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Animals as Non-Beings - Comparison Between Christianity and Buddhism

Post Graduate (Master of Arts) in English Literature and Philosophy

Mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, dating to the sixth century AD

Mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, dating to the sixth century AD

Christian Theology

Many classical Christian religious imageries tend to depict Jesus Christ as the ‘good shepherd’.As per John 10:1-21, one of the duties of the good shepherd is to lay down his life for his flock (John 10:11). But, more implicitly the passages from John 10:1-21 denotes the absolute ownership the shepherd has over his flock. The shepherd is the only route of salvation for the flock. It neutralizes the need for the free will of the flock (or in this case his followers). It degrades the status of the flock to mere automata, incapable of creating spontaneous thought and action born out of free will.

Nowhere is this status more obvious than the episode of Exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac. This episode is mentioned in three Gospels; Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8: 28-34 and Luke 8:26-39.

Since Marks’s account is the most expansive of three available accounts of the incident, this article refers only to Mark’s account of the exorcism. When Jesus along with his followers reached the region of Gerasene, a man “possessed by demons” came out from a cave to meet him. Locals had tried to tie him down but he was too strong for them. When Jesus called out to the demons inside him, they responded that they “are legion” and many in number. They pleaded not to banish them but instead send them into the bodies of a herd of pigs just by the hillside. Jesus did so and as soon as the demons possessed the pigs, they hurtled themselves down the mountain and drowned themselves in the sea.

This episode is often theologically interpreted as animals not having any moral value in Christianity. It may also signify that animals were treated as mere property in the early Christian era and not as individual beings.

Much of the controversy on this topic surrounds from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s interpretation of the episode, who concluded that Christians do not have any moral duties or obligations towards any other lifeform except humans. He wrote: “Christ himself shows that to refrain from the killing of animals and the destroying of plants is the height of superstition, for judging that there are no common rights between us and the beasts and trees, he sent the devils into a herd of swine and with a curse withered the tree on which he found no fruit.”

Buddhist Philosophy

In contrast, Buddhist philosophy and thought have always considered animals to be sentient beings, though often lower in the hierarchy than human beings. Moreover, the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth postulated that animals could be reborn as human beings and vice versa. Hence, it provided a fluidity to the understanding of human-animal interactions in Buddhist thought. Therefore, there was no differentiation of moral and ethical rights between human and animals.


In the Buddhist tradition of Jataka Tales, animals often perform the role of anthropomorphic characters with defined conscience and thought processes. The Boddhisattva often appears as an animal in these tales, hence attributing some degree of reverence towards animals. The Jatakas also mention Shakyamuni’s past lives where he sacrificed himself, once to save a dove from a hawk and another time he offered himself up as food to a starving tigress and her cubs.


Though it is not typically considered to be drawn from canonical Buddhist sources, Osamu Tezuka’s manga graphic novel series “Buddha” depicts a monk named Naradatta who was cursed to live out his life in the jungles as a rabid dog because he sacrificed the lives of few animals in the process of saving the life of an infant Siddhartha. Naradatta was cursed because it was beyond his theological and monastic purview to decide on the question of the sanctity of life between an animal and a human.

Conclusion

Though Buddhism and Christianity share many philosophical similarities (though the dissimilarities outweigh them) Christianity places humans as front and centre in God’s plan for the universe. It might be one of the reason’s why the church so assiduously defended the geocentric model of the universe despite overwhelming scientific evidence. Christianity, and by extension the Abrahamic religions preferred order, structure and hierarchy to maintain a stable society. Buddhism - essentially a breakaway sect of early Hinduism, was a form of a counter-cultural movement against the oppressive hierarchical order of the Hindu Varna system. It thrived on its early doctrines of a decentralized religious and social structure. It injected a fluidity within the society and endowed (within its philosophy) every living being with sentience.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Abhijit Chatterjee

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