Understanding Animal cruelty: Why compassion to animals is not a cultural universal

This article gives a comparative survey of Indian and western attitudes towards non-human life in general and towards animals in specific.

Given that more than 10 billion animals get slaughtered every year, it should make us wonder what kind of an outlook, what worldview enables so much cruelty. Towards that end, I will herein be attempting a comparative survey of Indian and western attitudes towards non-human life in general and towards animals in specific. More importantly, we would be looking at deep differences in ideas that shape these attitudes. I will stick to broad currents within each world view and avoid minor exceptions within each, so we do not miss the forest for the trees. Once we identify the deeply embedded differences in ideas, we would be able to better appreciate and comprehend the ground realities that we see.

As an outline, I wish to introduce the various world views that we would survey. We would begin with the Abrahamic religions and proceed to the outlook of most modern day secularists as these occupy maximum mind space in the world today. We will then look at Dharma as an alternative and in contrast to these. Once we have covered sufficient ground on the ideas of each, we will then briefly visit the cocoon of the Indian secularists and also touch upon issues with present day animal rights activism.

Abrahamic worldview

We are invariably confronted with the question of religion in shaping attitudes towards non-human life and hence we shall begin here. With regard to animals and nature, we can place the Abrahamic religions in the same basket i.e. they force the world into a binary – only humans have souls while the rest of life do not.

Genesis 1-26:28 says – “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Islam, being a derivative of Christianity, was not much different in that the all merciful God added the constraint of halal, which is arguably a crueler means of slaughter. In a nutshell, these religions view all life apart from humans as purely mechanical automata. It is also intriguing to note that in the few dialogues that Christian missionaries had with Hindu pundits in the early 18th to the early 19th century, the Christians’ poor treatment of animals was a recurring theme of criticism advanced by the pundits [1] I reproduce here a recording of a Christian missionary Rogerius (1651) about his frustration with the pundits: [2]

You cannot make them admit that Man outstrips the beasts and that he is a nobler creature than the animals because he has a superior soul. If you try to remonstrate with them on this, they would say, animals also have a similar kind of soul. If you try to demonstrate this by the workings of the rational soul, which is evident in Man and not in the beasts: you may expect an answer… that the reason why animals do not exhibit the kind of rationality and understanding that human beings can show, why they cannot speak as man does, is because they are not given a body capable of exhibiting the qualities of their soul …”

Bridge to the Secular

Though, it is straightforward to understand the implications of such religious beliefs in the treatment of animals, which correlates with the ground realities that we see today, one wonders as to why the secular world hasn’t changed much in their outlook towards them. This becomes clear once we understand the secularized version of the belief that animals do not have soul – “animals do not have consciousness”. Before we dive deeper into this belief, let us pause and note that this secularized attitude towards animals is not an inch different from Christian theology, i.e. that non-human life are purely mechanical automata (although framed in a more sophisticated and scientific terminology).

Allen and Trestman rightly note: “…there is a lot at stake morally in the question of whether animals are conscious beings or “mindless automata”. Many billions of animals are slaughtered every year for food, for use in research, and for other human purposes. Moreover, before their deaths, many — perhaps most — of these animals are subject to the conditions of life that — if they are in fact experienced by the animals in anything like the way a human would experience them — amount to cruelty. Arguments that non-human animals are not conscious, therefore, effectively double as apologetics for our treatment of animals. When the question of animal consciousness is under consideration, our guilt or innocence as a civilization for an enormous body of cruelty may hang in the balance.”[3]

Consciousness here refers to phenomenal consciousness, i.e. the subjective, qualitative, experiential experience, otherwise, referred to as “qualia”. As an example of phenomenal consciousness, consider the experience of sound as compared to a coax cable carrying an audio signal or the qualitative experience of vision as compared to a camera. Though the ear and eye relay information much the same way the cable or the lens in a camera relay information, the former is followed by a qualitative experience. It is this qualitative experience that is theoretically denied for animals. Hence, an argument can be made that animals cannot experience pain as a subjective mental state or some psychologists and neuroscientists claim that they are not bothered by the pain.

