What Is a Person? (The World in Which the Kestrel Moves)

by Katie Manitsas |
November, 2016
What is a Person: The Jivamukti Yoga Focus of the Month
sarva-bhūtastham ātmānam / sarva-bhūtāni cātmani
īkshate yogayuktātmā  / sarvatra samadarśanah

Through the practice of yoga, the yogini and yogi see the Divine Self in all beings and at all times.

Bhagavad Gita VI.29

Sanskrit audio pronunciation & commentary of Bhagavad Gita verse VI.29 provided by Manorama

This sloka from The Bhagavad Gita asks us to reflect on the divinity, the holy nature, of all beings, which is omnipresent. The idea of “all beings” might be a little intangible— and inaccessible for many of us. It’s an overwhelming concept! How can we wrap our heads around it? One way is to start thinking of the beings we know and love, the ones we are close to—our friends, family, and companion animals. We might then extend our circle of divinity to our communities and beyond.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that divine beings exist all around us in the form of fairies and elemental beings. We might also ask, Is a tree included? Or the ocean? And if we assume that people are, what makes a person a person? Steve Wise, a New York lawyer, has asked questions about personhood and concluded that sentiency plays a critical role in what makes a person a person. He founded a movement called the Nonhuman Rights Project, thanks to which he and a team of legal experts are campaigning to have chimpanzees (with plans to expand to other animals) legally declared persons with certain fundamental rights. The crux of their argument is that chimpanzees have the ability to self-reflect and to perceive and understand past, present, and future, and as such it is a violation of their constitutional right to freedom for them to be imprisoned in cages under human control. In other words, chimpanzees are people too and should be afforded the same basic rights that human people enjoy.

Sharon Gannon pioneered nonhuman rights when she titled one of her books Cats and Dogs are People Too!  In this book Sharon deeply considers the often-subconscious attitudes we have toward our companion animals, which deems them less important than human family members or somehow inferior.

Corporate law and culture has a very different perspective on the concept of personhood. Under corporate law in most liberal democracies a corporation such as Coca-Cola or McDonalds enjoys the rights of personhood. So, in our topsy-turvy world, corporations (which exist by definition as having the primary motive of making money) have more rights than chimpanzees, elephants, or dolphins.

The Whanganui River, in New Zealand, is sacred to the indigenous people and has been afforded the right of personhood by the government; it therefore enjoys protection from pollution and development. In India, the holy book of the Sikh faith, Guru Granth Sahib, has been granted personhood by the government and is protected as such.

When we broaden our perspective of what a “person” is, our circle of compassion expands. This sloka from The Bhagavad Gita invites us to do just that, to remember that an ant is a person just as much as a bird or a human being. Furthermore, it gives us information on how we might remember this: through the practices of Yoga. The techniques of Yoga will help us to see the divinity in all “people.”

Philosopher Mary Midgley has dedicated her life’s work to the study of human and animal relationships.  Mary is a retired university professor now (she’s 97 years old!), but has written extensively about animal rights and specifically about the issue of personhood. Mary suggests that we will extend our ability to be compassionate toward all beings if we respect and honor the differences in our own abilities and those of others. As Mary has written: “The world in which the kestrel moves, the world that it sees, is, and always will be, entirely beyond us. That there are such worlds all around us is an essential feature of our world.”

As yogis we are fortunate to have a direct method for accessing this world of the kestrel. Through the practice of asana we become the eagle, the snake, and the cow. We become the tree and the mountain. And in doing so we embody the people that those holy beings are and resonate more deeply with them. We extend our own experiences of being and might begin to see the Divine Self in all beings. In this way asana is a tool for enlightenment—the realization that we are all One.

As Sharon Gannon has said: “We are all in this together. We are all this together.”

Teaching Tips

  • Remind students that every time we practice asana we practice becoming different “people”—the eagle and the tree and the snake—and that by embodying other beings we have the opportunity to become more in-tuned with them and to notice what makes us similar rather than what makes us different. Through the practice of asana we begin to move out of our heads and into our hearts, or as renowned mystical teacher Rudolf Steiner suggests, we might move toward the “rhythmic system of the spiritual sphere”:

    Just as we live within the external physical air or among the products of the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms—in the very same way do we live with the subconscious parts of our nature in spiritual spheres. In particular, with our rhythmic system we live in the spiritual sphere of the elemental beings. Only when this spiritual sphere is awake, do we rise up at all and interplay with the elemental beings. In respect of our head life alone we are not involved in the realm of the elemental beings. There in our head we are, so to speak, above the surface of the ocean of elemental existence, in which as human beings we perpetually swim.”— Ruldolf Steiner

    In his wonderful novel The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, Karan Bajaj explores this idea further when his protagonist, Max, develops yogi siddhis and is able to communicate with animals, specifically a bear, and realizes, “I am He. We are one.”

  • Read from Mary Midgley’s article Persons and Non-Persons
  • This month would be a good opportunity to give some of PETA’s literature out in your classes or play some of Ingrid’s many audio recordings.
  • For more reflection on the idea of elemental beings as referenced in the Bhagavad Gita, see Sharon Gannon’s essay Yoga and Money, in which she reminds us, that “in our “modern” times it is difficult for most human beings to believe in the existence of such beings as angels, elves and fairies, but to the yogi who is attuned to the workings of the natural world, these beings are as real as your next-door neighbor.”