Whew, I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. In my head, it was going to be some kind of palate-cleanser after watching the Netflix series, Tiger King, but I’m not sure what it is. I just knew I needed to write about Durga and her big cat, as I’ve been pondering the concept of partnership between humans and other animals.
Who is this invincible goddess?
She is Devi, Mother, Divine Feminine, Eternal Truth. Ruler of all creatures and consort to no one. Slayer of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Fierce and nurturing. Healer of the sick and provider for beings in need. Heaven and Earth. Creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. (It surprises no woman that a goddess and her cat can do the job of three gods…)
Who is the cat upon which the goddess sits?
A quick survey of the top twenty Google image search results for ‘Durga’ show her seated on top of a tiger in six pictures and a lion in fourteen. Which is it? I polled my Twitter followers with the question: “Which big cat do you associate more with Hindu goddess Durga?” Every vote favored the tiger.
I asked my mother-in-law the same question. Another vote for tiger. A discussion began about where each of the big cats live and the current status of their population in India. The endangered Asiatic lion’s range is limited to the state of Gujarat, and its numbers are few. Many people don’t even know there are lions in Asia!
“If all the animals go extinct [Durga] will ride a truck or something,” my mother-in-law said.
She meant it as a joke but it’s a poignant commentary on wildlife conservation and religion, referring to both the impermanence of nature and the resilience of Hindu tradition.
There are about 3,000 Bengal tigers in India, with populations increasing in recent years. Zoologist K. Ullas Karanth suggests that the success of tiger conservation in the country is due, in part, to the “centrality of the tiger…manifested through India’s ancient religion, folklore and mythology, as well as its modern iconography of marketing.”
Some suggest Durga’s cat represents strength and power, but what about Ganesha’s mouse? I am not convinced that an animal’s strength must always be attributed to its large size and predator status but agree that in Durga’s case, the strong does partner with the strong.
“If you worship Ganesh you’re worshiping a mouse too,” said Urmilaji Sood to collaborator and anthropologist Kirin Narayan.
In one sense, tigers control prey populations creating an ecological ‘balance’ much like the equilibrium restored on earth after Durga’s victory. On the other hand, a tiger is not defined only by it’s temporary, earthly identity as predator. According to stories of Rishi Agastya’s hermitage and Mount Kailash, tigers and goats play together in heaven where there is no predator, no prey, and no hunger.
So…Lion? Tiger? Florida panther?
Does it really matter?
What is the nature of this goddess-felid partnership?
The origin, simply put: syncretism. Revered animals helped the divine and became known as vahanas, or vehicles to the gods. Nanditha Krishna wrote that animals were, “totemic figures who were absorbed into the Hindu pantheon.”
To some, an initial glance at common depictions of certain deities and their ‘mounts’ may suggest dominance over, instead of partnership with, animals. Just imagine your reaction to a picture of Joe Exotic sitting on a tiger with weapons in both hands (and be glad he has only two hands, not eight)! However, I choose to understand Durga’s relationship with her cat as something more nuanced than a figure riding an animal to use and control it. Just as we increasingly honor Sita’s role in the story of Ram, may we acknowledge the tiger’s role in the story of Durga Maa. Without them both, good may not have prevailed over evil.
Narayan also wrote, “Multistranded and polymorphus, the complex of practices and beliefs that have been lumped together as ‘Hinduism’ can also bring meaning and connection rather than conflict to many people’s lives.”
Perhaps such a meaningful combination of beliefs can also (re)inspire connection between humans, other animals, and the divine as we consider how gods and goddesses partner with swans and peacocks, mice and elephants- familiar creatures with whom we share physical characteristics, behaviors, ancestors, and the planet. In Hinduism, animals can attain liberation, too, because there is no real distinction between animal, human, and god, between lion and tiger, between good and evil. Durga is tiger. Tiger is Durga. They are One.
‘Saving the Indian Tiger: Where Do We Go From Here?’ by K. Ullas Karanth in Voices in the Wilderness: Contemporary Wildlife Writings, edited by Prerna Singh Bindra (quote from pg 97)
Pashu: Animal Tales from Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik
Hinduism and Nature by Nanditha Krishna (quote from pg 152)
Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales by Kirin Narayan (quotes from pgs xi & 76)