Did Mohan Bhagwat, the current chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), set his own house on fire with the witless use of animal metaphors at the recently concluded World Hindu Congress (WHC) at Chicago?
In his short speech at the WHC, Bhagwat, driven by his belief that all Hindus needed to be united, summoned for his argument the raw imagery of a lonely lion being destroyed by wild dogs. While the purported imperious royalty of the lion is equated with Hinduism, the wild dog is positioned as the extreme other – mongrel, opportunistic scavenger, repulsive looking and hunting in ruthless packs.
On the surface, given the RSS’s usual conceit and penchant for equating the Indian nation state with Hinduism, the lion might appear for them to be an apt choice. After all, the Indian national emblem draws upon the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which is a sculpture of four Asiatic lions (Panthera Leo Persica) standing back to back and was originally placed atop the Ashoka pillar at the important Buddhist site of Sarnath.
On deeper reflection, however, the metaphor of the lion does not easily sit with the Hindutva version of Hinduism. For one, the lion is biologically a carnivore and therefore incapable of surviving as a ‘pure’ vegetarian. In the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, the last redoubt for the Asiatic lion, the semi-nomadic pastoral Maldharis regularly suffer livestock (mostly buffaloes) losses to lion predation. The lion, it has also been noted, is not averse to the relatively more ignoble but easier option of killing domestic cattle rather than only pursuing the far more arduous chase of bringing down fast-running wild herbivores.
The reason that the Asiatic lion finds itself limited today to the Gir forest, moreover, is because the species is still recovering from near-extinction rates in the nineteenth century. The fatal decimation in lion numbers, as Mahesh Rangarajan’s India’s Wildlife History tells us, was essentially a result of two aggressive policies carried out in British India. First, the British preferred to expand settled agriculture at the cost of the forest. The great expanses of savanna vegetation that straddled central and western India were meticulously put under the plough and the natural habitats of the lion was thus eliminated. Second, the erstwhile caution of the restricted royal hunt in the Mughal period was replaced with the thoughtless kills from hunting wildlife either as colonial sport or enabled by Indian royals to curry favour with British officials.
While wild dogs were not even remotely involved in the massacre of lions in the British period, Divyabhanusinh in his beautifully illustrated and richly told The Story of Asia’s Lion, discusses early Greek observations (from the time of Megasthenes 350 – c. 290 BC) about a ‘noble breed of dogs’ in ancient northern India who were reared to be powerful enough to even or specially shred a lion. The legendary warrior king Alexander (356-323 BC) was purportedly presented 150 of such ferocious and remarkable dogs as a gift by the King Sophites (whose kingdom lay west of modern day Beas).
The closest approximation of the modern-day wild dog in the Indian subcontinent is the dhole (Cuon alpinus), which is now effectively on the IUCN list of endangered species. The dhole, with its habitat comprising mostly the south-western parts of India, is more likely to be pitted against leopards and tigers than lions. These crafty dogs, moreover, prefer to attack and eat a range of herbivores such as deer, wild boar and water buffalo. Interestingly enough, the dhole also eat fruit and vegetable matter and, in captivity, are known to munch on various kinds of grasses, herbs and leaves – ‘seemingly for pleasure rather than just when ill’.
All these vignettes, as it were, surely add up badly for Bhagwat’s poorly-educated effort to disgrace the wild dog to unite Hindus. Even worse, the idea of the lion as a pan-Indian symbol, unsurprisingly for those in the south, was not without challenge. M. Krishnan (1912-96), one of India’s most prolific popular writers on nature and a leading mind on conservation, argued for the elephant to be made the symbol for the Indian national emblem. The elephant, he felt, was the true king of the forests and truly Indian for being so widely represented in the arts and concluded that the Ashoka lions were “not Indian in their art and which are third rate as lions”.
For an organisation that prides itself on speaking for and on behalf of India’s Hindus, Bhagwat’s RSS shows surprisingly little understanding of how complex symbols and representations can be in India. On the other hand, this is perhaps in keeping with the anti-intellectualism that continues to define RSS. Though avowedly a cultural organisation, it is yet to make any meaningful contributions to Indian culture either in the arts, literature or music. And now by pitting wild dogs against lions, they have stirred another forest of metaphors and symbols against them.
Rohan D’Souza is associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.