Question: How to understand religions, the treatment of animals and the role they play in religions?
Acharya Prashant: When you say religions, just for the sake of the conversation, I would want to divide them into two streams:
1. The Abrahamic stream
So, the Judeo-Christian view is that God has dominion over man and man has dominion over animals, something similar also comes up in the third Abrahamic religion, Islam, which talks about Allah having created all the animals, fish, insects for the sake of man.
And, then there is the view of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism which talk of Ahimsa, Ekatva, which is non-violence and oneness.
But I am not really convinced that when we use the word religion, we must really talk of the view that organized religions take of this matter. The moment religion is organized, it becomes something man-made.
So, I will take your question to mean, that we want to talk about religion as such.
Man, animals, man’s inner world and man’s relationship with the so-called outer world including animals.
So, there is man and man lives according to himself in this so-called universe, this universe that appears to him through his senses, there is no other way a man perceives universe, he perceives it through his senses and he interprets it through his reason, through his intellect and through his knowledge and memory.
Now, how does man relate with the world?
How does man know what to do, how to approach, how to touch, how to live, how to eat, how to talk, how to connect, that to me is the essence of religion.
Man’s relationship with himself and the world, that is religion and that is also the essence of all the organized religions.
Hence, I find it more beneficial to talk about religion itself than the various organized religions.
I have named just six in the course of this talk. But as you of course know, there are hundreds of them. It would be more useful to directly go into the one rather than the hundreds and get lost in the maze, that is not very useful.
So, man’s relationship with the universe; see, how do I look at anything or anybody, depends on how I look at myself.
If there is a pool of water and I am playful, then the pool of water is a sport for me. If there is a pool of water and I have a phobia, then the pool of water is danger for me. If there is a pool of water and I am thirsty, then the pool of water is physical sustenance and survival for me.
So, depending on who I am and what my self-concept and self-worth is, I take a view of the world.
Now, If I am someone who is always feeling incomplete within himself, if I am someone who exists in order to take something, snatch or extract something from the universe in order to fulfill himself, then my view of the universe will be very utilitarian, rather exploitative.
So, as there is that little squirrel there.
Even as we talk she is there with her tail up. How do I look at her?
I could look at her as food if hunger is what I most identify with.
I could look at her at as a companion too.
Whatever is the form she takes for me is very intimately related to the form that I have assigned to myself. The squirrel will disappear in a while, and she has indeed disappeared. She is no more there. She is all by herself somewhere. The squirrel will disappear but that which I carry as myself will not. I will carry it, I will keep carrying it.
If I am feeling incomplete, that incompletion will remain irrespective of the temporal presence and disappearance of anything outside of me.
If I always feel hollow and hungry, then everything in the universe is but a resource for me. I will want to exploit the man, the woman, the tree, the rock, the child, the animal, just everything.
The extent to which I can exploit would depend on my power and because to me, this exploitation is itself a very important value in life. So, I value myself according to my ability to exploit. The more I can exploit, consume, plunder and hoard, the more I take myself to be. I am bigger if I can exploit more. I am higher, I am more worthy, more respectable if I can draw more from the universe. If everything that I have collected as resources, as usables, are bigger, more numerous, more in utility, if that is how I value myself and I respect myself, then outside of me also, I will have value only for that which can exploit.
Now to exploit, as a human being you require the intellect. Animals outside of me do not have that, at least not in the same way as human beings have. Their consciousness does not proceed on the same basis of rationale as the human being’s does. Their capacity to exploit is far more limited, even assuming that they might have an intention to exploit, which as per me really either does not exist or is extremely limited. So, if I value myself according to my capacity to exploit, I will not value the one outside of me who cannot exploit, who does not have the intellect or intention to exploit. So, there will be very little respect for the chirping bird. For I can respect her only if she has power. Because I respect myself only when I have power, some kind of power, power of knowledge, power of wealth, political power, social power, any kind of power. The bird outside of me appears to have so little power. So, it is laughable. So, I can go, pick her up and do whatever I want to do with her.
