22 July 2008

Eastern Religious Philosophy and the Advancement of Animals’ Legal Interests

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Eastern Religious Philosophy and the Advancement of Animals’ Legal Interests
Cynthia Hodges, M.A., J.D.

Eastern religious beliefs seem to be generally supportive of advancing animals’ legal interests. For example, the religious tenets of Hinduism support the idea that animals are entitled to legal protection in that they teach that all of nature is sacred, and that animals have souls, just as humans do. Therefore, animals have the right to be treated kindly and not to be killed or eaten. In fact, a person who violates these tenets by harming an animal will face negative karmic consequences, the effects of which may extend into subsequent incarnations.

The Sanctity and Equality of All Life

A core belief of Hinduism is that all of nature is sacred. Many Hindus believe in a transcendent God who is within all living beings. The universe emanates from God, who is both spirit and matter. The Divine Being creates everything out of Itself, and is, therefore, the source of everything in the universe. God is believed to have many forms, including animal forms. Lord Krishna, for example, has had hundreds and thousands of diverse forms of many shapes and colors.
Hindus believe that the Lord is present in every part of His creation, including animals. God is formless, yet pervades all forms. God pervades the whole universe and all creatures. Therefore, all living beings are parts and parcels of God. He is the Inner Self of everything. God is within the heart of all creatures, whether human, cat or dog. Since every living thing has a soul, animals have souls, just as humans do. Because of the core divinity of all life, there is fundamental equality. A scholarly priest, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and an outcast are qualitatively equal.

Ahimsa: To Do No Harm as a Moral Ideal

An important element in Hinduism is ahimsa, which is the concept of not willfully inflicting any injury, suffering or pain on any living creature by word, thought, or deed. A general duty incumbent on everyone is to be compassionate to all other living beings. If one does not have compassion for all life forms, then that person is in some way harming them.
Ahimsa describes an attitude and mode of behavior towards all living creatures based on the recognition of the fundamental unity of life. We are one with the Divine, and one with everything in the universe. Everything in the universe is linked at the innermost level of being. A wise person sees himself or herself in all beings and all beings in himself or herself. The Self in a person and the Self in an animal are not really separate because they are linked to the Supreme Self, or God-consciousness.
The purpose of ahimsa is to stop behavior that hinders spiritual growth. When a person harms another being, that person is literally harming his or her Self.

Animals Should Not Be Killed

Many Hindu texts condemn killing animals, either for food or for religious purposes. Religious people should not kill animals because people who kill animals cannot hear the transcendental message of the Supreme Lord. If people are to attain enlightenment, they must stop the practice of killing animals.

Animals Should Not Be Eaten

Many Hindus are vegetarian because ahimsa is an important moral value. Hindu texts teach that uncivilized people kill and eat animals. Civilized and religious people do not eat animals. A person who eats foods such as meat, fish, and eggs stops his or her spiritual progress because he or she participates in committing violence towards animals.
Food is considered to be divine energy that is offered back to the divine energy comprising the body. To achieve the goal of reawakening the soul’s original relationship with God, one must follow a diet of prasadam, which is food that has become spiritualized by being prepared for and offered to the Lord with love and devotion. Prasadam food must be vegetarian. A person can offer the Lord foods prepared from milk products, vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains, but meat, fish and eggs should not be offered to the Lord according to Hindu religious beliefs.

Karma: Facing the Consequences of One’s Actions

Karma is the law of cause and effect, and is a central tenet in Hinduism. Karma is the idea that every action has an effect that must be accounted for in this or future lifetimes, and that the experiences of the present lifetime are the consequences of past actions. The Law of Karma is considered to be the expression of perfect justice. Every person becomes the molder of his or her own destiny by his or her thoughts and actions. Whichever energies that person has set in motion must return to him or her at some point.
Hindus are generally aware of the fact that actions have karmic consequences. The karmic results of actions performed in past lives will eventually and inevitably seek a person out. For example, if a person has caused physical pain to somebody else, that person should expect to experience a similar or corresponding physical pain.
There are karmic consequences for killing an animal. If a person kills an animal, he is responsible for breaking the laws of nature and will be punished. Many Brahmins refuse to eat meat because they do not want to incur the bad karma of killing a defenseless animal.

Reincarnation: the Soul’s Eternal Journey

Reincarnation is the progress of a soul through many lives on earth before it “graduates” to the eternal perfection of oneness with God. The atman, or soul, is the true and immortal nature of all life forms. The soul is only temporarily present in physical bodies. Everything that dies is recreated in another form, and the soul moves from one body to another.
There is a belief that humans are souls that previously incarnated as animals. The human form of life is thought to be attained after an evolution of many millions of years in the cycle of transmigration of the soul. Even deities reincarnate and can appear as animals. For example, Lord Krishna took the form as such animals as a fish, a tortoise, a boar, and a man-lion.
Reincarnation is determined by karma, i.e. karma determines the circumstances of a person’s next incarnation. Where, when, and in what circumstances a person next incarnates is due to that person’s thoughts, words, and actions in the past and present. A person’s karma will keep following him or her from incarnation to incarnation until it has been fulfilled or transcended. People who are of pleasant nature and conduct here will be reincarnated into a pleasant situation. However, those who are of bad nature and conduct here will have to face being reincarnated into an unpleasant situation.


Hinduism is an example of an Eastern religion that supports the advancement of animals’ legal interests. Hindu scriptures teach that animals have souls, just as humans do. Therefore, animals are entitled to greater legal protection.

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