The Tiger

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

William Blake

 The tiger is a titanic force that has stalked the worlds right up to heaven's door. The flanks of Himavat have known his silent, unfaltering tread and even those in the penance grove have feared his approach. Even pure and unwavering Parvathi, engaged in unbroken tapas, became the object of his unwanted attention. Having watched her performing penance for some time, the ferocious invader glided towards her with wicked intention. His body became stiff and benumbed as he drew near, but though aware of him, the goddess did not turn away from her lofty thoughts. With his body starved and inflamed with hunger, the great beast stood in front of her, devouring her with his eyes, and thought, "My prey is nothing else." To destroy and consume her instantly became his obsessive aim. But compassion was generated in the heart of the goddess who thought, "He is the perpetual performer of contemplation on me and my protector from predatory animals." By this feeling of mercy the threefold taint of the tiger vanished and he recognized the goddess. As he did so his hunger receded and his benumbed stiffness subsided. From his ravaged heart the congenital wickedness fled and contentment set in. With enormous piety he commenced to wait upon the goddess as if he were an ancient devotee and he roamed about the penance grove routing wicked souls and animals.

 Thus did Vayu tell of the immense power of Parvathi and the transforming nature of the mighty tiger, a strange alchemy which alerts one to consider the extremes at opposite ends of the transition and the ambivalence inherent in the symbol of the tiger. To many people of Asiatic climes the tiger is the embodiment of strength and valour in the service of righteousness. But to others of the same regions it is seen as the terrifying and most dreaded incarnation of wrath and cruelty. King Henry V in Shakespeare's play exhorted his men to "imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage". In thus stirring them to fight and kill, the king was not striving to fuel a vengeful whirlwind but sought to win the day for what he believed a righteous cause. Summoning up the blood with rage suggests the assumption of qualities which are temporary. Wrath and cruelty would seem to require a certain ancient fury as well as cold premeditation, qualities too primitive to suit even the ruffian swordsmen of King Henry's time.

  The tiger is sometimes depicted in sculpture locked in a desperate struggle with various creatures. When this is a reptile, it means that the tiger represents the superior principle. If he combats a lion or a winged being, however, he is inferior and shown to be an embodiment of a sort of base energy to be conquered or subdued, Man seems to be able to enjoy this pure untamed potential on a safe and tractable scale when he interacts with small domesticated cats. As Victor Hugo put it, "Dieu a fait le chat pour donner á l'homme le plaisir de caresser le tigre" ("God has made the cat to give man the pleasure of caressing the tiger"). When one considers the house cat, however, it is difficult to think of it in connection with valour, while there are often occasions to notice certain cruelties. The cat, though intelligent and frequently cunning, is not wrathful nor does it have the strength to lend any great awe to its anger. Man may ponder the fluid grace and quickness of energy displayed by his cat and he may sense its subtle response to his own psychic nature, but he will never be overwhelmed with sheer awe or terror in its presence. The primeval fury and mighty fearlessness of a tiger are meekly reflected in smaller felines. The contrast is echoed in the thundering rasp of a wild tiger's roar which swells up as though from the depths of a cave and rolls across the ravines and hillsides, swallowing up all lesser sounds before it. It obliterates the thin meow of the smaller animal, drawing it and all else back along that cavernous resonance to a font of pure, wild, unleashed power.

 The ambivalence of this power was readily accepted by the ancient Chinese, who called the tiger the king of beasts and identified it with both the solar and lunar principles of the yang and yin. As masculine energy, they thought the tiger symbolized courage, authority and fierce protection of the good. As female counterpart to this, they identified it with the earth, matter and lunar forces. The tiger was the mark of military officers and the emblem of luck courted by gamblers. The god of wealth rode a tiger which was the guardian of money chests and the goddess of winds whirled about the heavens on a striped and tawny brute. The tiger was wild but ridden by the gods and immortals. It was untamed and in its lunar nature related to the darkness of night and of the soul. To Hindus it was the darkness of obscuration or tamas and the unbridled expression of the base powers of instinct. Because the tiger sees in the dark, it is chthonic, and as the moon waxed, it was represented by the Chinese as a child escaping from a tiger's jaws. The child in this analogy is the ancestor of humanity and the tiger symbolizes the powers of darkness from which light escapes. The lunar side of the tiger's power, combined with darkness, can be related to the destructive mother goddess who, like Durga, may be shown riding a tiger. Her furious presence brings passion and death to the world, leading men to fall down in abject terror before her. This terrible, devouring side of the manifest feminine principle in nature is doubtless archetypally responsible for the fearful taboos men observe in relation to women in cultures throughout the world.

