A sacred being arrives


*DSC00077little ganesha one 2017


By Sharon St Joan


The 500 year old peepal tree, majestic, lifts its branches into the sunlight. In front of it stands a stone Ganesha which has been there even longer, for around a thousand years, extending his blessings of profound peace to all. This is a special place near the buildings of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. The land of the Foundation was originally the ancestral home of the family of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Foundation’s Honorary Director. She recalls that when she was a child, much of the area was covered in trees with jackals scurrying through the brush and deer browsing among the leaves. Now, among the buildings built in the past few decades, trees still stand tall offering shade and tranquility, though sadly some fell during the recent severe cyclone, Vardah, which blew through in December.


*DSC00079ChinnyBhairava 5 2017



As the site of regular pujas, ceremonies to express devotion to the Gods, the air of this special place becomes filled with incense and ancient songs to Ganesha, who grants prosperity and knowledge, and who has the power to overcome all obstacles.


One day in 2006, when Dr. Chinny Krishna, who founded, with his parents, the well-known animal organization, Blue Cross of India, and who is the husband of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, had come to this site to spend a few quiet moments with Ganesha, he spotted a small brown form, barely visible, concealed in the brush off to one side.


With a lifelong understanding of street dogs – he and Blue Cross have rescued many, many thousands — he knew that a subtle approach was required with a frightened dog. Dr. Krishna sat down on the stone steps. Quietly, he called to a staff person and asked him to bring a little milk in a bowl and a leash. Leashes are always handy because rescuing dogs is a common event. Placing the bowl beside him on the step, Dr. Krishna waited. After half an hour or so, the brown form emerged from the bushes, gently approached the milk, and the thirsty dog began to drink. Within a few minutes, Dr. Krishna was able to slip the leash over the dog’s head. He did not touch the dog or try to pet him, and when he stood up, the small brown dog went with him. He put the dog into his car, into the back, and gave him a few moments to settle down while he went to have a bite of breakfast, then he drove him to Blue Cross to be neutered.


All street dogs rescued by Blue Cross are spayed or neutered if this has not already been done, along with many thousands of dogs on the streets of Madras, as part of Blue Cross of India’s ABC program. Blue Cross of India runs the world’s first and longest continuously operating spay/neuter program that began in 1964.


Giving the little dog time to recover from his surgery, Dr. Krishna picked him up a few days later from Blue Cross. He set him down by the gate of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, and walked away, giving the dog the chance to return to where he had come from. Generally, street dogs live in a neighborhood which is their home, where they know the other dogs who are their friends, and where one or two kind people will feed them and keep an eye on them. In this way they lead a stable life and may live for many years.


TNR (trap/neuter/ vaccinate/return) for dogs, not just for cats (as in the U.S.), is the accepted best practice way to relate to community dogs in most countries in the world. A shelter system, as is found in the U.S. and other developed countries does not work, and, for many reasons, wherever it has been tried in developing countries, putting street dogs in shelters creates an inhumane, over-crowded situation. TNR is the best and only workable solution for the many millions of street dogs in India. All animal welfare organizations in India are no-kill, and it would not occur to any of them to kill homeless animals. Also, it would be illegal to do so.


By evening, the small brown dog had shown no signs of going away and had found his way back into the center of the compound among the trees and the buildings. The next morning Dr. Krishna put him once again out by the gate. And by evening, he had wandered back. Clearly, he had no attention of leaving such a calm, welcoming place.


Soon given the name of Bhairava, or Bhairu for short, he joined the twelve to twenty rescued street dogs who, at any one time, are part of the family of Dr. Nanditha and Dr. Chinny Krishna. They go where they wish, inside or out, are much-loved and cared for, and they are safe within the gates of the large, walled compound, which contains the buildings of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.


Now perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, Bhairava has a touch of arthritis, but otherwise he is fine. Appropriately, a natural white mark on the fur of his forehead resembles the sign that devout Hindus wear as a mark of devotion. Bhairava is the form of Lord Shiva who wanders the world as a homeless outcaste, always accompanied by his faithful dog. When reminded that, since the little dog Bhairava appeared, as if dropped from heaven, in the middle of the centuries-old site of worship of the peepal tree and the little stone Ganesha, he must certainly be a sacred dog, Dr. Krishna, replied, “Yes, of course, all dogs are sacred.”



