Compassion towards animals: when, where and how to apply it.
Sanjay Sharma, a resident of Meghalaya, was in the news for undertaking an arduous journey in his car all the way to Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He drove eighteen hours a day nonstop for 4000 km. Took him three days. Why? “To get quality treatment for my ailing dog,” says Sharma. The dog, an American boxer, was suffering from epileptic seizures due to an irregular heartbeat. When Sharma was asked why he didn’t travel by train or airplane, he said he was skeptical about how the railway or airline staff would handle his dear pet.
Animal lovers are delighted and inspired by this story (dedication). So much love for a dog! Sharma’s compassion is indeed rare. In a world where people are becoming more and more insensitive to their fellow humans’ needs, Sharma’s deep sensitivity to his pet is laudable.
Compassion and sensitivity for other living beings is a quality sincere spiritual practitioners try to develop. All great religions of the world extol saintly personalities who have displayed extreme degrees of compassion for the welfare of others. The Vedic scriptures describe saints as para-duhkha-duhkhi: they are unhappy to see others’ suffering, even though they have transcendental understanding and are happy within themselves.
However, the scriptures also warn that we must be careful to give our compassion to the right persons at the right time. Otherwise, our compassionate acts will remain ineffective or produce only temporary benefits. Compassion wrongly applied may even backfire.
Hypocrisy of Compassion
Animal rights activists all over the world take great pains to ensure that no animal is mistreated. But these same activists often eat a meat-based diet, totally ignoring the pain animals undergo while being slaughtered. Their feelings for animals have parameters that do not extend to the dinner table.
The veterinary science was developed in order to show care and compassion toward animals. A veterinarian, according to the Veterinary Council of India, is defined as “a person who not only treats animals but also helps animals to remain in good health,” and as “one who loves animals and has a compassionate predisposition for animals.” Surprisingly, the Council sends all their student-doctors to organized slaughterhouses to learn how “clean” meat is produced. Instead of protesting the merciless killing of helpless animals, these doctors examine the animals to discover which are healthy and which are not. Those fit for human consumption, as sanctioned by these doctors, pass on to the butcher’s ax.
Most people consider philanthropy the highest expression of compassion. However, the effects of philanthropy are usually temporary and award no lasting benefit to the intended recipient. For example, feeding the poor, building schools and hospitals, and providing medical aid to sick patients may help some people for a few hours or days; the hungry people will again feel hungry after a few hours, and people who receive medical help may again fall sick after a few days. From the eternal point of view, such acts have no lasting benefits.
Srila Prabhupada compared material compassion to saving the dress of a drowning man. If a rescuer, on reaching a man drowning in the river, removes the man’s coat and brings it back to shore, the whole rescue mission is considered a waste. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada writes, “A man fallen in the ocean of nescience cannot be saved simply by rescuing his outward dress the gross material body.” In other words, material solutions or help offered on the bodily platform are temporary. Unless we act compassionately on the spiritual platform and offer spiritual benefit, all our compassionate acts are saving the dress of a drowning man.
The Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the story of King Bharata, who was at one time the emperor of the world. At the height of his youth, he left his kingdom and went to the forest in pursuit of the Absolute Truth. While living a life of renunciation and meditation in the forest, he developed a fondness for a deer cub whose mother had died. Feeling compassionate for it, he cared for it day and night. But he became so attached to the deer that he neglected his spiritual life, spending all his time with the deer.
According to the Bhagavad-gita (8.5–6), “Whoever, at the end of his life, quits his body remembering Me alone at once attains My nature. Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail.” In other words, at the time of death we remember the things we are most attached to in our lives. If our minds are absorbed in things of this world, we will remember them at the time of death. But if we remain in Krishna consciousness throughout our lives, then we can remember Krishna at the time of death. Because Maharaja Bharata was absorbed in thinking of the deer, he had to take his next life as a deer. His path to perfection, the path back to Godhead, was thus checked.
Caring for Pets Justified or not?
So shouldn’t we feel anything toward animals? Should we remain callous to their suffering? No, say the spiritual authorities. But our compassion for other living beings must be in harmony with our devotion to the Lord. Spiritually-focused compassion reaps an eternal fruit not only for the practitioner but for its recipient.
