By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
21 August, 2014
“In a previous lifetime, the Buddha sacrificed his own life to feed a starving tiger and her two cubs, who were trapped in the snow. He reasoned that it would be better to save three lives than to merely preserve his own.”
“Allah does not disdain to set forth the parable even of a gnat, or anything greater than that. As for those who have Faith, they know that it is the truth from their Lord” (Quran)
“And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Bible)
I can’t remember how very many creatures I must have killed in all my almost 50 years. I don’t mean bacteria and amoeba and other such invisible beings that you just can’t help swallowing while drinking a glass of water, or creatures like ants and termites that you sometimes accidentally step on when you walk about. I mean larger beings that one can easily avoid harming if one chooses to. I shudder when I think of the many butterflies and dragonflies I must have maimed as a child, and the number of cockroaches, mosquitoes, worms and spiders that I’ve dispatched to their deaths in later years. Not very long ago, I was complicit in the death of a snake. As far as I was concerned, these ‘creepy’ creatures had absolutely no right to live. They certainly had no business whatsoever to intrude into ‘my’ space, and if they did, they just had it. Even as a committed vegetarian, I had my limits as far as tolerating species that I didn’t like was concerned.
The other day, I was discussing with some friends about various forms of supremacism—based on factors such as caste, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality and so on—and it suddenly struck me that at the same time as human beings continue to slaughter each other, driven by conflicting forms of supremacism, there’s one kind of supremacism that seems to unite just about all of us: what can be called ‘species supremacism’. This is the notion that the human species is morally superior to all other species and that the latter exist simply to serve the former. While the various forms of supremacism that cause human beings to engage in endless wars among themselves are in our ‘democratic’ age routinely lamented and berated and vigorously sought to be combated, our ‘species supremacism’ is scarcely even noticed.
Our pervasive anthropocentrism—reflected in visions of the world that, despite their many differences, are all based on the assumption of human supremacy over, and ownership of, all other beings—is rarely, if ever, seen as a problem or even acknowledged to exist, even as various other forms of supremacism are increasingly going out of fashion. If today we denounce—and rightly so—racial supremacism, national supremacism and religious supremacism, for instance, why is it that we rarely hear of anyone denouncing our intolerable ‘species supremacism’? Barring some folks in the environmental movement, few of us would think that animals, plants and mountains have any rights at all. Many of us who consider ourselves to be ‘religious’ people (and, therefore, supposedly more ‘moral’ than others) would think nothing about mouthing pious slogans about compassion and loving service while swatting a mosquito dead, squashing an ‘irritating’ ant into pulp and chomping on a leg of lamb or a fish-finger sandwich. Mosquitoes, ants, lambs and fish somehow do not come under the ambit of what we pride ourselves on as our ‘compassion’ and ‘loving-kindness’.
The fact of the matter is that all beings, no matter what their shape, size and species, share one thing in common: the gift of life. That’s something that even the most hardened anthropocentrist wouldn’t be able to dare deny. Awareness of the common life that throbs inside all of us—humans and others—can lead to profound respect for all beings, as fellow creatures of God. But that’s only if we are willing to let go of our deep-rooted anthropocentrism. This rarely happens, though. Our ‘species supremacism’ typically so badly disfigures the ways in which we understand our religions that we don’t desist from inventing claims geared to promote our misplaced sense of supremacism and attributing these claims to God. So, for instance, we may insist that God has made all other species simply to serve us and to be made use of by us just as we please. Or, we may claim that only humans have souls and that other species don’t, and that, therefore, we can behave with them however we like. We may even, as in the case of a sect whose followers I once encountered, declare that by killing animals and gorging on their bodies, humans do a great deal of good to them—by supposedly liberating them from the shackles of a lower form of life, thereby enabling them to be reborn in a higher, possibly human, form! And so on.
We humans, as you will readily agree, are remarkably ingenious in being able to rationalize even our most horrific barbarisms.
If you seriously ponder on the amazing diversity and stunning beauty of the non-human world, you can’t resist appreciating the fact that since all forms of life have been created by God, they all must serve some purpose in His grand scheme of things—or else He wouldn’t have created them in the first place. They certainly aren’t useless and dispensable, as many of us would like to think simply because we would hate to rid ourselves of our misplaced sense of ‘species supremacism’. Even though we may not be able to fathom it, God must definitely have a definite purpose in bringing into being every single mosquito, termite and tadpole that exists—or else why would He bother to make them?
The more you reflect on all this and the deeper it sinks in, the less likely it is that you’ll instinctively reach out to swat dead the next mosquito that comes zooming into your ear or to unthinkingly squash an ant that accidentally nibbles your toe.