Transcript: 58. Amber Carpenter on Animals in Indian Philosophy

An interview about the status of nonhuman animals in ancient Indian philosophy and literature.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: We're going to be talking about a topic that probably leaps to mind for a lot of people when they think about the Indian philosophical tradition because of vegetarianism, reincarnation and so on. And I wanted to start by asking what sorts of texts we can look to to learn about attitudes towards animals in ancient India.

AC: So the astonishing thing about the classical Indian literature is that it's absolutely full of animals. Animals are everywhere. So you've got this vast corpus of animal fables. They're not always involving animals, but very often these tales involving talking animals in various kinds of social situations. And these stories are incredibly old, possibly already familiar and being spread and being used for didactic purposes in the time of the Rigveda. And these get reworked constantly by different religions and by different social circumstances over the centuries, collected in various ways, collected into things like the Panchatantra and then later the Hitopadesha. So we have this as a constant background to sort of a presence of animals in Indian thought. And they depict animals as social beings, as interacting and they're used for didactic purposes about how we should interact. So that's sort of the background hum of sort of thinking about animals in a way within Indian literature, within classical Indian literature. And then at the same time, we have a great deal said about animals in various works of conduct. The Dharmaśāstra, the Arthashastra, which you've already discussed in this program, as part of right conduct, we get lots of information about right conduct vis-a-vis other animals. So that's one of the other sources. We also see animals and indeed talking animals in epic literature. And in this way we might, for me the contrast would be with the Greek epics. You don't so much see concern with or awareness of interaction with animals in the Greek epics. It's quite different in the Indian epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. They have, they're full of these subplots, sub stories often involving animals of some sort, right? Hanuman, the talking monkey, right? He's no ordinary monkey. And this relates to another feature of Indian thought that you even find animals incorporated within the divine realm. You have Ganesha, the elephant headed god and things like this. So everywhere you look, there's some kind of awareness of an incorporation of animals. Now what's interesting against that kind of background is that there's comparatively little active engagement with the question of animals in philosophical literature, in explicitly philosophical literature. And indeed, if you look at Indian thought, classical Indian thought, you might wonder what's the question about animals. And so I think that's sort of one of the interesting things that comes out in thinking about. 

PA: So they're pervasive in the literature, but not really thematized as such as a specific philosophical issue. 

AC: Precisely, precisely. And I think it's a feature of Sanskrit that there is no word really that corresponds to animals in the way that we use that in English to distinguish the non-human mobile living things. So in the Dharmaśāstra and the Arthashastra, there's lots of ways of talking about various classes of animals. And you have various Sanskrit words for grouping them together according to whether they're wild or domesticated and things like this. But no one single word that says all of the animals that aren't human in the same way. And so the whole question of what makes an animal a non-human animal as a category doesn't really arise in the same sort of way. 

PA: That's really interesting. In the Greek tradition that is something that we find pervasively. So we have the idea that there are rational animals, namely the humans, and there's a non-rational animals. And there are debates about this between the Stoics and Aristotelians and then some people who want to claim that maybe non-human animals can think after all, maybe they can even use language. We find that in Plutarch and Porphyry, for example. Are there debates like that in the Indian tradition? Or actually, do the Indians even have a distinction like that between the rational and non-rational animals? 

AC: It's definitely not as much of an obsessive concern. So if there is, and there are, of course, some thinkers and some texts that try to say, here's what's distinctively human, when that comes up, it's much more common for that to be associated with dharma, with an ability to act for the sake of some larger good or some more distant good, the ability to act for the sake of liberation or for the sake of what's right, if that's the right way to characterize dharma in some kind of global way. Now, of course, you could say that that's closely connected to a kind of rationality. And I think that if you look at the Greek tradition, they are going to end up connecting these notions quite closely. But it is noteworthy that within the Indian tradition, that's not really the keynote of the question, like, is it, but is it rational? The question is really, are animals, non-human animals, different from human animals? And if so, in what way? Well, humans are much better at acting for the sake of a distant goal, at attaining moksha, and all these kinds of things that you might think of as, broadly speaking, the ethical or morality. But the interesting thing, and this is where the reincarnation question starts to bite, is that humans are better at that. They're much more likely to be able to achieve these things. But we don't very often see category distinctions being made. 

