The Unseemly Animal

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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

There are reputed to be 8.4. million species in the wise Lord’s creation, of which, arguably, the human race represents the crown jewel. Lower down the totem pole are animals and birds. Most of these creatures are a pleasure to look at—take for instance the majestic lion, the swift leopard, the towering elephant, the lovable deer, etc. The bovine species, which is a subsection of the animal kingdom, boasts of the virile ox and the docile cow.

It is therefore a wonder that the same species accommodates another creature too, extremely unseemly. This ugly animal is so unprepossessing that no one spares it a second glance. Not only are its looks uninviting, but its habits too are highly disgusting. It wallows in mud and mire most of the time, finding the mucky environs extremely pleasurable. It is the personification of laziness and lethargy, its movements excruciatingly slow and slothful—so much so that indolent human beings are often compared to this animal.

The Buffalo thus evokes no feelings of attraction or aesthetics in the onlooker. If anything, we are repelled by the sight of the animal, with its sharp and murderous horns, its long and ugly face, the gaping nostrils, the somnolent gait and utter lack of cleanliness. Character-wise too, it doesn’t appear to possess any admirable traits. Where you remember the dog for its loyalty, the elephant for its memory, the cow for its auspiciousness, and the deer for its speed, you are unable to specifically point to any redeeming feature in the Buffalo.

To the contrary, the Buffalo often prompts feelings of fear, being the official carrier of the Deity of Death, Yamadharmaraja. Added to this, we also hear stories of an asura assuming the form of a Buffalo and wreaking untold havoc on mankind, till he is finally destroyed by Sri Parvati, as the Mahishaasura Mardini.

One more instance of the Buffalo being the object of hatred and fear, is recounted in Srimad Ramayanam. The Kishkindha Kandam relates the tale of an asura, Dundubhi, assuming the form of a huge buffalo and trying to kill Vali in combat. However, after a long and hard battle, it is the monster buffalo which meets its end at Vali’s hands, with Vali throwing the carcass of the wicked animal to fall at a considerable distance. When Sugreeva narrates this tale to Sri Rama to give Him an idea of Vali’s prowess, Sri Rama lifts the carcass with a finger of His foot and throws it ten times as far as Vali did—“Paada angushttena chikshepa sampoornam dasa yojanam”. This generates confidence in Sugreeva about Raghava’s ability to triumph over the powerful Vali. Both in Srimad Ramayanam and Sri Mahabharatam, whenever the animal is mentioned, it is in the context of deadly predators inhabiting dense jungles.

You may hence wonder as to what there is to write at all about this creature, which is at best ignored and tolerated as an aberration in Emperuman’s creation, perhaps intended to setoff to advantage the other creatures with varied positive attributes. However, the Buffalo does find mention in the Scripture, not all of them uncomplimentary. Shall we see a few of them?

You would be surprised to find the Shruti equating the Lord with a buffalo. Listing exalted specimens of each species, the Taittiriya Upanishad tells us that Emperuman is Brahmaa among Devas, Padavee among poets, Rishi among sages and so on. And when mentioning the best among animals, the Upanishad says that Emperuman is a “Mahisham” or Buffalo among animals—

“Brahmaa devaanaam, Padavee: kaveenaam, Rishi: vipraanaam, Mahisha: mrigaanaam, syeno gridhraanaam, svadhiti: vanaanaam, Soma: pavitram atyeti rebhan”

Commenting on the sloka, Sri Rangaramanuja Muni says that everything wonderful and great is indeed an aspect of the Lord’s bounty and hence the buffalo qualifies for equation with Emperuman—“Mrigaanaam madhye Mahishopi ayam eva”. The point is that the Buffalo or the Bison is such a powerful and virile specimen of the animal kingdom as to considered the best among its peers.

The next complimentary reference to the animal that comes to our mind is from the Tiruppavai. The twelfth pasuram of Tiruppavai in fact begins with a grand and appreciative mention of this animal—

“Kanaitthu ilam kattru erumai kandrukku irangi
ninaitthu mulai vazhiye nindru paal sora
nanaitthu illam seraakum narchelvan tangaai!

கனைத்து இளம் கற்றெருமை கன்றுக்கு இரங்கி
நினைத்து முலை வழியே நின்று பால் சோர
நனைத்து இல்லம் சேறாக்கும் நற் செல்வன் தங்காய்”

The Buffaloes of Nandagokulam are sturdy and productive creatures, due to their association with Sri Krishna. Due to his obsession with Sri Krishna and His safety, Sri Nandagopa often omits to milk the buffaloes in his cowshed. Come morning, the buffaloes are ready for milking, their udders heavy and overflowing with milk. However, Nandagopa is loathe to leaving Sri Krishna’s side, for fear that something might happen to Him in that second of inattention. He constantly sports a spear for the Young One’s protection, ready to commit mayhem at the slightest suggestion of danger to the beloved Kannan—“Koorvel kodum tozhilan Nandagopan”.

Further, every minute and second of Nanda’s life is taken up with wonder and marvel at the incomparable magnificence of Sri Krishna’s looks and deeds. Just as the occupants of Sri Vaikunttam dare not blink for fear of losing a moment’s splendorous experience of the Lord, Nandagopa too does not wish to part from his illustrious son, even for a minute. And true to the saying that those who develop attachment for the Lord, find everything else disenchanting (“Paramaatmani yo rakta: virakta: aParamaatmani”), Nandagopa , blessed with the wonderful divine child, has no time for routine chores. All this makes him forget or even deliberately omit to milk the buffaloes.

These animals, heavy with milk and the need for relieving themselves of their burden, moo pitiably in an effort to attract the attention of cowherds.