  The solar nature of the tiger can be seen in its relation to Dionysus and Lord Shiva. Both gods reign over the mystical process of death and spiritual regeneration and both are connected with the mysteries of the crescent moon, vegetation and soma. Descendant from the sun, the royal warrior caste of Kshatriyas had the emblem of the tiger, and their aloof confidence seems to have corresponded perfectly with that of their totemic counterpart who has no instinctive fear of man and is very cool and confident, even when surprised. Something superhuman is suggested by this power which has inspired some people to worship the tiger as a messenger of the forest gods. The Gonds in India worship a white tiger that haunts a sacred fig tree and is believed to be the spirit of the wild, "The Lord Tiger who Dwells in the Forests and the Mountains". In Manchuria and Sakhalin, thieves in former times were bound to Tiger Trees to be devoured by the Great Van, a god in tiger form who was thus appeased. This does not seem too far removed from the abject worship of the destructive mother goddess and points away from the solar nature of the tiger to a dark and primitive force which is superficially glossed over by modern civilization. It points to a base power which was neutral as it burst forth in all its exuberance at the beginning of time. It was neutral but unfettered and therefore wild. It gave life and killed without feeling, but with time became tempered by the fears and hopes, the hatreds and passions, of the human heart. The howling force of the spirit of the wild thus took on cloying or malicious tones used by magicians of dubious intent. Such were those heretical rishis who dwelt in the forest of Taragam. When Shiva came amongst them with his superior wisdom, they tried to destroy him with a tiger created through their sacrificial fires. The great lord seized the beast and with the nail of his little finger stripped off its skin and wrapped it around himself like a silken cloth.

 From the Caspian to the Sea of Okhotsk north of Sakhalin, and from Kanya Kumari to Bali, the tiger roamed. Right up through the nineteenth century it moved freely from Yakutsk to Singapore and was found in the mountains of Kashmir, along the shores of Lake Baikal and in the jungles of Cooch-Bihar, Free to move and unfettered by any fear, the great Siberian tiger and the Indian and Malayan races were always responding to the demands of their hunger by stalking wild herds of deer, pig, small gaur or even buffalo. It has been found that even today tigers will not become localized by a steady supply of food. No amount of setting out bait in order to observe them kill will cause this independent and elusive animal to stay put in one area. They like to rest under cover by the side of a jheel (pool) until sambur or some other likely prey moves into view. In the reserves set aside for them in India, the present-day tiger will cover a range of about thirty square miles or so, but in the nineteenth century Jim Corbett charted ranges of up to fifteen hundred square miles for some of the tigers he tracked in the Himalayan foothills. An adult animal may easily travel fifteen or more miles in a night and keep on the move in the daytime as well, if necessary. Such a free and natural inclination to movement renders the plight of a captive tiger cruel in the extreme, for it is not a highly social beast but ranges alone through the varied landscape of its intimately known territory.

 The distinctive characteristics of the big cats emerged in the Pliocene, during which time tigers in northern Asia filled out the lines of their fearful symmetry. As they moved later into more tropical climes, they became slightly smaller and darker in colour. But the biggest of the species is still larger than the biggest lion, and all tigers are more retiring and secretive, avoiding the enduring social relations enjoyed by the lion in his pride. Instead, the tigress moves within a range dominated by a male on her own and is joined by the tiger only during her period of heat. Thus for most tigers in the wild there will be a mutual sharing of kills at very infrequent intervals, and the female will call the male to courtship during a mere seven to fourteen days a year. If her great roars succeed in attracting a mate, she will cavort with him in a very rough manner, playfully tearing him with her claws while accepting bites and gouges in return as part of the affectionate exchange. This interaction is all the more impressive when one considers the size and weight of many tigers. Though Manchurian tigers may measure over thirteen feet in length, the Indian race is still arresting in its dimensions. A male may measure up to ten and one-half feet 'between the pegs' (nose to tail) and weigh five hundred fifty pounds or more. In the last century, Hewett and the Maharaja of Cooch-Bihar bagged an eleven-foot Nepalese giant who weighed over seven hundred pounds.