PA: Animals, though, and I mean non-human animals, are involved in the process of reincarnation, and in a way that seems to imply that they also fall under dharma in some way, right? Because if I can be punished by being reborn as an animal, or maybe an animal could even be rewarded by being reborn as a human, then just as men can be reborn as women or women as men, so humans can be reborn as animals and animals as humans and so on. By the way, it's not my view that it's supposed to be reborn or is to be reborn as a woman, but it's an idea we find often in the texts. So doesn't that imply that animals are somehow involved in the moral economy that's presupposed by these reincarnation theories? 

AC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what it means for animals to be involved in the moral economy, as you put it, is that reincarnation introduces a completely different sense of individuation. So you don't get a sense of a person being replaced with an animal instead. There's a single being which acts and then introduces all kinds of consequences of these actions which then play out in various ways, possibly, for instance, get played out by the acquisition of an animal-type body with animal-type desires and so on. One of the big questions is whether animals can behave morally. That is to say, in that sense of acting for the sake of a higher good, not just being driven by their desires and so on. And pretty much across the board, the Buddhists, the Giants, the Hindus, they're not sentimental about animals. Their conception of an animal life is as disagreeable as a punishment. It's being driven by one's desires, by one's fears, not being able to take a sort of step back and change one's desires according to what would be best and things like this. And so in that sense, an animal distance is less well off, but also you might think less in a position to be morally responsible. And this is acknowledged. Now, one might fear that this means that we only have a story of degeneration because if once you become an animal, you can't behave morally, how will you then? 

PA: How will you get out? 

AC: How will you get out? And there are different ways of doing this. One would be just to acknowledge that, look, there's a lot of karma built up. You have your animal life and you acquire no karma then because you can't act morally. But don't worry. There's other karma that will then come into action once this punishment has been paid. 

PA: Basically, you just have to serve your time as an elephant. 

AC: That's right. Yeah. But then the alternative is, and you do see this also in the text, to acknowledge that animals can behave morally in this sense of acting for a purpose which then acquires either good or bad consequences. 

PA: It seems like there is a metaphysical presupposition behind that too because if the same being can be a human and then be reborn as an animal and then be a human again, that seems to suggest that this self or being, which is being reborn over and over, is neither human nor animal. Do you think that's fair? 

AC: Precisely. 

PA: Sometimes you might think, for example, something we discussed in the episode on women in ancient Indian thought is that you sometimes get the impression that the self is really male even though the self is then reborn as a woman. Other times you get the sense that the self has no gender. And I'm wondering whether they are conceiving it as a human trapped in an animal body or whether there's really a self which is neither human nor animal. 

AC: So you're not going to get complete university on this issue, that different texts and different philosophers are going to disagree amongst themselves. Shankara is famous or infamous for supposing that there's something special about the male brahman body and incarnation that's necessary before one achieves moksha, but there were also plenty who thought that that wasn't necessary at all and you have stories even of animals going straight to liberation without an intervening human rebirth. So this is something that they disagreed about in a way, but I think that the dominating view is of a being that is neither human nor any other animal in itself. Now of course when you get to the Buddhists, they're going to be challenging the very idea that we're supposed to be looking for something in itself. So they're well placed to convey this notion that there is nothing, there's no real answer to the question, but what is it really? 

PA: What about the moral implications of reincarnation? So another thing that I guess everyone will associate very strongly with the Indian tradition is vegetarianism and more generally this ethic of ahimsa, nonviolence, and a natural thought is I shouldn't eat animals because that might be a reincarnated human. Maybe it's even my grandfather, right? Is that a kind of moral fact that we see being invoked in the Indian tradition? 

AC: Not as often as you would expect. So in fact it seems to me to work the other way around. So this idea that ‘oh I mustn't eat it because it's my uncle’ can only piggyback on a prior conviction that one doesn't eat one's uncle. And even then it's not going to go through if you think say the piggy life is a particularly disagreeable life, well then why don't you liberate your poor uncle? Be doing him a favor. So directly from reincarnation to sort of behaving nonviolently, behaving in a certain way towards animals, there's simply no straight line like that. In fact what you need is a prior commitment to nonviolence and you put that together with the metaphysics of reincarnation which doesn't individuate beings and what you have is that this principle of nonviolence isn't restricted in scope. There's no presumption of restriction and scope of it to human which then gets applied to other animals. It's simply nonviolent is what one will to be and then that applies towards that, to whatever could be the recipient of violence or harm. 

