Soul Power

by Sharon Gannon |
November, 2014
hanam esham kleshavad uktam

The greatest obstacle to the practice is one’s own prejudices 
based on one’s own preferences

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (PYS IV.28)

Audio translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (PYS IV.28) provided by Manorama.

Yoga is the practice of getting happy. Not ordinary happiness, but deep and lasting happiness that is unshaken by the ups and downs of life. Through yoga we wake up, slowly and over time, and as each bit of the veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing our true selves falls, we see more and more clearly what is, and with that we gain power to choose to live life aligned with the flow of Divine will. Those of us on this path face both tremendous challenges and tremendous opportunities at this time. Our culture of materialism, exploitation and utter disregard for the well-being of other animals, all of nature and the Earth herself is inching us ever closer to a breaking point, while at the same time we are undergoing a huge shift in consciousness. To navigate through this tumultuous time and emerge into the light, we must dissolve a crippling prejudice that has put many of us to sleep for thousands of years, distorted our minds and coerced us into viewing slavery, exploitation and the mass murder of other animals as normal. The root of that prejudice is the lie that animals don’t have souls.

In the sutra above, Patanjali identifies prejudice as the greatest obstacle to yoga. Prejudice is always based on misperception, which comes from ignorance. Ignorance arises from being told a lie and believing it and then continuing to tell yourself and others that lie—deepening your belief in it to such an extent that it affects how you see yourself and the others whom you are prejudiced against, resulting in a distortion of the truth. Prejudice is a mental affliction that pollutes the mind with deception. To rid yourself of prejudice, you must destroy the lie at the root. Only knowledge can burn prejudice at its root and reveal the truth.

Many religious traditions maintain that non-human animals do not have souls, or that they do not have the kind of souls that enable one to connect to God. Patanjali tells us that if we look deeply we will see the truth. In fact, you don’t even have to look that deeply to see that other animals have souls. If they are breathing and the heart is beating, this is evidence that a soul is present. To be alive is to have a soul. All living beings, regardless of the color of their skin, hair, feathers, scales or fur, and whether or not they walk on two legs or four or none at all, are persons—they have souls.

This is evident in our language: the word anima is the root for the word animal, and it means “soul, that which animates.” Thus, by definition, all animals have souls, whether human or non-human. Every living being has a soul. When someone dies, the soul leaves the body, and that is the only time that we can justifiably point at someone and say they don’t have a soul. It is the same no matter what kind of person you are: you may be a human, a cat, a dog, a cow, a bird or a fish person, but regardless, all living beings have souls; if they didn’t they would be dead.

It is also evident in countless stories of animals behaving in ways that go far beyond the rigid notions of animal behavior that culture and science have limited them to, ways that in many cases display more humanity than many humans display. For example, dolphins caring for their dying friends, dogs who forego food themselves in order to have enough to feed their families, octopuses who decorate their dens, birds who use words to express regret, and many more. If these animals were nothing more than automatons whose behavior is dictated entirely by their genes, how could they demonstrate such connectedness with others and the world around them?

Jivamukti means liberation for the soul—all souls, not just human souls. To reach liberation, we must rid ourselves of prejudice. Asana and meditation practice can help. Bhakti can help. Being vegan can help. But no practice will be effective unless we are willing to open our minds and hearts to see beyond the “reality” presented to us by culture. When we reach liberation, we will find that there is actually no difference between individuals of any species. We are all one—we are all one Divine soul.

Teaching Tips

Many spiritual and religious traditions insist that animals don’t have souls or that they don’t have the type of souls, which would allow them to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, citing that the human form is the only birth that affords the chance for spiritual realization and that animals are a “lower” species and are not endowed with sufficient intelligence to understand the soul as different from the body. As Jivamukti Yoga teachers, please realize that you have a great destiny to dispel this type of ignorance and to awaken other human beings to the truth that all beings are endowed with consciousness and the yearning for happiness and freedom. Non-human animals are more like us than most humans would like to admit—they are people too. They are individual persons with the capacity to think, to contemplate to feel emotions and communicate through language. Human beings are not the only species of animal capable of evolving towards cosmic consciousness. To insist that we are is to be bound in ignorance and deluded by prejudice. Speciesism is a deeply ingrained prejudice in human beings, perhaps even more so than misogyny (hate for women), which is deep enough. It is one of our Jivamukti Yoga foundational tenets to strive to do our best to expose the evil and ignorant prejudice of speciesism and to assist the yoga students who come to us seeking guidance how to magically shift their perception to be able to see clearly and truthfully—to realize that all living beings have souls—God dwells in all forms.

