Ideals and Values/Compassion towards all Creatures
Compassion towards all Creatures
29.1 Types of Compassions
There are several words in Sanskrit and English that denote different grades and types of compassion. They are:
- Mercy: Forgive the lapses of other. The Sanskrit word for this is Kṣamā.
- Compassion: Beholding others with love even when they commit a lot of evil actions. A metal emotion of a compassionate person who always hopes and prays that the evil person will get reformed. The Sanskrit word for this emotion is karu.
- Kindness: Act to alleviate the sufferings of others. Compared to compassion, it is more action oriented. The Sanskrit word for kindness is Dayā.
29.2 What is Compassion?
Swami Tejoymayānanda explains the ideal very eloquently-
What do we mean by compassion? It is the ability to stand by and see other suffer. It is not something passive but where one actively tries to alleviate the suffering of others. Many times we have abundant compassion for people of our own country or religion, but for others we have little or none. Sometimes we are large-hearted to people, but cruel to animals. Some people slaughter animals for food, clothing and for sport and abuse them for medical and cosmetic experiments. How then are we to follow a spiritual path? Compassion is at the very heart of religions and righteousness. Our compassion should include plants and animals. When we destroy trees indiscriminately, we suffer the results of our actions expressed in a damaged ecology. Whenever we cause such harm we suffer the consequences automatically. Swami Tejomayānanda
The significant point to note is that Hindu Dharma lays great emphasis on extending the practice of compassion to animals and plants as well, whereas Islam and Christianity lacks that emphasis. The reason for this difference is that Hindus believe that animals and plants also have a soul, whereas within the Abrahamic religions, there is a debate whether animals and plants have a soul or not.
29.3 Difference between Compassion and Pity
Compassion is often confused with Pity. The former is a positive virtue, where the latter is a negative or a neutral behavior. Again Swami Tejomayānanda explains the difference between the two:
Compassion is something other than pity. Pity suggests distance, even a certain condescendence. I often act with pity. I give some money to a beggar on the streets of Toronto or New York City, but I do not look him in his eyes, sit down with him, or talk with him. I am too busy to really pay attention to the man who reaches out to me. My money replaces my personal attention and gives me an excuse to walk on.
Compassion means to become close to the one who suffers. But we can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves. A compassionate person says: I am your brother; I am your sister; I am human, fragile, and mortal, just like you. I am not scandalized by your tears, nor afraid of your pain. I too have wept. I too have felt pain. We can be with the other only when the other ceases to be other and becomes like us.
This, perhaps, is the main reason that we sometimes find it easier to show pity than compassion. The suffering person calls us to become aware of our own suffering. Henri J. M. Nowen has said that:
How can I respond to someone's loneliness unless I am in touch with my own experience of loneliness? How can I be close to handicapped people when I refuse to acknowledge my own handicaps? How can I be with the poor when I am unwilling to confess my own poverty?
29.4 Why Should we Practice the Ideal of Compassion?
There are several reasons due to which we should show compassion in our behavior. These reasons are illustrated through the stories below:
Show compassion because no one is worthy of total contempt. Everyone has some unique and special ability.
Story: Swami Chinmayānanda appreciates a Mentally Disturbed Student We were at a Yagna somewhere in the US. It was in the middle years of his [Swami Chinmayānanda's] world tours in the 1980s. A very disturbed woman was one of the registrants. She created havoc wherever she went and everyone shunned her because her behavior was so disruptive. The organizers wanted to make her leave. Even though we were all in various degrees of unrest ourselves, she stood out because of her seeming loss of touch with reality. Gurudev made the decision that she should stay. At the end of the camp, she presented him with a wonderful portrait of himself. He held it up proudly for everyone to see it, showing us that there is untapped beauty in everyone. I remember all of us feeling thoroughly ashamed for treating her the way we did. We all learned a great lesson that day. Gurudev showed us the way of compassion and inclusiveness and His teachings were for everyone.