Sacred lands? – part one





By Sharon St Joan


Sacred lands. Where has the concept of the sacred gone? Indeed this may be the key question to understanding our alienation from nature.


All over the world, tribal people and people who have not lost touch with the natural world have an enduring concept of animals, plants, the mountains, and the stars being sacred – respected, revered, and worshipped. It is only “modern” man – often “western” man — that objectifies nature, treating the earth with condescension and disrespect.


The consequences of this alienation from the earth are a profound malaise at the center of our being – as we rampantly destroy the forests, the wild species, polluting rivers and oceans, and hurtling pell-mell towards climate change run amok.


Meanwhile, we wonder why our western society is ill – crime waves, opioid epidemics, suicide, divorce, fragmentation of families, mental illness, racial injustice, warfare, and a profound fear and deep-seated unrest that afflicts a large part of the population.


To see a difference in cultural perspectives, we’ve only to look to North Dakota, at the Standing Rock Sioux – thousands of brave people over several months protesting the plan to run an oil pipeline under a river which would risk contaminating the water. Hundreds of tribal people are standing their ground; some have traveled there from all over the world. They talk about their sacred land, that water is life. Law enforcement chases them with dogs, sprays pepper spray into their eyes, and runs trucks across their burial sites. They talk about their treaty signed by the U.S. Government, which everyone ignores. Only the oil companies’ view of the law prevails, and Native American sacred lands and the water that is sacred to them, and has been for thousands of years, carry no weight within the law – no standing or recognition. The only law recognized is that of their conquerors, who took their land away generations ago.




To Native Americans, water is life, and the mountains, rivers, and the earth are sacred too. The lay of the land on which they live is also sacred. In the southwestern U.S., to the Hopi and Navajo people, four sacred mountains encircle their lands, framing the sacred center in the middle. This is the area where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, known as the Four Corners region. These mountains are Mount Blanca in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona, and Mount Hesperus Dibe Nitsaa in Colorado. From a great distance driving through the desert, one can glimpse the San Francisco peaks, covered in snow, mist-encircled, looking just like a high place where spirits surely live.


Animals are sacred to Native Americans as well. The word coyote comes from the Aztec word “coyotl.” The coyote is generally a trickster God – intelligent, resourceful, a magical creature who is sometimes helpful to human beings.


Another trickster God is the raven, worshipped as the maker of light, the being who existed before the beginning of time and created the world. The raven is also credited with creating the stars, the moon, rivers, and the sun.




On the other side of the earth, in India, the oldest book in the world, the Rig Veda, depicts the forces of nature as powerful living entities, as Gods. (Even today, we can see faint shadows of this belief, as when hurricanes are given human names.) To the ancient rishis who wrote the hymns of the Rig Veda, Agni is fire, Vayu is the wind. Indra, leader of the Gods, is the Lord of storms and lightning. Varuna is Lord of the oceans and the universe. Aditi is the original Mother, the boundless one of the heavens. Throughout the long history of Hinduism (at least 5,000 years, maybe 10,000), there are millions of Gods, yet they are all One. Every being has a soul, and the soul of every being is the same soul, the underlying ground of reality, the spirit of the universe.


The sun is Surya, the moon is Chandra. The universe is filled with life, and nature is sacred. Life is based on reverence and worship, on fulfilling one’s duty.


This worldview is in many ways the opposite of the western way of seeing things, where individuality is exalted, and the individual reigns supreme. In our culture nature is objectified – it is to be used and consumed. Its existence is deemed inferior to our own. Signs at the entrance to public lands run by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proclaim that these are “lands of many uses.” This phrase, which sounds benign, in fact means that the land is a resource to be used by human beings.


To be continued in part two…

To read part two, click here.


© Sharon St Joan, 2016.


Top photo: Sharon St Joan / Zion National Park.


