A Field Guide to Birds of the Ramayana

The King of Birds, Garuda, meets with Kakabhushundi the Crow-Sage in the Hindu epic Ramayana, c. 1755.

The King of Birds, Garuda, meets with Kakabhushundi the Crow-Sage in the Hindu epic Ramayana, c. 1755.

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The Ramayana is one of the great Hindu epic about the journey of Rama, his brother Lakshmana, his devoted servant Hanuman, his wife Sita – and their individual and collective struggles to live virtuously and fulfill their duties, even in the face of great challenges.
In the Ramayana, bird characters play a prominent role – not only in the story itself, but also in its creation. Legend has it that the author of the epic, a sage (or rishi) named Valmiki was about to begin his daily river-bath when he witnessed the cold-blooded killing of two cranes who were courting by the river.
After witnessing the death, he uttered a curse — borne of his grief — which happened to follow a beautiful rhythm and meter that inspired him to compose the Ramayana.
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Sita and Rama meet Jatayu the vulture demigod. "The Panchavati Hermitage," Circa A.D. 1780-1785 Source: http://www.goloka.com/docs/rama/rama_06.html

Sita and Rama meet Jatayu the vulture demigod in peaceful times. “The Panchavati Hermitage,” Circa A.D. 1780-1785 Source: http://www.goloka.com/docs/rama/rama_06.html

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Back to our feathered friends: at a turning point in the story, Sita is kidnapped by Demon King Ravana and Rama is dwelling on her loss. His sad and beautiful lament is filled with references to birds:

Rama thought: “While we were together in the hermitage, Sita used to love the way the crane cried out to its mate: she had the sweet voice of the crane! How does she find any joy now? The asana tree is in full bloom here, and it reminds me of her; when she perceives the asana tree in full bloom, what will she do when she is unable to see me? That lovely Sita whose voice was as sweet as the swans’, used to wake up every morning listening to the swans: how does she besport herself now? How miserable she will be, now that she is without me, when she sees the cakravaka birds flying together in pairs, reminding her of me and my love for her? I do not find any delight while roaming the forest, the banks of the rivers or lakes, without her, my beloved Sita. With her love and longing for me greatly intensified by the onset of early winter, she is surely tormented on account of her separation from me.” (SourceThe Concise Ramayana by Swami Venkatesananda)

The interesting role that birds play in the Ramayana  has prompted the creation of a few essays, the most well-known of them being a collection called Birds of the Ramayana. This collection of essays explores the roles and meanings of five different significant bird characters: Krauncha cranes, Jatayu and Sampati the vulture demigods, Kakabhushundi the crow-sage, and Garuda, the King of Birds. (For some reason, the vulture demigod Jatayu isn’t talked about much in this collection, but you can read about him here and here. In the story, he was a friend of Rama’s father and sacrificed his wings in an epic battle against the demon king while trying to save Sita.

Rama and Lakshmana before Jatayu, circa 1820-40.

Rama and Lakshmana before Jatayu, circa 1820-40.

Sampati, the vulture demigod, meeting with the Vanaras in search of Sita.  Illustration by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, 1916.

Sampati, the vulture demigod, meeting with the Vanaras in search of Sita. Illustration by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, 1916.

Jatayu, the vulture, tries to save Sita from the demon king, but  loses his wings.

Jatayu, the vulture, tries to save Sita from the demon king, but loses his wings.

RAMA AND LAKSHMAN DISCOVER THE DYING CRANE. Illustration to the Hindu epic, the Ramayana Malwa, Central India, c. 1630. Gopi Krishna Kanoria collection, Calcutta

RAMA AND LAKSHMAN DISCOVER THE DYING CRANE. Illustration to the Hindu epic, the Ramayana Malwa, Central India, c. 1630. Gopi Krishna Kanoria collection, Calcutta

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No doubt, the birds of the Ramayana are just a few of countless example of birds in India’s larger collection of myths, fables, and cultures — which all play an important role in shaping India’s view of birds and their conservation. Although fictional, the birds of India’s myth and legend are therefore worth studying and telling about.

Indian bird conservation groups should tap into the India’s long-held interest in myth and legend to stir a real-life interest in birds.  For example, an organization could organize a tour based on “Birds of the Ramayana” using the aforementioned bird characters to connect people to real-life issues of today — such as destruction of crane habitat and the bioaccumulation of pesticides like DDT affecting birds of prey.

To be successful, such tours must not only teach about birds. Simply providing the facts about issues (declarative knowledge) is not sufficient for changing behavior. Research shows that people also need to know how to proceed (procedural knowledge) — knowledge about concrete actions they can take next. For example, a bird walk leader might teach people how to submit bird observations for science, how to support bird habitat conservation efforts, or how to replace chemical pesticide use with safe and natural alternatives. (1)

Providing both types of knowledge (declarative and procedural) is necessary for changing behavior.

For millenia, the Ramayana has been used as a model of exemplary behavior in civilized society. Because of this, it is an ideal source material for inspiring better attitudes and behaviors towards the natural world within which we are so intricately entwined.

(1) Hines, J. M., Hungerford, H. R., & Tomera, A. N. (1987). Analysis and synthesis of research on responsible environmental behavior: A meta-analysis. The Journal of environmental education, 18(2), 1-8.

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