Show compassion because everyone deserves to progress in their lives and we can lend a helping hand.
Story: Rāmānujācharya Disobeys his Guru Śri Rāmānujāchārya was a great Hindu saint who lived in south India from 1017 - 1137 C.E. Once, he learned that a teacher named Goshthipūrṇa knew a powerful secret mantra with which one can really please Lord Viṣṇu and ask for several boons in return. Shri Rāmānujāchārya approached the teacher and requested to be taught the mantra. The teacher agreed, but on one condition that he would keep the mantra secret and not teach it to anyone else. Shri Rāmānujāchārya agreed to this condition.
Guru Goshthipūrṇa then taught him the sacred Vaiṣnava mantra "Om Namo Nārāyaṇāya" on the condition that he would not each it to others. However, thinking that such a liberation granting mantra must not be hidden from the masses, Rāmānuja climbed the top of the temple at Thirukottiyur temple in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and started preaching it to all. Guru Goshthipūrṇa was very angry at this act of disobedience and scolded Rāmānuja saying that he will surely go to Hell for disobeying his Guru. Rāmānuja replied that if his going to Hell could give liberation to many others, he would not mind sacrificing and residing in Hell. The words of Rāmānuja moved his Guru and he was moved to tears. The Guru embraced his student and said that he alone has understood the true meaning of the mantra.
In the spiritual tradition of Śri Rāmānuja, another great saint named Pillai Lokāchārya was born a century later. So pleased was Bhagavān Viṣṇu with him that He blessed the saint saying that whosoever associates with Lokāchārya will also come to Viṣṇu with him. So compassionate was Pillai Lokāchārya that thereafter, he would touch even ants lovingly and would stare at plants for a long time so that even the souls of these living things would go to Bhagavān Viṣṇu.
Story: Sant Śankar Dev of Assam shows Compassion on a Leper Tulsiram, a distant relative of saint Śankaradeva, got afflicted with leprosy. Many forms of the disease are contagious and there was no cure for it in those days. Lepers were shunned by everyone and kept away from the villages. No one wanted Tulsiram close to them. Śankaradeva took pity on Tulsiram. He got a house constructed for Tulsiram at a convenient location where he could get water easily. Śankaradeva asked Tulsiram to plant 100 Tulsi bushes around his house, because Tulsi can cure leprosy and pray to Kṛṣṇa day and night. He also made sure that Tulsiram got a steady and constant supply of food from charitable passers-by. In the course of time, Tulsiram got cured of his disease and was completely healed. He became a disciple of Śankaradeva.
Show compassion towards everyone because err human beings are one big family. It is our duty to share each other?s joys and sorrows.
Story: Ṛṣi Vishvamitra shares the joys and sorrows of others out of Compassion Once, Ṛṣi Vishvamitra and his disciples passed through a region that was struck with a devastating drought. There was no food to be had and the locals were starving. So the people of the area could obviously not give any food to the Ṛṣi and his entourage as alms.
One of the students came to him and said, "The only thing I can find for us to eat is a carcass of a dog. But how can we eat rotting dog-flesh?" Ṛṣi Vishvamitra said, "It is better to eat rotting dog meat than die of hunger. Bring the carcass here in my bowl. When he received the bowl, the Ṛṣi sprinkled some holy water on it and prayed "Our Dharma teaches us that before we eat anything, we should offer a portion to the Devatā's in heaven. So I am offering the first piece to them."
Meanwhile, in heaven, the Devatās felt embarrassed that the was dying of hunger and had been forced to procure a dead dog. They also felt revolted that he should offer them the dog meat. Therefore, Indra, the King of Devatās, came down to earth with a pitcher of Amrit and offered it to the Ṛṣi saying, "I am sorry respected Ṛṣi. That meat of dog is not fit for you and your students to eat. Instead, I have brought this pitcher of Amrit for you. Please throw away the meat in your bowl and drink this instead?
