23 Dec 4.5 The Symbolism of Rituals
In the Hindu view, all that is “good” is God or Brahman. Truth is God, happiness is God, peace is God, and so on. All “evil” occurs due to the human ego, which God overcomes in order to maintain sanity in the universe. Hindus use idols and rituals to symbolize various aspects of God and our relationship with God. Milk is used to symbolize the fluid mind in some Vedic rituals, but so is coconut water in other rituals. Butter is used to symbolize the solid, steady mind that is fixed on God, but so is coconut meat. Ghee, which is clarified butter, is used to symbolize the clarified, steady mind that is ready to be enlightened (literally lit with a flame), and this can clearly be replaced with coconut oil. After all, in every temple puja ceremony, Hindu devotees shatter a coconut to symbolize the shattering of their ego (the coconut) to release the fluid mind (coconut water) so that the solid mind fixed on God remains (the coconut meat), leading to enlightenment (the lit lamp). When we truly understand the extreme abuse that modern cows routinely go through, we would refrain from using the products of all that violence in our sacred rituals to invoke the divine.
The Hindu tradition is full of stories and symbols that helped the cultural transmission of Dharma, or right conduct, in every situation. The symbolism of milk and butter comes from the epic Mahabharata, specifically from the stories of Lord Krishna, who was raised a cowherd. As a child, Lord Krishna loved butter and even stole it from the households in his neighborhood. Clearly, these stories originated at a time when Indian society was mostly agrarian and depended entirely on animal labor for its well-being, but that doesn’t mean that we should consume butter as if we were reenacting Lord Krishna’s mythical exploits in modern times.
There is tremendous wisdom encoded in Hindu symbols, but they don’t all make sense when taken literally. For instance, before starting any major enterprise, a practicing Hindu will perform a ceremony dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the Elephant God, the remover of obstacles and the symbol of wisdom. Lord Ganesha is depicted as a potbellied man with an elephant head with one broken tusk, four hands holding various objects, typically, an axe, a rope, a conch shell and a sweetmeat. Lord Ganesha also uses a mouse as his vehicle. Clearly, the intent of the ceremony is to imbue the devotee with this image of Ganesha so that she/he attains the right attitude for conducting that enterprise successfully. There are ten aspects of Ganesha’s image that pertain to this right attitude:
1. The rope in his hand is to corral the devotee to follow the righteous path of Dharma.
2. The axe is to remind the devotee to cut off all attachments to the fruits of the undertaking.
3. The conch shell is to remind the devotee to take into account the needs of the entire universe, when performing the undertaking. The conch is the symbol of the Universe as it makes the primordial “Om” sound when we blow through it.
4. The sweetmeat held out in his outstretched palm is to remind the devotee to perform the undertaking as a gift to the community.
5. The narrow eyes of the elephant head indicates that the devotee must be far sighted and consider the long term implications of the undertaking.
6. The trunk of the elephant head, which is capable of huge tasks such as uprooting a tree and nimble tasks such as picking up a peanut, indicates that the devotee must consider both the broad view as well as the minute details of the undertaking.
7. The broken tusk of the elephant head is to remind the devotee of her/his own imperfections.
8. The large ears of the elephant indicate that the devotee must listen to the wisdom of others while making decisions during the course of the undertaking. 9. The potbelly is to remind the devotee that she/he also possesses knowledge for the undertaking and need not entirely be reliant on others. 10. Finally, the mouse as a vehicle for Lord Ganesha indicates to the devotee to think outside the box of conventional wisdom, for sometimes the seemingly impossible can be achievable.
Such is the symbolism of Lord Ganesha. However, as the story goes, Lord Ganesha got his elephant head because his father, Lord Shiva, beheaded him in a fit of rage born of mistaken identity and when later struck with remorse, grafted a passing elephant’s head on his body instead. But that doesn’t mean we should be looking seriously into perfecting the technology of elephant head transplants for all our first-borns. Indeed, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was mercilessly mocked in the Indian media for his literal interpretation of the story of Lord Ganesha when he claimed that the story implies ancient Indians must have developed advanced plastic surgery techniques, thousands of years ago. Yet, I’m sure that many of those who were mocking the unfortunate Prime Minister are still consuming the maternal secretions of an entirely different species, the cow, simply because Lord Krishna did so in the Mahabharata!
Truly, every cultural story that we have used to justify our continued violence towards animals has now become fully hollowed out in our modern industrial reality.
Firstly, it is impractical to raise animals in traditional pastures to satisfy the current demand for animal products, as there is not enough land on Earth to meet it.
Secondly, even if we can persuade animals to offer up their bodies willingly for slaughter, that doesn’t negate the fact that all the animals we slaughter these days are really babies who have experienced less than 10% of their natural life spans, on average. That act of “consensual slaughter” is therefore just as inappropriate as the act of a pedophile who has consensual sexual relations with a 7-year-old child!
Finally, we can no longer hunt free animals to sustain our current food habits; even if we use every part of the animal we kill, because there are not enough free animals in the wild for us to hunt to sustain our current demands for animal foods. Most certainly, the last remaining forests in the world cannot survive 7.4 billion predatory humans shooting game for their daily meals!
 Please see, e.g., http://bit.ly/ZZ3uH7