The greatest obstacle to the practice is one’s own prejudices based on one’s own preferences ~ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (PYS IV.28)
Yoga is the practice of getting happy. Not ordinary happiness, but deep and lasting happiness that is unshaken by the ups and downs of life. Through yoga we wake up, slowly and over time, and as each bit of the veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing our true selves falls, we see more and more clearly what is, and with that we gain power to choose to live life aligned with the flow of Divine will. Those of us on this path face both tremendous challenges and tremendous opportunities at this time. Our culture of materialism, exploitation and utter disregard for the well-being of other animals, all of nature and the Earth herself is inching us ever closer to a breaking point, while at the same time we are undergoing a huge shift in consciousness. To navigate through this tumultuous time and emerge into the light, we must dissolve a crippling prejudice that has put many of us to sleep for thousands of years, distorted our minds and coerced us into viewing slavery, exploitation and the mass murder of other animals as normal. The root of that prejudice is the lie that animals don’t have souls.
In the sutra above, Patanjali identifies prejudice as the greatest obstacle to yoga. Prejudice is always based on misperception, which comes from ignorance. Ignorance arises from being told a lie and believing it and then continuing to tell yourself and others that lie—deepening your belief in it to such an extent that it affects how you see yourself and the others whom you are prejudiced against, resulting in a distortion of the truth. Prejudice is a mental affliction that pollutes the mind with deception. To rid yourself of prejudice, you must destroy the lie at the root. Only knowledge can burn prejudice at its root and reveal the truth.
Many religious traditions maintain that non-human animals do not have souls, or that they do not have the kind of souls that enable one to connect to God. Patanjali tells us that if we look deeply we will see the truth. In fact, you don’t even have to look that deeply to see that other animals have souls. If they are breathing and the heart is beating, this is evidence that a soul is present. To be alive is to have a soul. All living beings, regardless of the color of their skin, hair, feathers, scales or fur, and whether or not they walk on two legs or four or none at all, are persons—they have souls.
This is evident in our language: the word anima is the root for the word animal, and it means “soul, that which animates.” Thus, by definition, all animals have souls, whether human or non-human. Every living being has a soul. When someone dies, the soul leaves the body, and that is the only time that we can justifiably point at someone and say they don’t have a soul. It is the same no matter what kind of person you are: you may be a human, a cat, a dog, a cow, a bird or a fish person, but regardless, all living beings have souls; if they didn’t they would be dead.
It is also evident in countless stories of animals behaving in ways that go far beyond the rigid notions of animal behavior that culture and science have limited them to, ways that in many cases display more humanity than many humans display. For example, dolphins caring for their dying friends, dogs who forego food themselves in order to have enough to feed their families, octopuses who decorate their dens, birds who use words to express regret, and many more. If these animals were nothing more than automatons whose behavior is dictated entirely by their genes, how could they demonstrate such connectedness with others and the world around them?
Jivamukti means liberation for the soul—all souls, not just human souls. To reach liberation, we must rid ourselves of prejudice. Asana and meditation practice can help. Bhakti can help. Being vegan can help. But no practice will be effective unless we are willing to open our minds and hearts to see beyond the “reality” presented to us by culture. When we reach liberation, we will find that there is actually no difference between individuals of any species. We are all one—we are all one Divine soul.