When Ṛṣi Vishvamitra heard Indra, he became very angry and replied, "How dare you offer this Amrit to me and my students when everyone else in this area is dying of hunger? Their cattle has also died because you have not sent down any rains. All I found therefore was this dead dog to eat. So what is wrong if I offer a portion to you? After all, you are responsible for this. I am not a selfish person who would want to become immortal while everyone is dying around me. Therefore, bring back the vessel with the flesh, or I will curse you."
Indra said, "Respected Ṛṣi, I am moved by your compassion. You and your disciples could have drank the Amrit and become immortal. Yet, you did not forsake the people of this village who gave you shelter to die on their own. I will cause rains to come down to this region immediately." It started pouring in the land and once again people were able to grow food and prevent starvation deaths. The people all thanked Ṛṣi Vishvamitra for standing by them and forsaking his own immortality for their sake. The place where this incident happened is today a holy place (tīrtha) for the Hindus and is known as "Vishvamitra Tīrtha."
Show Compassion towards everyone because Bhagavān is present inside everyone.
Story: Seeing Bhagavān in non-Humans Sant Ekanāth sees Rāma in a Donkey In Abrahamic religions, it is debated whether animals and plants even have souls. Their sole purpose, according to those religions, is to serve the needs of human beings. However, Hindu Dharma teaches us that animals have the same soul as we do and Brahman resides equally in animals as in human beings. Therefore our empathy and regard should not be restricted merely to human beings, but must also extent to other living creatures.
The beautiful story below demonstrates how Hindu saints have practiced this understanding of the truth in their lives. It is beliefs like these that form the basis of the Hindu custom of vegetarianism. Once, Sant Ekanāth was travelling from Varanasi in north India towards Rameshvaram in south India with some water from the Ganga river. It is a Hindu tradition to offer Ganga water to the Śivalinga at Rameshvaram. On their way, he and his disciples were travelling through an extremely hot and dry part of India.
Everyone wanted to quench their thirst but the only water was the Gangā water they were carrying. No one wanted to drink it himself because it was meant for worship at Rameshvaram. Suddenly, Ekanātha saw a donkey lying on the ground, dying of thirst. Ekanātha was filled with compassion. He immediately took his pitcher of the Ganga water, and poured it into the mouth of the dying donkey. With its thirst quenched, the donkey revived. Shocked at this act, a disciple asked Ekanātha, "Guru-ji, we have traveled hundreds of miles with this holy water to perform worship in Rameshvaram. Now where will we get the water of Ganga for our worship of Rameshvaram" Śiva now Ekanātha replied, "This is my Rameshvara." Ekanātha demonstrated through his deed that Bhagavān resides even in a donkey and if we cannot treat animals with compassion, we cannot claim that we love Bhagavān.
Story: Ramaṇa Maharṣi nurses the damaged eggs of a bird
One day, Bhagavān Ramaṇa while picking up his towel from a rack disturbed a sparrows nest. As a result of this, one of the eggs fell on the ground and cracked a little. Ramaṇa was sleepless over this incident. He took that egg with tenderness and nursed the broken egg every day. When the egg fell on the ground, he felt heart broken. He cried out, "Look, what have I done! How sorrow-stricken will be mother sparrow to see its egg broken!" Every day, he used to gaze at this egg and pray for its hatching and for the child of the sparrow coming out of it without any physical handicap. For this purpose, he kept the egg safely inside the towel by wrapping the towel over it. One day when the little bird came out of it, he was happy. He caressed it and passed it on to others!
Story: Sant Vallalar cries out of Compassion for exhausted Bullocks The compassion of Ramalingam Adigal Vallalar In the 19th century CE, there lived a charismatic saint Vallalar, close to the temple of Chidambaram. He opposed caste based distinctions among Hindus, promoted vegetarianism, Sevā and feeding the poor as the best worship of Bhagavān. His sermons were very famous and many people traveled from distance places to listen to him.