PA: I see. So animals and humans have in common that they're potential victims of violence and that's why they fall under this rule against inflicting violence. How far does that boundary stretch? I mean actually you sometimes even find in literature on nonviolence the idea that you should avoid being violent to plants and maybe you shouldn't even be violent to things like stones. Yeah. So is there actually an even more global attitude of ethical stance here where what I'm trying to do is avoid being violent to anything at all or does it make a difference whether I'm being violent to animals as opposed to say plants or rocks? 

AC: Good. And the answer is going to be both. It does make a difference but there might not be an outer edge or at least the outer boundary is always being pushed. So there are two kinds of reasons why or two kinds of things that nonviolence means and it means both together with different emphases at different times. One thing it means is don't harm that which is capable of being harmed and then your question is how far does that extend? And if you're a Jain then that extends really quite far and if you're a Buddhist it extends fairly far but not quite to plants. And so that's going to be one basis for refraining from violence or harm. At the same time violence is a mindset. It's an ill will and that's simply bad. It's not conducive towards anybody's good or does anything good and to have that violent mindset even if you don't think let's say that the stone can be harmed to adopt the violent ill will kind of attitude towards it is an expression of ill will and confusion which isn't good for you or for anybody around you. 

PA: I see. That's actually maybe speaks to something I was about to ask you anyway which is whether this idea of being benevolent towards animals and avoiding violence towards animals is really for the animal's sake or for the moral agent's sake because one way of thinking about it is that the animal has a right not to be harmed and another way of thinking about it is well it's not really the animal that's at stake here. It's me because I don't want to have a violent mindset. I don't want to be that sort of person maybe because it will prevent me from achieving liberation and so actually showing benevolence towards animals would just be a kind of step along the path towards my own liberation. It's not for the animal's sake and it seems like from what you just said that you think perhaps both are going on. Is that right? 

AC: I think to a certain extent yes both and you'll see them in different emphases in different places. The Buddhists are very keen on exercises that recognise that every living being suffers and wants not to suffer and wants to be happy and that's a crucial part of your development of compassion and of course enlightenment just is the perfection of compassion and the perfection of wisdom together and so that's just what the highest goal is to recognise that beings are suffering and to want them not to suffer. But I did want to have to put in one little caveat here. I'd say that Indian moral thought and ethical thought quite generally isn't a rights-based kind of thought so the very notion of the animal having a right that I have to respect isn't the kind of language that you ever see really and that means it's not really conveyed in terms of what's just or unjust but simply what's appropriate or inappropriate or what's according to Dharma and what's not. And in making the case that something is or is not according to Dharma you might refer to a rule or you might refer to what conduces to your own liberation or you might refer to the nature of the animal and its suffering, something like that. 

PA: And that applies across the board to Jaina's Buddhist and the Vedic thinkers would you say or is it something that's more true of the Buddhists or one group in particular? 

AC: I'd say different. You're likely to find strands of all of these in all of them but you're going to find them in different proportions so you're much more likely to have reference to one just doesn't do that if you're within the Brahmanical tradition where you have the Vedas to refer to and you have this notion of the Arthashastra and other sorts of texts which prescribe here's what you do and what you don't do. With the Buddhists as I said you're going to find a preponderance of texts that emphasize the suffering of the creature. 

PA: I know that I guess that's in part because they have a polemic against Brahmanical practices of sacrificing animals even when the Brahmanical tradition stopped sacrificing animals. In a sense they're still committed to the idea that it's okay to do. And so the Buddhists and Jainas come back at that. So as maybe what's distinctive about the Buddhists negatively, you've worked a lot on Buddhism. Is there anything else that we should know specifically about Buddhist attitudes towards animals that picks them out from all the other traditions within India?

AC: So here are two fun facts. One is that Buddhists are not always vegetarian and the other is that Buddhists think plants weren't alive. Buddhists aren't unique in this but that's a kind of fun fact. So I'll start with the second one first. If you think that you shouldn't be violent towards anything capable of harm and you think that plants can be harmed then you can't eat plants. And this is something the Jainas were very clear and strict about. You couldn't eat plants in any way that involves damaging or killing them. And to eat for the Jains is to engage in violence and that's why to be alive at all is to be compromised by this necessity of engaging in violence. Now the Buddhists, wanting to follow this middle way, are a little bit more pragmatic and they eventually, well certainly they think that one can eat plants. This is not a bad thing. You aren't inevitably engaged in committing violent acts but because they are also very committed to the no harm principle they have to then say, well so plants aren't capable of being harmed. They aren't capable of feeling pleasure and pain which in the Indian context is the criterion for being alive or not. And so they have to say that in a way plants aren't alive. 

