Two Anniversaries, One Lesson

Today is International Day of Non-Violence; Thursday 4th October is World Animal Day.

To take today’s anniversary first: it was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, as a day which UN members and associated organisations are invited to celebrate in “an appropriate manner” with a view to encouraging “a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”. I can’t find in the publicity for this most worth-while venture any suggestion that refraining from violating the bodies and rights of animals, even just for the day, might constitute an “appropriate manner”. However, amongst the online support for the Day of Non-Violence there is a selection of quotations where, tailing along after Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, and other champions of peace, the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all living beings, we are still savages.”

This was certainly the model of non-violence promoted and practised by the man whose birthday in 1869 the UN day commemorates: that is, Mohandas Gandhi, commonly titled (but not pleasingly to him) ‘Mahatma’, meaning great or perfected soul. The word for non-violence which Gandhi himself commonly used was the Hindu ahimsa, and just as Edison spoke of “the goal”, so Gandhi saw ahimsa as something to be continually yearned towards, against the resistance of worldly impossibility:

Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living – eating, drinking and moving about – necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.

“incessantly strives”: this strenuous reaching for the just life is evident in Gandhi’s earliest adult days as a law student in London. A vow made to his mother not to eat meat or even eggs (that is, as a violation of Hindu teaching) was the origin of his vegetarianism, but he soon came to decide for this diet on its own ethical merits, and then, characteristically, to regard promoting it as “my mission”. Starting a vegetarian society in Bayswater was his first public action. But to pursue, in the London of the late nineteenth century, what in his case was a nearly vegan diet (he reluctantly continued to use milk) was an almost comically difficult project, especially for one living in lodgings and hotels, to whom every menu was written in a foreign language. Later on, much more demanding trials came to test his convictions. When members of his family, or he himself, fell ill, doctors would indignantly decry his dietary rule. When, for instance, his young son Manilal had typhoid, the doctor urged Gandhi to let him prescribe meat and eggs, saying “Your son’s life is in danger.” But Gandhi, “haunted” by this responsibility, nevertheless insisted that “Even for life itself we may not do certain things.” All this is DSC05074.JPGrecorded in his autobiography, where also he says “To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”

The doctrine of ahimsa governed also, of course, his attitude to the use of animals in medical research. Although Gandhi led the campaign to free India of British rule, he admired many things about Western life and culture, including its “scientific spirit”. He titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, characterizing his life, in that title and in his introduction to the book, as a series of essays towards his moral and spiritual ideals, never completed or absolute. So he took his crucial image of growth and struggle from the “scientific spirit” of the West. But he also said

I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. I detest the unpardonable slaughter of innocent life in the name of science and humanity so-called, and all the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence.

How indeed can a proponent of non-violence say otherwise, or is there, somewhere in the UN’s documentation for the day, a list of permissible exceptions?

But even ahimsa, still there as Gandhi’s preoccupation in the last lines of his autobiography (“the only means for the realization of truth is ahimsa), was itself part of a larger vision of a more literal life-sympathy. This vision is most poetically expressed in Gandhi’s praise of the cow and its sanctity in the Hindu faith:

The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives … Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world.

I shall return to that vision in a moment. Meanwhile, that second anniversary: World Animal Day on 4th October. This observance, a more highly organized and practical occasion than the non-violence day, was initiated in 1925 by Heinrich Zimmermann, editor of the Berlin journal Mensch und Hund, and is now sponsored by the Naturewatch Foundation. The date which Zimmermann chose for it was, naturally enough, the feast day of the late twelfth-century saint Francis of Assisi.

Here was a Gandhi of his own time: similarly a devotee of poverty and humility, wearing the simplest peasant clothing; a forceful organizer, travelling and exhorting on behalf of his ideals (formalized in the Franciscan Order); strict with himself and others, but wholly kind-hearted; evidently a powerfully attractive personality; and of course a man persuaded of the kinship of all the created world.