One day, a village headman from a village at a distance started from his home on a bullock card to listen to the Swami's sermons. On the way, the bullocks felt hungry and thirsty, but the headman told the cart driver not to stop the card lest they are late for the sermon. As soon as they reached the residence of Vallalar, the headman rushed in and bowed to the saint. But, the Swami just got up and went outside the room, surprising everyone because he never got up in the middle of a sermon.
When the Swami did not return after a long time, the assembled people went out to check. They saw that the Swami was feeding the bullocks some water and grass and had tears in his eyes. He was telling the animals, "Because of me, you had to suffer and had to go hungry and thirsty." When the village headman saw this, he realized his mistake and fell at the Swami's feet. The Swami's act of piety and compassion made the headman realize that Bhagavān resides even in animals. Therefore, if we cannot be kind to animals, there is no use of attending spiritual sermons.
Love and Compassion alone can develop true relationships while power and force cannot do it.
Story: Prince Siddhārtha saves the life of a Swan The prince grew up to be a nice boy who had a lot of compassion for everyone. One day, he was watching a flock of swans flying in the sky. Suddenly, one of them fell down, shot by an arrow. Siddhārtha rushed to the fallen swan. He gently pulled out the arrow and started nursing the wounds of the bird. After a few minutes, Devadatta, his cousin, arrived at the scene and started quarreling with Siddhārtha. Devadatta said. "I shot the bird with my arrow. Therefore, it is my prey and it belongs to me. The hunter gets to keep the target that it shot!"
But Siddhartha said, I saved the life of the bird. Therefore, it belongs to me. The matter was taken to the king and he said, One who saves a life is greater than he who kills an innocent creature. Therefore, the bird belongs to Siddhartha. The prince was overjoyed. He took care of the innocent bird till it was ready to fly on its own and join his friends in the sky.
Practice Compassion because it has the power to reform even the criminals.
Story- The Kindness of Mahatma Gandhi reforms a Thief One night a thief entered the āshrama of Mahatma Gandhi. Someone woke up with the sound and saw the thief. He woke up many other people in the āshrama and caught the thief. They kept him in one room and waited for the morning. In the morning they took the thief to Gandhiji. The thief was shivering with fear. Gandhiji looked at the thief and asked, Did you have breakfast? Gandhiji then looked at the manager of the āshrama and said, Why, is he not a human being? First feed him. Will talk of punishment later. The thief was touched by the kindness and changed his behavior to correct himself.
Even the vilest person on this earth needs support and compassion.
Story: Mā Ānandamoyi supports a misbehaving man In the āshrama of Mā Ānandamoyi, a young man started misbehaving repeatedly. Everyone else in the Ashram was so disgusted with his behavior that they requested the Mā to expel him. To make a decision in this regard, Mā Ānandamoyi summoned all the inmates of the āshrama into a meeting with her and asked them what their opinion was. Everyone, without fail, said that they hated the misbehaving young man and wanted him to be expelled from the āshrama.
To their utter surprise, Mā Ānandamoyi replied, "Look, when all of you hate him, he has no one to turn to for love and compassion except for me. Other than me, he has no one else to depend on. Therefore, I cannot abandon him. I have decided that he will not be expelled from the āshrama."
Compassion is often considered as the root of Dharma. Sant Tulsidas says, "Compassion is the root of Dharma and ego is the root of Evil. Do not give up compassion, as long as you have life in your heart." The following story shows how a saint explained a woman that religion without compassion is hollow and useless.
Story: Sant Chidambar Dikhsit teaches that worship and religion without compassion are useless Swami Chidambar Dikshit was a saint who was born in the district of Belgaum in the Indian state of Karnataka in the 18th cent. C.E. Wherever he went, his devotees flocked to get his darshana, blessings and listen to his sermons.
