Though often portrayed in Vedic literature as wretched creatures, dogs have sometimes received noteworthy favor from a devotee of the Lord.
By Satyaraja Dasa
By the special mercy of the Lord and His devotees, even a lowly creature like a dog can achieve the highest destination.

In a certain sense, dogs are frowned upon in ancient India’s Vedic culture. Put simply: they get a bad rap.

Dogs of all manner were not allowed inside temples, palaces, and the houses of brahmanas, in particular. By Vedic standards, dogs are considered dirty, and were used analogically to indicate not only atheists but also the dregs of society.

“Materialists who work hard like dogs and hogs simply for sense gratification,” Srila Prabhupada writes, “are actually mad. They simply perform all kinds of abominable activities simply for sense gratification. Materialistic activities are not at all worthy of an intelligent man, for as a result of such activities, one gets a material body, which is full of misery.”1 Such a body, Prabhupada implies, is doglike.

“That means by this enjoying spirit I am getting entangled. I am not becoming free. If at the time of . . . if I live like dogs, dog mentality, then naturally at the time of death my mentality will be like a dog and naturally I get a dog’s body.”2

All of this being said, there is an alternate side, too: Any keen observer of life will notice that there is more to dogs than meets their muzzle, including characteristics such as faithfulness and a happy, loving disposition. More to the point of this essay, their dog bodies do not necessarily bar them from receiving special mercy in terms of bhakti, or devotional love, on the highest spiritual platform. Dogs, like all living beings, are worthy of compassion and affection, and they should not be undervalued or underestimated because of the particular body that nature has given them.

In this article, therefore, I’ll cite examples of dogs that were loved by the highest of devotees, and also those who achieved the ultimate goal of spiritual life. “The truly learned, with the eyes of divine knowledge,” the Gita (5.18) explains, “see with equal vision (sama-darshinah) a brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater.” In other words, those with true knowledge do not distinguish between living beings because of their bodies. All beings in this world naturally have different functions or purposes to serve, and they behave in their respective ways, but because they are all spirit souls, it should also be understood that there is a certain equality among them. Moreover, given the right situation, each of them can attain the same spiritual perfection.

“Of course,” Prabhupada notes, “there are many dogs loitering in the street without food. Therefore, to liken the conditional existence of the living entity to that of a dog is very appropriate. An intelligent human being, however, can understand that if he has to live the life of a dog, he had best become Krishna’s dog.

“In the material world,” Prabhupada continues, “a dog is sometimes elevated and is sometimes on the street, but in the spiritual world, Krishna’s dog is perpetually, eternally happy.3 Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura has therefore sung, vaishnava thakura tomara kukura baliya janaha more. In this way Bhaktivinoda Thakura offers to become a Vaishnava’s dog. A dog always keeps himself at his master’s door and does not allow anyone unfavorable to the master to enter. Similarly, one should engage in the service of a Vaishnava and try to please him in every respect. Unless one does so, he does not make spiritual advancement.”4 In other words, a Vaishnava – as opposed to an ordinary dog – is man’s best friend.

Dog Dharma

When I was a young boy, like many of my peers I was fascinated by an anthology TV show called The Twilight Zone. Hosted by an articulate and charismatic screenwriter named Rod Serling, the popular show introduced many Americans to science fiction and fantasy narratives, but it also sought to provoke thought, to stretch the imagination in a way that might make viewers ponder greater truths.

In particular, I remember a 1962 episode called “The Hunt,” in which Simpson, a backwoods man, and his wife live in a simple rural dwelling with their hound dog, Rip. One evening, while Simpson is out hunting, he and Rip dive into a pond in an attempt to catch a raccoon, but only the creature they stalked emerges from the water.

While the rustic twosome appears to awaken near the pond, it is surprising that, after returning home, no one is able to see them – neither Simpson’s wife nor the local preacher or the neighbors. They all seem to think that Simpson and Rip are no more.

