Chapter 6 Part 3: Euthanasia. Killing of Animals.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a paradox of sorts. The traditional role of the physician is to save life. But here he is expected to take away life. The justifying rationale is that a very important task of the physician is to relieve the patient of the burden of suffering and pain. Just as one of the means that nature uses to relieve our miseries of one life at least is to send us for a while into the sleep of death. So also when the doctor is aware that there is no further hope to live and that prolonging survival would only mean to prolong the patient’s agony and pain, then it would be better to assist him in his departure or at least deny any active support that would be merely extending his pain. Accordingly as the case may be, euthanasia is categorised into two types: active and passive. Active euthanasia is like assisted suicide wherein the doctor in some way assists the patient to die through his active intervention (in favour of death). The patient in this instance may be mentally alert and makes his choice and just as one prays to god to grant life or death so too here he calls upon his human physician god to grant him death. The issue centers around the right to die with dignity. Dr. Jack Kevorkian who invented the suicide machine achieved notoriety in the USA for active euthanasia. Though convicted of manslaughter, he called himself a social activist who was delivering people of their pain!

Passive euthanasia involves withdrawal of life-support systems in the terminally ill. Whatever it may be, the following questions arise in our consideration of the subject of euthanasia: could it be that the person opting for death is labouring under some form of depression and needs treatment for the same rather than granting him the death wish?

Is the choice of his surface being also the choice of his inmost soul? We know that man is a complex entity and often harbours  contradictory wills. A part of him may want a temporary respite from suffering through death but another part may not like to give up the struggle and perhaps yet another part may be actually enjoying it! So the question is, which part is in front when he is choosing to embrace death? Is it his nobler and higher part as in the case of the hero who sacrifices his life for the nation? Or is it his lower vital part that is in love with tragedy and therefore seeks death as a tragic end to the drama of life? Or is it his rational but ignorant part that knows not the significance of suffering when it comes in our earthly life? Or is it the worst in him, a nervous recoil from pain and a shrinking from the horror of the battle of life? It is not easy to know and therefore the decision to quit needs to be questioned, the patient led to deeper understanding of himself through his pain and not simply complied with as an ignorant mother would comply with each and every wish of the errant child.

What type of karma do the doctor and the patient and the relatives incur when they become active assistants of death rather than the creative children of life and light?

Who decides that the hour of death is close and there is nothing more that can happen? Based upon existing knowledge (or ignorance) and the law of probability, miracles do happen. And the greatest miracle is not necessarily the last minute personal survival of a dying man but a transformative change in his consciousness, helping him to face death with the certitude of immortality. Can we predict when this inner enlightenment will come and will it be wise to take away that possibility by focusing too much on the pain of the body?

Who knows what is transpiring within the consciousness of the individual while he is outwardly comatosed or even suffering?

Is the decision of family and friends due to genuine concern for the terminally ill? Or is it a nervous shrinking from the sight of another’s pain and worse still, a means to relieve themselves of their own suffering of taking care of the terminally ill?

The sole remedy is to grow in our consciousness but till we can do that it may be better as a general rule not to interfere too much with nature’s play in and around oneself or to play god while one is still a struggling human being.

The coma and unconsciousness of the body and mind does not necessarily imply an unconsciousness of the soul. And who are we to limit the possibilities for the soul that may be using this narrow window of opportunity called coma and death to realise itself? Who can say when we shall wake up from our sleep and at which fortunate moment realise that we are essentially deathless and divine? Here is a real life story penned by a medical doctor trained in the Western paradigm that shakes the very foundations of our belief and actions.

“Karen had slipped into a coma. There was involvement of every organ of her body, including her brain, and literally no other chemical agent to be tried. There was nothing we could do. After viewing the CT scan and seeing the diffuse brain involvement, it was easy to see why. We expected each day to be her last. Her eyes were fixed and unresponsive, her breathing shallow. Her heart was still strong, as we knew it would be. However, the disease (acute leukemia) was ravaging her blood system and brain, and there was evidence of opportunistic pneumonia involving both lungs. We knew that she would soon die.

“I began to have a tremendous dread of Karen dying while I was on call. I did not want to pronounce her dead. It came to a point where I hoped that her death would come on nights that I was away from the hospital because I feared that I would not be any emotional support for the family, or that I would even be able to perform my duties as a physician. This family had come to mean so much to me.

“It was a Wednesday night, and Karen had been in a coma for four days. I was the chief resident on call for the wards. I spoke with the family and peeked in on Karen. I noticed her breathing was very shallow and her temperature quite low. Death could be imminent. I selfishly hoped to myself that maybe she’d wait until tomorrow to die. I went about my chores until about 3.00 am, when I finally tried to get some sleep. At 4.00 am I received a STAT pager to Karen’s room. This puzzled me somewhat because we were not going to make any heroic interventions. Nevertheless, I ran to her room.

