Animal Doubles of the Buddha


  • Reiko Ohnuma Dartmouth College



Two centuries’ worth of work on the rich narrative traditions surrounding the life of the historical Buddha have thus far failed to pay any attention to the episodes in his live involving close interactions with animals. This article draws from premodern Indian Buddhist sources in Sanskrit and Pāli to look at two animal characters who play significant roles within the Buddha’s life-storythe horse Kanthaka and the elephant Nāḷāgiri. I argue that both animals constitute “doubles” or shadows of the Buddhailluminating his character through identification, contrast, or parallelism with an animal “other.” More specifically, the horse Kanthaka serves as a scapegoat for the Buddha, absorbing some of the sin and blame that are due to him, yet without tainting his perfect character. The elephant Nāḷāgiri, on the other hand, serves as a billboard for the Buddha’s power and charisma, allowing these features of the Buddha’s character to be publicly displayed to the cosmos at large.


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Author Biography

Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College

Reiko Ohnuma is Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College. She specializes in the Buddhist traditions of South Asia (with a particular focus on narrative literature, hagiography, and the role and imagery of women).  She is the author of Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (Columbia UP, 2007) and Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (Oxford UP, 2012). She is currently working on a book on animals in the Indian Buddhist imagination.

Buddha with the Elephant Nalagiri (Wikimedia Commons)




How to Cite

Ohnuma, Reiko. 2016. “Animal Doubles of the Buddha”. Humanimalia 7 (2):1-34.