Following the pandemic, there has been a resurgence of hatred against stray dogs who are left to fend for themselves. Not many understand how their lives have turned upside down

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected human behaviour throughout the world, causing new focal points of irritation to emerge and the old ones to intensify, sometimes to levels where violence follows inevitably. This, in turn, is the result of the fear of catching the disease and boredom caused by prolonged confinement at home, either by choice or compulsion created by lockdowns. Moods marked by irritation and anger intensify old animosities and create new ones. An example is the resurgence of hatred towards stray dogs, who have been an integral part of India’s urban and rural population centres since the time of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, if not earlier.

Directly or indirectly, animals and creatures that live in water or the sky feature prominently in the philosophy of the Upanishads and the narratives of the VedasBrahma Sutra, the Puranas and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Examples are many, but two well-known ones merit a mention. In Mahabharata’s Mahaprasthanika Parva (The Chapter of the Great Departure), a small brown dog began to follow the five Pandavas and Draupadi as they began their final journey out of this world. One by one, Draupadi and four Pandavas fell dead as they climbed Mount Meru. Yudhisthir, the eldest Pandava, and the dog marched on. Suddenly Indra, the king of gods, appeared in his flying chariot and said that he had come to take Yudhisthir to heaven in his mortal body. Assured that Draupadi and his four brothers were already there and well, he asked whether the dog could come with him. On being told that heaven had no place for a dog, he refused to go without the latter. It was then that the dog appeared in his true self as Dharma, the God of Virtue, and said this was Yudhisthir’s final test. He would not have been able to enter heaven alive if he had agreed to abandon the dog.

This account is widely known and cited.  Another incident is found in the Bengali translation of the Saptakanda Ramayana (The Ramayana in Seven Parts) by Krittibas Ojha. It happened when Ram, after defeating Ravan and sending Sita to sage Valmiki’s hermitage, was holding court in Ayodhya with Lakshman guarding the entrance. A white dog with red eyes, lame in one leg and limping, with thick patches of congealed blood on his head, indicating that it has hit with a stick, came and touched Lakshman’s feet. Asked why he had come, he said he would relate the cause of his sorrow to Ram if the latter granted him an audience.

Told of the dog’s request by Lakshman, Ram asked for the dog to be brought before him forthwith. Arriving in Ram’s presence, he began to sing the former’s praise with folded hands and head bowed. Asked about the reason for his coming, he said, “A sanyasi (a mendicant ascetic who has renounced the world) has hit me for no fault of mine. Distressed and hurt after being hit, I have come to your court after starving for three days. The court should please ask the sanyasi what was my fault that he should have hit me with a stick?” Ram said that the sanyasi should be brought immediately before him so that the court could judge. How could a sanyasi be cruel to an animal? (All quotations  from Saptakanda Ramayana have been translated from Bengali to English by this author).

The dog, who accompanied Ram’s messenger, identified the sanyasi whoi was brought before Ram, who asked, “Why have you abandoned your dharma and are cruel to animals? One who perpetrates adharma has to live in hell. What kind of renunciation is yours when your body is so full of anger? Castigation of others and malevolence towards others are grave sins. A terrible hell is the punishment for a cruel and malevolent sanyasi. A sage who has given up greed, illusion and desire, is respected in this world. And, though a sanyasi, you suddenly burst into anger! What was the fault of the dog that you hit him with a stick?”

The ascetic replied, “I went to the town for alms after reciting prayers on the banks of the Ganga during the whole day. Begging for alms, the whole body burning with hunger, I found the dog lying in front occupying the whole road. I loudly asked him go give way but he pretended not to hear. He was asleep with one eye closed and looked at me with the other. I became angry and hit him on the head with a stick. Now that I have said all this before the court, you decide what punishment to give me.”

On being asked by Ram about the punishment, the courtiers said that the sanyasi should be barred from bathing in the Ganges. At this, the dog said that he should not be punished but made the ruler of the kingdom of Kalinjar. The courtiers laughed as Ram made the sanyasi the king of Kalinjar. Climbing onto the back of an elephant, his splendour enhanced by the royal sceptre, the sanyasi began travelling happily towards Kalinjar as people laughed at his attire — a loincloth — with the royal umbrella over his head.

Asked by the courtiers as to why was the kingdom given to the sanyasi when the idea was to punish him, Ram directed them to the dog, who said, “Under a curse by Lord Shiva, death does not alter the king’s destiny to be reborn as a dog…I was the king in the previous birth and now I have been reborn as a dog and suffered much. But having seen you, I will now escape from my torment.” While everybody said that the sanyasi’s worldly possessions have now increased, the dog said, “Have no doubt, whoever becomes the king of Kalinjar becomes a dog in his next birth.” He then did namaskar to Ram and walked slowly to Varanasi where he fasted to death and attained heaven because he had seen Ram.

Ram’s statement that a “terrible hell is the punishment for a cruel and malevolent sanyasi” has an echo in a passage in Skanda V, chapter 26 of Srimad Bhagavata: The Holy Book of God. It reads, “God has given different forms of livelihood to creatures. Some of these may go against the interests of man. But man should not retaliate against these creatures for two reasons. They are not endowed with the capacity to know that they are doing injury to man; and next, man knows that they will be injured if he retaliates. A person who injures lower creations for selfish purposes goes to a purgatory called Andhakupa and there he will have to live in a low type of body, attacked by the creatures he had injured. In darkness, without sleep, and restless, he will have to drag on a wretched existence.” (Translated by Swami Tapasyananda).

The passage quoted from The Srimad Bhagavata: The Holy Book of God applies especially to those who inveigh ceaselessly about the “menace” posed by stray dogs. They can neither see the role the latter play as sentinels, whose barking alerts people against the arrival of thieves, robbers and terrorists/insurgents. Precisely for this reason, terrorists in some areas of Jammu & Kashmir and Maoists in parts of central India have asked villagers to kill all dogs in their areas.

In the present situation, how many of India’s stray dog haters have tried to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the lives of these canines completely upside down? It has been said often enough to become commonplace knowledge that the closure of hotels, dhabas and restaurants have deprived vast numbers of them of their food. It is not just the left-overs thrown into garbage bins that they miss. Many of them, who had been fed regularly by the staff and owners of these eating places, have now to fend for themselves — something to which they have grown unused.

Finally, how many haters of stray dogs have any idea of the love and loyalty that most dogs unconditionally lavish on people? Not surprisingly, Konrad Lorenz writes in Man Meets Dog, “The whole charm of the dog lies in the depth of friendship and the strength of spiritual ties with which he has tied himself to man.” Author of the landmark book On Aggression and perhaps the best-known authority on animal behaviour, he should know.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and author)