“The nurse greeted me outside the room and grabbed my arm. ‘Karen wants to talk to you.’ I literally thought this nurse was crazy. I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about — Karen was in a coma. At this point in my life, my scientific, Newtonian way of thinking ruled my thoughts, primarily because this is the approach we are trained in day in and day out in medical school. I had neglected other, more important spiritual aspects of my being, ignoring the instinct that knows what reason cannot know.

“I went into the room, and to my amazement, Karen was sitting up in bed. Her mother was on the left side of the bed, her father on the right. I stood next to the father, not saying anything, not knowing what to say. Karen’s eyes which had been glazed over for four days, were now clear and sharp. She simply stated, ‘God has come for me. It is time for me to go.’ She then hugged us tightly, one at a time. These were strong hugs, hugs that I keep thinking were impossible. I could only visualize her CT scan and the severe degree of brain damage. How could this be?

“Then Karen lay down. But she popped back up immediately, as if she had forgotten something. She went around the bed to each of us again, with her penetrating eyes fixing our stares. No hugs this time. But her hands were strong and steady, squeezing our shoulders as she spoke. ‘God is here,’ she said. ‘Do you see him? Do you know him?’ I was scared. Nothing in my experience could explain what was happening here. There was nothing else to say, so I mumbled, ‘Yes. Goodbye. Thank you.’ I didn’t know what to say. The entire time, I kept visualising that CT scan. Then Karen lay back down and died — or I should say, she quit breathing and her heart stopped. Her powerful spirit went on living.

“It was years before I could tell that story, even to my wife. I still cannot tell it without feeling overwhelming emotions. I know now that this experience is not something to be understood through the limited viewpoint of the scientific realm. We are, in essence, spiritual beings in a spiritual universe, not primarily governed by Newton’s laws, but by the laws of God.”[1]

 

Killing of Animals

This important issue has somehow received scant attention of mankind so far. Though there have been certain individual efforts or even sometimes general efforts guided by religious or humane sentiment, it is only recently that the plight of animals being slaughtered is being noticed. So merciless has been the hand of the killer that some species have come close to extinction. Here we need to remember the spiritual as well as material truth that ‘man-animal-plant-material’ form a single chain linked by such a oneness that an unenlightened disruption of any part of the whole threatens the entire chain itself. But that apart the issue involves deeper facets of human life and our outlook towards life itself. The question can be answered in two parts — the general and the individual.

Generally speaking, animal killing is done, for four main reasons:

  • For food whether for purposes of the palate, taste or sometimes health and nutrients (though current views on the subject hardly justify it).
  • For commercial purposes like ivory, leather, fur, etc.
  • For medicinal and research purposes.
  • For purposes of self-defense as for example killing a poisonous or wild animal to preserve one’s own life or another’s.

Now, the real issue is which of these purposes really helps in the evolutionary march of humanity and preserves the balance of life upon earth (lokasangrahartha of the Gita). The blind and merciless killing for commercial interests (including fancy food and some drug firms) is obviously far from evolutionary. With regard to health one can envisage certain situations wherein meat or soup (let us exclude unfertilized eggs from the issue) may be understandable as for example in areas with hardly any vegetation, or with people involved in vigorous muscular activity (like athletes or warriors and army-men) or sometimes in cases of severe debilitating illness. Here the principle is that given a choice of survival higher forms that are closer to an expression of divinity are to be preserved over the lower, although such a choice would really be rare, in modern times at least. Besides, we should not forget that nature has provided us with a digestive tract that is primarily suited for vegetarian food. Much of the justification of eating animals is deep down an argument for the sake of justifying the taste buds and nothing more. A balanced vegetarian diet is not only healthy but also prevents quite a few diseases that non-vegetarians are prone to. These are now proven facts that are no more in the sphere of ambiguity. The same would apply to a certain extent with regard to drug research as well. But only to a certain extent. The line between genuine trial for the interests of medicine and commerce/research for its own sake is often thin. Most animal research can truly be done away with. But commerce and ambition (promotions through paper publication) stand as a barrier on the way; human insensitiveness and cruelty perpetuate our own animality. Unfortunately, in our present stage of Ignorance wherein the average man depends so much on allopathic treatment, it is difficult to say which is a better choice. But then let us also hope and work towards a future wherein we no more need medicines from outside for health and healing. That would be the real solution. But so long as men continue to depend upon allopathic drugs, it is difficult to do away completely with animal research. It will be like taking the crutch away from a lame man before teaching him to walk. Finally, animal killing or for that matter even human killing for self-defence (as in a defensive war) is naturally justified and perhaps even an act of courage leading to soul-development and protection of others.

