Avoid using caste names for India's beasts

By Govindasamy Agoramoorthy
Published: Wednesday 31 January 2007

Down to Earth Hindu religion generally considers life forms as sacred and it has developed sanctity by association, such as the swan, eagle and bull that serve as vehicles for the major deities such as the Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. Some animals such as the Hanuman langur, cobra and elephant are sacred themselves since they are revered as Hanuman, the monkey god, Naga, the snake god, and Ganesha, the elephant god. But what many do not know is the fact that some animals do carry caste discriminating names.

Two of India's fascinating birds carry caste names. One is the common pariah kite (Milvus migrans) and the other is the brahminy kite (Haliastur indus)--these birds of prey can be commonly seen in villages, towns and cities across India. The pariah kite derives its name from the untouchable lower caste 'pariah'. These large dark brown birds with forked tail when in flight are excellent acrobatic flyers.They feed on a variety of food items that include insects, spiders, worms, mice, lizards, frogs, and small birds and also leftovers from kitchen.
Distinguished bird The distinguished looking brahminy kite has bright rusty red color above with white head, neck and breast to abdomen. This bird derives its name from the 'Brahmin'. The local name for the brahminy kite in the south Indian language, Tamil is 'Krishna parundu'. It refers to the Hindu God Krishna.

These birds are held sacred by the Hindus.Similarly, the brahminy myna (Sturnus pagodarum), a gorgeous bird, which is grey above and reddish fawn below with glossy black crown and long recumbent crest is called 'Papathi nahanavai' in Tamil? Papathi meaning woman belong to 'Brahmin' caste and 'nahanavai' meaning 'fragrance mouth'.
Dog's life Although the origin of the domestic dog from wolf has been established, details about where and when the domestication occurred, is not clearly known. The pariah dog is often used as a generic term for any domestic dog that is a stray or lives in feral condition, without any geographical restriction.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 'the word pariah can be used for anyone who is a social outcast', independent of social position, recalls a much more rigid social system, which made only certain people pariahs. The caste system of India placed pariahs, very low in society. The word pariah has extended in meaning, came into English from Tamil paraiyar, the plural of paraiyan, the caste name, which literally means "(hereditary) drummer" and comes from the word parai, the name of a drum used at certain festivals. The word is first recorded in English in 1613. Its use in English and its extension in meaning probably owes much to the long period of British rule in India. India's father and social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi, renamed the word 'pariah' to be 'Harijans' (children of the God Hari/Visnu, or, simply, children of God). Today, however, people prefer to use the term 'dalit' from the Sanskrit language, meaning 'crushed and downtrodden'. They use this word as an identity of assertion.

'The moral progress of a nation can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated' said Mahatma Gandhi. But neither Gandhi during his time nor any biologists and sociologists of today realised the implications of caste names in the animal society, and question or debate on the ethical usage of such names. In reality, when a name to identify an animal has been used for a long time, people get used to it and seldom ask questions on the origin, history, and ethical usage of the word.Despite the fact that the word 'pariah' in English undoubtedly undermines an indigenous caste group from Tamil Nadu, international mass media including journals and magazines continue to use this prejudicial word in social contexts since it attributes the meaning of an outcast.

The common pariah kite can be simply called the common kite and the brahminy kite can be referred as the red kite that are the substitute names for these charming kites. The dog, man's best friend can be identified as the domestic dog; when they are stray or free-ranging, can be referred to as feral or stray dogs. The word 'pariah' should not be used in any context--sociological and biological--since it resonates a past humiliating social prejudice.

Govindasamy Agoramoorthy is a professor, environmentalist and activist promoting animal and human rights. He teaches at Tajen University, Taiwan

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