The dharmic moral universe embraces all living beings
Prof Nanditha Krishna’s book, Sacred Animals of India, reminds us that, according to the tenets of this country’s three major streams of spirituality — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — human beings, animals, plants and even physical phenomena like rivers and mountains, inhabit a common moral universe, governed by the laws of dharma and the karmic doctrine of cyclic re-incarnation. Besides, to Hindus, this universe is defined by the metaphysics of the Upanishads, according to which the Brahman, the universal soul, resides in constituents of each category, in the form of the atman or the individual soul, which shares in full the deathless, timeless and imperishable attributes of the Brahman.
The Taittiriya Upanishad states, “The cosmic self thought to himself, ‘I will become many, I will be born.’ He then practised austerities. In his case, he only thought. He then created the whole world of living and non-living things. He created them and then entered into them. Having entered into them, he in some cases assumed forms and in some cases remained formless.” (Translated by Swami Lokeswarananda). This makes everything a manifestation of the Brahman, addressing which the Svetasvatara Upanishad says, “Thou art woman. Thou art man,/ Thou art the youth, thou art the maiden,/ Thou art the old man tottering with his staff,/ Thou faces everywhere.” It continues in the next stanza, “Thou art the dark butterfly/ Thou art the green parrot with red eyes,/ Thou art the thunder cloud, the seasons, the seas,/ Without beginning art thou,/ Without time, without space,/ Thou art He from whom sprang/ The three worlds.” (Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester).
The essence of all things, animate and inanimate, is the same. In the Chhandogya Upanishad, sage Uddaloka Aruni asks Svetaketu to break a fruit of the Nyagrodha (Banyan) tree and then crush one of its seeds to the point that he could not see anything. Uddaloka Aruni then says, “The subtle essence you do not see, in that is the whole essence of the Nyagrodha tree. Believe, my son, that which is the subtle essence — in that all things have their existence. That is the truth. That is the self. And that, Svetaketu, that art thou.” (Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester).
What is particularly significant, Prof Krishna’s book maps the entire spiritual and moral legacy of the three great religions underlining the respect and protection it accords to animals. Vishnu, one of the deities of the great Hindu trinity whose other two members are Brahma and Shiv, reincarnated himself as a Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar) and as Narasingha (half man and half lion). She writes, “Many of the earlier births of the Buddha were believed to be as animals, while his final birth as Gautam Buddha was prophesied by his mother Maya Devi’s dream of an elephant entering her womb. The snake is a folk deity associated with the Buddha, who is often depicted as being protected by a snake, while the earliest Buddhist sculptures, which do not portray the Buddha except through his symbols, show the snake people — men and women hooded by snakes — worshipping the bodhi tree and the feet of the master.”
Both Buddha and Mahavira, the 24th and the last Tirthankara (a Jain saint) of Jainism, preached compassion, kindness to animals and opposed animal sacrifice. Prof Krishna writes, “Of all religions, Jainism gives the greatest respect to life. Jeev Daya — compassion for all living beings or the gift of life — is its prime philosophy…” She also shows Ashok, the great Mauryan emperor who embraced Buddhism, forbade animal sacrifice in his empire. What she provides is a lucid, comprehensive and eminently readable overview of three related traditions that played a major role in nurturing a civilisation that, despite many aberrations and transgressions, stood for a non-violent and compassionate way of life respectful toward all beings.
That way of life has almost vanished in India where animals are routinely subjected to savage cruelty. Hence the immense value of Prof Krishna’s book which not only delineates the metaphysical and normative contours of religious traditions of the vast majority of Indians but gives detailed accounts of the places and roles of all animals bewildering multitudes of beings that constitute living India.