Hindu Gods and Animals

Ashta Matrika

The Goddess Ambika leading the eight Mother Goddesses in battle against the Demon Raktabija. Folio from Devimahatmya (Glory of the Goddess), early 18th century CE manuscript; painting: opaque watercolour and ink on paper, from Nepal. Photograph in the public domain, original painting at the Los Angeles County Museum.

Hindu Gods and Animals

In order to understand many Hindu figurines of gods with animals it is necessary to know about the significance of an animal as a vahana. This term in Sanskrit means that which pulls or carries.  Most of the gods and goddesses have a particular vahana.  The well known ones are Nandi, a bull, for Shiva; Garuda, an eagle, for Vishnu; and Hamsa, a goose, for Brahma or Sarasvati.  The above painting illustrates some examples. In some cases the vahana only accompanies the god or goddess.  It is interesting to digress about this subject, if only because the bronze elephant figurine shown below is rather bemusing.  Theriomorphic deities may have existed prior to those, who have purely human form and perhaps some became the vehicles for the gods, who took human form, as with Nandi and Shiva.  Some gods and goddesses have more than one vahana and it took time to find that the Gaja (elephant) was an alternative vahana for for Ganesha, who usually has the rat as his vahana.  The vehicles are usually animals or birds, but also include a snake and a tortoise.  The crocodile might be included, but it is usually referred to as a makara, which is a mythical sea dragon.  While Kuvera may ride a horse, he is the only god to have a man as a vehicle (nara vahana)

Ganesha on the Rat

GaneshaGouache painting on paper of Ganesha riding on his vahana, the mushika.  This is the Sanskrit word for rat (root mūṣ stealing cf. mouse) and probably a Greater Bandicoot Rat (Bandicota Indica), but unrelated to bandicoots found in Australia. With his trunk Ganesha takes laddu (sweetmeats) from a bowl. His waist is encircled by a snake. Ganesha is dressed in a finely designed clothes. An attendant follows behind with a parasol. From this picture one realises that, from the relative sizes, the role of the vahana is symbolic and the concept must be separated from reality.

1.  Ganesha

GaneshaMaterial:  bronze
The figurine appears to be Ganesha, mounted on an elephant and the animal facing backwards is perhaps Mushika his true vahana.
Both lower hands front and back are holding a patra (bowl) and both upper hands front and back are showing the the karanamudra, which signifies warding off evil.
This combination is unusual, but the Ganesha Purana mentions Mahotkata Vinayaka (Obstacle Remover of Great Strength), an epithet of Ganesha, usually with ten arms and a gaja (elephant) vahana.

2.  Deer

DeerMaterial: bronze.
Patina: dark brown.
This deer is one of a pair, which suggests they could be the deer that are found at either side of the dharma wheel (see Sitemap page), as found on a relief at Borobudur and in Tibetan paintings and images.  The Buddha attained enlightenment at Deer Park and is often shown accompanied by two deer. However, the the flames on the scaly body at the top of each leg, the tassel at the end of the tail and the fierce expression are similar to those found on the Chinese Qilin, see next picture. Perhaps this is a Javanese interpretation of the Qilin, or a mixture of both cultures.


Qilin The Qilin or Ch’i-lin is a mythical Chinese chimerical creature usually shown with fire coming from its body.

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