By Narayani Ganesh
Culture, cognition, self-awareness, creativity and language are all seen as unique attributes of human beings that make us so special vis-à-vis other species. Decades of research by scientists has however, revealed an entirely different picture. In addition to all of the above, other animals may even be capable of achieving enlightenment, except that when they do, we have no way of knowing it because we have no access to their minds, points out ethologist, Patrick Bateson, who has closely observed the tool-making skills of the Caledonian crow.
Neurological substrates are said to generate consciousness, and this was earlier thought to be exclusive to human beings. No longer. Scientific research in disciplines related to biology, ethology and psychology has revealed that non-human animals, too, are in possession of neurological substrates that enable them to experience consciousness as well as indulge in intentional behaviours. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness signed by a group of neuroscientists at a conference in 2012 in Cambridge, reiterated this point.
So let’s take a look at octopuses since we are quite familiar with behaviours exhibited by elephants, primates and birds. Octopuses have been observed to use coconut shells as portable shelters to protect themselves. They have subjective experiences and are conscious. But to know this for a fact one would have to get into the mind of an octopus to experience and feel what the octopus experiences and feels and this is not possible, at least, not just as yet. And unlike St Francis of Assisi who reportedly, could communicate with non-human species, especially birds, we do not have the capacity to understand their language nor communicate with them effectively. This is a human limitation that circumscribes the extent of our knowledge.
This brings to mind the old adage that just because we do not know, what we do not know, does not mean that what we do not know, does not exist. Interestingly, schools of philosophy like those of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism that set great store by ahimsa, non-violence, and which promote reverence for all living beings, had a hang of this concept before it began to be scientifically examined in modern times.
Practising Hindus believe that every animal is a jiva with a soul; when they die, they get reincarnated as another being, perhaps as another animal or human being.
Therefore all living beings, whether humans or non-human animals, all have equal rights as they all have souls that are eternal.
In Jainism, every jiva has the potential to become liberated. That is, the potential to become a siddha, who has broken free of the cycle of birth and death. In other words, every jiva has the possibility of becoming enlightened – whether it be a human, crow or octopus – it is not something exclusive to human beings. We have nothing to crow about.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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