A barometer of greatness? How a nation treats the vulnerable
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. (Mahatma Gandhi)
Deer, camel, donkey, monkey, rats, creeping animals, birds and flies - one should consider them like one's own children, and not differentiate between one's children and these creatures. (Bhagavata Purana 7.14.9)
For panentheistic Hindus, who with many Dharma faiths and Pagan traditions worship Earth as a manifestation of the Mother Goddess, divinity is found within every part of nature just as it transcends an earthly realm. The suffering animals endure in our blind pursuit of black gold to support a craven addiction will bear the brunt of the consequences of karma. It is empirical that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; while today the shrimpers and oyster harvesters are enduring for our collective sins, we must know that all of us will be affected as the dominoes of suffering fall.
Hindu iconography is replete with representations of animals and even trees and plants as infused with the divine (Lord Ganesha, famously endowed with an elephant head) or godly vehicles--Lord Vishnu's serpent, Ganesha's mouse or Shiva's bull. Hindu seers describe how the souls of seemingly insensate animals are very much on their own path to liberation, or moksha. The difference between the Dharma traditions view of animals and the Abrahamic perspective that man has dominion over animals and the earth is stark indeed.
It is a logical consequence, then, that over 400 million of mostly Hindu India's billion declare themselves vegetarian according to a recent poll, and make up more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined. Amongst Dharma traditions, many Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs join Jains, whose unequivocal insistence on ahimsa, or non-violence, is absolute and doctrinally fundamental. Violence against animals is tantamount to harming one's self, as the Jain scripture Acaranga Sutra states:
To do harm to others is to do harm to oneself. You are he whom you intend to kill. You are he whom you intend to dominate. We corrupt ourselves as soon as we intend to corrupt others. We kill ourselves as soon as we intend to kill others.
Animals most certainly belie emotions. My own dog's eyes showed sad confusion recently when she lacerated her coat on a tree branch in our backyard, and I felt certain that I saw the same innocent perplexity in the face of the oil-coated pelican flashed across the news wires last week.
To a Hindu, eating meat causes one to ingest and absorb the slaughtered creature's pain, suffering and terror before its death. Stop the cycle of accumulating negative karma, our scriptures tell us, and work we must to ameliorate not only the suffering of animals caused by the oil spill in the Gulf, but also species endangered by human assaults on habitats elsewhere.
Exponents of Hinduism's heterodoxy will insist that many Hindus do eat meat, and abhorrent animal sacrifices continue in some Hindu temples in India. And just as I sacrificed animals as a pre-med student mapping neural pathways to understand the effects of a stroke years ago, I would not flinch prescribing chemotherapy drugs known to work because of the sacrifice of millions of mice, guinea pigs, rhesus monkeys and the like.
We all have our personal heterodoxies/hypocrisies perhaps, but just as Hindus must call out and condemn the few temples among millions where retrograde animal sacrifices still occur, as scientists, we must redouble efforts to create suitable artificial substitutes for animal models and treat every laboratory animal humanely. Animals are integral to human life and we can exploit our trust with this kingdom only when our survival is at stake. To many Indians living on rugged coastlines where subsistence fishing is the norm, for example, fish is considered vegetarian. But sacrificing animals for human comfort--eating a hamburger, hunting deer, fishing for walleye, wearing mink--most certainly begets a time of karmic reckoning.
Hinduism's relationship with animals is predicated on mutuality and an essential equality that finds expression and common cause with animal welfare organizations. The Hindu American Foundation just completed an exposition of Hinduism's view of animals in partnership with the Humane Society emphasizing the core concepts raised here. Along with the promotion of pluralism in the public sphere, I firmly believe that ahimsa, in all its varied expressions, are essential contributions of Dharma traditions to our nation's spiritual legacy and ethos.
Divine premonition, perhaps, but the same Puranas, a popular genre of Hindu scripture quoted in the excerpt above, also describe a mystical churning of the ocean of milk in the quest for the nectar of immortality. Devas, or benificent divine beings, formed an alliance with the asuras, those with demonic qualities, to commence the Samudra Manthan, or churning of said ocean. While the churning yielded the sought after nectar and many other treasures, it first yielded an overpowering poison that nearly consumed the nascent universe. Lord Shiva, this story that is widely celebrated in Hindu, Buddhist and East Asian art tells, captured the poison within his neck that then turned deep blue.
So the churning of the Gulf has indeed yielded a sought after nectar, but the black gold gusher is poisoning all that it touches. So many weeks have gone without respite, and no Lord has appeared to ingest the poison and end this nightmare. And the casualty count of livelihoods, marshes, beaches and, yes, within the animal kingdom, relentlessly mounts.
Humanity has proven itself imperfect stewards of creation, and the gulf disaster is simply an epic demonstration of our failures. But as other recent calamities--from 9/11 to Katrina--brought forth our essential goodness, nobility and brotherhood, our redemption in the gulf will be in the compassion and care we show for the seaborne creatures that are the innocent casualties of our latest folly.
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.
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