Since olden times, animals of all kinds have been deeply symbolic for human societies in many different ways. This is evident in the role of animals in many fables, fairy stories and children’s tales across the world, many of which have ancient origins. Such symbolism evidently reflect the deepest psychological dispositions of ancient hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies.
This article will consider one particularly interesting case, the bear, which was an important symbolic animal in early societies. The formidable scholar Professor Michel Pastoureau provides a cultural history of the bear as an actual and symbolic animal in relation to human society in Europe, explaining that –
“From time immemorial the bear had been a particularly admired animal throughout the Germanic world. Stronger than any animal, it was the king of the forest and of all the animals…. In their eyes, it was not only an invincible animal and the incarnation of brute strength; it was also a being apart, an intermediary creature between the animal and human worlds, and even an ancestor or relative of humans.”[The bear: History of a Fallen King, p.2]
Although Prof. Pastoureau focuses on the Germanic world, we can interestingly perhaps identify some similar themes of cultural centrality of the bear in Indian culture, especially in its earliest phases. Similarly to Western mythic taxonomy, the seven stars of Ursa Major are called ‘the bears’ (ṛkṣa) in the Rig Veda (1.24.10), and in fact the Pleiades are their seven wives according to Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (2.1.2). These bears (ṛkṣa) later came to be known as sages (ṛṣi).
From the perspective of etymology, the Sanskrit term, along with cognate terms such as Greek ἄρκτος (árktos) and Latin ursus, all derive from the Proto-Indo-European root h₂ŕ̥tḱos, about which we read –
“The word is either a nominalization of an unattested adjective *h₂r̥tḱós (“destroying”) or a derivative of *h₂rétḱ-os ~ *h₂rétḱ-es- (“destruction”)”[h₂ŕ̥tḱos – Wiktionary]
However, no figure is more emblematic of the power and symbolism of the bear in Indian culture than Jāmbavān, bear-king (ṛkṣarāja), who appears in the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa and in the famous Purāṇic story of the Śyāmantaka jewel, where he actually kills the lion, a feat that is in fact an accurate reflection of the natural abilities of these animals, according to testimony narrated by Prof. Pastoureau –
“The Romans in particular had been able to marvel at the physical presence of various species in the circus games … A bear always won in single combat against a lion …”[The bear: History of a Fallen King, p.37]
Jāmbavān has an instrumental role in the Rāmāyaṇa when he building the confidence of Hanumān and inspiring him to believe he alone is capable of leaping across the sea to Sri Lanka. Jāmbavān tells Hanumān about his powerful and distinguished parentage, as the son of the nymph Punjikasthalā and the wind god Vāyu. Jāmbavān finally rounds up with the following motivational message –
So expand [your size], for you are the best of leapers. For the whole vānara force wants to see that heroism.
Get up, tawny tiger, jump the great sea. For, Hanuman, your course goes further than all beings.[Rāmāyaṇa, Kiṣkindhakāṇḍa, Canto 66, Verses 35-38; my own translation]
All the tawny ones are despondent, Hunaman. Do you see that?
Stride, speedy one, like Viṣṇu [took] three strides.
Indeed, Jāmbavān himself is later portrayed in glowing terms as follows –
This one is named Jāmbavān, a leader of great leaders. Pacific towards gurus and unforgiving in battles.[Rāmāyaṇa, Yuddhakāṇḍa, Canto 27, Verses 11-14; my own translation]
Great help was given by this wise Jāmbavān to Indra in the [battle of] gods and asuras, and he got many boons.
Climbing up to mountain-peaks, his many soldiers roam about with limitless energy.
Huge shaggy forms, similar to demons or ogres, they release rocks as large as big clouds and do not shrink from death.
Indeed, we may even wonder about the best way to understand the physical or symbolic form of Sugrīva, Hanumān and all the vānaras, who are sometimes understood as having a monkey-like form. We can understand the derivation of the term ‘vānara’ to be from ‘vana’ (forest), in which case they are forest-dwelling beings, or, perhaps, as ‘some [strange] kind of’ (vā) men (nara), which is what bears appeared to be to early humans. As Prof. Pastoureau explains –
“the bear is built like a man: it has the same stature and the same silhouette, since, unlike most quadrupeds, it can remain vertical … But the bear did not appear only as a man in disguise; it also behaved physically like a man. It could stand, sit, lie on its side or stomach, run, swim, dive, roll, climb, jump, and even dance.”[The bear: History of a Fallen King, p.62]
Some of this resemblance indeed comes through in the above extracts in terms of form and behaviour, in addition to their immense strength. The image above also hints at some kind of affinity between monkeys and bears. In any case, as with the bear, the appearance of the vānaras is somehow symbolic, being not quite human, but creatures that we can certainly admire, ally ourselves with, and aspire to emulate in some respects.