Can Religion Be Ecocentric?

I recently came across an interesting graphic on Facebook, depicting, on the left-hand side “EGO,” showing a man at the top of a pyramid of beings, with a woman on the next level along with a whale, followed by other creatures such as a pig, dog, bird, and chicken; down to (among other things) a starfish, ant, tree, flower, and mushroom at the bottom. On the right-hand side was “ECO,” depicting the man and woman as just two creatures among all the others in a circle. It brought to mind something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: how most religions place man (and especially men as opposed to women, as perfectly depicted in the EGO graphic!) above the rest of creation. Much has been written about homo sapien-centric Western religions with their emphasis on man’s dominion over other living beings. To quote the King James Bible: ” And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Such attitudes have lead us to a profound disconnect from the rest of creation, for someone who lords over others is in a position of power and feels the right to manipulate and control the whole of creation for his or her comfort alone. Thus have we have come to remove mountaintops for coal, drill and frack our way to an ever decreasing amount of fossil fuels while polluting the air and waterways, and regard the animal kingdom as our personal pantry, a source of food, medicine, and so forth. On the whole, we don’t consider animals as having a right to exist beyond what they can provide for us.

What about Eastern religions, though? While most don’t talk of “dominion” over creation, they still place human beings at the pinnacle of creation. Many lifetimes, we are told, have been lived in order for us to achieve the human frame and, as such, we who have achieved the human status should make sure not to waste our lives and should engage in spiritual practices in which only humans can engage and realize divine consciousness. In the spiritual group I was involved with, Ananda Marga, the guru gave us a spiritual command, called the “supreme command,” to meditate twice a day and follow the ethical guidelines known as Yama and Niyama. The supreme command goes on to warn of dire consequences for those not following it. “Disobedience to this command,” it intones, ” is nothing but to throw oneself into the tortures of animal life for crores of years” (a crore being equivalent to 10,000,000). The language of the supreme command shows clearly the attitude that animals are inferior and that their lives are worth less than ours are. To be fair, an aspect of Ananda Marga philosophy known as Neohumanism does show respect for animals as part of the web of life. The founder of Ananda Marga, Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar, also known as Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, wrote, “When the underlying spirit of humanism is extended to everything, animate and inanimate, in this universe, I have designated this as Neohumanism. This Neohumanism will elevate humanism to universalism, love for all created beings of this universe.” But humans, being considered the “most thoughtful and intelligent beings in this created universe,” according to Sarkar, are clearly in the driver’s seat.

Let’s look more closely at the phrase “tortures of animal life.” The Buddhists say that “All life is suffering,” and this applies equally to human beings as it does to other animals. I, for one, feel that human beings experience torture more than animals precisely because we consider ourselves above and separate from the rest of creation, an attitude that leads us to pollute our environment, rape and pillage the earth with no concern from the countless species we wipe out, and often act with barbarity towards our own kind (rape, war, genocide). And by the way: I don’t know the last time you watched an eagle soar in the sky, but whenever I see such sight, I am awed by the majesty of it. No sense of a tortured animal life there!
But isn’t the goal of meditation precisely to lose the sense of ego and separateness and experience the sense of oneness that is our true nature? Absolutely. This, then, is the contradiction at the heart of many Eastern religions. We are told that we need to overcome our sense of separateness, and yet there is this attitude of human beings being at the pinnacle of creation, that we’re better than other animals; indeed, that we are the best. The attitude that we are the best, which lies at the heart of so many religions, is speciesism. Speciesism, I believe, is at the heart of the environmental crises we are facing, as well as a myriad of problems. If we truly saw ourselves as just one wonderful creature among many in the web of life, would we find ourselves in such dire straits as we are in now?