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Pessimistic Pantheism

Besides this man-centered outlook of more than half the world, which we have just endeavoured to define, there is the entirely different view of the Hindus and of the main religions that have sprung from Hinduism, namely Jainism and Buddhism. We should, for the sake of convenience, call this view the Indian view, as opposed to the formerly described Jewish view, for the only great international religion which has inherited it — Buddhism — is as essentially indebted to earlier Indian thought as Christianity and Islam are to Jewish tradition, and even more so.

The Indian view can be summarised in one sentence: it consists of seeing, in all forms of life, manifestations of the selfsame divine Power at play on various levels of consciousness. It is centered around the fundamental idea of the everlastingness of the individual soul — not merely of its immortality — and of its life in millions and millions of bodies, through millions and millions of successive births. It proclaims the continuity of life in time and space, which is the logical corollary of the dogma of birth and rebirth, and denies the breach between man and the rest of the animal world. Such a breach, according to it, is artificial. Man’s tendency to believe in its existence is either the product of superficial observation, badly interpreted, or else the result of an arbitrary valuation, rooted in human pride, and hardly less ridiculous than that of those rabid nationalists who, without any justification, hold their own people to be “objectively” the most gifted on earth and the most precious to the world. Nobody knows when and where the dogma of birth and rebirth originated. It may well be as old as mankind, and it was perhaps put forth simultaneously in different parts of the world during the long


unrecorded centuries of prehistory. But it is undoubtedly in India that it found its most elaborate expression, and rose from the status of a spontaneous animistic belief to that of a consistent explanation of the universe — a philosophy. And that philosophy, one can say, is not only the one of the mighty subcontinent which stretched from the Himalayas to Ceylon — the basis that all Indian schools of thought accept as a starting point — but it seems also, to be the one common element in all the various tendencies of Asiatic thought which India has influenced, directly or indirectly, through Buddhism. And the success of all attempts at extending the influence of Indian thought to the West depends — and cannot but depend — primarily upon the widespread preaching of that one fundamental belief in successive reincarnations.

That belief is, as we have said, incompatible with any theory that pretends man to be different by nature from the rest of living creation, and that concedes special “rights” to him on that assumption. The endeavour of some Theosophists1 to maintain an irreducible breach between humanity and animalhood by introducing in their explanation of the hereafter the idea of animal “group-souls” appears to us as nothing more than a subtle reaction of the many centuries-old Christian that lies half-asleep but fully alive — and unexpectedly assertive at times — below the superficial layer of Indian thought in most of those strange neo-Hindus from the West. The Bhagawad-Gita makes no mention whatsoever of group-souls; nor does, as far as we know, any recognized Hindu “shastra” in which the question of birth and rebirth is discussed. On the contrary, it would seem that, in the eyes of the Indian sages, authors of the Scriptures, as well as in those of the ordinary Hindu, every soul is endowed from all times (and not merely from the day it enters a human body) with an individuality that persists through all its successive incarnations, whatever be the different species in which these might take place.

The same can be said of the theory that, once a soul has reached its first human incarnation, it cannot but always take birth henceforth in a human or superhuman form, never in a subhuman one, whatever be its deeds; the theory that the admission of a soul on the human plane is “like its passing an examination,” and that the sort of “diploma” thus acquired is irrevocably granted, whether the candidate remains worthy of it or not. There is nothing to confirm this view in the traditional beliefs of the Hindus. On the contrary,

1 Such as Leadbeater.


there are, in Hindu (and Buddhist) legend, instances of men reborn as animals for some time at least. King Bharat (often called Jadabharat) is said to have been reborn as a deer; and good King Asoka, the most powerful patron of Buddhism — an undoubtedly historic figure, whose dates are known to every Indian schoolboy — was reborn, for a week or so, as a boa-constrictor, in punishment for a temporary lack of equanimity, according to an assumption, the Buddhist tradition has recorded.1

