Accepted Paper:

Devil, kin, god, animal: non-human primates in western and Assamese thought and experience.   


Saskia Dijk (University of Kent)

Paper short abstract:

This paper investigates the differences in thought about non-human primates in western and Indian scientific and religious texts and worldviews and the subsequent disparities between the assumed and lived experiences and relationships between humans and monkeys in Assam, India.

Paper long abstract:

Historically, non-human primates in western thought have changed from being 'figura diaboli' in Christian symbolism - primates as immoral beasts, sinners or devils - to 'imago hominis': the reflection of our own selves. Within the biological sciences, such Christianity-inspired attitudes have largely given way to non-religious, scientific frameworks for the study and conservation of primates. The advance of genetics, in particular, has encouraged further notions of non-human primates as kin. Yet, outside the zoo context, very few people in the West experience our non-human distant relatives directly, in contrast to India, where monkeys are found at Hindu temples and in human settlements all over the country, and interactions between people and monkeys take place daily. Many western scholars, especially those working in primate conservation, have attributed this interactive relationship to the monkey god, Hanuman, an important figure in the Indian epic 'the Ramayana' and a popular deity in his own right. It has been purported that Hindus in India protect and even worship monkeys as a result, thereby merely concentrating on textual references, rather than actual, lived, experiences and subsequent relationships between people and monkeys that are often unrelated to religious texts. This paper draws on fieldwork from the largely unstudied northeastern state of Assam in India to demonstrate the discrepancies between western and Assamese (Hindu and Muslim) perspectives on monkeys, which are influenced by differences in western and Indian religious and scientific thought and worldview, as well as divergence in experiential relationships with the animals.

Panel P27
Religions' contributions in human-animal relations