Ahimsa, animal rights and spirituality
by Claudette Vaughan
Ahimsa, or 'Dynamic Compassion' is a principle of non-harming and non-violence. Human behaviour that violates this ethical principle is seen, not only as morally wrong, but also as its original perspective as negative karma that reverts back onto the person responsible for the harm or violence done.
Possibly the most famous exponent this century was Mahatma Gandhi who was profoundly influenced by and propagated the Jain doctrine of Ahimsa. The first Jain spiritual father lived between 599 and 527 BC. He exhorted his followers to "regard every living being as thyself and hurt no one." It was this statement that Gandhi acknowledged as pivotal to human ethics and it led him to adopt the principle of the harmless life. Ahimsa says that we have no right to inflict suffering and death onto another living creature and, that if harmlessness were the keynote of our lives, then this would do more to produce harmonious conditions than any other discipline.
Throughout the industrial revolution, the Western world is increasingly institutionalized violence towards both human and non-human species. Intensive agricultural practice (factory farming), in terms of the large number of sentient beings involved, is probably the most glaring example. For decades there has been an ongoing campaign for the abolition of battery egg production because of the cruelty to the caged hens. These animals have been deprived o their most fundamental needs such as soil and grass and are exposed to artificial light to deceive them into laying more eggs that they would do under natural conditions. Kept in these conditions the birds become aggressive because of their increased requirements for food and water and the interruption of their natural pecking order. Heat build-up in egg factories further aggravates this situation. The hens are de-beaked without the use of painkillers and unwanted male chicks are simply disposed of by gassing or suff9cation.
Anyone concerned about the welfare of animals must often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of negativity that assaults their sensibility on a daily basis. It is precisely at these times of disillusionment where corruption, inhumanity and chaos is ever evident that Gandhi's influence should ring true. He did not treat every setback as an occasion to give up. He repeatedly emphasized that a person is only defeated when he/she ceases to struggle. He himself returned time and time again with new vigour into the fray.
The ultimate goal is to make the principle of Ahimsa permeate the whole of our society. This involves not only following a healthy vegetarian diet but also treating all beings with empathy and kindness in recognition of the fact that their sentience in the final analysis is no different to our own. One of the most basic laws of ecology is that every living thing exists for a reason forming part of a greater whole. For the student of Ahimsa, the concept of the environment and the earth as one body closely resonates with every aspect of reverence for life.
Our lack of understanding and the pain we directly or indirectly cause animals reflects a deep spiritual disorder in the collective psyche of our species. In the West we have been conditioned to think that big is better than small, that strong is better than weak, that fast is better than slow and that physical strength is greater than moral or spiritual strength. Gandhi wrote that, "Ahimsa is the highest duty. Even if we cannot practice it in full, we must try to understand its spirit and refrain as far as humanly possible from violence." Perhaps inner strength requires that we endure being branded as 'emotional' or 'irrational' when we are motivated by our sense of compassion.
A major hurdle to overcome is not so much our lack of care but rather our ignorance of the plight of the animals. Fifty years ago things were very different. The farm's trade was 'animal husbandry', their duty being to provide care. With factory farming animal husbandry has given way to animal science to the detriment of animal welfare. Today's farm animals are kept in extremely over-crowded conditions and deliberately keep as immobile as possible. Applied science has found an artificial way to hasten a broiler chicken's growth to such an extent that the vast majority of them have trouble walking or are crippled by not being able to bear their own body weight. Newborn calves are separated from their mothers and many dairy cows rest no more than three months between pregnancies. After their calf-bearing years are over, they are slaughtered to provide cheap hamburger meat. In intensive piggeries, sows sleep on bare concrete and it is not uncommon for them to be kept in small crates for their entire lives.
The challenge of Ahimsa is enormous. It encourages an active inner state of being rather than merely a passive state of refraining from violence. The intention to hurt another living being is apprehensible to the principles of Ahimsa for it is in this absence of conscious integration of compassion that we currently find ourselves. We acknowledge this situation intellectually yet we are sufficiently culturally desensitized to ignore it, allowing it to continue by default. Early peoples recognized the individual specialness of animals. They transformed our lives with their kinship, antics and even their sense of humour. These humans were at peace with the animals and spoke their language. Animals formed their totems, became their familiars and their teachers. It is that lost instinctive tie to the rhythms and patters of nature that Ahimsa exhorts us to regain.
One philosopher that has not ignored the subject of the treatment of animals is E.F. Schumacher. He observed that "there have been no sages or holy men/women in our or anybody's history who were cruel to animals or who looked upon them as nothing but utilities and innumerable are the legends and stories which link sanctity as well as happiness with a loving kindness towards these creatures." Modern visionaries can trace the beginning of the beef industry to the loss of the sense of the sacredness of ourselves, of others, of animals and of the earth. This loss mirrors itself as the callous and cruel exercise of power over other creatures more helpless than ourselves. There is no compassion in a science, philosophy or doctrine that ignores our interdependence with other species.
Compassion suffers miserably at the hands of big business. Per Singer's excellent book, Animal Liberation, established that we already hold the high moral ground as our cause is just. Ahimsa training requires that we confront our indifference and lack of moral courage and acknowledge that animals have a silent dignity all of their own that we have violated.
Cornering the linchpin of our own ignorance is not an easy task. When the mystic Gurdjieff arrived in the West at the turn of the century with his message that "Man is asleep. Man is a machine", he was misunderstood. Fortunately, as we approach the new millennium, we are more willing to reassess our values. Vegetarianism and Ahimsa are rapidly becoming a rational and ethical requirement for modern day living.
Perhaps, however, the last work should go to the animals, but since they do not speak our language they must rely on us to speak for them.
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, we greatly err. For the animals shall not be measure by man. In a world older and more complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. - Henry Beston
Source: New Vegetarian and Natural Health, Summer 1998/9