In other words, a believer in the doctrine of reincarnation can never be quite sure that the mangy dog that he sees lying in the slush is not one of his deceased relatives or friends expiating some unsuspected yet grievous offence in that miserable garb — some offence perhaps unknown to the sinner himself; perhaps venial in the eyes of human justice, but serious enough, when judged from the standpoint of the divine, immanent laws of cause and effect, to give its author a canine body, to starve him, to afflict him with mange, and to send him to die in the gutter. And similarly it may be that a particular man’s human enemy is none but the hungry dog that lay at his door some thirty years before, and which he did not care to feed. It may be that a woman’s son, source of joy and pride to her, is none but the abandoned kitten that she once picked up in the street, and that purred in her hand as she brought it home. No one can tell and as soon as one admits the possibility for the same everlasting individual soul to pass from one body to another-from a lesser species to a more evolved one, or viceversa, according to its deeds — one can, logically, be expected to have, on the whole scheme of life, an entirely different outlook from that implied in the religions that teach that man alone has a soul, and, moreover, an immortal but not an uncreated, everlasting one. One can be expected to feel the majestic unity of life which underlies the endless diversity of the visible world, and to look upon animals (and plants) as potential men and supermen, and to treat them with all the loving kindness with which the Christians, Mohammedans, and humanitarian Free Thinkers are taught to treat the people of the inferior human races (and the inferior men of their own race), potential saints of heaven or, at least, potential useful citizens in a better earthly social order, according to the respective man-centered creeds.

And that is not all. The Hindu teaching, inherited by Jainism and Buddhism, and practically all the life-centered schools of thought

1 See the Ceylonese Mahavamsa.


drawing their inspiration from India, does not merely imply the identity of each individual soul, throughout all its successive incarnations. It stresses to the utmost the fundamental identity of all the individual souls, be they incarnated in many or any stratum of the living world, at the same time or at different times. Not only is every soul now embodied in an earth-worm “on its way” to earn superior consciousness after millions and millions of births and to become, in course of time, an all-knowing, liberated sage, a “tirthankara” as the Jains say, but the soul of very individual earthworm, of every individual snail or toad, ass or pig, man or monkey — of every living creature — is by nature, substantially, identical to that of the god-like sage. In only differs from it in broadness and clearness of consciousness, that is to say, in degree of knowledge. It can reach the glorious goal that the sage has reached. And the sage himself, before being what he is, has lived through untold millenniums of ignorance and unrest, haltingly striving towards supreme peace as an average man, as an inferior man, as an ape, as a donkey, as an earth-worm; as a jelly-fish in the midst of the sea.

It would seem, at first sight, that nothing can prepare a man to love all living nature better than that grand vision of universal evolution, physical and spiritual, provided by Hindu Pantheism — that knowledge that every individual body, whether fitted with only two legs or with four, with six or with eight, or many more, or with none at all, has an everlasting soul, and that every soul, be it of a man, of an animal or of a plant, is an actual spark of the Divine, just as his own soul is, only at a somewhat lower or more advance stage of consciousness; farther from or nearer to the ultimate goal of liberating knowledge and of supreme peace than he is himself. And when one reads the words addressed to Arjuna by Lord Krishna, in the Bhagawad-Gita: “In the learned Brahman, in a cow, an elephant, a dog, and in the man who eats dog’s flesh, the wise one discerns the Identical. . .”1 one is inclined, at first to wonder how it is that dogs — and Sudras — are not better treated to-day in the blessed Land in which the seers of old evolved the most beautiful of all living religions.

* * *

The answer appears to be that a profound pessimism, and undervalluation of finite life as such, pervades the whole of Hindu thought.