 The acute powers of hearing and vision possessed by the tiger correspond to extremely expressive ears and eyes which, while permitting it to function easily in darkness or light, also convey changes in mood. A silently moving tiger can turn its head in all directions and spot the slightest sign of life with its widespread, scanning eyes. Enormous muscular development in the neck and shoulders ensures that once focussed and released, the force of the ensuing attack will be irresistible. But every tiger is distinctive and will act according to its own unique nature. The saying, "Uncertain as a tiger", originated in India among men who spent many years tracking them and encountering them in often totally unpredictable and very frightening ways. Even the physical hallmarks of each tiger are distinctively unique. The black lines on the face and the pug marks of a particular animal are like fingerprints and they extend their identity outwards through markings on the periphery of their range. With sprayed scent or scrapes made with their long claws, a tiger will mark lines along the pathway or on trees parallel to its route. So determined are they in establishing their domain that a large male tiger was once observed obliterating the presumptuous marks made by a leopard on the bark of a tree trunk and placing his own knife-like cuts several feet higher up.

 Tigresses teach their newborn cubs how to make kills as soon as their permanent teeth begin to grow. Like the thorough instructor she is, the tigress will maul the prey so that her cubs can practise pouncing upon it and slowly develop the approaches necessary to initiate a kill. When their teeth have grown to their full potential, they will be armed with a formidable arsenal of deadly weapons. The carnassial teeth cut the flesh while the canines, like two-inch pointed steel pencils, rend the carcass to pieces. With their incisors they pluck up tidbits of flesh and use their rasping tongue to clean the bones. The sheer mechanics of their striking power and the ability to eat everything, with the exception of large bones, is awesome and contributes greatly to the tiger's reputation for being a terrifying wild force which allows no mercy. They are at the very pinnacle of the stalking predators, the most advanced beast of prey, and they can kill much larger animals than themselves, basing their techniques on the habits of their prey. Walking silently on their toes, their claws can be instantly released by the movement of a ligament on the last joint of each toe. When about to strike, the tendons pull this little bone down and the claws emerge to do their deadly work.

  The tiger, however, is in no hurry, for it is a first-class naturalist who approaches feeding animals with infinite patience. Pausing, listening and watching, it moves ever closer. When a tiger reaches the end of all available cover, it stands poised for a few seconds with one forepaw lifted and tail out straight, swaying backwards and forwards to achieve a perfect balance. Then the tail goes up and with incredible acceleration the huge beast charges across twenty or thirty yards in a series of twenty-foot bounds, six or seven feet off the ground. If the tiger is crouching above its prey, it can make the kill in one thirty-foot leap. Often the prey does not know of the tiger's presence and is smashed helpless to the ground while the enormous jaws curl around its neck, rolling the animal over and frequently breaking its vertebrae. The great teeth will close upon the throat and neck while the claws rend the flesh. Even elephants have been mortally wounded by a determined tiger who can hurl its snarling fury on its upper trunk or tail and sometimes actually pull the great animal to the ground. So compelling is the fear that most animals have for the tiger that some are actually hypnotized by its large and glaring eyes. On occasions, game has been observed to fall to the ground in a state of catalepsy or stand motionless, staring helplessly in the face of doom.

 A hungry tiger can eat eighty pounds of flesh in one night and it does so in great gulps with very little mastication to render the process more delicate. Instead, the tiger can swallow chunks whole and its strong digestive juices reduce them to usable food. Bones, skin and hair are all swallowed with the fleshy parts, and a large kill may be returned to for several days, during which time the meat grows more delectable to the feeder as it putrifies. The tiger has a strong feline odour but its breath is foul with rancid remains and its teeth are rendered poisonous by the filth. While the horror of such details may offend the sensitive admirer of wildlife, they are eclipsed by the sheer driving necessity of the constant kill. A successful tiger will eat as many as one large animal or several small ones per week if undisturbed and allowed to lie up peacefully near the kill, making periodic visits to gradually finish it off. If disturbed, however, and not allowed to finish its kill, the tiger will attack more frequently and move in closer to the domestic herds maintained by human beings.