In the next scene, walking with his dog along the road, Simpson comes upon an unfamiliar fence and decides to see where it leads. When the two weary travelers spy an entrance gate, Simpson, thinking he might be at the gate of the Christian heaven, asks the attending guard if he is Saint Peter. But the man responds by saying only that he is a gatekeeper and that, in any case, Simpson would not be allowed to enter with his canine friend.

Deeply disappointed, Simpson continues down the road, not even mildly entertaining the notion of entering a place that would deny his friendly companion. He says, “Any place that’s too high-falutin’ for Rip is too fancy for me.” Soon, Simpson and his dog meet a young angel, who is assigned to bring them to heaven. Simpson tells the angel about his experience at the earlier gate, and the angel informs him that that was actually hell. “Heaven’s up yonder a piece,” says the angel. And there, he further advises, Simpson could certainly bring his dog.

This is the way the episode ends, with Serling making the message clear: “Travelers to unknown regions would be well advised to take along the family dog. He might just save you from entering the wrong gate. At least it happened that way once in a mountainous area of the Twilight Zone.”

Years later, I came upon what could easily be the prototype of that Twilight Zone episode. The Mahabharata tells a story that seems too similar to be coincidental. Perhaps the writer of the TV sci fi classic, Earl Hamner, Jr., was influenced by the Vaishnava epic, but there is no way to know for certain. To be sure, the scriptural version is obviously more meaningful, with its parallel story beginning, interestingly, during the “twilight” of King Yudhishthira’s life.

The passage under discussion occurs near the end of the Mahabharata’s seventeenth book, known as the Mahaprasthanika-parva, and moves seamlessly into the final volume, the Svargarohana-parva.5 Here we find that the epic’s five heroes, the Pandavas, having given up all their belongings and ties, make their final pilgrimage to the Himalayas, accompanied by a dog they meet along the way. The idea is that they are marching to heaven, relinquishing any last attachments on this penultimate journey, culminating in the leaving behind of their bodies.

While, as part of the narrative, Yudhishthira’s four younger brothers and the famed Draupadi die during their journey north,6 Yudhishthira alone manages to reach the mountain peak because of his unsurpassable purity. In other words, he approaches the foothills of heaven (svarga), a goal that is difficult to attain.7 But once there, the demigod Indra intercedes, asking him to leave behind the dog before entering, much as the gatekeeper does in the Twilight Zone. But Yudhishthira, like Simpson, refuses to do so, citing the dog’s unflinching loyalty as his rationale.8 With this proclamation, the dog reveals his true identity as Yudhishthira’s disguised father, Dharma himself, who was testing his son’s merit, as he would several times in the pages of the epic.

Ascending to heaven, Yudhishthira is shocked by what he sees. Where are his brothers and Draupadi? Where are the great souls who fought at his side during the Kurukshetra battle? Instead, he finds there the evil-hearted Duryodhana, who is given prominence and honor. More, the evildoer is surrounded by luxury and numerous pious souls, as if he were one of them. Yudhishthira wants no part of this so-called heaven. Paradise without the association of devotees, he indicates, is no paradise at all.

From here, in answer to his question about the location of his brothers and Draupadi, the small troupe – Dharma, Yudhishthira, Indra, and Indra’s assistants – moves to another destination, ostensibly hell, though the word is never uttered.9

Their ghastly journey into the abyss – complete with alarming descriptions that today we could only compare to the inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy, with its concentric circles of torment – is horrible enough. But then Yudhishthira sees something beyond his wildest dreams: his brothers and Draupadi are in the midst of it, experiencing the netherworld in all its macabre harshness.

With this disturbing scene accosting his senses, the great emperor utters the memorable words “I will stay here in hell with my loved ones.” Indra’s assistants give him another chance. “Are you certain? The choice is yours.” He immediately responds, “Yes. This is where I want to stay.”

