How are animals viewed in The Ramayana?

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For over two thousand years the great Indian epic The Ramayana, written by Valmiki, has been told and performed across the world. Rooted in Hinduism, TheRamayana continually features the culturally significant relationship between humans and animals found throughout the Hindu religion. In other Hindu stories and The Ramayana ...

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For over two thousand years the great Indian epic The Ramayana, written by Valmiki, has been told and performed across the world. Rooted in Hinduism, The Ramayana continually features the culturally significant relationship between humans and animals found throughout the Hindu religion. In other Hindu stories and The Ramayana alike, animals are used symbolically as reincarnations of Hindu gods and goddesses or a vehicle through which gods communicate with humans. In this sense, animals are deified, worshipped, and treated with respect. As a result, animals play a very central and important role in The Ramayana.


Featured in the tale are animals such as monkeys, vultures, bears, dogs, and squirrels. Each of these animals are given human characteristics, special capabilities, and play a uniquely important role in the story to highlight different values and lessons that Valmiki wants to communicate.

One example in The Ramayana is the story of the divine bird Jatayu. Jatayu is the son of the Hindu Sun god, Aruna, and is a devoted friend of Rama's.

Jatayu witnesses the 10-headed king of demons, Ravana, abduct Rama's wife, Sita. Jatayu attempts to rescue Sita, but Ravana cuts off Jatayu's wings.

Jatayu is found on the ground by Rama. Before dying, Jatayu tells Rama what has happened to Sita and what direction Ravana is headed. Immediately after, Jatayu dies of his injuries.

Here, Valmiki uses Jatayu to represent courage, devotion, and loyalty as he dies a hero in an attempt to protect his friends.

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Animals in The Ramayana have a very special meaning. In fact, many of them are even considered to be the incarnations of various Hindu gods and goddesses. Thus, they are honored, respected and deified, and they are occasionally given human characteristics and even magical abilities. For instance, Hanuman, the great monkey-warrior and leader of the monkey army, has a very important and significant role in the epic. He helps Rama defeat Ravana—the main antagonist of the story—and rescue Sita, Rama's true love and the main female protagonist, who is seen as the ideal woman. Hanuman willingly chooses to serve and follow Rama, however Rama does not ask him to do so. Thus, he symbolizes wisdom, loyalty, courage, and devotion. In many Hindu tales and stories, Hanuman is believed to be the incarnation of Shiva.

Another example are the great vultures Jatayu and Sampati. They are presented as just, moral, and unbiased, and they are able to see everything and everyone form above and judge them objectively. Whenever Rama needs guidance, they are always there to help him, as they can sense when someone is a good or a bad person. When Ravana kidnaps Sita, Jatayu and Sampati lead Rama and Hanuman with his army to Ravana's lair.

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Animals enjoy an exalted status in The Ramayana. Their relationship to humans is different from what one might expect to see in a Western story. Animals like Hanuman, the monkey-warrior, are revered figures, objects of worship. In the strange, enchanted world depicted in the story, animals don't just talk; they show great wisdom. It is this wisdom, more than anything else, which makes them such objects of veneration. And people venerate them in the hope that the animals' wisdom will pass on to them.

One such example comes from the little squirrel who helps Lord Rama build his bridge. While his army of warrior-monkeys are working 'round the clock, carrying heavy stones on their backs, the little squirrel helps out by buttressing the wall with pebbles that he carries in his mouth. Some of the monkeys scoff at the squirrel; how on earth can such small pebbles be of use in building a big, strong wall? But Lord Rama tells off the monkeys for their belittling attitude. He tells them that all tasks, no matter how small, are important. A project can never be completed by the main people alone; they need the support of all, no matter how small they might be.

What this episode illustrates is that the behavior of animals in The Ramayana can often be a source of moral instruction, as well as wisdom. This is only to be expected in a religious tradition where many gods are depicted in animal form.

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In The Ramayana, animals possess a great deal of importance in the epic retelling.  On one hand, the animals represent the realm of the jungle, of lawlessness, of a world without order.  Valmiki might construct this setting to indicate how important Rama is to all of humanity. He represents order, structure, and a demarcation between the lawlessness or savagery of the jungle.  For example, before Rama approaches the monkey army of Sugriva, they are uncontrolled and demonstrate a propensity to act without order or a sense of justice.  Yet, when Rama appropriates them, they become more civilized and committed to the ends of establishing justice and order.  Another important role for the animals in the Ramayana is to display their loyalty to Lord Ram.  There is no better display of this than Hanuman, the ardent monkey devotee of Lord Ram.  Hanuman is the personification of devotion to his one and only true master, Rama.  Jatayu, the vulture, sacrifices his life to save Sita, and with his dying breath tells Rama of what happened to his beloved wife.  The monkey army, under Hanuman's efforts as a chief engineer of sorts, help to build the bridge from Rameshwaram to Lanka in order to allow Rama to fight Ravana and save Sita.  In this process, even the small chipmunks or squirrels help Rama by rolling in sand and providing the mortar to allow the rocks in the bridge to Lanka to remain cohesive.  Valmiki uses animals to display the loyalty and honor to Rama that we humans need to demonstrate to him.

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