The term “Kanaitthu” is extremely significant—the buffaloes start with the intention of letting out a full-throated moo, but when they realise that it would disturb those engaged in the blissful experience of Krishna, they mute it down to a mere clearing of the throat. They are prepared to endure the pain of an unmilked udder, rather than interrupt bhaagavatas immersed in Krishna anubhavam.

“Ilam Kattru erumai”—the buffaloes inhabiting Nanda’s cowshed are young ones. Had they been old and past lactation, there would be no necessity for them to moo or clear their throats. However, being young, they are unable to withstand the discomfort of overflowing udders. The calves are also young, unable to tolerate hunger and needing to be fed at timely intervals.

“Kandrukku irangi”—Though the discomfort of unmilked udders is excruciating, the Buffaloes think not about themselves, but about their young ones.

A beautiful comparison is made here by the commentators.

The Lord is an extremely generous person, waiting for the slightest gesture from us to bless us with all bounties, including liberation, if only we would ask for the same. However, most of us do not take the pain of even applying to Him for the requisite favours. For one who is longing to give, the absence of takers is indeed painful. Similar is the plight of the unmilked buffaloes of Nandagokulam. “Udaarar kodukka peraa vittaal padumaa pole” says Sri Azhagiamanavala Perumal Nayanar, portraying the plight of a compulsive philanthropist, to whom none applies for alms. The position of present day Acharyas too is similar—though they are prepared to shower enlightenment and wisdom on all those who approach them, alas! only a few sishyas take advantage of Acharyas’ munificence.

“Ninaitthu”—Since it is common practice among cowherds to separate the calves from their mothers at specific times, the buffaloes are unable to offload their milky burden into the eager mouths of their young ones. However, the very thought of their calves make the mothers secrete milk from their udders, even in the absence of milking. They imagine their young ones to be present and lapping up the milk, and this makes the buffaloes’ udders generate a copious flow.

The buffaloes’ unsought secretion of milk is compared to the boundless generosity of Emperuman, who revealed spiritual secrets to Arjuna, even in the absence of specific request. The Lord’s munificence is indeed unimaginable, “Oudaaryam” or boundless generosity being His hallmark.

“Ask, and thy shall be given!” is the normal mode of charity, even of the most philanthropic of people. No donor would read the seeker’s mind and oblige voluntarily. If we need something from someone, we have to ask for it. Only those who have extended their hands for alms would know how difficult and demeaning it is to ask someone for something. We seem to shrink within ourselves with shame, whenever we are put in the unenviable position of having to seek favours or donations.

Under these circumstances, if the donor were to realise our need without an express request therefor, it would save us the ignominy of having to ask for the same, and would make us that much more comfortable in the process. The Lord is thus the ideal benefactor and gives us what we need even without an express or implied request therefor, and, at times, forces us to accept the bounty, even if we are hesitant to do so. This compulsive generosity of the Lord is another aspect of Oudaryam, which we are prompted to remember, when we hear of the buffaloes of Gokulam, which secrete milk copiously, voluntarily and without being milked.

“Nanaitthu illam seraakum”—The Buffaloes are so productive and so generous that the voluntary secretion from their udders is extremely copious—so much so that the milk flows like a river and makes the entire Nandagokulam muddy with milk. It is a real case of milk and honey flowing in the streets. Though the milk is a clear white, when the buffaloes and cows trample the same underfoot, the place becomes grimy with a mixture of soil and milk.

It is interesting to note that while the flow from the udders of Cows is described as merely breaching the containers held by milkmen beneath (“Ettra kalangal edir pongi meedalippa – ஏற்ற கலங்கள் எதிர் பொங்கி மீதளிப்ப”), the quantum produced by the buffaloes is much more, leading to Nandagopa’s palace being practically flooded with milk. In this respect, “Ilam kattru erumai – இளம் கற்றெருமை” (young buffaloes) appear to be much better than even the most generous of cows (“vallal perum pasukkal – வள்ளல் பெரும்பசுக்கள்”). Sri Nayanar compares the flow of milk at Gokulam to that of rivers at Tirumala—“Tirumalayil tiru aruvigal pole”.

To conclude, let me recount an episode, related to Buffaloes, from the life of Tenali Rama, whose homespun brand of wisdom earned him an exalted place in the court of the renowned Vijayanagar Emperor Krishnadevaraya. Challenged to a verbal duel by a visiting Vidvaan (acclaimed to be an erudite scholar), Tenali Rama arrives at the venue of debate, armed with an impressive book parcel wrapped in glittering silk. To all appearances, the contents of the package appear to be extremely erudite and embodying the highest of wisdom, by the way Rama reverentially handles the package. Tenali Rama challenges the visiting Vidvan to enter into a debate, based on the work he holds in his hand. In reply to the latter’s query, Tenali Rama reveals the name of the work as “Tilakaashtta Mahisha Bandhanam”. Having never heard of the work, the Vidvan is flummoxed, and rather than risk debate on an unknown and apparently weighty work, surrenders meekly to Tenali Rama and flees the court.

Queried by the Emperor, who too had not come across the work, Tenali Rama unwraps the parcel, to reveal not a book, but a package of Sesame and a piece of wood, bound together by a short rope. To the mystified Emperor, the Court Jester breaks up the impressive name “Tilakaashttamahishabandhanam” into its component elements—“Tilam” (meaning Sesame), “Kaashttam” (referring to a piece of wood) and “Mahisha Bandhanam” (a rope used to tie up a buffalo). All in the court, including the usually sober Emperor, erupt into laughter at the clever ruse employed by Tenali Rama to vanquish the arrogant visitor.

From all the aforesaid, wouldn’t you say that even Buffaloes have their positive points?

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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