One day, a childless woman visited him. She was known in that area as a very religious lady who performed numerous vows and fasts. But her heart was completely devoid of love and compassion for others. The woman said, "Swami-ji, for many years I have been worshiping and performing various rituals to obtain a child. But Bhagavān has not answered my entreaties. Therefore, I have come to you for your blessings in the hope that I will become a mother soon.?
The saint gave her two fistfuls of roasted gram and said, "Please take a seat over there and come to see me when I call you." The woman did as she was told and started chewing the gram. Before long, a bunch of street urchins came to her and started begging for a few of her roasted gram. The lady said, "Go away. If I give to one, all of you will start begging for them." She covered her face with her saree and continued eating the gram while the hungry kids kept asking her for food.
Swami Chidambar Dikshit called her and said, "When you cannot give even a few pieces of gram received by you in free to hungry children, then do you think that Bhagavān will listen to your prayers and give you a real living child? Bhagavān is never pleased with mechanical rituals and worship if they are performed by a person who has no love or compassion in his heart."
The mark of a great person is that he shows compassion towards everyone and helps them even if it means inconvenience and loss to himself/herself. The first two stories illustrate this principle. The second principle is that compassion towards one could mean harm towards another person. Therefore, when we help one creature or person, we must also make sure that no one else is harmed as a result of our kindness, compassion or help. The third story below illustrates this principle.
Story: Why Maudgalyāyana was selected as the leader of his monastery A Buddhist monastery was in search of a new Abbot. An elderly and learned Buddhist named Maudgalyāyana was appointed to select the best of the three candidates. He asked the three of them to go to a specific place one after the other, on three successive days. On the way, Maudgalyāyana had thorns scattered on the path. He hid in the bushes close to the thorn strewn path to see how the three candidates responded when they saw the thorns.
The first candidate, upon seeing the thorns, turned back and took another path to his destination. The second candidate hopped over the thorns and eventually crossed that stretch. The third candidate however stopped and picked the scattered thorns one by one, till there was none left. He spent the better part of the day picking the thorns and it was late evening by the time he reached his destination.
The fourth day, Maudgalyāyana declared the third candidate as the winner, saying, "An able leader of the monastery is one who helps others and starts good traditions. The first candidate just took the easy way out. The second merely focused on reaching his own goal and did not bother about the future travelers who'd cross that path. The last candidate risked arriving late but ensure that there were no thorns left to hurt future travelers on that path. Therefore, he alone has the virtues needed to become the leader of our monastery."
Story: Pandit Madan Mohan Mālviyā uses his fame to help a suffering beggar One day, Pandit Madan Mohan Mālviyā, the founder of the Benares Hindu University, was walking on a street when he saw a poor beggar woman lying with a begging bowl beside him. No one was paying attention to her although she seemed ill and her bowl was virtually empty. Pandit Mālviyā was a well-known person in the city. He sat down next to her. Soon, people started stopping by and dropped coins in the bowl.
When the bowl was full, Pandit Mālviyā summoned a rickshaw. He seated her on the rickshaw and dropped her off at the hospital, so that she could be treated. Many similar stories are narrated from Pandit Mālviyā's life illustrating how we can practice Dharmic virtues like compassion through little and simple acts in our daily lives.
On another day, he saw a dog that had a cut behind its ear. The dog kept growling and running around as it was in great pain. Pandit Mālviyā went to a vet and described the dog's injury. The physician said, "I will give you a medicine that you can pour on a piece of cloth and apply at the dog's injury. But let me warn you. The dog is in great pain and has likely gone mad. If you try to apply medicine to him, it might bite you. My suggestion is that you just leave the dog alone and let it suffer."
But Pandit Mālviyā did not agree. He soaked a clean cloth in the medicine and then tied the cloth at the end of a long stick. Then, he approached the dog and cornered it at the dead end of a closed street. With the stick, he pressed the medicine soaked rag at the dog's injury a few times. Each time, the dog would growl and try to attack Pandit Mālviyā. But, he continued to apply the medicine. Eventually, after the medicine had been applied thoroughly, he left the dog alone. Under the effect of the medicine, the dog went to sleep. And when it woke up, the wound was much healed and the dog had no pain.
