When I was a young girl I wanted a dog. Many of my friends had dogs – big ones – beautiful Labradors, and Golden Retrievers. When I went to their house I would bury my face into the fur of their dogs and hug them. The dogs would turn and lick my face, the peace I would feel from their warmth was intoxicating. My parents were adamantly against having animals in the house. Dogs – no way, cats – even worse! In India, when my Mom was growing up, she was told to stay away from the dogs and cats on the streets, of course, because they carried disease, and could hurt you. I found out later that her Mom (my grandmother) used to take in dogs and cats from the street and bathe them and bring them into her home. She would feed them and talk with them and give them love. Until my grandfather came home from work. Then he would kick them out. She loved animals because they provided unconditional affection – something that she did not get from anything or anyone else.
Eventually, after bugging my parents for what seemed like ages, we went to a breeder and picked up a beautiful, yummy smelling Cocker Spaniel puppy. We named him Rusty Red Prancer (I know I know the name is horrific…). He was not allowed in most of the house, just the washroom, the garage and outside. My Dad built him a beautiful house that we filled with blankets and pillows for him to be warm in the evenings. Rusty stayed with us for about one year, and then, because of severe inbreeding, he developed a nervous quality that made him nippy around kids. And he constantly piddled when he got excited. So we gave him to another family without children who could care for him better. It wasn’t long before my sister and I were begging my Mom and Dad for another try at a dog. One day my Mom must have just given up, because I remember going to a house that had a bunch of unbelievably adorable brown Cocker Spaniel/Poodle puppies. We brought one tiny one home – and named him Cocoa.
This was before cell phones, so there was no way for my Mom to alert my Dad about the purchase. When my Dad came home from work we greeted him by singing, “Don’t treat your puppy like a dog dog dog, give him puppy chow.” My Dad was less than amused. But as with most things he accepted our pleas and promises that we would clean up all of the dog poop and feed the dog and care for him 100%. You all know how that eventually went. Cocoa was not allowed in the house either, but had a doghouse, or was in the garage or washroom. My bedroom was next to the washroom so I would let him sleep with me after everyone else went to sleep (my secret). I also tore the screen off my window so that I could let him in and out from the outside. My Dad kept wondering what kept tearing that screen. I would just shrug. With a PhD in Engineering I’m pretty sure my father knew what was up, but he loved me too much to admit it I think.
I’m sure that many people reading this would think, “Wow, you guys were downright cruel to that dog, why couldn’t he live inside?” Well, seriously, to Americans (who are known to spoil their pets as much as children) it would seem cruel to keep a dog outside, and not let him/her sleep on your bed and couch and rub himself all over the carpets. But to the typical Indian, even owning a dog seems like a pretty big deal. In 2012 the New York Times wrote an article talking about the “dog problem” in India. Based on that article found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/world/asia/india-stray-dogs-are-a-menace.html, a law in 2001 that prevented the killing of any stray dogs resulted in a boom in the population – remember, Hindus don’t eat meat because they believe that everything living has a soul. And in general Hindus don’t believe in killing anything for any reasons. So now, 16 years later, there are stray dogs everywhere, many are rabid, many bite people randomly, and word on the street is: “Stay away from dogs!” The dog problem needs a solution, and the Times article discusses tackling it at the level of garbage on the streets or enlisting a euthanization program. The problem is that India has so many poor, destitute people, that the dog problem is almost trivial. And sure, a few people I know in India have dogs of their own (the wealthy ones), but in general, dogs are not really part of the Indian lifestyle.
I actually googled, “Indians and dogs” and a whole bunch queries popped up on the web that said, “why don’t Indians like dogs?” Americans on the web are wondering if it’s part of the religion or culture NOT to like them. That question got me thinking, is there any significance of the dog in the Hindu religion? If so, is the dog a good or bad connotation? As I started rereading some of the ancient texts – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana looking for dog references, the ones I found I had already known (but forgotten).
A dog plays an important role in one of the greatest epics of Indian literature. The Mahabharata is one of my favorite stories, though my grandmother used to say that if you read the true version (all nine volumes) in one sitting, that you would have a psychotic break. Mostly because the story is a documentation of a war between cousins – the Pandava Princes, and the Kaurava Princes. The war results in cousins killing cousins, and most people cannot handle all of the bloodshed and sorrow in one sitting (not to mention if you read nine books that were 500 pages long each, you might have a problem just from reading too much and sitting for weeks).
In the Mahabharata, both sets of princes are vying for the same throne – the Pandava Princes’ father originally sat on the throne of the Kuru kingdom, and his brother, Dhritarashtra, has the smaller piece – Pandu is the Pandava’s father, Dhritarashtra is the Kauruva’s father – and he is blind. A series of unfortunate events occur in which the eldest Kaurava brother, Duryodhana, and the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira, play a game of dice, wherein Duryodhana cheats Yudhishthira by having his Uncle Sakuni play in proxy for him (the uncle cheats at the dice game). Subsequently Duryodhana ends up with the kingdom and literally everything that the Pandava Princes have – including Yudhishthira’s own brothers and their wife, Draupadi. After much angry discourse the father of the Kauravas, Dhritarashtra, gives Draupadi two boons (wishes) and she asks for the freedom of her husbands. Dhritarashra, who knows that his sons have written their own sad future, gives the Pandavas back everything they lost. As the Pandavas are going away Duryodhana asks his father to challenge the Pandavas to one last game of dice. At the end of this game, the Kauravas end up with the Kuru kingdom, and and the Pandavas end up banished into the forest for 12 years with the 13th year in disguise.