The secularized version, i.e. the idea that animals are devoid of consciousness begins largely with Rene Descartes and his philosophy of Cartesian Dualism by which he held that material processes are insufficient to explain rational thinking and language. This is also why he drew the line between animals and humans as the former do not have rational thought or language and he held that a purely mechanical explanation could account for their behavior [4] Hence, he claimed that a purely mechanical understanding of animal existence absolved people of any guilt in killing animals and also of performing vivisections for experimentation [5] This view doesn’t hold weight in the light of modern science as language and rationality can be explained largely through a mechanical view. The same is not true for phenomenal consciousness.

Secular worldview

Most modern secularists being materialists, i.e. who hold a completely material account for the human being and brain (and also the world), see consciousness as an evolved characteristic of the human mind through natural selection (evolution). Most scientific studies into animal consciousness proceed through a behaviorist approach, i.e. they study the behavior of animals to infer consciousness. On this account, it is important to note the problem with such an approach. Allen and Trestman (2015) note that consciousness cannot be inferred based on behavioral studies, if (and only if) phenomenal consciousness has no measurable effects on human behavior (epiphenomenalism). It will be shown shortly why this conclusion (that phenomenal consciousness can have no measurable effects on behavior) is inevitable in a materialist world view. They continue further, “If phenomenal consciousness is completely epiphenomenal, as some philosophers believe, then a search for the functions of consciousness is doomed to futility.” [6] [From a Dharma point of view, that consciousness would have no measurable effects on behavior follows from the notion that the atma is akarta i.e. the atma (as pure consciousness and witness) is not the doer – see Bhagavad Gita 13.32. This is not to say that consciousness is epiphenomenal from a Dharma point of view. However, elaboration on this is beyond the scope of the present topic. This was highlighted just to show that, even as per the Gita, a behavioral approach to judge the presence/absence of consciousness is flawed]

Epiphenomenalism (as stated earlier) means that mental states are produced by physical states of the brain and cannot themselves influence the physical states in the brain. Huxley (1874) gives an excellent analogy where he compares mental events (and hence phenomenal consciousness) to a steam whistle that contributes nothing to the work of a locomotive. [7] With a material monist world view, this conclusion would be unavoidable for if every consciousness state has an equivalent neural correlate then the question arises as to which (mental or neural i.e. consciousness or physical) has influence over the other. All stimulus having its origin in matter must then eventually work its way to a resulting neural state (through physical forces) thereby establishing the priority of the neural state (material) over the mental (consciousness). This invariably leads to the conclusion that the mental state has no effect whatsoever on the physical and thus no effect on behavior. If one pursues this line of thought, then even human beings can be explained away as purely mechanical automata and deserve no rights themselves.

Setting aside this dead end for a behaviorist approach, there are other problems we can note in the studies. Very often the impulse is to study animal behavior in the light of human behavior. The invariable fall out of this is that the conclusion is already assumed in the inquiry, i.e. that animals are acknowledged to have consciousness based on the degree with which they match human behavior.

There is also extensive neuroscience research to compare human nervous system against several animal species. As per Griffin & Speck, the search for neural correlates of consciousness has not revealed “any structure or process necessary for consciousness that is found only in human brains.”  This view is widely although not universally shared by neuroscientists. [8]

This inevitably brings us to the mind-body problem that is explained in the book, “The Architecture of knowledge”, by Dr. Subhash Kak. He notes that the materialist doctrine implies either a denial of consciousness or that mental events are epiphenomena. [9] That mental events are epiphenomena has already been established to be a road block in inferring consciousness from behavior as shown earlier.

To conclude, there is no evading the fact that in a reductionist and materialist approach, it is inevitable that consciousness as mere epiphenomena reduces human beings to mechanical automata much the same as animals were viewed up until now (i.e. even human rights has no basis and secularists being materialists themselves aren’t taking their world view to a logical conclusion in their so called fight for ‘human rights’). Therefore, we are not only guilty of great crimes against non-human life, but we would also have no basis for law or “human rights”, since humans would be reduced to mere mechanical automata.