There are so many books and recorded lectures that I could recommend that could inspire and provide elucidation on the subject of non-human animals being endowed with souls. I gain great inspiration from listening to my friend Ingrid Newkirk tell good-news stories about the intelligence, sensitivity and kindness of animals. Her talks are widely available through

Allow me to mention just a few of my favorites books that explore the question of whether animals have souls: When Elephants Weep, The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Souls of Animals by Gary Kowalski and Animals as Persons by Gary L. Francione. Gary Francione is a distinguished lawyer and professor of Law as well as Philosophy at Rutgers University and was the first academic to teach animal rights theory in an American law school. He is an abolitionist and believes that animals have souls and are persons deserving of rights like all other persons and should not be exploited and treated as slaves.

This month’s focus provides a great opportunity to share some stories of animals behaving outside the way we humans normally think they are programmed to behave. A couple of great reference books to read from during this month, which focus specifically on this topic are: Peaceful Kingdom, Random Acts of Kindness by Animals by Stephanie Laland. This little book contains a wealth of soulful animal stories, each one short enough to read as part of a dharma talk in class, and it is filled with inspiring quotes and many practical ways to return kindness to animals. Peace to All Beings by Judy Carman contains many stories of love and compassion expressed by non-human animals. The book also contains prayers and practical ways to affect a human shift in conscious. Of course I would also recommend by own books, Yoga & Vegetarianism and Cats and Dogs are People, Too.

But in the meantime, here are a few such stories:

  • A small female dolphin was badly injured by a hook that was used to catch her. She was so wounded and in shock that the researchers thought she would die. She wouldn’t surface for air so they tied floats on to her body to keep her from “drowning” herself, but still she remains despondent. They introduced a male dolphin. Both seemed very happy to meet each other. Her condition quickly improved, they removed the floats, and he would nudge and lift her body to the surface when she needed air. She got a lot better and they were both very happy for a couple of months, but then she had a relapse because of her wounds, which had been quite severe.

    Her boyfriend became utterly distressed, continuously crying out as she was dying and would not leave her side. After she died, he refused to eat and after three days he died too. John Lilly, a scientist studying dolphin intelligence, eventually freed his dolphin subjects, releasing them back into the ocean.

    He explained, “I felt I had no right to hold dolphins in concentration camps for my convenience.” –excerpted from Peaceful Kingdom, Random Acts of Kindness by Animals by Stephanie Laland. Page 147-148