PA: Wow, that's amazing. 

AC: Yeah, and nobody is very explicit about it. It kind of grows up gradually as a sideline and people get worried about this. But interestingly they're not alone. Apparently there are others who would say, yes that's right and you point to the fact that plants grow, they must be alive and they say, yes but look, crystals grow and reproduce of themselves. You wouldn't say they're alive. And so that's just an interesting philosophical question that comes up around all of this. Now the other fun fact about Buddhists is they're not always vegetarian. So this goes back to your original question a few minutes ago about is it worse to harm humans? And the Buddhists do agree that there are degrees of harmfulness and that harming a mosquito is simply not as bad as harming a human being for all kinds of reasons. And originally their criterion for not harming animals with respect to what you get to eat was that you couldn't kill it yourself. You couldn't have it be killed for you. You couldn't hear it being killed. You couldn't know of it being killed. But if somebody's leftovers are put in your bowl, then you eat it. And if that person's leftovers happen to be an animal, maybe they ought not to be eating that animal, that's their affair, but you eat what you're given was the original Buddhist stance. And it was only when the Mahāyāna movement got started a few hundred years later, several hundred years later, that we start getting arguments that if you're striving for enlightenment, if you're really trying to be compassionate, you don't eat animals at all. 

PA: Even if they're leftovers. 

AC: Even if they're leftovers. 

PA: But that becomes a point of Jain Buddhist polemic, right? So the Jainists say, oh, you're meat-eating. Yes. They're supposed to be aesthetics, but not really. We're the hardcore ones. 

AC: If you want one of the really fun arguments from the Buddhists about why you shouldn't eat animals when they do start coming up with it, even when they're leftovers, it's because when you eat meat, you smell differently. You stink. But it's not because you're going to put other people off. People don't have such an acute sense of smell. Animals who are prey, that is, rabbits and mice and things like this, who are likely to be eaten, have a very acute sense of smell. And if you walk around, stinking like a carnivore, you are striking fear into the heart of all the little furry creatures you have. And that is a cruel thing to do. 

PA: It's alarming. Here comes a meat-eater. Yes. Oh, dear. OK. Actually, now that we're on to the amazing things that animals can do, maybe we should conclude with what might be the most fun aspect of animals in ancient Indian literature, which is the fables. You mentioned before that there is a talking monkey in one of the epics. But that's far from being the only precocious animal in this literature. So we have lots of fables about animals, which maybe remind us of Aesop. So we have talking animals there as well. But it's, if anything, probably a more striking feature of ancient Indian literature. What did these fables tell us, if anything, about philosophical attitudes towards animals in ancient India? 

AC: I suppose the most striking thing they tell us is what they express, you might say, is the lack of distance between the human and the non-human. The animals appear in a wide variety of guises. And sometimes they appear as... They can be wicked as well as good, let's say. Right? They can be crafty. They can be tricky. They can be lazy. They can express all kinds of different moral qualities. But they can also be incredibly charitable, generous, and thoughtful. I think the important thing is that they're as social. And one might be inclined to think that it's distinctive of the human realm to be social at all. But the animals are not just depicted that way as a convenient proxy for humans, although of course they can also function in that way. I think that also what we see is a receptivity and a perceptiveness about non-human animal interaction and that it is indeed sociable. They do take stances vis-a-vis one another and engage with one another. The world is not simply a human one with a backdrop of colorful animals. The world is an extremely rich one in which all kinds of creatures are going about living their lives in all kinds of ways. And this is something I think we see reinforced by the very fact that these fables are shared and reworked and spread and part of everyday discourse. 

PA: I guess also that it's just as that expresses this idea that there's maybe a continuum of living conscious beings from humans to animals. It also must have reinforced that idea because if you grew up with stories being told to you as a child about talking animals, then you're probably less likely to think what the Stoics thought about animals. 

AC: Exactly. 

PA: And that can only be a good thing. 

AC: Can only be good. 


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