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Animals certainly are among the least ones that God is concerned about. That’s true in a general sense, but it’s also true in the specific sense of those we care for in our homes as members of our families. Comforting those whose beloved pets have died is one of my callings as a pastor.
From the Hindu tradition, the story of Yuhisthira cherishing a dog at heaven’s gates provides great food for thought about reverence for God’s creatures.
The story goes like this:
“The great king Yudhisthira had ruled over the Pandava people for many years, and, among his many achievements had waged a successful war against the forces of evil. It was time for him to withdraw from the world, and to enter the Celestial City of the Immortals. King Yudhisthira set off on the long journey into the northern mountains, along with his four brothers and his beloved wife Drapaudi. They were soon joined on their journey by a small, ill-kempt stray dog.
The journey was hard. They tired. And in the course of the journey first one brother and then another, then the third and then the fourth, fell, exhausted, and died. Unable to do anything for them, Yudhisthira and Drapaudi continued on the journey, followed by the dog. Eventually Drapaudi, too, fell by the wayside and died. With utmost sadness, Yudhisthira turned and continued, the dog faithfully keeping pace.
At last Yudhisthira and the dog reached the gates of the Celestial City, home of the Immortals. Yudhisthira bowed humbly and asked to be admitted. The great sky God Indra arrived to meet Yudhisthira and to welcome him to heaven.
But then Yudhisthira said that without his beloved wife and his four brothers, he did not have the heart to enter. Indra replied that these loved ones were already in Heaven, they had come before him.
This lifted Yudhisthira’s heart, but he had one more request. “This dog has faithfully accompanied me on this long journey, never left my side. I cannot leave him now outside heaven’s gate. My heart is full of love for him.”
Indra shook his head. The earth quaked. “You, Yudhisthira, through your goodness and courage, and by enduring this long and difficult journey, have earned your way into heaven. But you cannot bring a dog into heaven. A dog would pollute the Celestial City. Leave the dog behind Yudhisthira. It is no sin.”
“But where would he go? He has given up the pleasures of the earth to be my companion. I cannot desert him now.” Yudhisthira turned to leave.
Indra asked, astonished, “You would abandon heaven just for the sake of a dog?”
Yudhisthira declared that long ago he had vowed never to turn his back on anyone needing his protection and help. “And so,” he concluded, “I will not abandon my loyal friend.” Yudisthira turned from heaven’s gate and began to walk away.
At that moment a remarkable thing happened. The faithful dog was transformed into the god Dharma, the god of righteousness and justice.
And Indra declared, “You are a good man, Yudhisthira. You have shown loyalty and love to a small, faithful dog and compassion for all creatures, ready to renounce for yourself all the rewards of heaven for this humble dog’s sake. You shall be honored in heaven!” And so Yudhisthira entered heaven and was reunited with his wife and with brothers to enjoy eternal happiness.” (From a sermon by Michael Moran at http://www.nmchurch.org/sermons/031206ser.html.)
William Bennett includes this story as an illustration of loyalty in his Book of Virtues under the title “Yudhisthira at Heaven’s Gates.” The animated version from the PBS Kids series Adventures from the Book of Virtues pictures Yudhisthira cradling the dog in his arms at the gates of heaven, something I think of when I see people cradling their pets before releasing them to God.
You can listen to Odds Bodkin tell a version of the story here.
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