Traversing various terrains of myths, histories, symbolism and modern use of the animal such as the field of intelligence, the article traces in brief the manner in which the dog fulfills several human contradictory aspirations – from securing power, territory, to being a loyal companion in the alienated existence of modern age and, as a metaphysical idiom the dog evolves in the Indic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism as a symbol of ultimate self-realization and compassion. The dog closely associated with humans is reflected in Indian and other cultures of which just a few examples are given.
Where Natural traits make the Dog Special: Their sense of smell, hearing, and sight makes a dog capable of detecting trespassers up-to 200 meters. Because of these traits, they have been used by man not only as pets, companions but as hunting assistants and in more recent period for intelligence and military intention. But amongst his many traits, the dog is most celebrated for his affection, loyalty, and sense of marking territories.
Recently, as I was about to take a walk in the Lodi Gardens, one of New Delhi’s most popular public spaces, I chanced to a see an unusual breed of dog arrogantly getting out of a swanky BMW 4 Series Convertible Model. Both the car and the dog caught my attention which led me to approach the young man who accompanied the intriguing canine. I was told that the dog was an American Akita a breed known for its legendary loyalty. Suddenly, I recalled the Hollywood Film ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’ -starring Richard Gere. The story of the film is based on a real Japanese Akita dog- Hachiko in Tokyo, who in the 1920s kept loyal vigil outside the Shibuya railway station used by its deceased master for several years until he passed away. His loyalty has been acknowledged in many ways among which is a statue in the vicinity of the railway station.
Yet another reference to an Akita is associated with the famous American deaf, and blind author and political activist Helen Keller who is credited with bringing the first Akita into the United States as her guide and companion.
Inspired, I sat charged my batteries to write a fascinating but selective article on the Heritage of Canine. This narrative like any storytelling piece is a small collage of various aspects of the heritage of dogs.
Traits & Myths
One of the most interesting aspects of the human psyche is his activity of creating myths and symbols. It is also fascinating to trace the manner in which myths and symbols with time acquire a life of their own and assume another level of reality. Such a phenomenon is widely conspicuous in ancient cultures like India where observed reality and ideas are woven into a metaphysical reality and tales of mythical wonder.
The process for an object to evolve as a symbol most times emerges from realistic nature embedded in the elements in the object itself. For example, the dog has visual and olfactory sensory abilities that are literally superhuman and hence it is not surprising that in modern times man has used them among other functions in the arm forces where the animals can go to places where a soldier cannot, and the dog is often said to subdue or intimidate a foe more quickly with non-lethal force. According to ongoing studies their brains are capable of tracking, detecting explosives, and locations of casualties and used in rescue and search missions. Selective breeds are preferred to be part of the intelligence squads among which the Labrador and the German Shepherds are most popular. The Labrador is mainly used for detecting the bombs while the German shepherd is used mainly for rescue operations.
Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a Brazilian neuroscientist who works on comparative neuroanatomy and has researched formations of neurons in human and brains of other animals and offers that the increased number of neurons (the basic information processing units) in a brain is directly correlated to the higher degree of cognitive capability. As such, the preference of selected breeds is determined by the high number of neurons in the brain. In India, the army, the paramilitary organization – Border Security Force and the police have formal Dog Squads and special personnel who handle them, there are special centers of breeding, training and researching these animals for a variety of security and other emergency situations.
Myths and Symbols:
Ancient Indian texts have referred to dogs both as symbols and myths. For example, Sarama is perceived as the divine female hound who is sent by the King of the Vedic Gods Indra to search for missing cows, in some references it is believed that Sarama taught man to milk the cow. It is considered that Sarama’s four children are companions of Yama the god of Death, and are also linked to the powerful epic mendicant Dattareya. The four dogs emerge as guardians and as hunters. As watchdogs, they are seen as protectors of the Ultimate Truth. The number four is understood to represent the truth entrenched in the idea of the four Vedas which are compilation on human wisdom, with the four Yugas or perception of the four cosmic time periods and with the four states of existence; all in all the dog is a symbol of protection of the Dhrama or the moral order.
