When Gods Disappear

180px-Ravi_Varma-Ravana_Sita_Jathayu The brothers were racing for the sun. What brothers don’t create such fantastic games of competition and daring, even when they are gods? Especially if they are gods. Jatayu and Sampati were the vulture gods, soaring upon seven-foot wings higher and higher. Jatayu was winning. But the sun was hot, and Jatayu too determined to see the danger. Sampati saw his brother heading for his demise, and pressed his wings harder against the air until he could overtake his brother, hold his wings aloft, and shelter him protectively. He paid for his kindness, Sampati’s wings singed beyond the point of healing. The brothers returned to the earth, where Sampati lived the rest of his life wingless, and Jatayu was remembered as the vulture god.

This tale is from the ancient Indian text the Ramayana and has—like all good stories—many versions. Jatayu’s later feat, when he was an old but noble bird, was to try to save Sita from the kidnapping Ravana, but like his childhood ventures, his desire was greater than his ability, and Ravana used his dagger to sever the wings from Jatayu’s avian body. He lives on in our words, a feather here, a feather there.

The vultures in India are in trouble. Today, September 5th, marks International Vulture Awareness Day. The list of organizations and individuals that have joined in efforts to raise awareness about the troubled scavengers span from Bangladesh to Belgium. In Jatayu’s region of the world, the three dominant species of South Asian vultures—white-backed (Gyps bengalensis), long-billed (Gyps indicus), and slender-billed (Gyps tenuerostris)—are dying in record numbers from ingesting livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used on both livestock and humans. It is a mild painkiller, akin to aspirin. Seemingly harmless.

No one noticed at first. They’re vultures, clumsy massive beasts seen roadside with their bare heads buried in the flesh of rotten carcasses. Instinctively, we turn our heads. We look away. And then, when they begin to vanish, we don’t notice. Forgetting to look can become a habit. But their numbers, from a once estimated 80 million across the subcontinent, are down 97-99%. It is one of the greatest avian collapses on record.

Biologists and naturalists and birdwatchers and rural folk wondering how to clean up the dead the vultures took care of so efficiently for so many eons are noticing the vultures’ absence. The drug that was killing them by turning their organs into a fantastic sculpture of salt crystals has been banned, and a replacement drug invented. Some farmers are even using it. And in breeding centers in remote parts of India, they try to teach these grand soaring wild animals to survive and procreate in a contained environment that is protecting them from the world we have unwittingly tainted.

You can read more about the vultures in a piece by Susan McGrath in Smithsonian or one I wrote for Search, (a magazine that has gone the way of other dying publishing creatures in the last year, a wave of extinction of another sort), and I touch on them here on these Killing the Buddha pages. And what more can you do? Besides sending a check to the Bombay Natural History Society or the Peregrine Fund or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, how about this…be aware. Spend the next day paying attention to something ugly, something hideous and alive in your world that you usually turn your head away from in an unconscious move of aversion. Let your eyes rest on the sight, soak it in, remember that gods come in many forms. Tell us what you see.

Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.