This treatment of animals is yet another instance of a recurring pattern seen in the history of the West. The “other” of the day is subjected to extremely reductionist views and violently subjugated. Once the damage is done (viz. colonialism, imperialism, genocides, etc.) and there is no turning back, then there is an acknowledgement of past errors and liberal apologists will elevate the suppressed often to boost their own “savior” complex. We can see this happening even with respect to the present case where voices in some branches of the academia are acknowledging the presence of consciousness in animals, but this will take a long time to become a mainstream view before which many more billions of animals will have been slaughtered.

Dharmic worldview

In direct contrast to the world views discussed so far, Indian traditions view consciousness as a) all-pervading and b) present as the essential self of all jivas (both human and non-human life). The Chandogya Upanishad declares that the self, pervades all existence like salt in water. The very first verse of Isha Upanishad states that all existence is inhabited by Ishvara. The Manu Smriti (1.49) explicitly declares that even plants have consciousness. It is thus evident why Indians revere nature and why ahimsa assumes a high stature in Indian culture. This does not mean that injury or violence is avoided wholesale and is totally absent, as that would be impossible, but rather that there is a conscious awareness of the harm being caused and a worldview, which advocates minimizing such injuries to the extent possible in one’s own life. Harm is seen as an inevitable necessity for life as the Bhaghavata Purana states, “The life of life is life [9]”, i.e. plants and animals, which as food gives life to humans, are life as well.

There is vibrant debate among various Indian traditions as to what extent of harm is valid and we have the Jains taking the most extreme position of pacifism. Thiruvalluvar dedicates a whole set of 10 couplets (ch26) towards non-harming of animals in his Thirukkural. There is also gradation in allowable harm for different stages of life and based on one’s svadharma. A Sannyasi, for example, avoids any form of injury, including cooking of food, whereas a Kshatriya must take up arms for the sake of Dharma. Ahimsa is also recognized as a Samanya Dharma i.e. universal principle irrespective of class, gender or station in life. [11] Bheeshma, the Kshatriya par excellence, explains the glory of ahimsa in the Anushasana parva of Mahabharata thus, “Non-injury is the highest duty, non-injury is the highest self-restraint, non-injury is the highest gift, and it is the highest austerity.” [12] Viva Kermani in her article “Hindu roots of modern ecology” shows in detail how various plants and trees are protected and revered in the traditions of India and also how animals have been integrated in Indian culture in the form of vahanas of different deities. It demonstrates as to how the indigenous tradition of India is a vibrant nature tradition with nature protection forming the very seed ideas right from the Vedas. Since, the seed idea of ahimsa is deeply embedded in Indian culture, it has sprouted and flowered in various forms amongst different communities and traditions. The idea here is not to analyze micro level/specific instances and judge them, but rather to defend the intrinsic value of ahimsa and let it work itself out among the various communities and cultures across the world. I see that it is the vision of the Rishis to introduce the concept of ahimsa as a guiding principle without strict quantification so that each individual or tradition may strive towards the ideal to the best of their ability or svadharma. What we have in the present worldview of modernity is a total denial of this ideal or at best applying it only to humans. The result is the most horrific forms of factory farming guided solely by a cold maximization of profit.

The cocoon of Indian secularists

The secularists of India reduce all this complexity to “religious superstition” notwithstanding the fact that the rate of slaughter has grown tenfold in the past thirty years, clearly a feat of “progress” and “modernity”. [13] The hollowness of their thinking must be evident from the ideas surveyed so far. They even give news space to the likes of Kancha Iliah, who claims that our (Indians’) brains are not growing as we gave up eating beef. [14] The Christianized Indian elite perpetuate the same Christian idea on India that practices are derived from scriptures.[15] Hence, Indian practices of ahimsa are watered down as they may not always be found in the “holy books”. Practices like avoiding meat on particular days of the week are treated as “superstition” by the more secularized Indians and are slowly being discarded. Hardly any modern Indian is aware of their daily dharma towards feeding animals. The secular intellectual elite display a total lack of original thinking, when it comes to animal welfare. Hence, we see a frantic quest for conservation of species, once they enter the “endangered list”, while displaying a total disregard for traditions that protect them. Case in point is the recent ban on Jallikattu, where the animal welfare board of India claimed that they are more interested in animal “welfare” rather than conserving species (ironically in response to the charge that the ban results in native breeds being sent to slaughter houses) [16] Please read this article for a detailed analysis of the Jallikattu ban and hypocrisy of the courts.

