Savitri Devi, born Maximiani Portas in 1905 to Greek-English parents, wrote a very thought-provoking and profound book called The Impeachment of Man in 1945 on different religions and their “compassion factor”. She spent 30 years in India undertaking a systematic study of the world’s great religions. Savitri Devi spoke seven languages and supported herself by teaching and translation work. She died in 1982, in poverty, sustained somewhat by her admirers around the world.
Why am I fascinated by her writings? Because she has brought new insight into something that I believe in — reincarnation — and holds this belief responsible for all the viciousness that ‘devout’ Hindus show.
This lockdown has been an eye-opener for me, and I have never been so shaken. I have never seen so many Indians being so cruel to their fellow beings — especially to women — and to animals. Poisoning and beating animals have become the norm and harassment of single women has become a blood sport. Where does all this animosity come from?
This is what Savitri Devi has to say about the Indian (Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) view of reincarnation.
Belief in reincarnation
“The Indian view can be summarised in one sentence: it consists of seeing, in all forms of life, manifestations of the selfsame divine power at play on various levels of consciousness. It is centred around the fundamental idea of the everlastingness of the individual soul and of its life in millions and millions of bodies, through millions of successive births. It proclaims the continuity of life in time and space and denies the breach between man and the rest of the animal world. Such a breach, according to it, is artificial.
A believer in the doctrine of reincarnation can never be quite sure that the mangy dog that he sees lying in the slush is not one of his deceased relative or friends. Maybe, the man’s human enemy is none but the hungry dog that lay at his door some thirty years before, and whom he did not care to feed. It may be that a woman’s son, source of joy to her, is none but the abandoned kitten that she once picked up in the street. No one can tell. And as soon as one admits the possibility for the same everlasting individual soul to pass from one body to another, according to its deeds, one can be expected to feel the majestic unity of life which underlies the endless diversity of the visible world, and to look upon animals (and plants) as potential men and supermen, and treat them with loving kindness.
The Hindu teaching stresses the fundamental identity of all the individual souls, be they incarnated in many or any stratum of the living world. Not only is every soul now embodied in an earthworm “on its way” to earn superior consciousness after millions of births, and to become, in course of time, an all-knowing, liberated sage, a tirthankara as the Jains say, but the soul of every individual earthworm, of every individual snail or toad, ass or pig, man or monkey – of every living creature – is by nature, substantially, identical to that of the god-like sage.
It only differs in broadness and clearness of consciousness, that is to say, in the degree of knowledge. And the sage himself has lived through untold millenniums of ignorance and unrest. King Bharat is said to have been reborn as a deer; and good king Asoka, the most powerful patron of Buddhism — was reborn as a boa-constrictor, in punishment for a temporary lack of equanimity, according to Buddhist tradition…”
(The Impeachment of Man, Savitri Devi)
So far, so good. This is my deepest, most genetically ingrained belief, and this is what propels my actions on a day-to-day basis. But she does not stop there.
“It would seem, at first sight, that nothing can prepare a man to love all living nature better than that Grand vision of universal evolution, physical and spiritual, provided by Hindu Pantheism.”
But it has not happened. Why?
Personal interest and Hinduism
Savitri Devi explains — “The answer appears to be that a profound pessimism, and undervaluation of finite life as such, pervades the whole of Hindu thought.
To the Hindu, to the Jain, to the Buddhist, individual life itself is sorrow, with, at the most, few flashes of passing joy. To break the iron cycle of birth and rebirth, and never again to enter a womb, is the goal of every true Hindu. The obsession of the transience of earthly joy, the burdensome realisation that “all personality is a prison” and the consequent craving for “liberation” from the necessity of successive finite existences, are traits inseparable from Hindu thought.”
Those traits are not congenial to action. It may be that the selfless, emotionless, detached action urged in the Bhagwad-Gita is the ideal. But in ordinary everyday life, it is not the type of action that men generally do. In fact, without the impulse of personal love, fear or hate — they generally do nothing.
How does the concept of attaching little value to life makes one less compassionate?
“And the deep-rooted belief that individual life has little value, that the sooner it is overcome the better, and that creatures’ suffering in this world is nothing but the unavoidable result of their own bad deeds in past lives, that belief, we say, is the least capable of rousing in average people any personal feeling for the welfare of men or beasts. It [Hinduism] is the least capable of prompting them to do something positive, whether it be to make human society more comfortable for the majority of its members, or to make the world at large a better place for all living beings, including animals and plants.”
“….a Western vegetarian abstains from flesh solely out of a feeling of sympathy for animals, the Hindu vegetarian does so mainly on account of the concept he has of his own spiritual interest. He believes that, by avoiding meat, fish and eggs, and all food considered to be ‘exciting’ he secures himself an easier progress along the path that leads to ‘liberation’, i.e. to the final stage after which one is not compelled to be reborn…… But the idea of suffering of animals does not seem to be, to the average Hindu, as important as that of his own bodily purity, regarded as an indispensable help to spiritual progress. A Hindu vegetarian may or may not also be a lover of animals. His diet is regulated mainly by the interest of the eater, not of the eaten…… It is still his own interest that he primarily seeks.”
“The fundamental consciousness is that individual life, human or animal, is of little value, leading to a widespread callousness, an indifference to suffering. It is as though life, when known to be everlasting, loses its value, and as though suffering, when thought to be a punishment, ceases to move the casual witness of it to pity.
“The Hindus are impartial in their good or bad treatment of living creatures. …..That indifference is applied to the sick beggar child lying in the filth no less than to the famishing street dog. It is applied to the overworked “coolie” no less than to the overloaded ass, or to the tired, thirsty buffalo drawing a heavy cart under the merciless whip. A hungry human “untouchable” would be turned out of an orthodox Hindu kitchen no less ruthlessly than a hungry animal considered unclean. And among the true Hindus who believe in the efficacy of animal sacrifices and would not shrink, on principle, before the idea of human sacrifices, were such to be sanctioned by religious authority.”
A life-centred doctrine, like that of reincarnation, is used to justify entirely different practical attitudes towards living things.
Millions of Hindus would never interfere to prevent a child from kicking a sleeping dog, or from knocking down a bird’s nest. There are thousands who beat their overloaded bullocks and buffaloes, horses and donkeys, and mercilessly twist their tails to make them walk faster. There are those who carry unwanted newly born kittens away from their houses and leave them on the roadside to “fend for themselves”, and those who have never protested against the torture of animals in the name of science, or the killing of cattle in municipal slaughterhouses in the most barbaric manner. If asked why they show such callousness, they would merely reply that it was so planned that every living individual should suffer the fate determined by the sum of its deeds, and that animals who undergo tortures deserve it because they sinned in their previous lives. This is the consequence of a general belief in mathematical justice.
“It [the philosophy] may, at the most, urge people to avoid becoming the direct cause of any creature’s suffering or death; to be “harmless” — in order not to lengthen the record of bad deeds for which they are bound to pay the penalty in this life or in another. It does not, however, in general, urge them to go out of their way in order to help creatures actively.”
Live and let live, in my opinion, means live and let die. You live and ignore the way other people or other beings live — ignore their pain, their suffering. This, to me, is the way a dead person lives with no involvement in life and without a sense of responsibility to the world. It stops one from doing as much good as he/she can and makes one totally selfish. Which is why the motto of People For Animals is ‘live and help live’.
The philosophy that asks Hindus to look at all creatures as reflections of oneself has not made us help others. Is that what this glorious religion/philosophy has done to us Hindus?
Maneka Gandhi, Sultanpur MP and former women and child development minister, is an animal rights activist. She is the founder-chairperson of People for Animals organisation. Views are personal.