Deer

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Introduction

In mythology and iconography, as in the case of rabbit/hare, tortoise/turtle and frog/toad, there is not always a clear distinction between Deer and Antelope. Therefore, see also the Antelope page.

Emblem of Buddhism

The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma took place in The Deer Park at Sarnath, outside Varanasi [formerly, Benares] once called Kashi (the Shining.)

To commemorate that event, and also to identify the special nature of a building, atop a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at either side of the golden wheel of dharma, there is a female and a male deer.  The emblem is called in Tibetan, ridag choekor and it also can serve to remind us that, as Marpa the Translator put it, " The Dharma is ownerless, like deer in a meadow. However, the deer is also a symbol of desire, to which we owe our very existence. 

In lower left of arhat tangka: deer nibbling leaves from someone's basket.

Tales of the Buddha's former lives are known in Sanskrit as Jatakas.  In the following one, he was a selfless wise and courageous stag.   

The Banyan Deer

There was once a stag the colour of gold.  His eyes were like two jewels and his antlers were bright as silver.  His mouth was like the reddest flower, and his hooves were hard and resembled diamonds.  He was king of a forest herd of 500 known as Banyan Deer.

Nearby was another herd, also with a splendid king known as Branch Deer.

Now the king of that country was very fond of hunting and eating venison.  He liked all the townspeople to go out hunting with him, but that meant they could not get their daily work done, so they decided to make a game reserve -- a deer park. 

They built a large enclosure with plenty of grass, and water for the deer, and drove the animals into it.  When they told the king about it, he was very pleased.  The first thing he did after inspecting the Deer Park was to grant both splendid stags their lives.  Then he surveyed the two great herds.

Some days he went himself for meat; sometimes he sent his cook.  As soon as any of the deer saw them, trembling with fear they would try to run and hide, but always two or three would be struck by arrows until one fell down dead.

Then the king of the Banyan Deer sent for his counterpart and said, "The way things are going, too many deer are being killed, and many more have been wounded.  Let our herds take turns, so that fewer will be harmed.  Tomorrow an animal will sacrifice itself from my herd, and the next day, one from yours."

The Branch Deer king agreed, and each day one animal would go before the hunter and just lie down placing its head on a great stone.  The cook would come and get that day's sacrifice and in that way fewer deer suffered each day.

One day it was the turn of a Branch doe who had just had a new fawn.   She went to her king and begged that her turn be postponed until the baby was old enough to survive without her.  But the ruler replied that whoever's turn it was had to die; there could be no changing of the rules.

In despair, she presented her case to the king of the other troupe.  He said to her, "Do not worry about your child.  I will give my life instead of you so that the fawn will have a chance to grow up.

The next day, the cook was so surprised to see the regal beast in the place of an ordinary herd animal that he went to tell the king.  The king decided to go and investigate the situation for himself.

The King asked the gorgeous stag, "Did I not grant you your life not long ago? Why are you lying here now?" 

The royal deer explained that he was very grateful for the king's past generosity, but that he could not let the double tragedy occur.  "And I could not ask any other deer to go in the doe's place, so I decided to offer up myself in her stead."

The King then said to the king of the Banyan Deer, "Rise up.  I grant you your life and hers, too.  In the face of such mercy and kindness, I will never again hunt deer in this park, in the forest, nor in any of the lands in my kingdom."

~ Young's illustration from Babitt's The Jatakas, 1912/1940.   

Bhutan festival (tsechudeer dancer
deer-dancer of a generation before.
More about the deer as represented in cham (Tibetan monastic dance performance)

The Yogi's Deerskin / Antelope Pelt

Renunciates -- those who give up worldly life to undertake spiritual practices, often becoming a wandering beggar -- are often depicted wearing a dark animal pelt (Skt. krishnashara) as a garment.  Sometimes it merely serves as a rug or cushion covering.  Even the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara (Chenrezi) wears one over his left breast, as do many of the Buddhist mahasiddhas; for example, Luipa. 