Story: Sant Śankardev saves a deer and shows compassion towards the hunter Once, Śankardev was passing through a forest with his students while on a pilgrimage. He saw a dear ensnared in a hunter's net. Very soon, the hunter would have returned and taken the deer for slaughter. Śankardev took pity on the creature and freed it from the net. But, he was worried that he had deprived the hunter of his livelihood. Therefore, he placed a gold coin in the net out of compassion to compensate the hunter for his loss.
29.5 The Danger of Showing Kindness to Undeserving Persons
Sometimes, we show kindness to undeserving persons and this in fact hurts us in the future. An example is the government authorities release convicted jail inmates before their sentence is over, only to see that the criminal commits another murder as soon as he gets out of the prison! Therefore, even though we must try to be kind and compassionate at all times, this does not mean that we act foolishly. We should show kindness only to deserving persons who will not misuse it to harm the society or ourselves. This principle applies to all the acts of kindness like charity and forgiveness.
For example, if we give money to a poor man out of kindness, without reflecting that he will use it to buy drugs, then we become responsible for his purchase of drugs. If we forgive a thief who robs our home and do not report him to the police, then that person might go and rob someone else's home. Once again, it makes us responsible for his crime. The following story from the Mahābhārata was narrated by Bheeshma Pitāmaha to King Yudhishthira to explain why Kings or governments in particular should be very careful in showing kindness to people:
Story: The Dog becomes a Dog again A dog lived close to the Ṛṣi in a forest. Due to his Yogic powers, the Ṛṣi could transform one object into another. One day, a panther approached the hut. The dog rushed to the Ṛṣi and said, "The panther might eat me. Please make me a panther so that I can fight him off." The Ṛṣi, out of compassion, obliged. See a dog suddenly become a large panther, the first panther ran off. A few days later, a tiger arrived at the hut. Now the dog-panther asked the Ṛṣi to change him to a tiger. Once again, out of kindness, the Ṛṣi obliged. In this way, the Ṛṣi changed the tiger into an elephant and then into a lion at the request of the dog when he felt threatened by the forest beasts.
But when the dog became a lion, he thought, "The Ṛṣi is a very kind person. He might show this kindness on some other creature and convert him to an even more powerful lion that will then fight and kill me. So let me kill the Ṛṣi before he can do that." The Ṛṣi immediately read the mind of the ungrateful dog-lion and converted him back to a dog as before. He said to the dog, "Being full of compassion and love towards all, I treated you as a family member and used my Yogic powers to make you more powerful. And the ungrateful and selfish creature that you are, you tried to kill me , your benefactor. You do not deserve my kindness in the future now."
Sometimes, people suffer from incurable and painful diseases. They request that their life be terminated to end their painful suffering. Different countries have different laws governing this mercy killing or Euthanasia. Some allow it, others consider it a crime. What is your opinion on it?
Notes & References
- He lived in 1205- 1311.
- Its scientific name is ocinum sanctum.
- Amrit means the nectar that gives immortality.
- He lived in 1823 - 1874 CE.
- He lived in early 20th cent.
- Mahābhārata 12.117.1-23
- Compassion, the Manamam Series. 2007. Chinmaya Mission West. Piercy, California, p. 2
- Compassion, the Manamam Series. 2007. Chinmaya Mission West. Piercy, California, p. 10
- Page 69 in ?Vedanta: Swami Chinmayananda ? His Words, His Legacy,? Chinmaya Mission West. Piercy, California (2011).
- Krishnamani, pp. 510-511
- Hindu Culture. Grade 9 Bala Vihar Teachers? Handbook. 2011. Chinmaya Mission West. Piercy (California), lesson 24
- Krishnamani, p. 7
- Chaitanya and Chakra, pp. 549-550