Reverence for Life in Religion

Eastern and Western Views

Gerald E. Jones

Gerald E. Jones, “Reverence for Life in Religion: Eastern and Western Views,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 107–20.

Ahimsa is an Eastern term referring to a reverence for life which implies noninjury to any living thing. It is based on a belief that sacred and divine powers undergird all natural or physical forms. The Jains, followers of Nataputta Vardhamana, best known as Mahavira (c. 600 B.C.), are the most noted disciples of respect for all living creatures. The “Pillow of Righteousness” sutra recounts Mahavira’s teachings on ahimsa:

Thoroughly knowing the earth-bodies and fire-bodies and wind-bodies, the lichens, seeds, and sprouts,

He comprehended that they are if narrowly inspected, imbued with life, and avoided to injure them. (l:xi–xii)

Practising the sinless abstinence from killing. (l:xvi)

In Ladha . . . the dogs bit him [and] ran at him. (3:iii)

Few people kept off the attacking, biting dogs. Striking the monk, they cried “khukkhu” and made the dogs bite him. (3:iv)

Ceasing to use the stick against living beings, abandoning the care of the body, the houseless Mahavira, the Venerable One, endures the thornes of the villages perfectly enlightened. (3:vii)

Without ceasing in his reflections . . . the Venerable One slowly wandered about, and, killing no creatures, he begged for his food. (4:xii) [1]

This practice was later codified in the first of Five Great Vows’ for Jain monks.

I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtile or gross . . . Nor shall I myself kill living beings.

A Nirgrantha [monk] is careful in his walk, not careless. The Kevalin assigns as the reason, that a Nirgrantha, careless in his walk, might hurt or displace or injure or kill living beings.

A Nirgrantha who is careless in laying down his utensils of begging, might hurt or displace or injure or kill all sorts of living beings. Hence a Nirgrantha is careful in laying down his utensils . . .

If a Nirgrantha would eat and drink without inspecting his food and drink, he might hurt and displace or injure or kill all sorts of living beings. Hence a Nirgrantha eats and drinks after inspecting his food and drink, not without doing so.

This is, Sir, the first great vow: Abstinence from killing any living beings. [2]

Other vows included abstinence from lying, stealing, sexual pleasures, and attachment to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and feelings of any material objects. All of these vows relate to reverence toward life, but with a humane emphasis. In Jainism, the doctrine of ahimsa was extended to include even the non-sentient world—thus rocks and trees have spirits that must not be injured or maligned. [3]

The origin of ahimsa has had various explanations. Though Radhakrishna and Moore imply that the Jains originated the practice of ahimsa in reaction to Hindu sacrifices, [4] Crooke and Barth hold that Buddhism first developed the concept. [5] I feel there is ample evidence, however, to justify the view of Dasgupta and Jacobi that ahimsa was developed in the obscure past of ancient Hinduism. [6]

The Law of Manu hints at the concept:

7. Taking what has not been given, injuring without the sanction of the law. . . .

11. That man who keeps this threefold control with respect to all created beings and wholly subdues desire and wrath, thereby assuredly gains complete success. [7]

The early Chandogya Upanishad comments that

He who is harmless [ahimsant] toward all things elsewhere than at holy places—he, indeed, who lives thus throughout his length of life, reaches the Brahma-world and does not return hither again—yea, he does not return hither again. [8]

The Mahabharata states:

I know morality, which is eternal, with all its mysteries. It is nothing else than that ancient morality which is known to all, and which consists of universal friendliness, and is fraught with beneficence towards all creatures or upon a minimum of such harm, is the highest morality. [9]

And in the ever-popular Bhagavad-Gita we find:

Non-violence, truth, freedom from anger, renunciation, tranquility, aversion to fault finding, compassion to living beings, freedom from covetousness. [10]

Ahimsa is an important thread in the fabric of Jain philosophy. The dualistic realism of the Jain is divided into the jiva or life principle and the ajiva or the world of nature—time, space, law, and the material world. By practicing the ahimsa ethic, a Jain may be able to loosen ties with the material world and finally become liberated from ajiva. As previously noted, this also results in greater “light” and freedom from darkness. The intensity of light in man’s monad-crystal is in direct proportion to his obedience to ahimsa. Ahimsa not only includes kind treatment to lower forms of life, but the avoidance of lying, stealing, adultery, etc., which would injure other living beings, strengthen ties to the material world, and promote darkness in his mind rather than the light that should be within. [11]

Though monks live a highly refined version of ahimsa, laity do have a vow of ahimsa known as “anubrata,” or “small vow,” which prohibits meat eating and the killing of annoying insects.

