Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, July 18, 2010

All week I have been thinking of vultures and donkeys. Vultures, because dying has now become a marketable and profitable commodity for the celebrity business. Visit famous people when they are dying and it makes the news, enabling the promotion of a cheesy comedy film. Until yesterday, this practice was restricted to politicians who swooped down in their helicopters when they learnt hordes of journalists were covering areas afflicted by flood, drought, terrorism or war. No one wants to miss a photo opportunity.

Before we assume a vulture is a terrible thing to be, we must remember that the vulture is the vehicle of Shani, the lord of the planet Saturn, the astrological force who delays all things and thus teaches everyone a lesson in patience. In Greek mythology, both Athena and Apollo are associated with vultures because these gods felt the bird was the noblest of all creatures. Vultures were also sacred in ancient Egypt, an emblem of royalty. Known as the Pharoah’s hen, they were considered the only living creature on earth ‘that do not hurt the living’.

When a celebrity grins at the camera over a dying man, some people think he is a jackass. Other celebrities take a schoolmasterly objection to the use of the word ‘jackass’. Jackass, I learnt in school, is a male donkey; the female donkey is called jenny ass. And like the vulture, the jackass has a very strong mythology.

In medieval times, court painters from North India, had the habit of showing Ravana, king of Lanka, villain of Ramayan, as having the head of a male donkey over his ten human heads. This practice is unique to miniature art. The donkey-head is supposed to indicate his stubbornness, as Ravan refused to part with Sita even after Ram and his monkey-army kill his sons and his brothers and destroy his kingdom of Lanka. A common folk punishment involved making a criminal ride through a village on a donkey. Ravana, the artists decided, deserved not even that, hence a donkey atop him!

In Greek mythology, Bacchus, god of wine, travels across the world on his donkey inviting all merry-makers to join his party. In the Bible, Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding a donkey.

In Tantra, the donkey is the vehicle of a goddess called Kalaratri. She looks like the goddess Kali with hair open and dishevelled. She is described as being dark, fierce and naked. She rides the donkey at night.. She is one of the Nava-durgas. Sometimes she is associated with Shitala, the goddess of fevers, who is also described as riding a donkey. In her hand she holds a winnow basket containing gram. These grams when scattered transform into pox pustules, which is why Shitala is the goddess of smallpox and other skin rashes.

What is most interesting about studying vultures and jackasses is to observe how humans have given adjectives to animals. We judge them and associate them with positive and negative traits. This varies with culture. In another culture, in another time, the vulture is a positive animal and so is the male donkey. But for many today, vultures are vile and jackasses are just stupid.