This is the skin of the Sil-snyen deer that feels heart-felt compassionate towards all sentient beings.  It is said to live ". . . upon mountains in the margins between the snow and rock.  It has incomparable physical strength, but is extremely compassionate by nature. One of the hunters' tactics is to enter its territory and pretend to fight among themselves with swords. Seeing this, the deer becomes impatient with compassion and emerges to mediate between them, which provides the hunters the opportunity to kill it.  Merely touching its skin with one's feet is said to calm the mind and endows it with bliss. 

Some scholars assert that for this reason Dipankara Atisha and other saints always used such a skin as mat.  Some scholars have also suggested that the reason the skin is draped over the left breast is that the heart, the abode of the mind, is located there. "

       ~ Geshe Palden Dakpo, in a teaching on the Quiet Mountain site

Lama of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, Adeu Rinpoche, relates the origin of his line:

"The first Thrulzhig was born in Kham, within the jurisdiction of the King of Nangchen, in a place called Gegyal, to one of the principal ministers of the king, a minister called Gegyal Barma. He was the youngest of the three children. 

As a youth, he was a hunter. One day, while hunting, he shot an arrow at a female deer and wounded it deeply. The doe, being terrified, ran off, leaving a trail of blood behind. The hunter followed the trail of blood, and even though the doe kept running for several days, the hunter was always able to find it. At the end of the chase, on the slope ... called 'Hill of Very Sweet Sounds,' the doe together with the baby deer that it was carrying inside, died. 

At that point, the hunter saw how the deer had died after suffering for a long time because of fearing for its life. Moreover, he saw how all the creatures he had hunted and killed underwent that same sort of suffering and fear from the beginning all the way through to the end of their ordeal. As a result of this understanding, very  strong regret and very strong renunciation of the whole circumstances of cyclic existence arose within him. 

He heard that Do Kham Karma Tenphel (the 1st Khamtrul Rinpoche) had come to the area, and merely hearing this, due to previous good prayers of aspiration, uncontrived devotion arose in him and he went to meet the great teacher. The guru, seeing that he was a student with a karmic connection, accepted him, and taking him as his attendant, bestowed the entire profound oral instructions -- ordinary and extraordinary -- of the precious, glorious Drukpa lineage upon him."

Goddess, Queen of Tibet

One of the Twelve Tenma, Dorje Nayonma (sp., rDo.rje sNa.yon.ma,) is often depicted in wrathful form, mounted on the stag of the twelve-pronged antlers.  She wields a lance and a club, the latter for punishing those who break solemn oaths.  As queen of the 12 goddesses of Tibet, she is also depicted in less wrathful form, holding a mirror.

She is likely identical with the Chinese deity, Queen Mother of the West (Hsi-wang Mu)  who holds in one hand, the spirit fungus (ling chu) that can confer 500 years of longevity, and in the other, the peach of immortality from a tree that takes 3, 000 years to bloom.  

Eros & Thanatos, or Love and Death

The deer also stands for that which is charmingly irresistible.  Its deeper meaning is that sexuality inevitably leads to death.

In the Himalayan view, the Stag deity makes a troublesome situation clearer by exposing it, sometimes by making it worse. 

See sham or Tibetan dance, where bodhisattva Manjushri (the buffalo) dances with the red Stag.  {scroll down to link after 5th image.]

Indian Mythology

The Puranas (Hindu mythology) tell that Brahma had a beautiful daughter but he was overcome by lust for her. She escaped by taking the form of a deer. Brahma adopted the form of a stag to chase her into submission. However, Lord Shiva prevented any unlawful action by firing an arrow at Brahma which wounded him.  Ever since then he appears in the heavens as a deer-shaped constellation of stars with Shiva's arrow speeding after him.

In the Indian epic The Ramayana there is an episode in which Lord Rama's bride Sita is captured by Ravana, king of demons.   He gets one of his minions to transform into a beautiful deer.  Sita who lives in the forest, sees the deer and wants it as a pet.  She sends her protector, Lakshman to try and catch it for her, but while he is away, Ravana comes and kidnaps her.

