Coming into this human form is quite a blessing- to be born, to feel joy, to have freedom to be who we are. In many ways it is a privilege, while at the same time it is also our birth right. I think, though, that one of the pitfalls of taking on this human form is that with it comes a strong attachment to the ego. We want to feel good about ourselves, to the point that we may hurt others to be able to achieve that. We get so attached to our egos that we develop prejudices against those whom we perceive as different from us. We convince ourselves that we are "better" than others because it's what the ego craves.
hanam esham kleshavad uktam
- Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (PYS IV.28)
The greatest obstacle to the practice is one’s own prejudices based on one’s own preferences.
Yoga is oneness of being. It means we let go of the prejudice that feeds the me-versus-you or us-versus-them mentality. As a culture, our prejudice against animals is so deeply-ingrained. We say someone is an animal if they did something horrible, as if "animal" were a derogatory term. When in fact, the word animal comes from the word anima, which means soul. For all of us in this Earth who have sentience, for all souls, it is our birth right to live and love and fully manifest who we are. We are here to explore the highest potential of our humanness, as other beings are here to explore the highest potential of their being, whether they are cats or dogs, elephants or giraffes, fish or lobsters, locusts or frogs, pigs or cows, chickens or monkeys. All beings have souls. If we are interested in oneness of being, then we must be willing to examine our long-held unquestioned beliefs and habitual patterns of action. Could it be that we use animals because we see them as objects rather than souls? Could it be that we eat animal flesh and secretions, rip out their skin for leather or fur, confine them in cages and aquariums for our entertainment- because we never asked questions? It is time to investigate.
For the record, animal experimemtation is cruel and is another way we deduce souls into objects. That said, one experiment is relevant to our topic of animals as souls. This experiment was conducted on rhesus monkeys, also known as macaques. Below is a passage from the book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, written by Drs. Sagan and Druyan:
"In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so - 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others."
These monkeys have never had to take ethics courses. They don't go to church or subscribe to any religion. And yet, the compassion was innate. How can we say they have no souls? How can we use the word "animal" in such a derogatory way when they hold such a strong moral ground? These monkeys can feel suffering, and many animals do feel the suffering at the hands of many humans. The animals whom we have enslaved for their flesh and their milk and their eggs and their skin etc are currently suffering, because we as a species have denied seeing them as souls.
Yoga is about establishing a practice, including letting go of our prejudices. Think of someone whom you have discriminated against at one point in your life. It does not matter why. The ego did not know any better at that time. It does not matter who this being is, a human soul or an animal soul. Do your best at this moment to let go of that prejudice, by seeing that this being deserves love, just as you yourself deserve love. The more you practice, the more that the lines of discrimination and judgment will blur and fade away. It does not matter if you are working on eradicating racism, sexism, heterosexism, or speciesism. The thing with letting go of prejudice is that they all start to connect at one point. Once we start caring, we find it easier and easier to include other group of beings into our circle of compassion.
Perhaps you yourself have been the recipient of prejudice at one point. You may be familiar with the pain that comes from being treated like an object, your feelings disregarded, your well-being unimportant in the eyes of your perpetrator. If that is so, then why not be like an animal, like the macaques who would refuse to cause another being pain, because you know what that feels like and you are not willing to subject someone else to it?
Fear breeds ignorance breeds prejudice. Let go of fear and let courage be the antidote to prejudice. Find in your heart the courage to be open, the courage to investigate, the courage to know, the courage to let information guide your decisions. Please watch the documentary Earthlings. Bear witness. Animals are souls. They feel pain. Just like you do. Please honor that.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings, including animals, be happy and free. And may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way that freedom and to that happiness for all.