That was the third and final test. Yudhishthira, having gone through this edifying ordeal at the hands of Indra and Dharma, was now free of hatred for his adversaries, and due to his love of devotees, he was willing to stay anywhere, even in hell, as long as he could have their association. At that point, Indra reveals the sham of the “heaven and hell” to which Yudhishthira was exposed. These experiences, his well-wishers tell him, have disabused him of any vestiges of misgiving or impurity – he sees that dharma is subtle (sukshma dharma) and that he has no right to judge others.

What happens after this is nicely summarized by Vaishnava author Krishna Dharma:

Indra addressed Yudhishthira, “O best of men, be peaceful. Neither you nor your brothers are in hell. Only by an act of deception have you all been shown that region.10 Every king and indeed every being living in the world of men will see hell, for none can perform only good deeds. Those whose piety is great will receive the fruits of their sins first and then will enjoy great happiness for a long time. Only a slight stain of sin touched you, O King, when you lied to kill Drona.11 For this you have seen hell, as have your brothers and friends. Now you may enjoy unending happiness.”

. . . Leading the Pandava to a beautiful river of clear, gentle waters, Indra said, “Here flows the Ganga, known in heaven as the Mandakini. Bathe in her waters, O King, and you will acquire a shining celestial form.” . . . Yudhishthira entered the water and emerged with a resplendent god-like form. All his grief and anxiety vanished. As he came out of the waters he was honored and worshipped by the Siddhas and Charanas. He then saw Krishna seated in Indra’s palace manifesting a four-armed form of astonishing beauty and splendor. Arjuna was worshipping Him. When Krishna saw Yudhishthira, He smiled and lifted a hand to bless him.

Seeing Narada nearby, Yudhishthira approached him and asked him how long he and his brothers would dwell in heaven. The sage replied that by their meritorious acts the Pandavas had earned an almost endless stay. “But you brothers are eternal associates of the all-powerful Lord Krishna. Thus wherever He goes for His pastimes, you will also go. Indeed, for the good of all beings, Krishna is forever appearing in some world to display His human-like activities. Just as you cannot be without Him, so He also desires to always be with you. Thus your stay in these regions will not be for long. It has only been to show you the destinations of those whom you knew on earth. Pure souls like you reside eternally with the Lord. Only by His illusory potency does it sometimes seem otherwise. Like a magician He creates the material universe, enters it for some time, then winds it up.”

Narada concluded that the Lord’s only business was to bring all suffering souls back to their eternal positions as His loving servants. He only seemed to become involved in the affairs of the world, but in truth He was always aloof. Under illusion, men become bewildered and indulge in material pleasure, imagining themselves independent enjoyers. In reality, they are parts of the Supreme, dependent upon Him for everything. . . .

[Narada continued:] “Those who are too attached to matter cannot understand this knowledge. They must remain in mortal spheres, sometimes coming to heaven and sometimes descending to hell. As long as one does not awaken his original, pure consciousness, realizing his eternal spiritual nature, he is bound in the cycle of birth and death. You Pandavas are fixed in service to Krishna and are liberated. In bringing you to the material world, the Lord simply used you as His instruments. This is understood only by those who are free from illusion.”

Yudhishthira felt joy. He gazed at Krishna. Surely nothing in heaven could compare with seeing Him. What then of assisting Him in a capacity as servant, friend, and even relative? Absorbed in transcendental happiness, Yudhishthira could not take his gaze from Krishna. What worlds awaited him now? It did not matter. As long as Krishna was present, he was ready to go anywhere.12

Sri Chaitanya’s Dog

One more dog story.13 Every year, Sivananda Sena, a prominent devotee of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, would lead a party of some two hundred devotees from Bengal to Jagannatha Puri to attend the annual Rathayatra festival. Sivananda would pay for everyone’s food, tolls, ferries, and lodging and arranged for their transportation and comfort.14

On several occasions, a stray dog joined them in their travels. Sivananda Sena developed special affection for this soul, feeding it and even paying for its boat fare. Then one day the dog disappeared, as strays do, and Sivananda engaged ten men in searching for him, so fond was he of this animal. But he was nowhere to be found. Consequently, they continued on without him.

