Mythology for the Millennial: The rise and fall of Sarama, dog of the gods, or why you should feed your neighbourhood stray

Sarama rose to fame when a gang of robbers called the Panis, stole Indra's cow herd, and she helped him get them back.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan February 11, 2019 08:18:12 IST
Mythology for the Millennial: The rise and fall of Sarama, dog of the gods, or why you should feed your neighbourhood stray
  • Sarama was the first dog, the godly dog, who lived with all the other gods up in Indra's court.

  • She rose to fame when a gang of robbers called the Panis, stole Indra's cow herd, and she helped him get them back.

  • But over time, she no longer was the Noble Dog, instead, she's became one of the several evil spirits who preys on human children.

Consider the Indian street dog. Sometimes, a long nippled beaten looking creature, not long out of puppyhood but giving birth to a string of puppies herself, surprisingly fat looking things for such a half-starved mother. Then there are the ones you are probably acquainted with — the fat dog who lives near the garbage bins and waves his tail at you lazily when you pass, the large beautiful one who “could be a breed” you see leading his pack down colony roads. The doe-eyed, the long-tongued, the scrappy and the elegant. Your Indian street dog has all those attributes, and perhaps they owe it all to Sarama.

Sarama was the first dog, the godly dog, a Doggess if you will, who lived with all the other gods up in Indra's court. Her name means “fleet one” (although nowadays you wouldn't be wrong if you referred to any bitch — the doggy kind — as a sarama). Her official title was Devashuni, or bitch to the gods, and again, I urge you to remember that this bitch is super literal. (People have not fared so well being godly bitches in the past, just look at any Greek mythology.) (Speaking of Greek mythology, Sarama is also meant to be the Hindu counterpart to Hermes, the messenger god.)

Mythology for the Millennial The rise and fall of Sarama dog of the gods or why you should feed your neighbourhood stray

Dattatreya by Raja Ravi Varma. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anyhow, Sarama rose to fame when a gang of robbers called the Panis, stole Indra's cow herd. Indra first sent a bird, Suparna, to get the cows, but the bird is too easily bribed by dahi, and goes back and tells Indra that there are no cows. Indra then kicks the bird in the stomach, which seems like a cruel and unusual punishment, but this causes Suparna to vomit up the curd and be branded a traitor. In goes Sarama, she's fully diplomatic, and convinces the Panis to return the cows as well as securing a deal with Indra that her future children will always be able to have milk whenever they like. (As a cat person, this is sounding very suspicious to me. Cats are the diplomatic milk drinkers, guys!) (Actually, that is a common fallacy. Cats are, in fact, lactose intolerant. Do not feed your cat milk.)

In another version of the story, not cleaned up by Dog People, Sarama is the one who is bribed by milk and is kicked in the stomach etc. After her vomiting, she's really embarrassed and leads Indra to the cow thieves by way of penance.

Somewhere along the way, as Hindu mythology evolved, Sarama's image began to change too. No longer was she the Noble Dog, instead, she's the goddess who steals fetuses away from the womb, one of the several evil spirits who preys on human children. Her children are also, by this time, messengers of the god of death, Yama. They have four eyes each and guard the path to the afterlife. Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, ditches all his brothers and his wife as he walks up the path to heaven, but pleads for the stray dog who accompanies him, which might make him a little more human than we expected, until we learn the dog is actually a metaphor for Righteous Old Yudhishthira to prove how much greater he is than all the rest of us. You and I might beg for our brothers and our common wife to join us in heaven, but all Yudi wants is the dog, which is actually a manifestation of god, don't you know. Anyhow, there's a whole “what do you want?” Q&A session with Yudi and he says, “I want this dog to enter heaven with me” and the god's like, “No, that's impossible, dogs are unclean!” but Yudi stands firm and finally the dog is revealed to be Yama himself. That story would have been much better if it was actually a real dog, no gods needed.

All is not lost, though, dog lovers! There's a god called Dattatreya whose image is commonly depicted with four dogs and a cow (symbols of the four Vedas and Mother Earth) and there's apparently a temple dedicated to him in Maharashtra which allows dogs free access. There's Bhairav, the fearsome Shiva aspect who rides around on a dog. And in Nepal, they have a version of Diwali called Tihar, which has an adorable Worship All The Puppers day, where dogs are given treats and garlands. Sarama would be pleased, and maybe you should feed your neighbourhood stray as well, so it takes back good reports to its mum.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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