The stories which record Francis’s feeling for non-human animals, as told for instance in the early biography by St Bonaventura, are no doubt many of them legends rather than sound recollections: his preaching to an attentive congregation of birds; the mutual affection of Francis and a “sister cicada”; the returning of a “fine, live fish”, presented as a gift to him, back into the lake, where the fish “played in the water nigh the man of  God, and, as though drawn by love of him, would in no wise leave the boat-side until it had received his blessing.” But even as embellishments rather than facts, these stories do certainly express the mind of Francis as known from his attested life and writing.

Perhaps more significantly the stories express a tradition of broad sympathy in Christian and pre-Christian minds, which disposed them gladly to imagine and believe in such free communications. In the introduction to his book of animal-friendly liturgies, Animal Rites, the theologian Andrew Linzey sees this tradition as having reached “its fullest flowering in the life of St Francis of Assisi”: fullest, because it was subsequently  pushed out by a type of spirituality “whose primary impulse is to gain knowledge through the exercise of analytical intelligence”. This newer line of theology did not just distrust the intuitive character of the old sense of kinship, but turned against nature itself as binding humanity to the flesh and the world. It’s a hopeful sign of recovery, then, that Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope in 2013.

And, like Gandhi again, Saint Francis did not feel for animals merely a sentiment of friendliness and sympathy, as for other but alien lives. St Bonaventura says of Francis

When he bethought him of the first beginning of all things, he was filled with a yet more overflowing charity, and would call the dumb animals, howsoever small, by the names of brother and sister, forasmuch as he recognised in them the same origin as in himself.

You remember Gandhi’s phrase “identity with all that lives”. Accidents of place and period fall away, for it’s a truth perennially visible: to the eye of faith in these two men, to the eye of science in Charles Darwin, to the political eye in Richard Ryder’s term for its opposite, ‘speciesism’. At all times, in all mentalities, there’s a way to see it, because it’s really there.

There’s a scene near the end of Iris Murdoch’s fine philosophical novel The Nice and the Good (1968) which draws together the concerns of these two October anniversaries in a kind of parable. Willy Kost, a survivor of the concentration camp at Dachau, has hitherto been unable to speak of his terrible experience, complicated as it was by a fatal lapse of courage on his own part. Very near the end of the book, he at last does speak of it to Theo, a disgraced monk tormented by his own moral troubles. Theo encourages him to tell, but is reluctant to hear, perhaps can’t bear to. Instead, he thinks about an injured seagull recently brought to him by two sorrowing children. Theo had assured them that the bird could not survive, and must be freed from its slow death. He must drown the bird in the sea: “It was the kindest thing, the only thing.” The children run off, crying. Theo does not remove his shoes or roll up his trousers, as he might do for his own comfort, but walks as he is, holding “the soft grey parcel of life”, into the sea. When the bird is dead, he brings it out with him:

He mounted the shingle and walked with wet clinging trouser legs along to the far end of the beach where he knelt and dug with his hands as deep a hole as he could in the loose falling pebbles. He put the dead bird into the hole and covered it up carefully. Then he moved a little away and lay face downward on the stones.

Back in the present, as Willy’s voice continues to tell the story of Dachau, Theo, half listening, “pressed the thought of the seagull against his heart.”

I find myself unequal to explicating this moving episode, and shall leave it to mean what it will.


Notes and references:

The United Nations non-violence day is presented online here:   The related quotations appear on a World Economic forum page here:

An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth was originally published serially in Gandhi’s weekly journal Young India, during the 1920s. It was first published as a book in two volumes, 1927 and 1929. Quotations here are from the Penguin Books edition of 1982, translated from Gandhi’s original Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, pp. 318, 59, 230, 222. The statement on vivisection came in Young India 17 December 1925, p. 440, and the praise of the cow in Young India 6 October 1921, p. 36, both of them quoted in The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Prabhu and Rao, Jitendra Desai 1967, pp. 426 and 388.

Quotations from the life of St Francis by St Bonaventura are from the text published by J.M.Dent, 1904, pp. 90, 88-9, and 85.

Animal Rites, by Andrew Linzey, was published by SCM Press, 1999. Quotations are from pp. 6 and 8.

Quotations from The Nice and the Good are from the Penguin Books 1969 edition, pp. 355.