Peace Requires Animal Compassion

Posted: 11.03.2005
Updated on: 30.07.2015

“For there is nothing inaccessible for death.
All beings are fond of life, hate pain, like pleasure, shun destruction, like life, long to live.
To all life is dear.”

These words of the venerable Mahavir found in the Acharanga Sutra are some of the profoundest ever found in a religious scripture. They are a result of a tremendous but simple spiritual discovery: all life is holy, sacred or God-given. Life, therefore, has intrinsic values - and all that lives has an interest in living.

To almost all Jains this will sound obvious. But to many in the West, this spiritual realisation has been a long time coming. It is true that many religious traditions contain notions of non-violence. The first Buddhist precept is not to kill. The Hebrew Bible speaks eloquently of how the lion will lie down with the lamb. And in Christianity there is the idea that love will finally triumph over violence. But only Jainism has made ahimsa its central doctrine. It alone has consistently held the vision of a peaceable world, realisable by moral effort and spiritual discipline.

Of course, the way of non-violence is not easy. We have been made too clumsy a species to be able to avoid the accidental harming of other creatures. And in Western societies our exploitation of animals is so massive and unrelenting that it is difficult for anyone to claim that they are entirely free - directly or indirectly - of all the products and by-products of slaughter. Nevertheless, despite our practical complicity in slaughter and our moral neglect of animals in the West, during the past thirty years there has been a growing ethical sensitivity to animals. From being a rather marginalised issue in ethics - it has become a major preoccupation of philosophers and ethicists. Arguably, there has been more discussion about our duties to animals during the last thirty years than there was during the last three thousand! Sad to say, most religious traditions have hardly even engaged with this - increasingly international - debate about the moral status of animals. Philosophers have simply left them behind, and only now are there signs of a new awakening among Christians in particular. But Jainism, of all the world’s religious faiths, has an outstanding record. In fact, it has the best record of all world religions. Right from the start, it has included animals within its field of moral concern.

A while ago, I was interviewed about the awful record of Christianity on animals in comparison with Jainism, and I commented that “Jainism in its care and respect for creation has more understood the Christian doctrine of love than Christians have themselves.” This may sound a very odd comment coming from a Christian theologian, and it certainly aroused a lot of criticism. But I still believe that Jains have grasped something that most religionists have missed: to live a life without reverence for life is to lead a spiritually impoverished life.

All this comes most sharply into focus when we consider what we are to eat. In the distant past, Jains have been rather defensive about vegetarianism (as almost all vegetarians have been). But today such defensiveness is entirely unnecessary. Far from being thought an oddball, vegetarianism is now even fashionable - among students in particular. Yes, we are a minority - but a growing one in the Western world, and more and more people are turning to vegetarianism as a protest against killing and cruel farming practices.

Here is a big opportunity for Jains to make their voice heard. The debate about animals desperately needs a spiritual dimension, and who are better to engage in that debate than Jains who have an ancient and honourable tradition of religious vegetarianism? The work of The Young Indian Vegetarians in the UK, admirably led by Nitin Mehta, has pioneered a greater awareness of ahimsa and its implications for our treatment of animals. He deserves powerful support. But there are many other animal societies concerned with a range of issues from hunting to animal experimentation that desperately need support and the kind of inspiration that only Jains can provide.

There is another reason why input from Jains is so important. Some animal protectionists, anguished by the slow rate of change and the failure of politicians to initiate reform, have turned to violent protests. Mercifully, they are only a tiny minority. It goes without saying that all violence, from whatever quarter, is incompatible with ahimsa and a betrayal of the stated philosophy of animal protection. Animal protectionists need Jains to remind them of the spiritual grounding of their movement and of the importance of a consistent ethic of non-violence. Jains need to show that the heart of the animal movement is not just about protests and activism (important though these things are), but also about a spiritual discovery of the intrinsic value of other sentient beings. There is no better time for public displays of the meaning of ahimsa - both practical and educational. We need new generations to pioneer festivals, exhibits, courses, books and, not least of all, restaurants and vegetarian cuisine.

Jains should celebrate the fact that after many long years of indifference, Westerners are at last beginning to appreciate something of the most fundamental tenet of Jainism - namely, non-violence to all life.

(c) Copyright, Andrew Linzey, 2004.

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