Buddhists have practiced ahimsa since the days of Gautama. The great monastic order, the Sangha, has as its first vow to refrain from destroying life. Asoka, one of India’s foremost rulers, was converted to Buddhism and helped spread his faith over much of the East. One rule adopted by Asoka was to eliminate meat from the royal diet. In A.D. 559, Asoka decreed that many animals were to be protected.

In more recent times a well-known advocate of ahimsa was the Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi had been a lax Hindu until he came under the influence of a Jain priest. After he had made a vow to abstain from sex, wine, and meat, his mother allowed him to go to England to school. At law school in London, Gandhi became a strong supporter of the vegetarian movement. [12]

A Westerner who was strongly influenced by the Eastern concept of ahimsa was Albert Schweitzer. In his work Civilization and Ethics, Schweitzer develops his ethical standard of “reverence for life.” His motivation did not come from the West but from the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain practice of ahimsa. [13] It is interesting to note that the vegetarian and humane movements exhibit a great deal of consternation in their literature on the lack of support from Christian churches. The reason for this discrepancy between Eastern and Western views is one of our concerns as we survey the Western view of life.

The Hebrews have had a well-established tradition of reverence for life, referred to as Tsa’ar Ba’ale Hayim. [14] The Deuteronomic concern for animals was an integral part of the sacrificial rite. The animal was to be killed in the most efficient and painless manner then known and with a sacrificial attitude. The practical acceptance of man’s obvious superiority over animals and the Jewish pragmatic approach to life in general influenced later Christian thought. There is no evidence of a viable vegetarianism in Judaism nor a strong pacifist concern for human life.

The Gnostics and some individual Greeks were strong advocates of reverence for life in early Western culture. Though some Greeks viewed man as the Hebrews did, many intellectuals felt that the material body was something to escape from. Others almost worshipped physical beauty. There were four Greeks who are remembered as having a strong influence on man’s treatment of animals.

Pythagoras (570–470 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher whose ideas influenced Plato and the fields of mathematics and mysticism. His doctrine of metempsychosis was a basis for treating animals kindly. Pythagoras held that animals had souls of past or future humans, therefore eating animal flesh was unnatural and unlawful since animals were “fraternal” beings. [15]

Plutarch, of biographical fame, also wrote ethical treatises, at least three of which express concern for animals. He advocated vegetarianism from a moral point of view. Plutarch also advised:

Be as humane as you can . . . Cause as little suffering as possible . . . Kindness and beneficence should be extended to creatures of every species . . . We should be merciful to other creatures. For my own part I would not sell even an old ox. [16]

An early critic of Christianity in the latter part of the second century was Celsus, recorded mainly in Origen’s Contra Celsum. One of Celsus’ favorite points of criticism was the Judeo- Christian idea that man was the center of the universe. With sharp insight and irony, he argued that animals, not man, were the center of the universe. In his view, everything was created not in the interest of something else, but to contribute to the harmony of the whole in order that the world might be absolutely perfect. [17]

The third-century neo-Platonist, Plotinus, taught the concept of an animating force within animals being human in nature or at least a radiation from the all-soul. [18] Either explanation gave ample reason for concern for animal rights.

Porphyry was an ardent disciple of Plotinus. Born in Tyre about A. D. 232, he commented in his treatise “Abstinence from Animal Food”:

Since justice consists in not injuring anything, it must be extended as far as to every animated creature. He who is led by reason does not confine harmless conduct to men alone, but extends it to other animals and is so more similar to divinity. [19]

The New Testament contains very little impetus to advocate reverence for animal life, though it is the epitome of concern for humanity. There are references to the attention paid to the five sparrows being sold for two farthings, “not one of them is forgotten before God.” (Luke 12:6) The value judgment is stated, however, that men are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:31) Vegetarianism is discouraged when Paul reminds Timothy that meat was created by God to be received “with thanksgiving.” (1 Timothy 4:1–5) Some, however, did teach vegetarianism as a “council of perfection” (Teachings of the Apostles 6:2). Concurrently, the Manicheans remind us of the Jains in that they abstained from eating meat on the grounds that it produced darkness within them while vegetables produced light. [20]