People serious about spiritual life try their best to minimize attachment to mundane things. The scriptures strongly warn against developing undue attachment to nation, community, and even family members and friends, what to speak of pets. As we learn from the story of King Bharata, by developing attachment on the bodily platform, we run the great risk of gliding down to the animal species of life in our next birth. Sharma’s heartfelt love and care for his pet dog, although admirable, is dangerous from the spiritual point of view. Will Sharma be able to bear eventual separation from his dog when either he or the dog dies?
The Bhagavad-gita teaches us that every living being’s body is simply an external covering for the soul real person within. A truly learned person therefore sees all species humans, animals, plants, demigods with equal vision, understanding that all are part and parcel of the Supreme Spirit, God.
The Vedic scriptures discuss a number of great devotees who have shown special care toward animals. Shivananda Sena, a great devotee of Lord Caitanya in Bengal, used to lead annual pilgrimages to Jagannatha Puri. One year, during his travels, a stray dog joined them. Being kindhearted, Shivananda thought, “This dog is a devotee; he wants to see Lord Caitanya. Let me take care of him.” Shivananda arranged for the dog’s food and even paid its fare on the boat when the party had to cross the river. Once, when the dog went missing, Shivananda searched for it but couldn’t find it. Feeling responsible for the dog’s safety, he decided to fast. When the party finally reached Jagannatha Puri, the devotees were amazed to see the dog sitting next to Lord Caitanya. The Lord was feeding him green coconut pulp and telling him to chant Hare Krishna. Soon, by the power of Shivananda’s association and the mercy of Lord Caitanya, the dog attained a spiritual form and returned to the spiritual world.
The Mahabharata describes the story of King Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers. When the Pandavas decided to retire after ruling the earth, they left for Himalayas. On their way up, Yudhishthira saw how Draupadi and his other brothers fell down dead one after other due to fatigue. But all the while he was accompanied by a dog. When he reached the summit of Mount Meru, he saw Indra’s splendid chariot descending toward him. Indra welcomed him to board the chariot and fly to the heavenly abode to which his wife and brothers had already ascended. When Yudhishthira asked Indra to allow the dog to come, Indra refused, saying there was no place for dogs in heaven. Yudhishthira, however, remained loyal. He said, “This dog has taken shelter of me and cannot be abandoned. O great god, I will only accompany you if you allow it to also come. It is my vow that I will never abandon one who is terrified, who seeks my shelter, who is devoted, who is afflicted or weak, or who begs for life. I cannot leave this creature here.” Suddenly, the dog transformed into the god of justice, Dharmaraja. Dharmaraja said, “O King, there is no one on earth or heaven equal to you in virtue and morality. Unending regions of celestial bliss await you, O King. Quickly, mount Indra’s car.”
Thus we see that a devotee of Krishna shows the highest compassion for living creatures because devotees try to uplift all souls to the spiritual platform. Whoever becomes the recipient of a devotee’s care and affection achieves the highest perfection of life. Srila Prabhupada writes, “A sadhu behaves with all conditioned souls for their ultimate relief from material entanglement. Therefore, no one can be more friendly than a sadhu in relieving a conditioned soul.”
The Highest Service
We each have the propensity to love and be loved. Rendering service to our loved ones is innate in us. However, we find emotional fulfillment when we love and serve Krishna, who alone can perfectly reciprocate our loving feelings. The best way to serve all living beings not just cats and dogs, but any creature is to serve their supreme father, Lord Sri Krishna. Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.31.14) explains that if we water the root of a tree, the whole tree will be nourished. Similarly, by serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the root of all existence, we render the highest service to each living being.
Modern life has become so impersonal and mechanistic that we don’t have the natural human connection that satisfied previous generations. Instead, we tend to turn to our pets for loving exchanges. Whatever the object of our love, when we misdirect our service to people and animals without a spiritual awareness, we become unhappy and dissatisfied. The only solution is to revive our lost relationship as eternal servants of God and to serve Him with love and devotion. Then our compassion will be well expressed.
Satyananda Dasa has studied Civil engineering and is currently serving as a full-time devotee in ISKCON Mumbai. He teaches Krishna consciousness to medical students.