  When the tiger first arrived in India, great deciduous and evergreen forests covered almost all of the subcontinent. With the monsoon rains there were abundant jheels and quiet ahs where wild game abounded, and the tiger, though unafraid of man, left him pretty much alone. With encroaching settlements and flagrant hunting, this has changed and the tiger's numbers have dwindled with the disappearing forests. There were forty thousand tigers in India at the turn of the century and now there are less than two thousand. Their distribution has shrunk considerably and they have learnt greater stealth in preying upon village herds and matching wits with men in the hunt. It is in this contest that the tiger displays the extremes of strength and valour as well as wrath and cruelty. The respect held by many of the early English officers for the tiger resulted in a code of chivalry displayed towards it during the hunt. As Corbett said, "The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage", and the seasoned tracker much respected the fact that it knew every inch of its ground. Even in the big organized tiger hunts which utilized gangs of shikarees (native hunters), beaters and machans (tree platforms), there was still a code of ethics observed which disappeared after the Second World War, when trophy seekers and poachers replaced the more gentlemanly breed of hunters.

  Because of the pressure on the land, the unwillingness of villagers to let an animal finish off a herd animal undisturbed and the wounding of others during sloppy and ill-motivated hunts, many tigers turned to hunting man. There is no more terrifying aspect of the tiger in his contest with man than that which develops when it becomes a man-eater. The fear engendered in the hearts of people in an area reduces them to a paralysed state. They dare not harvest or plant their crops, and cowherds move in frightened huddles with their nervous animals. Women gathering wood would be struck down or dragged out of trees with no forewarning before the disabling blow was dealt. Their bodies would be dragged off while friends and relatives of the victim would run away in complete panic. Tigers do not know that human beings have little sense of smell, and so it treats them like a wild animal when it becomes a man-eater. It silently approaches its victim up-wind or lies in wait down-wind and will attack from behind or from the side. Corbett described the careers of many notorious man-eaters and tells how whole villages were abandoned as a result of an animal's repeated attacks. In one case, he wrote that "every one of the hundred or more inhabitants of Thak had fled. . . . On every path in the village, in the courtyards of the houses, and in the dust before all doors, were the tigress's pug-marks." In 1769 over four hundred persons were killed within a few months at Bhiwapur, where people were even dragged out of their houses while they slept. In the 1860's as many as two thousand people were killed in India annually by these terrible maimed beasts who, because of being continually aggravated or wounded by man, had learnt to kill an unnatural but very easy prey. There have been man-eaters who, when examined after their death, had been disabled from more vigorous and natural stalking by a long-festering wound caused by a porcupine quill or by the accidental loss of some teeth. Man himself has been directly responsible for many more man-eaters than any other factor, and the wrath and cruelty displayed by these beasts have been sharpened and magnified through human contact.

 In this strange and deadly interaction with man, the tiger soon becomes a whirlwind agent of personal fate. Corbett, learning of the death of a cowherd whom he had warned just a few moments before the latter was attacked by a man-eater, wondered at the sad but swift turn of events and wrote: "When Atropos, who snips the threads of life, misses one thread, she cuts another, and we who do not know why one thread is missing and not another, call it fate, kismet or what we will." The great hunter and naturalist had been tracking that particular tiger for months as it took its human victims. He had lived continually out in the open alone and had narrowly missed its deathly embrace more than once when he was saved by a psychic awareness of danger. The great cat had waited for him at a water-hole, stalking him as he stalked it. At one point he sensed danger behind him, and reconnoitering later, discovered its pug marks following along behind him on the path he had walked. After thus missing its kill several times, the tiger chanced to encounter this simple herdsman who never knew quite what hit him when the powerful cat struck from behind while he sat along the roadside smoking a bidi.

  Tigers have long memories and carry grudges. They remember and sometimes take their revenge as though emboldened or maddened by an evil spirit. The very beauty of a tiger is thought by some to be the result of the mesmerizing effects of devils, and indeed some man-eaters have acted as though they were possessed. One crazed feline that had killed half the population of small villages near Nagpur walked through them in broad daylight, entering house after house, and if empty, breaking all the earthen pots. An Assamese tiger, forcing her way into houses, killed eighteen people in thirty-six hours, while in Central India a man-eater who had killed a boy moved into his village. He sat beneath a pipal tree and went into houses to sleep. Allowing children to come close to him in the daytime, he became ferocious at night, killing cattle and snarling at closed doors. Finally he leapt into a bonfire and, swallowing pieces of several brass pots he had destroyed, he lay down beneath the tree to slowly die.

