Whether the zoonotic jumping theory gets proven or the lab leak theory wins, one of the many sombre rethinks that the Covid-19 pandemic demands is on our relationship with nature and animals. India’s ancient epic, the Mahabharat – always a reliable go-to source for solace – also offers us some powerful lessons on the human-animal relationship.Yudhishtir’s DogThe great war was over. The Pandavs and Draupadi, having reigned in peace and prosperity for 36 years, decided to make the final voyage. On this arduous journey, one by one, members of the group fell lifeless to the ground, punished for the sins of their lifetimes. Ultimately only Yudhishtir, the eldest of the five brothers – the noble son of Dharm – survived, accompanied by a dog who had followed the group. Indra then arrived to carry Yudhishtir to heaven in his chariot. Yudhishtir asked that the dog be allowed to accompany him. Indra refused. A debate on morality, duty and pragmatism followed.Indra argued that there was no unkindness in leaving the dog behind. Yudhishtir disagreed. To abandon a faithful companion would be a most reprehensible act; instead he preferred to renounce eternal, heavenly bliss.At this point, the dog revealed his true form as Yudhishtir’s father, Dharm himself. Praising his son for his magnanimous deeds, Dharm proclaimed: ‘Stating “This dog is devoted to me,” you declined the celestial chariot to heaven; for this reason, there is no king comparable to you in paradise.’ (Mahabharat, XVII.3.20)Yudhishtir was duly rewarded a place of honour with the celestials in heaven.The RelevanceYudhishtir’s choice shows us that he did not discriminate between human rights and animal rights. When Indra asked him, “Why do you insist on taking this dog, when you left your own brothers behind?” Yudhishtir answered that he could not bring his brothers back from the dead. He thus had no choice but to continue the journey alone. To abandon a loyal living being – human or non-human – in contrast, was as heinous a crime as killing a woman or injuring a friend.At a time when we continue to endure economic suffering – even as the second wave recedes and with the possibility of a third wave happening – let us not forget the plight of animals whose fates are bound with ours: abandoned pets and strays, the many we prey upon for food, and the great many whose habitats we have recklessly destroyed in the name of development.Aruna Narlikar
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