As traditional Christianity developed, we discovered some individual advocates of reverence for life. Bishop Basil of Ceasarea was one of the first Christians who advocated animals having spirits or souls. Basil’s telestial creatures were aquatic beings with no spirits; terrestrial animals had spirits but were limited because their heads pointed to the earth. Man, on the other hand, had a head that pointed up, thus indicating his celestial nature. Terrestrial animal spirits would not share in the survival of death with the celestial human. [21] Boethius, around the turn of the sixth century, was very fond of animals but believed they were earthbound.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone became the patron saint of animals as he made Assisi famous. But the theological die was cast when Origen contended with Celsus. Animals were made for man—period. Augustine chided the Manicheans, as Origen did Celsus, for asserting that animals were worthy of any consideration except as providers of food, labor, and clothing for man. Augustine did admit that they brought about one benefit—forcing people to live together in groups. Though man can learn some lessons by watching animals, the beasts themselves lack the divine qualities of reason and free will. [22]

In the thirteenth century Aquinas advocated kindness with a caution. The important thing is not the rights or feelings of the animals, but the attitude of man that needs training. [23] This became the standard rationale for mainline Christianity. What usually only theologians realize is that Francis of Assisi became a saint in spite of his love for animals—not because of it. As a modern Catholic editorial points out, there is a danger in showing much concern for animals. The “empathetic fallacy” of humane societies and a reverence for life of a lower nature than man is actually a sin. When old ladies leave a thousand dollars to care for their pets while there are suffering people, it is a sin. Our attention should be towards God, any efforts less than this may go towards our fellow humans—but never to a lesser form of life. Since animals do not have souls nor will they be resurrected, we should not be attracted to the lower material but to things spiritual. [24] Except for rare individuals such as John Wesley, who believed otherwise, there were very few Christians who stood against the vast majority who had no reverence for animal life. There were some important individuals, such as the philosopher Pierre Bayle, who spoke for animal rights independent of the church of the time and argued that animals had an eternal soul. [25]

Thomas More’s plan for a Utopia included the ethical precept that hunting animals should be abandoned. Believing cruelty to animals “had no affinity with true and right feelings,” he relegated butchers to the lowest rung in society. [26]

Jeremy Bentham advocated forbidding “every kind of cruelty exercised towards animals.” Common in England during his life in the eighteenth century were cockfights, bullbaiting, and hunting hares and foxes—all of which tended to dull the sensibilities of mankind. Bentham contended that “the question is not, can they reason nor, can they talk, but can they suffer?” [27]

William Hogarth presented a graphic study of human cruelty to animals and mankind in his engravings Four Stages of Cruelty. The first of the four depicted the pleasure men received from torturing animals. In the remaining scenes, Hogarth portrayed what he felt was the result of cruelty to animals—cruelty to other human beings. [28] Hogarth’s engravings have been credited for motivating later English legislation protecting animals.

Vegetarianism has had many early advocates in the Western world, many of whom were concerned about the suffering of animals. Men such as John Evelyn, Thomas Tryon, Alexander Pope, John Wesley, Henry Clubb, W. A. Alcott, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Sylvester Graham were all publishing vegetarians. William Metcalfe was a leader in the vegetarian Bible Christian Church, which had moved from England to Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century. [29]

Though some individual clergymen, such as Joseph Butler, John Hildrop, Soame Jenyns, Capel Barrow, John Wood, Earnest Bell, E. D. Buckner (who thought he was alone), Agnes Carr and Richard Dean, followed John Wesley in believing that animals had souls and would be resurrected, the majority followed the Reverend Peter Browne, who ridiculed the idea by saying the resurrection of animals was inconceivable and that God would never allow cheese weevils to flourish in heaven. [30]

Concern for animals was first officially expressed in America by articles ninety-two and ninety-three of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s puritan Body of Liberties. The code stipulated that “no man shall exercise any Tirrany or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usually kept for man’s use.” [31] Thomas Paine and James O’Kelley led the way for such leaders as Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 10 April 1866 in New York. George Bancroft was a strong supporter of the movement. George T. Angell organized the Massachusetts SPCA in 1868 and founded the first zoophilic periodical in the world, Our Dumb Animals. [32]

The development of these movements was motivated by a variety of factors: (1) There was a concern for “rights” of animals as living creatures as advocated by Porphyry and Thomas Paine and the contemporary James Rachels and Peter Singer. (2) Empathy for the suffering of other beings was emphasized by many following Jeremy Bentham and Eastern ahimsa. (3) Vegetarianism was the motivation of Plutarch and Pope. (4) A utilitarian social benefit appears to be the prime motivation of Hogarth, More, Montaigne, and Aquinas as they saw men practising kindness (or cruelty) on animals and thus becoming trained in their relationships with humans. (5) A feeling of familial relationship is evident among many evolutionists, modern ecologists, Celsus, Pythagoras, and the Hindu tradition. (6) Finally, and probably the least influential in the Western world, is the religious doctrine of animals having souls, being immortal, or being protected by commands not to kill. [33] It is the religious aspect that we will now pursue as we explore some Christian denominations and the Latter-day Saint view in particular.