Secularism has had a detrimental impact on the environment as shown here. The secular intellectuals never fail to break the pattern of playing the “individual rights” card when it comes to animal slaughter while being more than happy to ban Indian traditions that involve animals even when they don’t involve killing or even injury.

Modern animal rights activism

The fact that animal rights activists frame their campaign as a “rights” campaign shows us that the eventual aim is to bring the issue into the purview of law and the state. As this article shows, India is a Dharma society rather than a law driven society. The inevitable fallout of such a stance is that what will be deemed as right/wrong will become purely a function of numbers and political clout rather than truth. So, we see that tens of billions of animals are slaughtered per year without the slightest reaction by our “conscience keepers”, while a festival like Jallikattu, where no animal is killed will be branded as animal abuse and banned. The native custodians of the traditions hardly have a say in the matter and are poorly represented. The same secular intellectuals that claim that such traditions are barbaric are the ones who gleefully advertise their beef eating sprees and beef fests (One wonders how beef eating became fashionable in India). The same applies to the ban of temple elephants in Kerala. Of course, these motivated stunts are more political in nature than a genuine case of animal rights activism as shown here. The problem lies in the fact that many well-meaning Indians buy into this farce.

The secularized discourse by activists, who are so sure that “religion must never be dragged into animal rights”, just facilitate the digestion of Indian ideas into Western universalism as shown by Rajiv Malhotra. [17] Most activists rejoice the ban of the aforementioned traditions and very often are the ones leading the legal case towards the ban. By their commitment to never touch “certain” religion in their criticism, they ensure that large scale violence towards animals will remain unchallenged.


With a comparative study of various worldviews as shown above, it is safe to conclude that it is only from the Indian traditions and worldviews that any genuine case for animal welfare can be made and hence it remains the sole hope for millions of innocent and peaceful creatures across the globe. I hope this article has put to rest the shallow thinking of the likes – “survival of the fittest” – that has enthralled many modern Indians. The horrendous treatment they are subjected to, needs no mention here. Modern factory farming is the biggest shame on human civilization.

Indians must hence pose a serious intellectual challenge to such reductionist ideas about animals and enable the spread of the notion of ahimsa, which must be our minimum commitment to Dharma. It is very clear from the analysis so far that the very notion of ahimsa is in question not merely, in practice, but in the academia and the sphere of ideas. The gravity of this cannot be over stated.


[1] – Sita Ram Goel, History of Hindu-Christian encounters (Ch. Encounters in Tamil Nadu)

[2] – Prof S N Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his blindness (p266)

[3] – Allen, Colin and Trestman, Michael, “Animal Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) – http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/consciousness-animal/

(Section 1)

[4] – ibid (section 4.4)

[5] – ibid (section 3)

[6] – ibid (section 4.3)

[7] – Robinson, William, “Epiphenomenalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) – http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/epiphenomenalism/

[8] – Allen, Colin and Trestman, Michael, “Animal Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) – http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/consciousness-animal/

(Section 4)

[9] – Dr. Subhash Kak, The Architecture of knowledge (p34)

[10] – Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy(p273)

[11] – Nithin Sridhar, Samanya Dharma and Spirituality-http://www.academia.edu/18507697/Samanya_Dharma_and_Spirituality

[12] – Nithin Sridhar, “Ahimsa: The highest Obligation of human life” – http://www.newsgram.com/ahimsa-the-highest-obligation-of-human-life/

[13] – Radha Rajan, “Hindu view on food and sacrifice” – https://bharatabharati.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/hindu-view-on-food-and-sacrifice-radha-rajan/

[14] – Kancha Iliah, Vegetarianism is anti-nationalism – http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow/Vegetarianism-is-anti-nationalism-says-Kancha-Ilaiah/articleshow/51833906.cms

[15] – The Heathen in his blindness – Prof S N Balagangadhara (p105)

[16] – Swaminathan Natarajan, “Jallikattu: Why India bullfighting ban threatens native breeds” – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36798500

[17] – Rajiv Malhotra, “The Tiger and the Deer: Is Dharma being Digested into the West” – http://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/tiger-deer-dharma-digested-west/

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