1 Bhagawad-Gita, V, verse 18.


To those whose traditional philosophy is rooted in the doctrine of birth and rebirth, it happens that individual life presents itself not as a blessing but as a curse. The reward a creature gets for its credit of good deeds, i.e., rebirth on a higher plane, is but a temporary lesser evil. It still implies the separateness and, therefore, the limitations of all individuality. To merge into the infinity of non-personal Life; to return, retaining the painfully acquired knowledge of endless years of experience, to that non-differentiated Oneness from which all sparks of finite consciousness originally sprang, and to look back unto the transient world and its turmoil from a state of universal consciousness — fortress of unassailable peace from which evil and suffering appear as mere surface ripples upon the unchanging ocean of ultimate Reality — that is the aim of all life. To the Hindu, to the Jain, to the Buddhist, individual life itself is sorrow, with, at the most, a few flashes of passing joy. Bliss, the joy of total knowledge that nothing can perturb, belongs, not to it, but to that state of super-individual existence, in perfect harmony with the eternal Essence of things, which sages occasionally reach in the course of their earthly experience, but which is the normal state of those alone who, having departed, be it from the human, be it from a higher plane, are never to be born again. To be reborn among the gods is still a burden. To break the iron cycle of birth and rebirth, and never again to enter a womb, is the goal of every true Hindu1 and of all those who have based their philosophy of life upon the Hindu point of view. The obsession of the transience of earthly joy, the burdensome realization that “all personality is a prison,”2 and the consequent craving for “liberation” from the necessity of successive finite existences, are traits inseparable from Hindu thought.

Those traits are compatible with wordly action of the most various types — with the destruction of one’s enemies on a battlefield, as urged by Lord Krishna to Arjuna, in the Bhagawad-Gita; with the constructive reforms of such a saintly ruler as King Asoka, to promote creatures’ welfare. But in spite of whatever one may say, quoting sacred texts, they are not generally congenial to action. It may be that the selfless, emotionless, detached action urged in the Bhagawad-Gita is the ideal action — the only kind of

1 One knows the much quoted words of Sankaracharya: “Jabat jananam, tabat maranam . . .”
2 Aldous Huxley: After Many a Summer.


action which a sage can do, and which man in general should do. But in ordinary everyday life, it is not the type of action which men generally do. In fact, without the impulse of interest of passion — of personal love, fear or hate — they generally do nothing. And the deep-rooted belief that individual life has little value, that the sooner it is overcome the better, and that creatures’ suffering in this world is nothing but the unavoidable result of their own bad deeds in past lives, that belief, we say, is the least capable of rousing in average people any personal feeling for the welfare of men or beasts. It is the least capable of prompting them to do something positive, whether it be to make human society more comfortable for the majority of its members, or to make the world at large a better place for all living beings, including animals and plants.

To the Christians, animals are supposed to have “no souls.” Hindu Pantheism, on the contrary, sees not only a soul, but the One, eternal Soul — the supreme Soul, Paramatma — in every living individual, human, animal or vegetable. The man-centered creeds have no place for beasts and plants, except as creatures over which man was given “domination,” and which he may enjoy or exploit as he pleases. To the Hindus, man is nothing but a part and parcel of living nature, and it would seem, at first sight, that no philosophy suggests the brotherhood of all creatures more than the one we have just described. But the fact that an eminently pessimistic outlook on life is attached to it makes matters different. If individual life is but a temporary trial; if the sooner one is out of its iron grip, the better it is for him or her, then what is the good of any struggle, save that one which will bring the soul to its final “liberation?” And there, man’s soul is alone concerned, for animals have to be reborn as men before they can reach the stage at which liberation is possible.

It is a fact hardly ever pointed out that, while a Western vegetarian (provided he be not a dyspeptic) abstains from flesh solely out of a feeling of sympathy for animals, the Hindu vegetarian does so mainly on account of the conception he has of his own spiritual interest. He believes that, by avoiding meat, fish and eggs, sand all food considered to be “exciting,” he secures himself an easier progress along the path that leads to “liberation,” i.e. to the final stage after which one is not compelled to be reborn. Of course he may also — and he often does — to some extent, consider the suffering of the meat-eater’s prey: of the goats and sheep, sacrificed in the Shaktas’ temples in the name of religion, or


killed in the public slaughterhouses, more frankly in the name of gluttony. But the idea of that suffering — primordial in the eyes of the true Jain or the Buddhist — does not seem to be, to the average Hindu, as important as that of his own bodily purity, regarded as an indispensable help to spiritual progress. A systematic vegetarian, in Europe or America, is generally a lover of animals. When he refuses to take liver extracts as a medicine, or to adopt a meat diet, even if threatened by his physician that he will die if he does not do so, he places the interest of the animal before his own just as a sincere Christian would doubtless place the interest of another human being, his brother in God, before his. A strict Hindu vegetarian may or may not also be a lover of animals. His diet is regulated mainly by the interest of the eater, not of the eaten. And when he refuses to take to a meat diet even if it is supposed to save his life, he just puts the interest of his soul before that of his body — or the purity of his body before its conservation. It is still his own interest that he primarily seeks.

