When I die, I’d like to be reborn as a Bengal tiger: tawny with dignified black stripes and white whiskers, wise and fearsome and beautiful. Or maybe an elephant—if they haven’t been driven to extinction—or a red-tailed hawk. I would have done the human thing, worn the clothes, and read the books, and I’d definitely learn more about life cycles and food chains as a feline or a bird. An animal-incarnation would just get me that much closer to nirvana.

Must be the Indian in my blood.

There is something to be said for a nation that is home to over one-sixth of the world’s cows, one-half of the world’s buffaloes, and well over 70,000 stray dogs. Unlike in the United States, where the local pound is called to rid the streets of potential rabies-carriers, animals in India appear to have free reign over much of the land. My brother and I marvel at the monkeys sitting in packs on the benches surrounding the Taj Mahal, and the elephants, tusks painted in festive orange and green, roaming rural streets alongside scooters and auto-rickshas.

Considering India’s struggles with overpopulation, I’ve always wondered how animals in the country have not only established but also maintained their right to roam the land. Guaranteed, any animal that would dare make its home atop the Lincoln Memorial would have long since been “put out of its misery.” Not so in India, where both on paper and in practice the animal-human boundary is faint. Article 51 of the Indian Constitution decrees that all citizens must show consideration for other living creatures and enable their animal brethren to live peaceful lives. The government’s ruling complements the Hindu notion of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal essence of life “which unites all beings—human, animal and plant—with the universe that surrounds them and ultimately with the original source of their existence, the Godhead.” Though there are obviously numerous other religions represented in India, it is not a huge leap of faith to claim that the general attitudes of Indians towards non-human animals have roots in the nation’s historically Hindu cultural and religious tradition. Hindus comprise a clear majority of the Indian population—82 percent in 2001.

I am a Hindu by birth but my knowledge of Hindu scriptures extends barely beyond what is presented in Amar Chitra Katha comics and bharatanatyam padams. The subject of animal worth doesn’t come up too often in either, unfortunately, so I’ve never understood the “official doctrine” on non-human animals. A trip to the library revealed the following, though doubtless many of you knowledgeable about the Hindu tradition would have more to add. Hindus believe that each animal and human is immortal. Animals must be treated with respect and love not only because they share in the essence of life but also because of their indestructible souls. Animals and humans differ only superficially with respect to the transient physical form, but, as ecologist Ranchor Prime explains, “spiritually, they are equal because they are all coverings for the soul.”

The concept of an animal-soul is not unique to Hindu philosophy. Followers of Jainism practice ahimsa, or non-violence, through vegetarianism and efforts not to harm any living creature with a soul. Saint Francis of Assisi, the Catholic patron saint of the environment, also professed a belief in the animal-soul. He did not, however, further obscure the animal-human boundary by claiming that animals could enter the “kingdom of heaven.” Traditional Hindu teaching does not affirm a Christian conception of heaven and hell; reincarnation is instead cited to explain the purpose of life, the process of death, and the unity of souls. Non-human animals are included in the universal cycle of life and death, but are they granted opportunities to gain spiritual enlightenment through the cycle of reincarnation? There seems to be great dispute as to whether or not they are on an equal footing with human beings.

In many instances in which animals are granted place in the cycle of rebirth, they are placed below humans in a contrived hierarchy of soul worth. According to philosopher Shyam Ghosh, the Upanishads explicitly characterize animals as less than their human counterparts. “Those [persons] who had performed pleasant [deeds/thoughts] here [in this world],” the scripture reads, “soon enter the wombs of Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, while those who performed despicable [deeds/thoughts] enter despicable wombs, like those of dogs, pigs or menials.” Good karma accumulated over a lifetime is rewarded, but the consequences of living a sinful life are faced in the next birth. The intention of this teaching is questionable; priestly hierarchies in India have historically enforced separative caste practices by warning that the punishment for violation would be an ensuing birth as an insect or lower animal. The threat is reminiscent of a Christian hell of fire and brimstone, though the notion of comparing animal existence to Satan’s playground is an affront to any animal sympathizer’s sensibilities.

Different Hindu scriptures shed new light on animal worth and presence in the cycle of reincarnation. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna reveals that “all worlds up to that of Brahma [the creator] are subject to rebirth again and again.” Those who would uphold an orthodox notion of Sanatana Dharma affirm that in order to be a universal law, reincarnation must include and consider equally both human and non-human souls. As one species is destroyed or displaced—whether by environmental changes, meteors, or housing developments—it finds other material bodies in which to incarnate. It is no punishment to be reborn a cat or bird or tiger; it is a learning experience to be cherished. After all, if Hindu deities take animal forms, why should humans cringe from similar incarnations?

The fact that Lord Ganesha is part-elephant or that Lord Vishnu has been incarnated on Earth as a fish, tortoise, boar, and man-lion in no way diminishes either of their standing as a divine force of strength and wisdom. Just as humans have had glorious mythological births in all religious traditions—from the story of Adam and Eve to that of Manu, the first man in Hindu teachings—animals are granted the same honor as humans by Vedanta theologians. “That God should incarnate as an animal,” Prime writes, “even a supernatural one, shows that animals have an important role to play in God’s eyes.”

It would be naïve of me to claim that all Hindus—or all followers of any religion—respect and care for animals, but common beliefs in the universal soul, spiral of rebirth, and animal-like divinity are evident in the policies and attitudes of the Indian people. The most significant repercussion of the faint animal-human boundary in India seems to be the capacity it breeds in individuals to learn from our non-human brethren and not simply from the achievements of human beings. The sage Dattatreya reportedly had 24 spiritual teachers, 12 of whom were the pigeon, python, moth, bee, honey-gatherer, elephant, deer, fish, raven, serpent, spider, and beetle. The sage learned consideration from the conscious bee, self-control from the moth, and contentment from the python, who does not move about to find its food.

It would do us all some good to take a cue from Dattatreya and modern day sage Dr. Doolittle. Even if we can’t talk to the animals, we can learn from them. Maybe even emulate their behavior. Just imagine the American government, reincarnated as the pacifistic, matriarchal “make-love-not-war” bonobos. There’s no denying the world would be a better place.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a freshman and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.

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