But for now the dilemma exists and the question remains as to how we are to tackle it individually? The rule is the same here — to do what helps in the evolutionary march of the individual Divine within us. If there is a conflict between an outer conduct done for purely external and commercial reasons and the natural awakening to an inner law then there is no doubt that the inner law is to be respected. It is only the Divine Will whose command, if one has clearly received it, can and does transcend both, the outer and the inner. For both these lesser standards are ultimately partial and therefore ignorant ways of seeing and feeling, albeit necessary for the moment. The Divine alone knows and sees the whole truth. In other words, while we must respect the growing inner sensitivity in us which is like the softer cover of a seed (in contrast to the hard and insensitive outer cover) yet we should be careful not to make a fetish of any single ideal (including non-violence) or become a social activist driven by an emotional idealism (unless that is what we are presently called upon to do by our nature). One should also be sure that the shrinking from violence is not a recoil of the sensory-nervous parts (pity and jugupsa) but a genuine need of the inner being. The true solution can only come by the growth of our soul whose authentic light can truly guide us through all dilemmas.

“Nature in her deeper aspect as a conscious spiritual Power is concerned with the growth, by experience, the spiritual development of the souls she has in her charge — and these souls themselves have a say in the matter. All these good people lament and wonder that unaccountably they and other good people are visited with such meaningless sufferings and misfortunes. But are they really visited with them by an outside Power or by a mechanical Law of Karma? Is it not possible that the soul itself — not the outward mind, but the spirit within has accepted and chosen these things as part of its development in order to get through the necessary experience at a rapid rate, to hew through… even at the risk or the cost of much damage to the outward life and the body? To the growing soul, to the spirit within us, may not difficulties, obstacles, attacks be a means of growth, added strength, enlarged experience, training for spiritual victory? The arrangement of things may be that and not a mere question of the pounds, shillings and pence of a distribution of rewards and retributory misfortunes!

“It is the same with the problem of the taking of animal life under the circumstances put forward by your friend in the letter. It is put on the basis of an invariable ethical right and wrong to be applied to all cases — is it right to take animal life at all, under any circumstances, is it right to allow an animal to suffer under your eyes when you can relieve it by an euthanasia? There can be no indubitable answer to a question put like that, because the answer depends on data which the mind has not before it. In fact there are many other factors which make people incline to this short and merciful way out of the difficulty — the nervous inability to bear the sight and hearing of so much suffering, the unavailing trouble, the disgust and inconvenience — all tend to give force to the idea that the animal itself would want to be out of it. But what does the animal really feel about it — may it not be clinging to life in spite of the pain? Or may not the soul have accepted these things for a quicker evolution into a higher state of life? If so, the mercy dealt out may conceivably interfere with the animal’s Karma. In fact the right decision might vary in each case and depend on a knowledge which the human mind has not — and it might very well be said that until it has it, it has not the right to take life. It was some dim perception of this truth that made religion and ethics develop the law of Ahimsa — and yet that too becomes a mental rule which it is found impossible to apply in practice. And perhaps the moral of it all is that we must act for the best according to our lights in each case, as things are, but that the solution of these problems can only come by pressing forward towards a greater light, a greater consciousness in which the problems themselves, as now stated by the human mind, will not arise because we shall have a vision which will see the world in a different way and a guidance which at present is not ours. The mental or moral rule is a stop-gap which men are obliged to use, very uncertainly and stumblingly, until they can see things whole in the light of the spirit.”[2]

Not so shall Truth extend her flight sublime,
Pass from the poor beginnings she has made
And with the splendour of her wings displayed
Range through the boundaries of Space and Time.
 
Clamp her not down to her material finds!
She shall go further. She shall not reject
The light within, nor shall the dialect
Of unprogressive pedants bar men’s minds…
The intellect is not all; a guide within
Awaits our question. He it was informed
The reason He surpasses; and unformed
Presages of His mightiness begin.[3]

The Triumph-Song of Trishancou

I shall not die.
Although this body, when the spirit tires
Of its cramped residence, shall feed the fires,
My house consumes, not I.
 
Leaving that case
I find out ample and ethereal room.
My spirit shall avoid the hungry tomb,
Deceiving death’s embrace.
 
Night shall contain
The sun in its cold depths; Time too must cease;
The stars that labour shall have their release.
I cease not, I remain…

Transformation

My breath runs in a subtle rhythmic stream;
It fills my members with a might divine:
I have drunk the Infinite like a giant’s wine.
Time is my drama or my pageant dream.
Now are my illumined cells joy’s flaming scheme
And changed my thrilled and branching nerves to fine
Channels of rapture opal and hyaline
For the influx of the Unknown and the Supreme.
 
I am no more a vassal of the flesh,
A slave to Nature and her leaden rule;
I am caught no more in the senses’ narrow mesh.
My soul unhorizoned widens to measureless sight,
My body is God’s happy living tool,
My spirit a vast sun of deathless light.

Sri Aurobindo


[1] James C. Brown, M.D (as retold in Chicken soup for the Soul, 5th Portion)
[2] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 449-51
[3] Sri Aurobindo: ‘In the Moonlight’, Collected Poems, pp. 59-60

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