When they arrived in Puri, they saw that the dog was already there, and that Sri Chaitanya was lovingly throwing to the happy creature green coconut pulp, which it quickly devoured. “Smiling in His own way,” Chaitanya-charitamrita (Antya 1.29) reports, “[Sri Chaitanya] was saying to the dog, ‘Chant the holy names “Rama,” “Krishna” and “Hari.’” The next verse discloses a truth that is nothing short of miraculous: by Mahaprabhu’s grace, the dog indeed chanted the holy names, much to the surprise of the attending devotees.

We are then told that Sivananda, witnessing this entire spectacle, immediately offered his obeisances to the dog with the utmost respect. Receiving Mahaprabhu’s remnants with pronounced enthusiasm, the dog had become perfect and purified in a way many humans never attain.

By the following day, the dog had again disappeared, and Sivananda could understand that it had attained liberation by the mercy of Sri Chaitanya. Indeed, text 32 tells us that it had obtained its spiritual body (siddha-deha) and departed for Vaikuntha, the spiritual world. In Prabhupada’s purport to this verse, he writes, “This is the result of sadhu-sanga [the association of devotees] – consequent association with Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and promotion back home, back to Godhead. This result is possible even for a dog, by the mercy of the Vaishnava.”

So, while the denigrating stereotypes about dogs are certainly true, there are always exceptions to the rule. Sure, dogs often weren’t allowed in the house or at religious functions, and were also kept in kennels, fed scraps, and often died young, leading to well-worn tropes like going to the dogs, to die like a dog, dog eat dog, and a dog’s life. But we also know that “every dog has his day.”

This latter expression means that everyone gets a chance, eventually, in one way or another, or that everyone has the potential to be successful during some period in their life – regardless who they are or what kind of body they are born into. If they are in Krishna’s kennel, they are fortunate.

Is it a dog’s life? Well, maybe for a lot of people, but, then again, maybe not for certain dogs.