Second photo: Tyler finvoid / Wikipedia / Public Domain / The San Francisco Peaks.


Third photo: Bharat Mudgal / Wikipedia /Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic / A Hindu fire ritual.



The temple elephants of India

Two wild Asian elephants, with a baby

At the entrance to the temple of Brihadeswara, a large elephant walks along with her mahout (trainer), greeting devotees.  She walks on the cobblestones of the entranceway.  People entering the temple see the temple elephant, and conclude that, clearly, she must enjoy being a sacred elephant, being able to greet devotees and to nibble on bananas, having no cares or worries.  They notice nothing that could cause any alarm.  This elephant is one of hundreds, kept in temples throughout India.

Unfortunately, there is another untold and unseen story.  How did this elephant get from the forests where she was born – to the temple where she walks today on the hard cobblestones?  It is rare for elephants to breed in captivity.  They do not normally do so; the female elephants seem to sense that bringing babies into a world where they cannot lead natural lives cannot be a good thing to do.  So, while we do not know the specific story of this individual, it is likely that this elephant, like most Indian temple elephants, was born in the wild – perhaps in the northern forests of Bihar.

When she was captured by poachers, she may have been a few weeks old; her mother was killed so that she could be captured easily without her mother coming to her defense.  Then alone, orphaned, she was taken to a market, where she was sold, perhaps first spending a few months’ time with a dealer whose job was to feed her and “train” her, getting her accustomed to life in the human world. While a domestic animal like a dog can be trained, a wild animal cannot be trained, so this “training” is not really training at all, but is instead very abusive treatment. She would never again see the forest that had been her first home – never enjoy roaming among the trees with her family and relatives – or having a bath in the river.

Female elephants in the wild live their entire lives surrounded by their relatives – their mother and grandmother, their aunts and sisters, and the young males too stay with the herd until they are old enough to leave. As herd animals, highly sensitive and intelligent, they are never alone; their social structure is the most important aspect of their existence.  For an elephant to be alone is like a human being who has been placed in solitary confinement.  So the temple elephants who are kept as single elephants, as they most often are, are deprived of having the companionship of their own kind.

Elephants do not have hooves, like horses or goats.  Their feet are not protected efficiently – and they are designed for walking on the leaves or grass on the forest floor.  Walking on cobblestones is not the same thing.

It’s not really easy to catch an elephant and persuade her to go in the direction you want her to go in.  An elephant is a very big creature who may just decide to go in a different direction, and this means that, in order to control the captive animal – heavy chains are placed around her legs – sometimes all four legs, sometimes just one or two legs.  An ankus is used to force the elephant to go this way and not that. An ankus is a metal hook, with a very sharp end, and it is used by the mahout to direct the movements of the elephant by inflicting physical pain.

The male elephants have even more serious problems.  They are feared and can be genuinely dangerous.  So, in an attempt to control them, they may be beaten and confined in very restrictive ways.

There are hundreds of temple elephants in India, and the sad thing is that very few people understand their plight.  Because they are considered sacred temple elephants, there is an assumption that they are well and happy.  That they have been deprived of the life that they could have known in the forests has been forgotten. That they might be lonely or in pain is simply not part of people’s understanding.

There is a need for us to look clearly at the animals themselves, with the recognition that an animal who was created to roam with friends and family through tall trees, in the peace of the forest, in the early morning or the setting sun, to walk among the sounds of the forest, whose life can only be fully lived within the forest – this is an animal who is meant to live life in freedom in the wild, not in captivity.

Since they can never be returned now to the wild, temple elephants can only be happy when a place of sanctuary can be created for them where they are able to live in natural conditions, in the companionship of other elephants. What they need now is a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace and freedom.

Photo: Colette 6 / Dreamstime.com 

The sacred cow through Indian history

Not surprisingly, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, “Sacred Animals of India” devotes many pages to the cow, since the cow is an especially sacred animal in India, where all animals are sacred.


The cow is a symbol of “dharma.”  Dharma, a very complex Hindu concept, is basically righteousness.  It is the right way and the right path in life.