Vegetarianism among Christian denominations has not always led to a developed sense of reverence for life. The United Society of Believers in the Second Appearing of Christ, commonly called Shakers, were a notable exception. Though “Mother” Ann Lee once taught that dogs had evil spirits and thus were not allowed in homes nor were children to play with them, she later taught “justice and kindness to all the brute creation.” Claiming revelations from their deceased Shaker leader, Philemon Steward advocated “holy laws of Zion” which included kindness to animals. Many Shakers did not follow this injunction. H. L. Eads, Bishop of South Union, Kentucky, argued strenuously for the healthiness of eating pork as opposed to the vegetarian faction. [34]

Joseph Smith developed a concern for animals through his efforts at revising the Bible. Whereas William Metcalfe of the Bible Christians altered the punctuation of Genesis 9:5, the Prophet changed it dramatically to read: “And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands.” This concept of being judged for our treatment of animals was repeated in the Doctrine and Covenants 49:21 (interestingly intended as a response to Shaker doctrine but given before they practiced vegetarianism). Zion’s Camp offered the first practical application of this principle when they were confronted with rattlesnakes on at least two occasions. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both advised the avoidance of harm to the snakes. [35]

When the Prophet questioned the meaning of animals in heaven as described in Revelation 4, the Lord taught the Prophet a reason for concern. Animals do have spirits, they will be resurrected, enjoy eternal felicity being “full of knowledge,” and have power to move about the heavens. (D&C 77:2–4) Preaching a sermon on the subject of animal resurrection, Joseph Smith touched the heart of Jedediah Grant, who had believed John Wesley but had not found a proponent until then. [36]

Reverence for life has always been present in sermons and writings of Latter-day Saint leaders. In fact, they stand out as a peculiar people in the Christian world today. Brigham Young led out strongly in sustaining Joseph Smith’s advocacy of reverence for animal life. Reproving hunters for killing more than they could eat, he taught that “these creatures of God” were to be treated with kindness so that “peace [will] increase, and the savage nature of the brute creation [will] vanish a way.” [37] His counsel to a man with a dying horse “never to destroy life” found echo in the words of President Joseph F. Smith. President Smith, the most prolific advocate of the humane movement among the Church’s presidents, instituted a humane day program in the Sunday School for the first Sunday in February. [38] For many years the February issue of the Juvenile Instructor carried up to twenty pages of humane material. Its founder and longtime editor and publisher, George Q. Cannon, counselor to three presidents of the Church, has been the strongest advocate for reverence for animal life in the Church’s history. [39] President David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Spencer W. Kimball have all made strong pleas for a concern for animal life. [40]

With this background, we shall make some general comments. Eastern ahimsa is a far more integrated way of life in the Eastern culture than the humane movements in the Western world. Some philosophical premises are not as far apart as the religious or ethical codes have become in practice. The recognition of grades of living creatures is found in both cultures. Jains, however, find no authority great enough to warrant killing any living creature. Judeo-Christians and naturalistic humanists, on the other hand, have generally accepted the fact that the lower forms of life may be sacrificed for the higher human needs. With the West believing in the survival of the fittest, whether physically or spiritually, we find the destruction of other human life in order to preserve the righteous achievers or believers. Indeed, killing may be rewarded if commanded by civil or religious leaders. This does not mean a disregard for living things, but rather understanding that short-term suffering or punishment may be beneficial in the long term (1 Nephi 4:13). Suffering and punishment, to the Western mind, is not as absolutely evil as in the Eastern traditions. [41]

One last comment. What is the source of this common denominator— even though seen in various capacities? As Professor Palmer has so ably pointed out, [42] similarities in religious principles or practices may be explained by (1) man’s common spirit; their “primordial images” from a premortal existence are manifesting themselves. (2) The devil invention theory proposes that the forces of evil are trying to deceive humanity with false counterfeits. This is a popular view among many religions. (3) Diffusion or the sharing of ideas by cross-cultural assimilation became popular as the result of nineteenth-century German scholarship. (4) A psychological explanation is that people are similar in their make-up and therefore develop common answers to a common human predicament. (5) Another religious explanation is found among the Latter-day Saints with the claim that the light and spirit of Christ inspires all men in the same way. (6) Finally, there is the explanation that revelation may come to all nations from God who gives all that His wisdom “seeth fit that they should have.” (Alma 29:8) For the Lord commands “all men to write the words which I speak unto them” and they will be judged according to their ability to live the words which they have been given. (2 Nephi 29:11) Recognizing that there may be some truth in all explanations, I am strongly partial to the last explanation. I think ahimsa can be regarded as a common denominator in our efforts to relate to some of the children of our Father in heaven who live in Asia.