Now, if this is how man relates with animals, then man is saying that everything that limits him is valuable.
We are on the issue of religion, so, we have to go into that which we call as an immensity as God.
Now, man is proud of his intellect. All exploitation proceeds on that. And in fact, one of the reasons why any animals are taken as fit for exploitation is that they really are not rational beings. So, it is said that we can do as we want to do with them because they are lesser beings.
Having an intellect, does it really make man superior to animals?
Yes, of course the dog cannot read.
Yes, the dog cannot comprehend our books and our knowledge.
But if all reading and all knowledge is for the sake of peace, is for the sake of a great silence, then please tell me whether man’s intellect or knowledge are indeed able to deliver the goods?
Knowledge is limited, intellect is limited.
Knowledge always consists of objects and every object has a boundary. If the purpose of life and, if the purpose of religion is to be one with God, then the purpose of religion is to drop all that which is limited because God is unlimited.
As long as you identify with that which is limited, there is no question of unity with God.
Intellect is limited, and intellect prevents man from closeness with God.
You cannot intellectualize your way to silence.
I want to now ask what is closer to goodness and Godliness?
Man’s intellect or the simple innocence of animals?
Now, we have come to a point where we also can look more sharply at the view that man is superior to animals and that man has dominion over animals.
I have repeatedly said and would repeat once again, is man really superior to animals?
If God stands for innocence, then animals are closer to God.
If God stands for a simple surrender to the flow of life, then animals are closer to God.
If God stands for a basic ability to trust, then animals are closer to God.
If God stands for a relation that is deeper than verbal communication, a heartfelt communion, then again animals are closer to God compared to man.
But man will live in his self-centered consciousness. Man will say that my greatest asset is my intellect because it helps me to do a lot of things with the world. And, if man’s greatest asset is his intellect, then man will always look at animals as not only inferior but also just things to be had. And he will look not only at animals that way, he will look at everything that way.
If you are a man, you will exploit a woman, exploit a river, you will exploit everything that you come across.
If it were in your power, you would go and exploit the entire galaxy.
Q: What would you say to those people who say that eating a plant is similar to eating an animal because the plant too has a soul, a spirit?
AP: You see, two or three things must be understood.
Firstly, a nonviolent mind; a mind that does not like destruction will not want to kill a plant either. We talked about intellect. Man’s basic violence starts from organized agriculture itself, when man started utilizing and exploiting plants.
It is one thing to be one with a plant; to be a part of its ecosystem and take something from it, and it is a totally different thing to cultivate a plant. The way a squirrel or a monkey connects to a plant or a tree is very different from the way a farmer connects to his crop. So, someone who does not want to look at the universe as a resource will not want to kill or consume anything. And, when I say consume, I mean consume in a violent way.
There is enough that a tree offers. There is enough that comes to us from plants and trees even if we do not kill them. In fact, if you see when a fruit drops from a tree, the tree in some way wants that the fruit be consumed. When you pick up the fruit, when you consume it, the seeds actually get spread through you. You are being one with the plant. You are actually fulfilling the tree’s wish. If you do not pick up the fruit and eat, then it is not a favor to the tree, then, it is indifference.
The moment I say this, the question of feeding the eight billion people of the world immediately crops up and hence this view will appear as impractical. This appears as impractical only if first of all you are centered around the view that the earth must have eight billion human beings. These eight billion human beings exist only because they have taken a path that is not really the path of the heart. Otherwise nature knows what is the right number, the right cap on the existence of any species.
Man can exist even without harming trees and plants, let alone animals. It is possible but that will be a totally different kind of humanity. And I am pretty sure that when man lives that way, then to sustain eight billion people in that way will not be possible. You may immediately retort that this way is then very-very difficult. I would say it is very valuable. It is very valuable because as far as life is concerned, it is not the numbers that count. Something else is far more important than numbers, that particular silence in being, that particular love in relationships, that particular peace.
Excerpts from a Shabda-Yoga Session. Edited for Clarity.
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