 This seeming possession by evil spirits or by the raging kama rupa of one of its former victims lends the tiger a frightening aura of unpredictability. It also parallels the idea of were-tigers as well as the notion that the animal is the embodiment of a primordial force. During the years that the Russian surveyor Arseniev was accompanied by the Golde tribesman Dursu Uzala, the latter spoke with great reverence to tigers whenever they were encountered. To one he asked, "What do you want, Amba?", and he bowed and apologized for being in 'his place'. Even malevolent killer-tigers were often treated with reverence by Indian tribesmen, as witnessed by the action of three hundred villagers who gathered when a notorious 'devil' tiger was shot. They kissed the dead animal's paws and wiped their eyes with his tail, after which they filled their chatties with his grease, to be used for rheumatic cures. In another part of the subcontinent, where the famous Temple Tiger ranged for many years, an old priest told Corbett, "I have no objection, Sahib, to your trying to shoot this tiger, but neither you nor anyone else will ever succeed in killing it."

He who rides the tiger is afraid to dismount.

Old Chinese Proverb

 Whether valourous or wrathful or diabolical in the extreme, the force of the tiger is like a titanic blast of wind. He who would ride such a power is in a position similar to one who stalks and is stalked by the tiger. Only those with great knowledge born of experience and a highly developed sixth sense survive. All of the traditional lore and eye-witness accounts serve to fill out but a portion of the fearful symmetry of the tiger. Its innate disposition displays to the world a force so urgent and capable of devouring that one senses an ultimatum delivered by the whole of nature. As an American tracker put it, "Unless I can make you believe that there is something practically supernatural about tigers, that they are not just common flesh and bone and striped hide, but a kind of symbol of the jungle, of the cunning and cruelty and ferocity and incredible strength and beauty of raw nature, there is no use your going on with this tale."

 Through her merciful thought, Parvathi freed the tiger, who would have devoured her, from its threefold taint. With mercy shown, the dross of darkened obscuration, fetid passions and psychic cunning fell away and his terrible, insatiable hunger receded. Only with the recession of this hunger did the benumbing stiffness of his focussed, destructive desire abate. Only then did his mighty power relax in its support of the tainted force of primitive anger and greed which had coursed unchecked through his being up to that point. The howling wind within his poisoned mouth ceased and compassion cleansed his breath, ridding him of his congenital wickedness, freeing him from the endless deposits of raging passions that had been heaped upon him, making him their chosen vehicle for thousands of years. By the greatness of Parvathi, the tiger was made content and won the admiration of the goddess with his devoted piety. Approaching Lord Shiva she said, "O Lord, see this tiger. There is no other devotee of mine like him. ... He has left his native place and come here for your favour. If you are pleased with him and love me, O God, let him stay at the threshold to guard the women." On hearing the auspicious and loving words of the goddess, the lord said to the tiger, "I am pleased." Immediately he was seen like Ganesh, wearing the dress of a watchman, and he was named Somanandin, because Soma is a name of Shiva and this tiger pleased Soma as well as Nandin the bull.

 Together within the shrine, the divine couple who had subdued the tiger through mercy and worn its skin like a silken cloth is watched over and guarded by this kingly beast. On the summit of Kailash they repose, seated upon his skin, while through them flows the purified, primordial force of the entire universe. Turning to Parvathi, Shiva says, "I am stationed at the head of Agni. You are stationed at the head of Soma. This universe in the form of Agnisoma is presided over by us both. We move about for the welfare of the universe. We have taken up physical bodies out of our free will. At our separation the universe is left without our support." Thus together they must act, embodying the burning fire of tapas and the cosmic force of soma. Burning out, devouring and bringing death only to release and regenerate the soul, their union combines all forces while it transcends them, and the tiger is their servant and ally. Roaming the world, he howls like the Rudras of heaven and strikes as a devastating agent of fate. When he is finished with the old form, there is little left, and the soul must rise to better expressions. Whenever he is diabolically possessed, he is like a boomerang fate which returns to human beings their own wrath and cruelty with ferocious punishment. He, the great Tiger Spirit of the Wild, is as old as thinking man and he has gracefully undulated through all the subsequent ages as a living reminder of the awesome primordial force that man must conquer in order to gain the unswerving self-control of the penance grove. The fire of the distant deeps that burns in the tiger's eyes is that of the watchful master of that mighty astral force who sees the moment of truth when life is in the balance. In all the wild and awesome currents of that terrible energy, the spirit of the tiger watches and waits as one who hunts the hunter and who may be ridden only by the immortal soul of the invulnerable yogin.