First Published in Sunday Midday, Mumabi on 30 August 2009

In Hindu mythology, the dog is the most inauspicious of animals, to be kept away from wedding altars and holy sites. A howling dog becomes a harbinger of bad luck. Infact, even the sight of a dog is considered to bring bad luck. Why is it so? Dogs are such lovable creatures, obedient and affectionate. Even in the Rig Veda, the role of a dog as a protector, is acknowledged when Indra sends the mother of dogs, Sarama, in search of missing cows.

In narratives, dogs are associated with death which is why Sarama’s children, the Sarameya, are the companions of Yama, god of death. They are associated not with civilization but with the wilderness which is why they are associated with mendicants, like Dattatreya. The dog is the mount of Bhairava, the fearsome form of Shiva. A dog is considered so inauspicious that in the Mahabharata, Yudhishtira is not allowed to enter heaven with the dog.

Some would argue that dogs rummage through garbage which is why they are unclean, which is why they are not allowed to come near temples. But these rational explanations do not provide a satisfactory answer. Literal interpretations are convenient but not correct. Logically speaking, a dog should be the symbol of devotion in Hinduism; yet Hindus worship Hanuman, the monkey-god, as the perfect devotee. Mythology must never be taken literally; mythology is symbolic. Mythic stories and symbols are a code, a medium through which the ancestors are communicating profound messages. When the dog is considered inauspicious, it means the dog represents a thought that is inauspicious. What is this inauspicious thought?

In the Bhagavata Purana is the story of Bharata who is a hermit in the forest. He gives up everything but slowly gets attached to a deer. As a result, he is unable to attain moksha. He is reborn as a deer, trapped once more in the cycle of rebirth. Attachment entraps: this is a key maxim in Hindu philosophy.

Now visualize a dog looking at you with eagerness and affection – it adores you and its behavior melts your heart. If you have a pet dog, you will know that the dog constantly seeks validation from you. Give it that attention it craves and it will wag its tail, don’t give it and it will whine.

Now visualize a hermit surrounded by dogs. Does he surrender to the affection of the dog? Does he, like Bharata getting attached to a deer, get attached to these dogs? If he seeks to break free from the cycle of rebirths, he must transcend the urge to get attached. The dog is the ultimate temptation, because the dog gives its master absolute unconditional love and devotion. Nothing is more tempting, not even the dance of damsels known as Apsaras. When Dattatreya, the mendicant, walks with four dogs around him – it indicates his perfect detachment. The dogs follow him but he does not lead them.

The dog is a territorial animal. For the dog, even the master is territory that it will not share. Even when domesticated with all needs fulfilled, the dog needs to mark its territory by raising its legs and spraying its urine. Threaten this territory and the dog will turn on you. This behavior, the ancients realized, is not something to be celebrated in human beings.

Human beings are also territorial. Territory gives us our sense of identity and validation. It is the context that establishes who we are. A industrialist’s identity comes from the industries he owns; a bureaucrat’s identity comes from the position he holds; a politician’s identity comes from the power he holds in the party and the assembly. Any threat to the context that gives him identity, and he will react much in the same way a dog barks. We feel that if we lose our territory (not just physical but also intellectual and emotional) we will lose our identity. That frightens us. We become dogs – wagging tails when territory is reinforced, barking when territory is threatened, whining when territory is unacknowledged. At the root of dog-like behavior is fear, bhaya, fear of invalidation.

He who helps us overpower this fear is Bhairava. This form of Shiva terrifies us because it mocks our primal territorial instinct. In temples such as Kal Bhairav in Delhi and Varanasi, Bhairava is worshipped with alcohol. Alcohol clouds judgment.  From a clouded judgment comes this warped understanding that from territory comes identity. The industrialist forgets that even if he clings and fights for his territory, one day Yama, the god of death, and his Sarameyas, will take him away from his territory. So it will be with the politician and the bureaucrat and the writer and the artist.

Our material, intellectual and emotional territories that we jealously guard, whose loss makes us insecure, is no different from the bone of a dog. We cling and fight over it, until the day we die. And when we die and our bodies reach the crematorium, we find there an inebriated Bhairava seated on a dog laughing at us for a life wasted in a futile pursuit.