We do not deny that, in a number of individual cases, consideration for animals also enters the mind of the Hindu vegetarian. And one could point out that the reverence shown all over Hindu India for the Cow, as a symbol of universal motherhood, covers a widespread feeling of respect for all life. But as we have said, along with that feeling lies the equally fundamental consciousness that individual life, human or animal, is of little value. And the consequence is a no less widespread callousness, an indifference to suffering, which amazes any foreign lover of animals who happens to have read something of the Hindu Scriptures before coming to India. It is as though life, when known to be everlasting, loses its value in the eyes of the average man, and as though suffering, when thought to be a punishment, ceases to move the casual witness of it to pity.

* * *

But one must admit that, whenever faithful to their traditional philosophical outlook, the Hindus are at least impartial in their good or bad treatment of living creatures. We have just noted the indifference to suffering that too often appears as a consequence of the general belief in the eternity of life, and in an immanent, mathematical justice, working through the law of birth and rebirth. But that indifference is applied to the sick beggar child lying in the filth no less than to the famishing street dog. It is applied to the overworked “coolie” no less than to the overloaded ass, or to the tired, thirsty buffalo drawing a heavy cart under the merciless


whip. A hungry human “untouchable” would be turned out of an orthodox Hindu kitchen no less ruthlessly than a hungry animal considered unclean. And among the true Hindus who believe in the efficacy of animal sacrifices, there are possibly still some who would not shrink, on principle, before the idea of human sacrifices, were such to be sanctioned by religious authority.

On the other hand, in the “Buddhist period,” and in the days when genuine Buddhist influence was still powerful in the country; when, thanks to the efforts of one or two absolute monarchs who were, at the same time exceptional men, kindness was made the keynote of Indian life for some time at least, it was not the one-sided solicitude of the Christians and Christian-like Free thinkers for man alone; it was not even a preoccupation with man’s welfare first, and then also with that of other creatures. It was real, universal kindness, extended to all that lives, irrespective of species. Good King Asoka built hospitals and rest houses for sick and homeless men and animals. And nine hundred years later, in Harshavardhana’s glorious India, cruelty to animals was punished by death, as well as any major crime against human beings.

It is only in recent years that pernicious influences from the West and from the North — outcome of the silent and subtle, but undeniably efficient efforts of both Christians and Communists: the missionaries of man-centered creeds, whether religious or purely social — have begun to distort the mind and vitiate the feelings of a number of Hindus, especially of the so-called “educated” ones. It is only now that partiality in favor of man is creeping into India, in defiance of India’s professed Pantheism, and that the noisiest representatives of the Hindu people (and therefore the most well-known abroad) often seem to forget the outlook on life implied in the age-old philosophy of which they are outwardly so proud, and speak and act as if they were Christians.

But the pessimistic Pantheism in which the Indian soul found expression for centuries cannot be judged from these folk. Even if one day the whole of India were to denounce it, it would still remain one of the historic philosophies of the world, and — what is more — the only life-centered philosophy that has, from time immemorial, set the moral standards of a whole sub-continent.

As we have said, it implies no fundamental difference in the treatment of men and of animals. To superior individuals, such as Asoka and Harshavardhana, or Lord Buddha himself, it inspires loving kindness towards both. But the average men — especially with men already inclined to apathy by temperament — it results,


more often than not, in indifference to the sufferings and death of both. It may, at the most, urge such people to avoid becoming the direct cause of any creature’s suffering or death; to be “harmless” — in order not to lengthen the record of bad deeds for which they are bound to pay the penalty sooner or later, in this life or in another. It does not, however, in general, urge them to go out of their way in order to help creatures actively.