Are Religions Ignoring Their Founder’s Teachings? – by Joyce D’Silva

Joyce D’Silva is a Patron of the Animal Interfaith Alliance and is the Ambassador for Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), having been its Chief Executive from 1991-2005.  During this time Joyce was responsible for effecting a considerable amount of legislation, both in the UK and the EU, which improved the lives of billions of farm animals

You would think – with so much suffering inflicted on so many of our fellow sentient beings, God’s creatures – that religions would be at the forefront in condemning such practices. But the silence has been deafening.

I really believe that in disregarding this massive area of suffering, today’s religious leaders are ignoring the teachings of their founders, their holy books and, often, their early saints and leaders.

Let’s look at what these leaders and writings tell us about our relationship with animals. Our early ancestors killed animals for food, sacrificed them to appease the spirits/gods and domesticated some species to provide a regular food source or to protect flocks and herds from the wild animals they feared.

As the major religions we know today developed, our relationship with other species was more tightly defined. Animals were part of the Tao, the natural order, or were fellow sentient beings (Buddhism) or creatures of God (the monotheistic faiths).

Christianity

Although the first chapter of the Bible sees God creating humans and mammals on the same “day”, and indeed recommending a plants-only diet for humanity (Genesis 1:29-30), later, after the Flood, God’s new covenant changed the rules and meat-eating was allowed (Genesis 9:3). Although the Bible is not rich in references to a special relationship with animals, Jesus is recorded as saying “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6). Here, it would seem, is a God who cares for his creatures. And of course, the vision of the prophet Isaiah, was of the peaceable kingdom, where we all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6).

Many early Christian saints were devoted to animals and tales are recorded of their love for their fellow creatures. But the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas put paid to such notions. He took the Aristotelian view that animals, being without reason, are here solely for our own purposes – and this remains the predominant view to this day, tempered only by the example and teaching of compassionate individuals like St Francis, Cardinal Newman, Albert Schweitzer – and now, perhaps, Pope Francis.

Islam

Islam teaches that animals worship Allah, that they are “communities like you” (Qur’an 6.38) and that we may be rewarded for acts of kindness to animals. One of the Hadith (which record the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammad) records that when Muhammad came across a camel in a very poor state, he “felt compassion and his eyes shed tears.” He said to the owner of the camel, “Don’t you fear God with regard to this animal, whom God has given to you? For the camel complained to me that you starve him and work him endlessly.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 2186. Musnad Ahmad 1654 and 1662).

Sadly these good teachings and examples are often ignored in practice, as experience of the way animals are treated today in some predominantly Muslim countries testifies.

Hinduism

Hinduism in large part (though not entirely) forsook its tradition of animal sacrifice and came to view animals as involved in the process of rebirth and karma, with lowly animals working their way up to a human incarnation and thus the possibility of achieving moksha or liberation from the whole cycle of rebirth. Within all beings is the divine essence, as beautifully expressed by the great Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda, who, in 1897, said: “In every man and in every animal, however weak or wicked, great or small, resides the same Omnipresent, Omniscient soul. The difference is not in the soul, but in the manifestation. Between me and the smallest animal, the difference is only in manifestation, but as a principle he is the same as I am, he is my brother, he has the same soul as I have. This is the greatest principle that India has preached. The talk of the brotherhood of man becomes in India the brotherhood of universal life, of animals, and of all life down to the little ants — all these are our bodies” (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda [ Volume 3 ]” Vedanta Press, 1947).

Although the majority of Hindus are vegetarian as a result, this has not prevented gross exploitation or the spread of battery hen farms and zero-grazing dairy herds in India. However, there remains a strong tradition of caring for animals, with a special emphasis on cows, who seem to share a divine space with the gods. Old cows are given shelter in sanctuaries called goshalas, where they live out their lives.

Among more modern Hindu leaders, Gandhi believed in applying ahimsa, non-violence, universally, saying: ““I do feel that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants. It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God, the compassionate, if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures” (MK Gandhi, “The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism”, Navajivan Publishing House, 1959).

Judaism

Within Judaism there is a very important principle of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim which prohibits causing unnecessary pain to animals. We see a trend towards vegetarianism, expressed by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who has said “Jews will move increasingly to vegetarianism out of their own deepening knowledge of what their tradition commands as they understand it in this age” (Jewish Declaration on Nature, 1998. Address on 25th anniversary of WWF. Micah Publications).

The Jewish rule of complete rest on the Sabbath includes rest for farm animals (Exodus 20:8-10). Modern day Israel has many factory farms and one wonders how a hen caged with 4 or 40 others, or a broiler chicken in a shed of 20,000 birds, can possibly achieve a state of rest one day a week. One can just hope that the growing animal movement within Israel and the Jewish community globally will be effective in achieving change on the ground.

Buddhism

In Buddhism, the four emotional states which should be cultivated and radiated outwards to all beings are loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

The Karaniya Metta Sutta of Buddhism says:

“Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child,

 So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings,

 Radiating kindness over the entire world,

 Spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths,

 Outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will” (Sutta Nipata 1.8).

For many, these beautiful words are at variance with what one sees on the ground in predominantly Buddhist countries.

Sikhism

Daya or compassion is regarded as the highest virtue in Sikhism. The Sikh Holy Book and ultimate Teacher, the Guru Granth Sahib, says: “The merit of pilgrimages to the sixty-eight holy places, and that of other virtues besides, do not equal having compassion for other living beings” (Guru Granth, 136). However, only some Sikh sects are vegetarian and individuals may be involved in factory farming. 

Jainism

Jains believe in Jiv Daya: compassion for all living beings. They ask other creatures for forgiveness as in the prayer: “I ask pardon of all living creatures, may all of them pardon me, may I have friendship with all beings and enmity with none” (Pratikramana-sutra). All Jains follow a vegetarian diet, many support goshalas and young Jains are seen to be moving towards veganism.

Catholicism

In 1996, Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical “Gospel of Life”: “Human beings may be merciful to their neighbours, but the compassion of the Lord extends to every living creature” (“Evangelium Vitae”, 1995). This Pope was canonised by Pope Francis 1 in 2014 and is now also known as Saint John Paul the Great.

And it may be to Pope Francis that we can look for an emerging leadership on our relationship to animals. In his recent encyclical,” Laudato Si’”, he quotes from the most recent edition of the Catechism which he says “clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism: ‘Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things’.” Could this be referring to factory farming, which surely does not respect the millions of creatures whom it incarcerates, mutilates and degrades? Is this not a “disordered use”?

He proposes an “ecological conversion”, which is based on “attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness” and which “entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.”

The encyclical lists the actions which individuals can take in their own lives, from avoiding waste and using less water to “showing care for other living beings”.

The encyclical has a real spiritual message, saying: “The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.”

This encyclical was not, as is usual, directed towards the bishops of the Catholic church, but to everyone in the world.

Perhaps it is the strongest expression yet of a more revolutionary 21st century mind-set and a way of living which envisions harmony between our own species and all the other creatures on earth. We hope that the detail will follow or will be developed by contemporary theologians and by Christian or non-Christian communities.

At the end of the encyclical, the Pope has written two prayers, one of them called “A Christian prayer in union with creation”. It includes the following verse:

“God of love, show us our place in this world

 as channels of your love

 for all the creatures of this earth,

 for not one of them is forgotten in your sight”

Let us hope other religious leaders will join in that call, so that the followers of all the world’s religions will truly devote themselves to becoming “channels of love” for all beings. Billions of animals are waiting….