“The diet of the owl is not
For delicate digestions.
He goes out on a limb to hoot
And just because he winks like men
Who utter sage advice,
We think him full of wisdom when
He’s only full of mice.”
He is the ruler of the secretive night, mystical and wise; he is an ill-omened sight, foolish and ignorant. These are opposing perceptions of both Indra and the Owl, and in this post I want to discuss the god’s appearance as the avian.
A vāhana is an animal who bears a deity in travel between the worlds. Each Deva is borne by a vāhana who suits his nature and power; bright Kalki brandishes a sword from atop a pure white horse, ego-destroying Kārtikeya is master of the vain peacock, and much-feared Śani rides upon a baleful crow. Husbands and wives do share a vāhana sometimes – so that we see both Brahmā and Sarasvatī depicted with a swan, or Indra and Śacī sitting together upon the royal elephant – but each deity also possesses his own vehicle. (1)
The vāhana is not usually worshipped as a separate deity, but commands the respect due a great devotee and is sometimes worshipped with the attendant Deva. There are two exceptions to that semi-divinity: Ayyappa’s leopard (or tiger) and Lakṣmī’s owl are both forms of beloved Indra. Indra is the lone Deva who bears other Devas in this way. (2)
As Lakṣmī’s bearer, Indra is named Ulūka and depicted as the “barn” or “ghost” owl found throughout north India:
I talk with the moon, said the owl, while she lingers over my tree.
I talk with the moon, said the owl, and the night belongs to me.
Westerners believe the Owl a bird of wisdom and power, pointing to Athena’s emblem as a sagacious example, and there are some areas of India, Bengal and Orissa particularly, where the birds represent psychic vision and foresight and are honoured for these gifts. But Owl’s reputation is not so illustrious in all places; in many more regions, the owl is an omen of ill fortune, death, or impending catastrophe, and is also itself considered rather a nincompoop. (3)
Regardless of beliefs, there are several reasons that this bird is a beautiful form of Indra. If you take a look at the lovely Tyto alba stertens:
Photo from Wikipedia, by author chdwckvnstrsslhm.
–you can see one of the ghost owl’s prettiest attributes: a dusting of luminous speckles all over the feathers, reminiscent of the “thousand-eyed” Indra. The Deva is a shapechanger and master of magic, and the stealthy owl flies in silence, able to catch prey in complete darkness. Owl moves at night – beneath the moon (Soma) and the stars (many more eyes) – and, like Indra himself, is mysterious and unique.
Yet terror and destruction are Indra as well, and there is no doubt that Tyto alba looks and sounds rather creepy; it’s understandable that the bird is associated with misfortune.
If I saw this looking at me from a dark alley, for instance, I would run the other way.
Photo from Wikipedia, by author Urva222.
The most ominous characteristic of the barn owl is its sound. Other owls make “hoo hoo” sounds that seem familiar and friendly and can even be heard in sound games for children. A barn owl’s call, on the other hand, sounds like a whistle blown to signal the apocalypse. It’s a testament to human courage, that people didn’t freak out and set whole forests on fire when they heard noises like this coming from the trees after dark. (More barn owl sounds are available here, for those who want to have nightmares and/or start early planning for Halloween decorations next year.) And yet, like Indra who is horrible and beautiful, that loud, hissing scream is frightening and also marvelous: the distinctive cry is rendered in English as the sound “shree,” and certainly a perfect choice for Lakṣmī-vāhana is the bird who shrieks “Śrī.”
Regarding owl and the evening, Ayurveda teaches us that rising and moving with the sun is the correct way to live; staying awake through the night increases clogging toxins (ama) within the body and is also spiritually deleterious. The owl, a nocturnal creature, moves against the universal order and so represents demonic influence and world-unraveling chaos; it is also associated with the deluding materialism and selfish action of the King of Gods.
“Among the black yews, their shelter,
the owls are ranged in a row,
like alien deities, the glow,
of their red eyes pierces. They ponder.
They perch there without moving,
till that melancholy moment
when quenching the falling sun,
the shadows are growing.
Their stance teaches the wise
to fear, in this world of ours,
all tumult, and all movement:
Mankind drunk on brief shadows
always incurs a punishment
for his longing to stir, and go.”
–Charles Baudelaire, Les Hiboux (The Owls)
On the other hand, Lakṣmī/Śrī is radiant pervading light. She gives the rain of gold that represents the highest-desirable fortune of enlightenment. As mistress over Ulūka, she shows us her mastery over materialism and the attainment of higher aspirations; she cautions and instructs us against becoming mired in worldly wealth and short-sighted action. Ulūka as vehicle also demonstrates truth: a vāhana is a creature of action, the one that moves while the deity remains fixed like a shining star. Likewise, Indra (prosperity in the world), once secured and harnessed, is a foundation from which Śrī (spiritual joy and loving compassion) might be sought, awakened within oneself, brought to everywhere in the three worlds. The two together teach us about worthy goals of life and how to achieve them.
By darkness, light is carried; over disaster and death, fortune and life reign; the spiritual, the supreme, must guide the worldly. There are many more meanings and lessons to be learned here, but Owl let you think of a few.
(1) A rather literal question is why the Devas, powerful Divine manifestations, have vehicles to carry them. I won’t write a novel about all of the different ideas, but one fascinating suggestion I’ve found is that these creature-Deva associations are ancient remnants of pre-Vedic worship, of animals as spiritual totems and/or tribal emblems.
(2) I do note that Agni serves as Indra’s vehicle in Mahābhārata, but this is a temporary transformation effected in a symbolic vision. I use the word vāhana in this essay to signify an ongoing association.
(3) Perhaps the difference, in part, is a matter of interpretation: Because the owl’s large eyes are fixed in the sockets, an owl has to turn its head around to see in other directions. Some people see wisdom in the steady stare; others see the swiveling head as a ridiculous design flaw.
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