Abraham’s son – utterly alien to new generation.  It is hard to understand such traditional narratives regarding the Prophet (S.A.W) and some saints that they could talk to animals and address their grievances.

All creatures glorify God, says the Quran and Ibn Arabi claims one can experience this literally. Pakistan’s best selling writer Mustansar Hussain Tarad claims his special association with the wild and some ability to decipher its language. St. Francis was beloved of the animal world and in Kashmir we have witnessed certain mystics paying special respect to dogs or other creatures. One such mystic was called houn mout as he was ever accompanied by dogs.

It is harder to understand how animals like fish are said to pray for humans and the practice of durood involves blessing whole of life and the Quran attributes domestication to God’s grace implying a deeper bond of fellowship of men and animals instead of power and cunning involved in the process. It is in the context of this arid scenario that certain elements of Kashmiri mystic culture call for our attention. I offer some scattered observations and facts about Kashmiri culture that should interest the world, especially the Muslim world.

Until recently it was believed that milk is the light of God that is best not commoditized or sold in market but to be offered as gift to the needy neighbours. Many refuse to eat meat of animals reared by them and take it only if it is a sacrifice. Animals are reared for spiritual benefit of barakah (blessing/benediction), averting tragedies, offering to God and His people (prayer food culture/khatm/niyaz continue to be in vogue despite criticism from Salafi-Jamaat-e Islamic cadres who have, in turn, mostly forgotten mythological, mystical and symbolic dimensions of the issue).

Dogs who are often thought to be mistreated in Islamic lands are specially treated in Kashmir in line with examples of Sufi saints. There is an adage that if some good is received or misfortune averted it could be because of offering food to dogs. (Khaber kus heun mound aas bith). Every morning, at many places, dogs in neighborhood are first recipients of the day’s food – roti.

Birds are welcome almost everywhere as they are lavishly hosted not only around shrines but around everyday dwellings of  numerous people. Some old women say dog will complain on the Day of Judgment to God why you didn’t care for my provisions rely will be who then provided for you he will say “dyedi hend mend seeth.” Many a person make it a point to spare some food for dogs/birds etc and, thankfully, even one of the officers of the State’s animal husbandry department recently, officially, requested people to take care of birds in the time of scarcity. Dogs despite being a menace to public health have been remarkably tolerated and treated as our fellow companions in the odyssey of life despite absence of pet culture.

What modern rationalist sensibility usually dismisses as superstition may be a survival of once thriving symbolism or have significance for psycho-spiritual or community health. Certain animals if encountered while beginning to travel are considered bad omen.

While one may frown at such a practice on scientific and sometimes theological grounds, there remains a possibility that it might be a residue of some higher knowledge or have survived from  some other practice as a recognition of interlinked destiny of man and animals and power of precognition in animals which is now more respectful notion than in the past thanks to extensive documentation by researchers. Some diseases/earthquakes are first felt/registered by certain animals.

People heeded hints from animals/spirit animals/ sentinel animals and interpreted dreams involving animals in a manner that better (than current psychoanalytic or popular dream manual based speculations) honoured timeless/time tested symbolism of them.

So being intercepted by  animals in certain uncanny way or noticing howling of dogs towards a particular house or owl’s shrieks or strange sounds from domestic animals and poultry birds might involve references to largely forgotten symbolism/mythology. 

At certain places, cocks are reared in the age of alarms for their supposed communication with the higher world/barakah. One can find correspondences/echoes of large number of myths across cultures in Kashmir.

For instance Wolf and Moon myth and Cyclops find echo in Haereth Kaen,  and as Abid Ahmed has noted in his valuable “Plural Sources of Kashmiri Myths” Green Man (Khawja Khizr) in “Sodhe Brore te Bodhe Brore,” Phoenix in Shraz, to note only a few.  The symbolism of human sacrifice and number in myths/folktales like Aka Nandun few now know.  How key myths are to be lived in a way is forgotten by most advocates of religion and their critics.

Mythologists and scholars of symbolism help decipher our cultural treasures and sad to note that such disciplines are unknown in our schools or academic institutions.

No individual or institution has so far given us any comprehensive treatment of mythology and symbolism of Kashmiri culture. There are some beliefs that besides having symbolism in the background help in preserving biodiversity though we need to be cautious regarding any reductionist/pragmatist account of myths that interpret away the connection with the Sacred. For instance, if some had stolen eggs of oriole would suffer blindness that would be transmitted for generations.

Kashmiris have lived for millennia on narratives that projected fellowship of wild animals and men – tigers accompanying saints or paying respects at shrines every Friday night –, Agerpacehen a large bird offering its wings in times of crisis, Yaech (probably a wild cat who propped up anywhere during cold nights–spiritually arid – offering a spiritual treasure (gold) to those who mastered the art of self giving or hospitality.

We know there have been, in traditional cultures, narratives highlighting animals performing invaluable functions for humans, displaying intuition and care. In fact few Muslims now are conscious that animals have been considered as divine messengers of lessons for humanity in Islamic tradition.

Allah says, “There are [manifest] signs [of truth] in the creation of [humanity and numerous types of] animals scattered [on the earth] for those who believe [in Allah].” (45:4) In fact  the Qur’an has “over two hundred verses that deal with animals” and emphasizes that animals have been created as communities and have power of communication and thus deserve the honorific title of rational creatures who have their share in the life of reason and spirit.

Animals receive a kind of revelation according to the Quran. A death of an animal is death of a part of oneself. Ibn Arabi asserted that for a gnostic every insect is a sort of messenger. It is instructive to note in this connection that in Kashmir animals have been prized for extra-economic reasons as well and are for living with, for certain fellowship and not just for living at the cost of or means of livelihood.

 Symbolist view of animals is incompatible with the tenor of industry farming for reasons that have been elaborated by various scholars who are not necessarily vegetarians.

Sacrificing animals as a ritual is a demand few can fulfill in this iron age and one finds that is ritualism devoid of  spirit that has been reigning to the detriment of both religion and environment. So far ethics has been largely absent in the discourse of industry farming in the Muslim world.

Kashmiri society is somewhat more remarkable in being loyal, to a certain extent, certain associations of symbolist view of things and that has informed, to an extent, its current practices in livestock sector. The world in general and Muslim world  in particular need take cognizance of this view to comprehend persistent attitudes of people and design its policies and curriculum accordingly.