[1] Akaranga Sutra 1:8:1–4, translated by Hermann Jacobi as found in F. Max Muller, ed., Sacred Books of the East XXII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884), 79–87.

[2] Ibid., 11:15:1–5.

[3] Ibid., I:4:2:v.

[4] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy I (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 148 and Radhakrishnan and George E. Moore, ed., A Source Book in Indian Philosophy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), 251.

[5] William Crooke, Religion and Folklore of Northern India (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), 103–4 and A. Barth: The Religions of India, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company, Ltd., 1921), 97, 139.

[6] Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), pp. 506–511. Jacobi op. cit., SBE XXII, xxii–xxxv.

[7] Radhakrishnan and Moore, A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, 173.

[8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Ibid., 264–65.

[10] Ibid., 152.

[11] Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (New York: Pantheon, 1951), 249–57.

[12] Haridas T. Muzumdar, Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), 10–23 and Mahatma Gandhi: All Men Are Brothers (New York: UNESCO, 1958), 89.

[13] Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics (3rd ed.) (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1949), 240–72.

[14] Noah J. Cohen, Tsa’ar Ba’ale Hayim—The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Its Bases, Development and Legislation in Hebrew Literature, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1959).

[15] Ovid, Metempsychosis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916), pp. 369–93, 399. See also Herbert Strainge Long, A Study of the Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Greece from Pythagoras to Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948).

[16] Plutarch, Moralia V in Lives and Writings (New York: Colonial, 1905), 10:3–16.

[17] Origen, “Against Celsus,” Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1953), 4:541.

[18] Plotinus, Enneads (Boston: Charles T. Ranford, 1916), p. 39.

[19] Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), 109–22.

[20] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Manichaeans” in Nicene andPost-Nicene Fathers, (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1895), 4:77–86, chaps. 14–17.

[21] Basil, “The Haemeron” Homily VIII, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1895), 8:95.

[22] Augustine, “Concerning the Statues,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 8:1, 9:395.

[23] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 383–84, 510, in Great Books of the Western World, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1959).

[24] “Empathetic Fallacy,” America 101 (August 1959): 567.

[25] Pierre Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary (Indianapolis: Bobbs and Merrill, 1965), 213–54.

[26] Thomas More, Utopia (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 200–201.

[27] Jeremy Bentham, The Words of Jeremy Bentham New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), 1:562.

[28] Philip P. Hallie, The Paradox of Cruelty (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), pp. 20–33.

[29] Gerald E. Jones, “Concern for Animals as Manifest in Five American Churches: Bible Christian, Shaker, Latter-day Saint, Christian Scientist and Seventh-Day Adventist” (unpublished dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1972), 12–17.

[30] Ibid., 18–22.

[31] Emily Steward Leavitt, Animals and Their Legal Rights (New York: Animal Welfare Institute, 1968), 13.

[32] Francis H. Rowley, The Humane Idea (Boston: American Humane Society, 1912), 48.

[33] Tom Regan and Peter Singer, Animal Rights and Human Obligations (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

[34] H. L. Eads, Shaker Sermons (South Union, KY: n.p., 1889), 334.

[35] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1959), 2:71.

[36] George D. Watt, et. al. (reporters), Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854), 3, 8, hereafter referred to as JD.

[37] JD 1:203.

[38] Gerald.E. Jones, “President Joseph F. Smith and Kindness to Animals,” Animal Stewardship 1 (August 1973): 6–11.

[39] Gerald E. Jones, “George Q. Cannon: Advocate of Kindness to Animals,” Animal Stewardship 1 (May, 1973): 7–13.

[40] Gerald E. Jones, “The Gospel and Animals” Ensign 2 (August 1972): 62–65, and “David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith: Advocates for Animals,” Animal Stewardship 1 (February 1974): 8–13.

[41] John A. Miles Jr., “Jain and Judeo-Christian Respect for Life,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44 (September 1976): 453–57.

[42] Spencer J. Palmer, “Mormon Views of Religious Resemblances,” Brigham Young University Studies 16 (Summer 1976): 660–81.