  • Once when David and I were visiting the holy city of Benares in India, I noticed that I would often see a very small, white 3-legged female dog, always in a hurry, dodging rickshaws and human kicks and always on the lookout for food. I saw that when she did find something to eat, like a piece of discarded food someone had dropped, she would never eat it on the spot, but instead would quickly run away with her prize. One morning as I was leaving our hotel and walking down a busy narrow street, I heard the whimper of a puppy. I looked under a rotting wooden board, which was being used as a stoop placed over a sewer drawn, and saw a tiny white puppy crouching on the side of the gutter. I didn’t really have more than a 2-second look when a white “blur” sped in front of me and to the side of the little waif-like puppy. It was the 3-legged dog. She was a mommy. I brought her and her baby food, but it was impossible to find them after that day because they moved a lot, I assume for security reasons. But one day I was sitting on the banks of the River Ganges with a full bag of fresh chapattis, feeding a small troop of dogs. I became quite intrigued with the behavior of one dog in particular. He was polite and didn’t shove his way to the front of the pack, but waited patiently on the sidelines. I sought him out and gave him a whole chapatti, which he took and then let drop to the ground between his front paws. He looked up at me imploringly. I was confused. Didn’t he like chapattis? But the dog didn’t walk away and leave the bread; instead he remained stationed, looking up at me. So I gave him another chapatti. He took it, dropped in on top of the first one and deftly scooped both of them up in his mouth. He quickly turned away and began to run. I was determined to follow him, and went running down the narrow streets, dodging cows, people and other dogs. I was able to keep him in sight. Then I stopped when he stopped. He ducked his head beneath an old gutter board under a sari shop. Yes, there they were: three-legged mommy and little baby, his hungry family. To look into their grateful eyes and see their wagging tails, you could tell they were all very happy and thankful. The valiant Daddy dog stood by like a guard while his wife and child ate their chapattis. “When people tell me animals are incapable of real family ties and that it’s just all instinct, I have to say, ‘hmm—I don’t think you know what you are talking about.’” –excerpted from the book Cats and Dogs are People Too by S. Gannon page 82-83
  • Octopuses like to decorate their undersea homes with shiny objects that they find on the ocean floor—little bits of discarded things. –From the audio recording Why we should care about animal rights by Ingrid Newkirk, recorded at the JY school NYC
  • Prairie dogs have sophisticated language. Some research scientists have discovered that they have an extensive vocabulary and have words to describe the weather and how they feel on any given day. –From the audio recording Why we should care about animal rights by Ingrid Newkirk, recorded at the JY school NYC
  • The cover story of Time Magazine, August 6, 2010, focused on a story by Jeffrey Kluger about the intelligence of bonobos, a cousin of the chimpanzee. The story focused on Kanze, a bonobo who lives at the “Great Ape Trust,” a primate research center in Iowa. The bonobos at this research laboratory have been taught a way to communicate to human beings based on a vocabulary of signs and symbols. When the writer arrived to meet Kanze, after introductions, Kanze said, by means of gesture and signing, “Coffee all around for everyone.”
  • I read a book called Alex and Me by research scientist Dr. Irene Pepperberg. It focused on Alex, a great grey parrot. His name stood for Animal Language EXperiment. Alex proved to the world that parrots can indeed talk. Not just mimic, but actually speak in a way that expresses a high level of intelligence, self-consciousness and awareness. In these animal intelligence experiments, there are usually lots of brightly colored small objects, like toddler toys, green plastic keys and blue balls rubber balls, etc. The scientist has to teach the parrot to identify each object and describe it, and she has to document each time the animal gets something right. The process involves a lot of tiresome and repetitious actions and written reports over days, weeks, months and years. For instance, Dr. Pepperberg would lift up an object and ask Alex, “What is this and what color is it?” and Alex would have to respond, “pink plastic rattle,” but he would have to do this something like 65 different times, and each time had to be well-documented by the research scientist in order for it to eventually be recognized by the scientific community as anything significant. So during one of these work sessions, Dr. Pepperberg lifted the pink plastic rattle in front of Alex and asked, for the what seemed like the millionth time, “What is this Alex?” In his exasperation, he said, “You already know what it is, Irene.” No Alex, you tell me, “I already told you,” insists Alex. Dr. Pepperberg became frustrated—it had been a long day and she told her lab assistant, “Take Alex back to his cage, that’s enough for today. ” Alex started to scream, “No, don’t wanna go, don’t wanna go.” The assistant put him in his cage and turned out the light, but before she shut the door to leave, Alex said loudly, from inside his cage, “Okay, okay it’s a pink plastic rattle—I’m sorry.”
  • There was another parrot I read about, but can’t remember where, whose name was Jaco who lived in Salzburg, Austria, and he was not only able to speak and understand human language but also he had a good understanding of grammar. Whenever his care-taker would leave, Jaco would say, “God be with you.” But when several people were leaving the room, Jaco would change it to “God be with all of you.”
  • The following is an excerpt from Yoga And Vegetarianism by S. Gannon, page 43-44:The Perils of Obedience: Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment in obedience at Yale University in the 1960s. It was a study of how obedience, as a deeply ingrained behavior in our culture, can override ethics. The experiment measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure, who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.In his experiment, two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study. One of them is designated a “teacher,” the other a “learner.” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room and strapped into a chair with what appears to be an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he will be read lists of simple word pairs by the teacher and that he will then be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears the first one again. Whenever he makes an error, the teacher will administer electric shocks of increasing intensity by pulling on a lever.

    The teacher is a genuinely naïve subject. The learner is actually an actor who receives no shock at all but pretends to. The learner sitting in the chair is in full view of the teacher. When the learner begins to miss words, the teacher pulls the lever to administer a shock. When the actor/learner would convulse and appear to be really suffering, and even screaming, the teacher would inevitably turn to the experimenter and ask to stop the experiment. The experimenter would always respond by insisting that the teacher continue with the experiment. The actor/learner would express pain more dramatically, and the teacher would again turn to the experimenter to ask if the experiment should be halted. The experimenter would insist firmly that the teacher must complete the experiment.

    Most of the subjects who participated in the experiment continued to shock the learner even while protesting to the experimenter that they felt what they were doing was unethical. They obeyed the experimenter in spite of their own feelings. In Milgram’s experiment, sixty-five percent of the people tested did administer the highest voltage of electric shocks.

Interestingly, there was another experiment conducted during the early sixties with rhesus monkeys (also known as macaques) instead of human subjects. The majority of the monkeys refrained from operating a device for securing food if it caused another monkey to suffer an electric shock. One description of the experiment reads: “In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only thirteen percent would do so—eighty-seven percent preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others…. By conventional human standards, these macaques—who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson—seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil.”