The Study of Human-Animal Interactions The CAIRC Scholarship Program Summary of the Past Researches
Summary of the Past Scholarship Research
From "Letter from CAIRC" July 2003
Research Theme: "Philosophy of “Life” and “Principles of Coexistence” in South Asia; Toward the Anthropological of Relation between Humans and Creatures"
By Nobuko Catherine Okamitsu
M.A, a Doctoral Student at the Department of Anthropology in Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University
A student of cultural anthropology, Okamitsu tells us that her fieldwork in India regarding the relationships between humans and animals left a lasting impression on her. In South Asia (India), humans are considered as a part of nature. As fellow living beings, humans and animals are not placed in a hierarchical relationship and neither is considered absolutely or inherently superior over the other. In the West, on the other hand, the merits of culture are thought to transcend nature. Thus, there is an evident construct in the West based on this way of thinking according to which humans, as “cultural” beings, subjugate and control animals, which belong to “nature.” These Asian and Western cosmologies have been seen to differ completely. Okamitsu decided to focus her attention on the question of whether there are therefore differences in ways of thinking about animals as companions (i.e., pets). In order to look into this question, Okamitsu conducted a month and a half of fieldwork in the Southern Indian province of Kanniyakumari, and presented her findings:

“India lacks the kind of rigid hierarchy that characterizes human-animal relationships in the West. Rather, my impression was that Indians locate themselves on the same plane of existence as other living things. Ancient Brahmanism divided living things into four categories: Jarayuja, Andaja, Svedaja and Udbhidja. Jarayuja comprises the mammals, born of the womb. Andaja, refers to animals born of eggs, such as fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Svedaja is a category of life thought to originate from moisture, comprising the insects. Udbhidja denotes living things originating from sprouts, indicating plant life. No hierarchy or relative merit was implied in these four categories.

It goes no farther than to demarcate the collective whole of life based on biological traits. As fellow living beings, humans and animals were less rigidly linked, and in some cases animals were the objects of human veneration. In the Hindu religion, of which 80% of the population are believers, worship is offered to deities such as Ganesh, with the head of an elephant, Hanuman, who appears as a monkey, and Naga, in the form of a cobra. It is not unusual for animals themselves to be worshipped as deities, and for humans to therefore be forced to give up some of their freedoms. In the capital Deli, for instance, the number of wild monkeys has soared in recent years as have cases in which they have attacked humans, and there seems to be no end in sight to the ongoing damage they cause. But since many believe monkeys to be manifestations of gods, measures such as extermination cannot be carried out.

“Cattle are believed to provide transportation for gods, or to be manifestations of deities, so it is not only forbidden to eat beef, but there is also a movement to prohibit the slaughter of cattle. Cattle, goats, chickens, ducks and other animals are raised in rural villages. These animals are generally left to graze or feed freely during the day, and are generally not tied up, penned or kept in coops. This provides us with a glimpse of the Indian view on the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals. Cows, for instance, eat the garbage and leftover food that humans discard, and in return provide humans with milk to drink.”

Okamitsu says that there is much we can learn from the Asian view on living things:

“In Western societies, companion animals, or pets, are adopted into human society, given unique names and not excluded from public places. This gives the appearance of a cosmology in which there are no barriers between humans and their pets. But an important distinction is made between pets and other animals such as wildlife and livestock. In order to be accepted into human society, pets must undergo a stringent regimen of training analogous to the learning of etiquette and manners among humans. That is, pets are animals that have been inculcated with culture. In order for humans and animals to coexist in urban settings, it is necessary to take into consideration a number of practical problems such as hygiene. At the same time, I think there is a need to learn from the Indian view on living things, and the cosmology evoked by the mandala, an emblematic representation of a universe in which all of life is regarded as a collective whole.

“Through my research, I came to think that human-pet relationships in the West have been influenced by Christianity,” Okamitsu noted after her presentation, adding that she plans to continue the work. “If we delve further into this topic, I think that we will learn more about human-pet relationships in the West. From that perspective, I think that this is a very major research theme.”