In the great Indian epic the Mahabharata, the Indian Pariah Dog features prominently, as possibly one of the first domesticated dogs in history.
In the closing chapters of the final book called Svargarohana Parva of the epic story, long after the five Pandava brothers have defeated their one-hundred cousin-brothers the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra War (described in the chapters that form the Bhagavad Gita - the 6th book of the Mahabharata). The winning Pandavas rule their Kingdom Hastinapur for 36 years and establish righteousness throughout the land.
However, after this time, the age of Kali Yuga begins and Lord Krishna, their beloved supporter, friend, and Arjuna’s Charioteer during the war, decides to leave his body. The Pandava brothers decide it is also time for them to renounce their kingdom, and set out on their final journey to the top of Mount Kailash - the gateway for their ascension into heaven. Their shared wife, Draupadi, decides to go with them, along with Yudhisthira’s faithful dog.
One by one, as they begin their climb to the top of the Mountain, each one suddenly falls dead starting with Draupadi. When the second eldest brother Bheema asks his eldest brother Yudhisthira why she was taken, Yudhisthira replies that her one imperfection was that “she preferred Arjuna” over the other four brothers, who were also her husbands.
Next drops the youngest brother, Sahadeva followed by his twin brother Nakula. When Bheema asks why they had died, Yudhisthira explains that Sahadeva had “too much pride in his own intelligence,” while “Nakula, was extremely vain.”
The three remaining brothers continue climbing, when suddenly Arjuna is struck down. Lamenting, Bheema cries out, “What, Oh What did Arjuna do to deserve this fate?”
Yudhisthira, calmly explains, that although Arjuna was a valiant warrior, “he was conceited and reckless, and often jealous of other archers.” Unable to contain his grief over the loss of all but one of his brothers, Bheema collapses and leaves his body. Yudhisthira understands that his brother Bheema was a glutton, and also continually boasted about his super-strength, which caused his inevitable demise.
Now, only Yudhisthira and his dog remain.
The two continue their journey together. As they reach the pinnacle, the King of all the gods, Lord Indra, approaches them. Descending from his chariot, he praises Yudhisthira for being “a virtuous and just ruler.” He complements him on his “honesty, tolerance, and discernment.” Indra then invites Yudhisthira to join on his chariot, so they could ascend back to the heavenly realms together.
Yudhisthira replies, “the dog must come with me.”
Indra laughs, “absolutely not. It is a great honor to attain heaven, and this dog is nothing. He is old, and weak, and scrawny.”
“In that case” replies Yudhisthira, “I do not want to attain heaven. This dog has been my faithful companion through this terrible and devastating journey. I cannot abandon him now, he is all I have left.”
A previously stoic Yudhisthira becomes very emotional, “This dog sought my help and gave me his unconditional love. The pleasures of heaven will mean nothing to me in comparison to the grief I will have leaving him behind. He has done nothing to deserve my abandonment and he has none of the character faults of my wife or brothers. If this dog doesn’t deserve heaven, then neither do I.”
And with that he turns away from Indra and starts back down the Mountain.
At this moment the dog reveals his true form as Yama, the god of death, dharma, and justice, and also the true father from whom Yudhisthira himself. Yama, also called Dharmaraja is the judge that weighs the good and evil deeds of the dead to determine their fate.
Yama addresses Yudhisthira, “You are my true son. Your righteousness under every circumstance, and dedication to justice surpasses all of humanity. You have been completely selfless in your dealings with people, and have always upheld the cosmic law and natural order of the universe. You are blessed beyond all of your brothers, and will go to heaven.”
With this story in mind, we can look at the Urdhva Mukha Svanasana - “upward-facing-dog-pose” as an indication of Yama’s blessing and a reminder to direct of our attention towards righteousness, dharma, and consequently, heaven.
The Adho Mukha Svanasana - “downward-facing-dog-pose” is the opposite, the decline away from heaven and a movement taking us back down to the earth.
The moral of the story is… It doesn’t matter which way you are going… Your Dog is always watching you!