When one perceives the location of the dog in the Vedas, there emerges the multilayered yet complex symbolism of the animal. One of the earliest books in the world, the Vedas are a compilation of metaphysical existentialist human knowledge where the mechanism of transmission is based on listening and memorizing- shruti and smiriti . The dog symbolizes the faculty of listening where this power facilitates the experience to the most sublime – the sound of silence, the ultimate subtlety of truth by which man has the means to self-realization.
This symbol of moral order or Dharma is repeated in a story in the great Indian epic The Mahabharat where the eldest of the five heroes Yudhisthira is accompanied by the God of Moral Order who is shown to be in the form of a dog. While the hero is invited to go to heaven, the dog who has been his loyal companion is denied entry. The hero Yudhisthira is willing to forgo his seat in heaven but is unable to leave his loyal companion. The story ends with Yudhisthira passing the final test. The idea of loyalty, protection and compassion is reiterated in Buddhism as well. In Nepal, the thanksgiving festival of Tihar, is one where animals useful to man are worshiped and the dog is one of them.
Kal Bhairav and his mount – Dog
In yet another association in the long list of Indian mythology the dog appears as the mount of the deity Kal Bhairav. Kal Bhairav is one of the form of Shiva. Perceived as a guardian deity, the Kala Bhairav represents a contradictory concept; where on the one hand he is understood to be the protector of territory, and is therefore linked as a guardian of cities such as Ujjain and Varanasi among many others which also includes the five Bhairavs of Delhi; on the other hand, Kal Bhairav is worshipped by the ritual offering of alcohol.- A substance that numbs and confuses the human brain resulting in a state of disempowerment that makes the devotee experience the force of disintegration of his identity and his urge for possessing territory. Both the power-identity equation, and the urge to possess is driven by the overwhelming illusionary force of the Human ego. The offering of the alcohol is a symbolic ritual whereby man is made to realize the futility of pining for worldly power, name, possession and territory. And yet, in a contradictory manner the ethos of Kal Bhairav celebrates dualism since the dog as the mount of the deity remains a symbol of guarding territory.
History and some breeds:
The Indian Pariah – In a documentary film titled Search for the First Dog the National Geographic depicts among the several breeds the Indian Pariah. An indigenous breed the Indian Pariah is through the DNA closely associated with the Austronesian dogs such as the Australian Dingo and the Santhal Hound among many others. In fact, the Indian Pariah gains much importance in the index of the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society (PADS) as well.
The Santhal Hound found in the Chotanagpur area of Jharkhand is reddish-brown in color and like other ancient dogs, they are known to Yoodle which is believed by several indigenous communities that the dogs are incarnated mystics who sing to the moon. As mentioned above, they are a part of the group of Austronesian dogs who are said to have moved with human populations from Africa four to five thousand years ago. As one of the most ancient Indian dogs who is closely integrated with several indigenous communities on various levels, they are seen as hunters and as spiritual totems. As totems they are depicted in paintings of large number of indigenous communities like those of the Sorais and Gonds.
Outside India, there are inevitably a number of dogs apart from Akitas, German Shepherds and Ladradors who have fascinating histories and one such breed is the ancient dog – Saluki whose fossils are found in the archeological evidence of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Salukis were used for hunting and were perceived as protectors and sacred totems; and like the Shanthal hound, their figures are seen on sacred amulets. The Saluki as guardians were even buried with their noble owners and masters.
In the present times, conflict is an inevitable reality with an overpopulated world and a planet with limited resources, and hence the issue of security, and other emergencies gain much importance. Hence, it is not surprising that in recent times among several other things the use and visibility of dogs by the security forces for example in public spaces has increased. But the demand for dogs as pets too has increased which has led to the development of the Canine Industry which includes kennels, parlors and much more; and yet, the mytho-historicity of the dog, along with their scientific functionality and social habits presents a fascinating narrative on their heritage and makes the DOG no less – Man’s best friend!