by Sharon Gannon |
September, 2001

In his landmark 1975 book Animal Liberation, author Peter Singer defined the word “speciesism” as a prejudice toward those of another species – specifically, Singer referred to the way in which human animals look down upon all other species as less intelligent, self aware, feeling, thinking, and loving than themselves. Motivated by this prejudice, humans deprive all other species of the basic rights to live fruitful, happy lives.

Prejudice based on race, religion, gender, and species keep us from happiness because they are based in a perception of otherness rather than sameness. We have come a long way in reducing racial prejudices due to efforts of such people as Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley, and others. As recently as 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York exhibited a black man caged with three chimpanzees. Most of us react with horror and shame to the fact that a man was caged in a zoo, but how many of us react with the same horror and shame to hear that three chimpanzees shared his cage? Our reaction will give us a glimpse into the insidiousness of the prejudice known as speciesism. (How ingrained it is within us.) Let us not forget chimpanzees are still locked in cages in the Bronx Zoo as well as in thousands of zoos, laboratories, and circus cages around the world.

Speciesism is a prejudice against non-human animals because they are not humans. And this prejudice allows us to use, or to look upon, those beings as machines, or objects to be used by us to supply pleasure and/or profit.

Why is the eradication of all forms of prejudice important to the yogi? Let us take a closer look into what the yogi is seeking.

A yogi seeks enlightenment, which according to Patanjali, the author of the yoga sutras, is defined as samadhi. What is realized in the enlightened state of samadhi is Oneness. The Oneness of being is the highest truth. It is this truth that the yogi seeks to realize. How shall we begin our search? Patanjali says tapas (passion) is helpful. We need passion for the quest. The best passion by far is com-passion.

Why compassion? The cause of enlightenment, the cause of everlasting happiness, is compassion. Compassion is the ability to see yourself in another ? to see so deeply, and so clearly, that otherness disappears. When otherness disappears, what remains is Oneness. The realization of the yogi, the enlightened state, is the realization of Oneness, the oneness of being. Knowing that, otherness must be the obstacle to enlightenment. Getting over otherness is what letting go of prejudice is about. How does one cultivate compassion?

Ahimsa (non-violence), leads to the development of compassion. Patanjali identifies ahimsa as the first step to attain yoga, to attain samadhi, the realization of Oneness.

Patanjali also says in the sutras, “Future suffering should be avoided.” What ever we do will be done to us. And if we torture, exploit and kill animals that will eventually be done to us. Because what you do will come back to you – that’s the law of karma.

Patanjali writes, “Ahimsa Pratisthayam Tat Samnidhau Vaira Tyagah“, which means: “For the one who is established in non-violence, all hostilities cease in the presence of that one.” To ensure your own happiness, all you have to do is do your best to bring happiness to others – all others.

AN EXERCISE: One way to begin to understand just how caught you may be in speciesism is to look upon some facts of daily life and substitute a human being in the place of any animal that you see. Take the following three common instances:

1. A dog is chained to a post sitting all day long, all night every day and night for years, in the lot behind the grocery store. Now imagine a human being tied to a post for their whole life, imagine the effect on their personality, feelings, and their ability to interact with others, not to mention their soul.

2. 40,000 dogs and cats are put to death in NYC every year because they are homeless. Now imagine the homeless people of New York City being rounded up and exterminated in the same way!

3. Cows are kept confined in ‘factory farms’, artificially inseminated made pregnant, give birth in confinement, have their babies taken away a day after birth, and then the whole process is repeated until the cows can no longer give milk. Then they are slaughtered and their used-up bodies sold as meat, all to provide profit for the multimillion-dollar dairy industry. Now, imagine human mothers confined, kept pregnant just to have their newborn babies taken away from them. Several times a day a machine clapped to their breasts sucks the milk out, until their usefulness is exhausted.

Through this observation exercise, you will begin to perceive how subtle the chains of prejudice can be. I am sure that you can find many other instances where this exercise would provide an insight into the terrible suffering caused by speciesism. If you wouldn’t think about doing it to a human being, why do it to any animal?

Each of us must search our heart and scrutinize our thoughts and actions for the subtle ways in which we exercise a prejudice against other species. Our food choices, fashion choices, product choices, all our lifestyle choices, affect others. When we make our choices based on a disregard for those apparent others, the result is karmically bad and halts spiritual evolution. In an absolute sense, there are no others – that is the realization of an enlightened being. But, until we are enlightened, we still perceive otherness. Treating others as you would want to be treated is the basic method that brings about happiness and ultimately, enlightenment.

As the great yogi Jesus advised, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He didn’t specify, “Be nice to others, as long as they are the same religion, gender, nationality, or species as you.” He just said “others.”

Liberation is attained through compassion. Liberation is the fruit of yoga. Animal liberation is human liberation too.

The yogi sings this mantra: Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu.
May all being everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.
Peace peace peace to all.