Gods with animal bodies?

Last year at the HMEC (Hindu Mandirs Executive Council) meeting in Texas, our swamis gave out the then newly printed “15 Hindu Festivals” folder and DVD. It was so well received that Bodhinatha requested we work this year to complete a new edition of our 10 Questions pamphlet, adding four more. It will be printed in a few days and shipped to Ohio for all the managers of America’s Hindu temples to have, free. Today we present question #13

It is a common question, and we need to have an answer to it. One thing people don’t realize is that the divinities of many religions have animal bodies, sometimes made up of several species, as with the Celestial Beings of Christianity (and Judiasm) that hover above the throne of God. The Seraphim have six wings and eyes all over their body.

Below is our full answer.

The various gods in Hinduismís wide-ranging
traditions possess distinct personalities
and forms based on how they
have been seen in visions and how they
are depicted in stories and legends. Hindus
feel no need to question the fact, for instance,
that Lord Ganesha has the head of an elephant.
They know He has been seen in this
way by rishis and even by ordinary devotees.
Did He choose that form to distinguish Himself
as the Lord of Obstacles? No one really
knows. The important fact is that millions of
Hindus worship and receive blessings from
the benevolent Elephant-Faced God every day.
Many Hindus seeking an explanation hold
that Ganesha is a real being who looks like an
elephant. Others believe the elephant form is
symbolic. Millions are content with the ancient
stories in the Puranas that explain how
He came to have an elephant head. Interestingly,
and perhaps because of His endearing
visage, Ganesha is the most popular of all the
Hindu Deities. Numerous other Hindu Divinities
have animal attributes, including Hanuman,
Varuna, Kamadhenu, the Nagas, the vahanas (animal mounts
of the Gods) and four of Vishnuís ten incarnations (fish, turtle, boar
and half-man-half-lion).
Elaboration: An exploration of other ancient faiths shows that
Hinduism is not alone in having Divinities with animal attributes.
The ancient Greeks worshiped the God Pan, who has the hindquarters,
legs and horns of a goat, and the Sea Gods Ichthyocentaurs,
with human heads and torsos, the front legs of a horse and the serpentine
tails of fish. In Egyptís pantheon, Anubis (God of the Underworld)
is a falcon-headed man, as is Ra (the Sun God). Thoth (Lord
of Wisdom and of the Moon) has the head of an ibis or a baboon,
and His consort, Bastet, has the form of a cat or a lioness. The Mesoamerican
peoples worshiped Quetzalcoatl,
a feathered serpent. The
Assyrians feared the powerful serpent Goddess Tiamat and revered
various winged beings. In Japanówhere Buddhism and Shintoism
are intertwinedóKitsune the fox and Tengu the bird man are powerful
shape-shifters who can transform into human or inanimate
shapes to trick humans. Many shrines there are guarded by a pair of
magical lion-dogs known as the Koma-inu or Shishi.
In a discussion with Christians, who tend to ridicule Hinduism
on this point, you can recall that winged angels are half-human and
half-bird. Four-headed beings called the Cherubims were central in
the early Christianity. In the Bibleís Book of Revelation, John writes:
ìI saw a throne standing in heaven; and the One who was sitting on
the throneÖ In the center, grouped around the throne itself, were four
animals with many eyes, in front and behind. The first animal was
like a lion, the second like a bull, the third animal had a human face,
and the fourth animal was like a flying eagle. Each of the four animals
had six wings…î (4:1-8). The description matches an account
by Jewish prophet Elijah centuries before. Importantly, these beings
are the most powerful beings in the pantheon, closest to the Creator.
Over the millennia, worship and awareness of Deities with animal
features was eclipsed in most cultures as the monotheistic religions
grew into prominence. Were these beings mere myth and
imagination, as depicted by modern scholars? Or were the peoples
of ancient times aware of a mystical reality that has been sealed off?
In most cultures, the old Gods have been put in exile. Only in Hinduism
does such worship thrive in unbroken continuity.
One might note the obvious fact that Homo sapiens, too, is an
animal specie, one among many.

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