Yudhishthira, though fond of gambling, is supposed to be Dharma’s own son. And he represents the good man, the honest man. He tells one lie in his life, during a later battle, and it is said that until that lie, that he walked one inch above the ground. I find it interesting that in gambling away his family – that he was still walking one inch above the Earth, but that once he told a lie, his feet then touched the Earth. However, that is for a later discussion. Intrigued? You should be! The Mahabharata is an epic tale that rivals the Illiad and the Odyssey.
So, what about DOGS and Indians? Well, at the end of this tale, the Pandavas have renounced everything and set out for their journey toward heaven. As they climb a giant mountain in the Himalayas, a dog comes to accompany them on their journey. As the five princes and Draupadi walk, each one slowly falls dead – their deaths are meaningful, as each falls, Yudishthira mentions their only flaw – vanity, or gluttony etc.., Soon it is only Yudhishthira and the dog left. As they reach Indra (the god of the heaven’s) chariot (which will take Yudhishthira to heaven) Indra says that the dog cannot come because, well, it is a dog. Yudhishthira says that everyone else died on the way up, for the sins that they had committed in their lives, but the dog lived to reach the top, and the dog depended on Yudhishthira and he would never leave a dependent. This turns out to be Yudhishthira‘s final test. The dog reveals itself to be Dharma, Yudhishthira‘s father.
There are also many dogs in the Panchatantra tales of India. These tales are very much like Aesop’s Fables, with animals and humans going through some kind of a trial that results in an action with consequences and hence a moral. In these tales dogs are portrayed as good and bad and intelligent and not so intelligent. So there doesn’t seem to be a particular stigma against them in those writings either.
And so we come back to my life – in 2017. We recently got a dog – on Valentine’s Day. My son really wanted one, and it was my thought that the dog would get him out of the house playing ball and going on walks and be good for his overall health. My parents, after the initial shock, “what you have a dog and two cats now?” see the value of the dog in my son’s and daughter’s lives. But the difference here is: Our dog lives in the house, he’s only allowed on specific pieces of furniture (that are covered with special blankets that I wash weekly), and he sleeps IN THE BED with my son. I do bathe the dog every week (for those of you that know me, I’m a clean freak) and I don’t want the house to smell like dog. Of course, our lives are a bit changed, we have to now think of the dog whenever we go places, “Do we take him with us?” “Do we leave him at home?” “Do we keep him in his crate?” And every morning I wake up at 7 and take the dog out of my son’s room to go to the bathroom (since it’s been 10 hours or so…). So that shot my ability to sleep in on a Saturday out the window FOREVER. Not to mention that for two weeks the cats thought life was in turmoil. But now, as the dust settles, and the initial excitement wanes, when I see how my son can just fall asleep easily, hug the dog when he is sad, is greeted like he’s the king of the world whenever he walks through the door, is more confident at school, and is getting exercise DAILY OUTSIDE because of one more living thing in our house, I know that the dog was a great addition for us. If I could have, I would have named him Dharma. But he came with the name Skipper.
So here we are, my second generation Indian, American, German, Welsh, kids have a dog and two cats (pictured above are cat #2 and dog). And they all live in our house. Perhaps it’s because I, like my grandmother, love animals, or maybe it’s because I never actually lived in India, or maybe as my Mother says, “it was written on my forehead – my destiny”. I do know that pets, with their unfettered, unwavering love, help people live longer lives, and this one just might have saved my son. One of the greatest Indian poets, Rabindranath Tagore says it best in his poem “This Dog”, which I have rewritten below:
This Dog – Poem by Rabindranath Tagore
Every morning this dog, very attached to me,
Quietly keeps sitting near my seat
Till touching its head
I recognize its company.
This recognition gives it so much joy
Pure delight ripples through its entire body.
Among all dumb creatures
It is the only living being
That has seen the whole man
Beyond what is good or bad in him
It has seen
For his love it can sacrifice its life
It can love him too for the sake of love alone
For it is he who shows the way
To the vast world pulsating with life.
When I see its deep devotion
The offer of its whole being
I fail to understand
By its sheer instinct
What truth it has discovered in man.
By its silent anxious piteous looks
It cannot communicate what it understands
But it has succeeded in conveying to me
Among the whole creation
What is the true status of man.
I believe that in America our animals are as lucky as we are. They have opportunity to live with love and warmth and food and comfort. In many countries small children, women and men don’t have that same privilege. I try and remember that each time I snuggle my animals and my children and I feel grateful for my own life.