In difficult times on the earth, it is believed that the earth takes on the form of the cow in order to pray for help from heaven.


From the ancient Indus Valley, one of the earliest carvings is a bas relief of Pashupati, an early form of Shiva.  Pashupati is the God of the animals, and “pashu” is  “cow” in Sanskrit, and by extension, the word applies to all animals.  In the carving, Pashupati is surrounded on all sides by animals.  Another Sanskrit word for cow is “go” or “gau”– from which the English “cow” is derived.


Throughout the early Vedic literature, there are countless references to the cow.  She is associated with the dawn, and with speech itself.  One of the characteristics of Sanskrit literature is that there are so many levels of meaning.


Indo-Iranians also worshipped the cow, and in the Zend-Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians,  the Soul of the Cow is called geuvarsan or goshuran.


The world over, cows have meant wealth, and in early systems of money, the coins sometimes depicted a cow.


In ancient India killing a cow was a particularly despicable crime – equivalent to, or even worse than, murdering a human. It was punishable by death.


According to later mythology, Brahma, God the Creator, ordered that the cow be worshipped, stating that she is the mother of the Gods.


A great many words and concepts come from the cow.  In India, a person may have several family names, and one of these is called the gotra, which refers to one’s ancient lineage, a bit like a clan name.  Literally, it means cow pen, so there is a connection with the cow.  One cannot marry another person of the same gotra, even though there could be thousands of people all over India who belong to that gotra, because they are all relatives.


In a Brahmin marriage, the entire family history of both the bride and the groom is recited.  This goes back thousands of years and can take several hours. There are any number of other rituals too that have to be performed, so weddings last several days.


Gopuram (being renovated) at Brihadeswara Temple

A temple gateway is called a gopuram, and some Hindu temples have a number of gopurams, magnificent and beautifully carved.  Gopuram means the cow’s village.


So much of tradition in India relates very directly to the cow.


During the shraddha ceremony (the rites performed at death), a cow is to be given to a Brahmin.  When the person who has died arrives in heaven, the cow will be there waiting, and will then free the soul from all sin.


Dr. Krishna delves into the question of whether cows were killed and eaten in ancient India, looking into the evidence in literature.  Although, there is some suggestion that certain elements of society may have killed and eaten cows, this was considered abhorrent by most of Indian society, back to the most ancient times.


There are numerous injunctions throughout Hindu scriptures not to kill animals, and especially, not to kill cows and not to eat beef. This has been a strict rule of Santana Dharma (the correct name of Hinduism) for thousands of years.


Ushas, the Goddess of Dawn, rides in a chariot that is drawn by seven cows.


Kamadhenu is the name of the cow who is mother of the Gods.  She grants wishes to those who ask her with reverence and sincerity.


Village cows resting, in Tamil Nadu

In re-reading this account by Dr. Krishna of the cow’s central place in Indian tradition, it occurred to me that the recognition of the cow as divine throughout the history of India, into the farthest past, may have had a great deal to do with the principle Hindu doctrine of ahimsa or “do no harm,” since the cow is such a gentle creature known for being kind, generous, for nourishing her calves, and giving milk to humans too.  She eats grass and harms no one, giving only good and beneficial gifts.


A civilization that worships the cow is necessarily one of gentleness and compassion, and this is a thread that runs throughout Indian history.  India is a land that is fundamentally kind – not in all ways, at all times, since all that exists on the earth can be subject to cruelty or to being cruel– but there is, all the same, a connection with kindness that is very basic, that is unique, and that lies at the heart of India.


One can see this in Indian history. Great nations have typically become empires, conquering and ruling other peoples. They have launched wars and invasions (even today). India has never done this, and has limited its expansion, which was far-ranging, reaching all over Asia and even far to the west – to trade and to cultural influence – always peaceful and enlightening.  Of how many countries in the world can that truly be said?  There is, in my view, something entirely unique about India – and perhaps this has much to do with the sacred cow.

Top photo: Copyrighted to Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii. Licensed for Wikipedia under Creative Commons


Second photo: Sharon St. Joan


Third photo: Sharon St. Joan