Notes

  1. The Nectar of Instruction, Text 10, Purport.
  2. Srila Prabhupada lecture on Bhagavad-gita 13.20 – Bombay, October 14, 1973.
  3. Interestingly, while Prabhupada is here using the phrase “Krishna’s dog” metaphorically, referring to devotees who are fully surrendered to Krishna, the Lord indeed has two pet dogs in the spiritual realm, Vyaghra and Bhramaraka, as revealed in Rupa Gosvami’s Sri Sri Radha-krishna-ganoddesha-dipika (111).
  4. Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.29.30–31, Purport.
  5. It should be noted that Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.15.41–51) also tells of Yudhishthira’s departure, but only briefly. It mentions his march toward the north, but instead of highlighting the other lessons one might glean from this narrative, as expressed in the Mahabharata, it focuses on the fact that he and the other Pandavas were absorbed in thought of Krishna.
  6. There is an earlier episode in the Mahabharata (Vana-parva), popularly called “the Yaksha Prashna,” in which there is a question-and-answer dialogue between Yudhishthira and a yaksha, a nature-spirit in the form of a crane. Briefly, the story runs as follows. The Pandavas spy a lake in the distance, and, one-by-one, upon drinking from its waters, they die. They had not heeded the warning of the yaksha to first answer his questions before they drank, lest the water kill them. Only Yudhishthira did what he was supposed to do, and satisfactorily so. His experience at the lake was the first of three tests that Dharma, his father, would place before him in the course of the epic. In the end, the deaths were illusory, and the Pandavas were restored to life. See Kisari Mohan Ganguli, The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Book 3, Vana Parva (Calcutta: Bharata Press, 1887–1896), 600–613.
  7. Svarga refers to heavenly planets, not to the kingdom of God. Still, as we will see, Yudhishthira’s experience in svarga is not really heaven at all. It is but a test to see how he reacts to his adversaries reaching the celestial sphere – a much cherished destination that really should have belonged to his brothers, who, according to this deceptive display, were now in hell. Yudhishthira, of course, as a great devotee, ultimately has his place in the spiritual realm, far beyond the mundane heavenly planets. Indeed, Madhvacharya, commenting on these verses in his Mahabharata-tatparya-nirnaya (32.80–103), tells us that Yudhishthira and his brothers ultimately go to svargottamam desham (“a place better than Svarga”). This is verse 109 in some versions.
  8. Yudhishthira actually uses the word bhakta, “devotee,” when referring to the dog, and through this usage he offers the important teaching that true devotion should always be reciprocated. For the dog as a devotee, see 17.3.9, 17.3.11, 17.3.15, and 17.3.20.
  9. The epic tells us that “all kings must see hell” (avashyam narakas tata drashtavyah sarvarajabhih, 18.3.11), for in battle there is inevitably cheating and killing. Yudhishthira, in particular, was given a vision of hell for hesitating to lie on Krishna’s request. This refers to the story of Ashvatthama, which can be briefly recounted here. As the story goes, Drona, teacher of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas and a major official in the Kaurava camp, wreaks havoc on Pandava troops, necessitating his quick assassination. Easier said than done because of his ability as a highly skilled warrior; it is noted that his only weakness is his well-known affection for his son, Ashvatthama. Accordingly, Krishna persuades Yudhishthira to tell a lie, specifically to tell Drona that Ashvatthama is dead, killed in battle. This would be effective because it would nearly paralyze Drona, allowing him to be killed, and he would believe the words of Yudhishthira, known to never lie. Yudhishthira initially refuses but ultimately relents. But before he can do the deed, Bhima kills an elephant who happens to be named Ashvatthama as well, and he loudly proclaims, “Ashvatthama is dead!” Having heard this, Drona approaches Yudhishthira and asks if it is true, to which he replies, “Yes, Ashvatthama is dead.” Then, after a brief pause, he adds, quietly, “That is, Ashvatthama the elephant.” But the damage is already done, and Drona believes that his son is dead. Unable to fight, full of grief, he is killed by Dhrishtadyumna.

As a side note, popular Indian tradition asserts that Yudhishthira had to experience hell for telling this lie on Krishna’s behalf. But the Vaishnava tradition teaches instead that his visit to hell was instigated by his hesitation to tell that lie. God’s will supersedes all mundane morality, even if such morality is considered binding in all other circumstances. In other words, only if God is personally present, ordering the suspension of worldly ethics, as He did in Yudhishthira’s case, should one do so. Otherwise, disregard for ordinary morals and ethics is a sin.

The notion that Yudhishthira’s visit to hell was caused by his hesitation to lie is originally found in Madhvacharya’s Mahabharata-tatparya-nirnaya (32.109, or in some versions 102–103).

  1. Yudhishthira was made aware that his alarming experience of hell (and heaven too, for that matter) was in fact “an illusion (maya) devised by Indra” (mayaisha devarajena mahendrena prayojita, 18.3.32–34, 36).
  2. See footnote 9.
  3. See Krishna Dharma, Mahabharata: The Greatest Spiritual Epic of All Time, Part 2, Chapter 35 (Badger, California: Torchlight Publishing, 1999), 907–908.
  4. In another dog narrative, much earlier in Sri Chaitanya’s life, He shows special kindness to a puppy. This lila occurs in Locana dasa Thakura’s Chaitanya-mangala (Adi 2). Here we find a young Nimai (Chaitanya) discovering a litter of puppies and choosing one as His own. He keeps the puppy in His house and lavishes it with affection, until His mother, Saci Devi, considering it inappropriate for a brahmana household, sets the dog free. Still, due to Sri Chaitanya’s touch, the dog begins chanting and dancing and exhibiting various symptoms of ecstasy, and at the time of death goes to the highest spiritual paradise, Goloka Vrindavana.
  5. The story is retold in Chaitanya-charitamrita (Antya 1).

Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.