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Penguin Books

S a r a m a a n d h e r C h i l d re n Bibek Debroy is an economist and is Research Professor (Centre for Policy Research), Professor (International Management Institute) and Contributing Editor (Indian Express group). He has worked in universities, research institutes, industry and for the government. He has published books, papers and popular articles in economics. But he has also published in Indology and translated (into English) the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads and the Gita (Penguin India, 2005). He is now working on an unabridged translation of the Mahabharata in ten volumes to be published as Penguin Black Classics. The book Sarama and her Children splices his interest in Hinduism with his love for dogs.

for Pari, who gave a new lease of life

C o n ten ts ix


introduction and tradition  literature and modernity  sarama 



sarama’s children in the epics


dharmashastras and the puranas  niti shashtras  popular tales




dogs in contemporary india  in lieu of a conclusion  notes 







arama has been in the making for a couple of years. In the Hindu tradition, Sarama is the mother of all dogs. She is the dog of the gods. Thus, dogs are known as ‘sarameya’s. I have always liked dogs. In my growing-up years, a succession of dogs populated the house. Later, when I grew up and had a house of my own, there were dogs there too. Invariably, these were pure-bred Indian mongrels, usually picked up from the streets. When the first chapters were written, there were three pet dogs. Sunday and Peppy have now gone off to dog heaven. Byte is still around. And then there was Scruffy, who is dead too. She was not quite a pet. She was a happy stray, fed occasionally and looked after when she had a litter, before she was eventually taken to a vet and sterilized. At the time when the first chapters were written, Scruffy’s latest litter of six balls of fur were also in the house, inside a basket that kept toppling over as they tried to climb out. By the time the last chapters were written, there were more strays that were half-pets, and more puppies—two unnamed mothers, twelve pups and three male dogs—with Bori and Bhuri (now three months old) spending the occasional night on our bed. With so many dogs that came and went, you have to be interested in dogs. The dog versus cat debate is a pointless one. I don’t mind cats, but I must confess I prefer dogs.


The pedigreed versus Indian mongrel debate is also largely pointless. But I must also confess I prefer mongrels. There is no reason for others to have similar preferences and there are people who do not like dogs, pedigreed or otherwise. But are these individual preferences or are there some communitylevel preferences determined by social cum religious norms that have evolved over thousands of years? Islam’s disapproval of dogs is known. How about Hinduism? Unlike the west, where an Englishman and his dog never seem to be parted, such as in depictions of Chaucer’s tales, a dog never seems to have a companion status in India. Indeed, the impression I had, before undertaking the ‘research’ that went into this book, was stronger. I had the feeling that dogs were looked down upon in Hinduism. The incident from the Mahabharata, about the dog accompanying the Pandavas on their final journey, does not count. That was not a real dog, was it? It was Dharma disguised as a dog. Sure, there were accounts of holy men adopting dogs, but in general, dogs were looked down upon. At least, that was the impression I had and I have more than an average degree of familiarity with Hindu texts. Imagine my surprise when I re-read the Rg Veda and discovered that dogs were used as herd dogs, hunting dogs and watchdogs, not to forget their being used as beasts of burden. I had not known that. When I had read the Rg Veda earlier, the fact had not registered. That was the trigger. And as I re-read Hindu texts with this canine perspective in mind, I continually stumbled upon facts that I had not known. A figurine from Harappa shows a dog wearing a collar. Another figurine from Mohenjodaro shows a fighting dog. The prehistoric cave paintings in Bhimbhetka (circa 5000 bce) show a man with a dog on a leash. India exported dogs to Alexander the Great and



the Persian kings. The Valmiki Ramayana mentions dogs being bred in palaces and sent as gifts to Ayodhya. Sita’s earrings were shaped like the teeth of a dog. In the Mahabharata, when Arjuna prays to Durga, the goddess is described as possessing the face of a dog. There are several Bhairava temples that not only show Bhairava surrounded by dogs, but also riding on them. In Delhi itself, there is a Bhairava temple with statues of dogs that are worshipped. There is a Raja Ravi Verma painting with the four vedas represented as dogs. The more I read, the more I marvelled. A more complicated proposition, bolstered with evidence from Bengali literature, began to emerge as the central thesis of this book. And since there were not any books on attitudes to dogs in Hinduism, these facts clearly deserved wider dissemination. The research not only involved extensive reading, it took me to all kinds of places in search of Bhairava temples and to Bhimbhetka. The book wrote itself. It was a voyage of discovery and will probably be one to the reader as well. In the process, my attitude towards dogs has also changed a bit. Bhairava temples are often around cremation grounds, or what used to be cremation grounds earlier. And as you will discover when you read this book, there is an intimate association between dogs and cremation grounds, and between dogs and the afterlife. Bizarre and strange though it might seem, dogs take us a bit closer to the afterworld. Spend some time at a cremation ground (not the electric variety) and life seems transient and temporary, as indeed it is. It is dark. The embers on some pyre have died down. There are a million stars in the sky. And you are completely alone. Did I say completely alone? Not quite. There will be some dog by your side. Not a dog you have adopted, but one that has adopted you.