The Hindu god, Shiva took the form of a deer while in the Shleshmantak forest in Nepal.  There is a shrine to his consort Parvati as Vatsyaleshvari, who encountered a divine deer on the banks of the Bagmati river.   Shiva is frequently depicted with a deer leaping from his hand indicating the Yogi's mastery over the restless springing about (chanchalata) of the mind. 

Often the deer symbolizes the senses themselves and their consequences.  For example, in one of his poems, Kabir (15th C.) the Indian mystic, advises the deer not to wander into the forest.  This symbolic association is an ancient one: 

When Pandu, one of the heroes of The Mahabharata, * was hunting in the forest, he shot 5 arrows at a stag mounting a doe. Before dying, the deer cursed Pandu saying that the instant he even touched any of his wives, he would drop dead.  When he returned home and told his consorts, they all agreed to become celibates. But you can predict what happened.

The stag was not really a deer at all but the son of a great Rishi, and he told Pandu that he was a wicked man.  But Pandu replied, “When kings go out hunting, they treat them the same way they treat their enemies, and even rishis [wisemen] hunt deer to sacrifice them to the gods." 

The stag responded, “Virtuous kings do not attack their enemies without first declaring war.  I am not blaming you for hunting, but to kill any creature in the act of copulation is a great sin.  All creatures have and enjoy sexual relations, an act ordained by the gods that is a beneficial one. You should at least have waited and it is for this reason that I now curse you.  For just as you brought me to grief while I was enjoying happiness, so the very same thing will happen to you.”  

So the drunken party that is thrown for a man about to be married is called a stag party, and it's actually a wake.  (A wake is a funeral feast and it is common in Ireland, Scotland and places where descendants of those people live.)

The Norse Mandala

Four stags guard the directions standing about Yggdrasil, the world ash tree.  They are Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr, and DurathorThe Norns, Skuld (Guilt), Verdandi (Necessity), and Urd (Chance/Fate) care for the tree watering it from Urdar-brunner, their own well.  Excess water drips onto the stags' antlers, forming a pure and sweet substance, honey-dew, that falling to earth, is the source of all the world's rivers. 

(The Norse were not fatalists. Although the three Norns allocate the aspects of karma, weaving vast webs of ever-original and spontaneous designs; they do not allocate or determine destiny, for the final outcome, the ultimate form of their artistry is unknown to them.)

The four stags with their great racks are the winds of the four directions.  As they nibble at the buds of the great ash, they are continually being thwarted by the Norns who tend it.

Two of the deer, Dain and Dvalin, are actually shape-shifting dwarves (Indian mythology would call them yakshas].  Dvalin is a king, one of the most powerful of dwarves.  He is a skilled craftsman and the first to be able to ken the runes.  He forged goddess Freya's fire-jewel, the Brising necklace and also Tyrfing, the double-edged sword that can kill its owner.

The other two deer are Durathor or Duratror ['slumber'] and Duneyr, whose name means 'rest'.

The White Stag

A legend associated with the conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine was blended with Mongol totemism to give rise at the beginning of the 20th century to a Hungarian tale of a miraculous white stag.  There is some evidence that the tale was especially contrived to support "ethnic cleansing."

Deer Words

Generally, the male is called a stag; the female a doe; the baby a fawn.  In some species, both male and female have antlers.

Specific English language deer terms:

species                                   male            female                young

Red Deer  (European)           stag            hind                    calf

Wapiti/elk                          bull            cow                     calf

Fallow Deer                        buck           doe                      fawn   (American Whitetail & Mule, too)

Reindeer/caribou              bull            cow                      calf

A Light Tale

The police of a small town in West Virginia received a phone call from someone who lived right by the highway.  He asked if they would do him a favor, and they said they might if he would just tell them what it was.  He said that he would be very obliged if they would remove the Deer Crossing sign in front of his house and put it in a better spot, since so many deer were involved in accidents there.

__________________________________________________________

*  The link is to the first volume of a set that is an unabridged and excellent translation.

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