Gatehouse and chapel of the Kings College, Cambridge
One year on from my cancer operation. I celebrate by going to Kings College, Cambridge and giving a talk entitled:
Do Hindu Cows reincarnate? Shambo, Non-violence, and Modern Animal Welfare. The attendance is good and there are some students of philosophy there. I didn’t know that until the end, so it’s just as well that I choose to speak on the philosophy which underpins ethical treatment of animals.
Animal rights is a perennial hot topic in Cambridge, not only because there are 20,000 students in the town, but because there is a large animal research facility just outside the town in which rabbits, dogs and monkeys are the unwilling subjects of experiments. Over the years the students have made many protests outside this place. Two years ago, when Michelle organised the Monday night vegetarian cafe, there were 80 students coming to eat every week. Vegetarianism and Veganism are very popular lifestyle choices.
But Cambridge is also well known for the sciences – Physics in particular – and the presence of Stephen Hawking gives extra prestige for the study of science here. So although there are many vegetarians, there are also those who cannot regard such a lifestyle choice as having anything other than a sentimental foundation. So debate is lively here.
I began by describing the unfolding drama of the Justice for Gangotri campaign, and how it has practically highlighted the hypocrisy evident in British animal welfare law. I continued by highlighting that we humans have an ambivalent attitude towards animals. If we like the look of them we class them as ‘pets’ and if we want to eat them we class them as ‘food’. Thus one species of life becomes ‘mans best friend’ and another becomes ‘burger’
Not only this, but sometimes the same animal is viewed in different ways, and susequently protected or exploited according to whim. A rabbit, for instance, when it is a pet, is protected against cruelty yet the same animal can be subjected to torture in the name of drug trials or research. The very same animal can be eaten.
Last week I was invited to join an online debate in the New Statesman concerning the views of Colin Blakemore, the well known protagonist of animal research who reasons that animals have no rights because, he asks: “Who would give them rights?” Since we would be the ones to give them rights, we can also take those rights away when need to.
He is right that animals have no intrinsic legal rights. In my talk I argued that civil and legal rights are given to a citizen, usually because of some ethical framework enshrined in Judaeo-Christian literature, or, more recently, some other humanist notions of ethical behaviour. Yet either way there is some sort of philosophical foundation, some way of looking at reality and how living things interact, that helps us to sort it all out. Perhaps by investigating philosophical traditions beyond the more customary Judaeo-Christian understanding, we can have a different perspective that will help us.
I then spoke on how consciousness, the very symptom of life, is not universally regarded as a manifestation of the neural functioning of the brain. Nobel prize winner Brian Josephson, also at Cambridge, is now researching consciousness and a talk he has given on this subject can be found on the internet.
The eastern philosophical perspective is that the atma, the ‘spark of life,’ is the same quality in all living beings. From this point of view – and from the understanding that every action has a reaction – we can create a world where there is fairer treatment of all, including animals.
Afterwards everyone had an enjoyable vegetarian dinner. I met one young man, a student of astronomy, whose family comes from Melkote in Karnataka, and who are followers of Sri Ramanuja. He found that these discussions, of which mine was the latest, were a good way for him to re-enter his family’s tradition.
I stayed the night with Sushant and Prachi, a young couple from Mumbai who are both physiotherapists working at the nearby Addenbrookes Hospital. Today was also my daughter Jahnavi’s birthday, who has now reached the age of 21. My congratulations to her as she worships Pancha-Tattva in Mayapura and will be there until Gaura-Purnima, the full-moon birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.