On more mundane matters, this is a book I enjoyed writing. And it is one I think you will like reading. On less mundane matters, every book results in the accumulation of debts. First, there are my sons, Nihshanka and Vidroha, whose interest in dogs also spilled over into the progress of the ‘dog book’. Second, Dr Ranesh Chakraborty, 80-plus and India’s youngest ever medical doctor, retired cancer specialist, philatelist and Sushruta-specialist, interested in everything under the sun—to him I owe a collection of ‘dog stamps’, most of which have not been used in this book. Third, friends like Latha Jishnu, Shankkar Aiyar, Pranjal Sharma, Anil Bharadwaj, Seetha Parthasarathy and Laveesh Bhandari, who parted with tit-bits of information, with the occasional snide comment about whether the next book was going to be on cats. Fourth, V.K. Karthika and R. Sivapriya of Penguin— Karthika began what Sivapriya brought to completion, and without either, the book would not have happened. Fifth, modern-day Sarama, Suparna Banerjee—without her interest and support bordering on inspiration, a book that had been languishing for a couple of years would never have been finally completed. Her enthusiasm in tracking down the Bhimbhetka cave paintings or the Heliodorus column in Vidisha or Bhairava temples or cremation grounds has been greater than mine, and also her interest in dogs. When we got out for walks in the evenings, it is quite a sight to see her followed by a motley crowd of at least a dozen stray dogs and puppies on an average, Bori and Bhuri the present favourites and Laawaris the least liked. Thank you, everyone. Bibek Debroy New Delhi March 2008


I n t r o d u c t i o n a n d Tr a d i t i o n


ogs have been with humans for a very long time. The modern dog can be traced back to the Creodont, down through the Miacis, the Cynodictus, the Cynodesmus and finally the Tomarctus (15 million years ago). Tomarctus resembled a modern dog and evolved into the Canidae family, which includes the dog, the wolf and the jackal. That evolution took place around one million years ago. Tomarctus’ importance was primarily behavioural, because it was a social animal and these social instincts of belonging to a pack or a family and of having a leader or being a leader (the alpha male phenomenon) remains in the modern dog. We do not quite know when the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) emerged from the wolf (Canis lupus). Some genetic research suggests this might have happened 135,000 years ago. Different types of wolves probably led to different dog families. Nor do we know how the dog evolved from the wolf, with the two species sharing a lot of genetic material in common. Fossil remains that go back 500,000 years find wolves and Neanderthals sharing close quarters. Presumably, wolves hung around human habitations, often as scavengers. Wolf puppies were adopted and even selectively bred—not as pets, but because they performed a useful role in guarding, herding, hunting and even for transport. But a tame wolf is

Sarama and her Children

not the same as a domestic dog. Dogs are a distinct species. The tails curl upwards, the fur is softer, legs are shorter, eyes are larger and the brain case is also larger. Not to forget that dogs are unusual in that they bark. There are more similarities with a foetal wolf than with a wolf that has actually been born. It is almost as if the dog is a species where the complete stage of wolf development has been cut off before actual completion. In 1947, the Reader’s Digest published a condensation of George Stewart’s autobiography of man.1  Then, too, I sometimes found a lost puppy in the forest—a roly-poly and trusting bit of fur which wiggled on its fat stomach and looked up with big eyes. I lowered the raised axe and brought him to the camp. He played with the children for a while. When he grew his fangs, a wilder light began to glow in his eyes and he slipped off to join the grey circling ones at the edge of the firelight. But such a wolf was never quite the same. He crept closer to the camp-fire than the others, and remembered the children who had patted him. As centuries slipped by, those grey shapes in the twilight began to pay me back many times over for the poor leavings I threw them. Their sudden outcry in the night let me know that tigers were prowling close. They would follow my hunting band in order to eat the leavings of my kill. When they were following and I ran foul of a she-bear, they snapped at her heels and turned her and let me get an arrow into her flank. Finally the pack joined in my hunt; being natural hunters, they learned when to crouch silent, when to follow

Introduction and Tradition

by scent, and when to leap forward in full cry on the track of the wounded stag. It is a strange part of my story, hardly to be imagined, if it had not really happened. Thus by mutual give and take we grew together, although it was probably more by slow coming closer of the band and the pack than by the taming of pets. Dogs and humans evolved in parallel, and the domesticated dog perhaps goes back to around 15,000 bce, if not 20,000 bce. There are hypotheses that drag this time line of domestication back even further, to the Neanderthal rather than CroMagnon period. And this domestication must have been true even of India. After all, the Dhole (Cuon alpinus) famous from Kipling’s Jungle Books, has been around for thousands of years. Dholes cannot, of course, be tamed. In the Mowgli stories, there is an entire episode on the Dhole or the red dog of the ‘Dekkan’. Although lesser known, Norah Burke’s jungle stories also describe packs of wild dogs, with a government reward for killing wild dogs. ‘They are of a reddish colour, with darker tails, black at the tip, and very much resemble the village dogs—to which they are only distantly related. They never attack human beings, and are said never to pursue domestic animals. They cannot be kept and tamed.’2  Prehistoric cave paintings from Spain, dated to 15,000 years ago, show dog-like animals accompanying humans on hunts. A prehistoric cave painting from Bhimbhetka clearly shows a man leading a dog, in what looks like a fairly modern leash. But fossil remains of humans and dogs together do not generally go back to before 10,000 bce. Remains of domesticated dogs have been found in Azerbaijan, radiocarbon dated to between 5500 and 5000 bce. In Ashkelon (Israel), burial grounds for

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