Wednesday, April 9, 2008

HIV and karma

Aware of the deficiency of my intelligence, I focus my attention on Pavana Kumar (Hanuman) and humbly ask for the strenth, intelligence and true knowledge to relieve me from all of my sins which generate suffering. - from the Hanuman Chalisa, a prayer to Lord Hanuman

Earlier last month, I was watching a program about the chimpanzees that are being raised by humans in the Gombe natural reserve in Africa, under the tutelage of the heroine of the movement for the preservation of that fascinating species, Jane Goodall. It was Jane Goodall who first observed apes making tools, and it was she who first observed them in awe before a waterfall, as if experiencing a religious kind of awe. Jane Goodall described this behavior as a rudimentary form of spirituality.

I was very saddened by the program. It shows the effects of the illegal bush meat industry is having on the great apes. There are hundreds of orphaned apes that are being raised by humans. They are often found clinging either to body parts of their dead mothers, or alone, famished, confused and fearful. Their rescue stories often sound miraculous. They then have to be forcibly removed from their dead mother's arms, and taken to the reserve to be taken care of by human mothers, some of whom are nursing more than one chimp or gorilla at a time.

The nightmare does not end there: these human mothers have to give up everything and dedicate many years of their lives to raising chimps, which is a job that takes most of one's day and night. Baby chimps, like humans, need a lot of love and patience, constant affection and care. The first two years of their lives they do not let go of their mothers. There is constant physical contact. Many of them do not abandon their mothers' constant physical proximity until they're six, or sometimes until many years after reaching adulthood, and after she's raised several other siblings. Their bond lasts until death.

Depriving a baby chimp of his mother causes irreparable psychological and spiritual damage. We can only begin to imagine what it must be like to deprive an entire generation of apes of their mothers. The psychological problems of adolescent chimps are quite in evidence in the reserve: there are problems of violence, and many of the younger ones transfer their motherly/filial affection toward each other, and establish strong bonds with others of the same age, which roughly makes up for the mother-hunger.

Apes are one of the only other species, besides humans, that have a culture, that is, behaviors that are learned and passed on from generation to generation, like staying in the branches in certain locations in order to avoid predators, tool making, how to crack open nuts, etc. All of this folklore, which includes skills that are crucial to survival in the wild, is lost when apes are raised in captivity. This directly impacts the evolutionary momentum of the entire species.

Chimpanzee population consisted of around a million living entities back when Jane Goodall started doing her work several decades ago, but now there are only more or less 150,000 chimpanzees, many of them in captivity or natural reserves. Within one generation, it is likely that due to deforestation, loss of habitat, and the bush meat industry, there will be no more chimps in the wild. Another species, the humans, will become the sole custodians of their fate.

Chimps share between 98-99% of our genes, thus eating them can almost be considered an act of cannibalism. It is the only other species where laughter is part of normal, everyday social interaction ... as well as crying (although this one has also been observed in dogs and elephants). Their social, emotional and psycological lives are as complex as ours. Their babies look human ... and so do their elderly. The sounds we make when we make love are almost identical to theirs. At our wildest, at our most natural, we humans express our ape nature just as much as they do.

Even if we put aside the repulsive notion of someone eating an ape, I've always thought of the suffering that we are generating and the possible karmic repercussions of the unfair and unnecessary destruction of another species' habitat and families, especially now that we are the only species with the intelligence and the resources to save the chimp from extinction.

This article about the origin of VIH indicates:

Studies suggest the virus first entered the human population in about 1930 in central Africa, probably when people slaughtered infected chimpanzees for meat. AIDS has killed more than 25 million people and about 40 million others are infected with HIV.

It was apparently during the first few decades of the 20th century that the version of HIV virus that the chimps had muted, and being a very intelligent virus it transformed itself to became a human parasite. It seems to have entered the human body via consumption of ape meat.

Just as we are descended from apes, the human version of the HIV virus is descended from apes' version of HIV. In this sister species we've found clues to our origins ... and possibly our apocalypse.

In Africa, there are nations where between 33% and up to 40% of the population (Rwanda) is HIV+. The most productive generation (that between 20-40 years of age) has almost disappeared in Rwanda, leaving elderly ladies to take care of dozens of orphans alone in societies with hardly any middle aged people. Naturally, these old ladies have their hands full and cannot also be teachers, carpenters, etc. The working class has to come from somewhere else. Such a society cannot function normally, but becomes dysfunctional. It is an incomplete society.

The point that I'm making with this entry is: How ironic then, that due to our destruction of the continuity between the generations in ape societies, the members of our species in Africa find themselves in the very same paradigm that the apes are. This is karma! Perhaps it's time for us to wake up to the fact that, to Mother Earth, the lives of these living entities are no less valuable than ours. That we are part of the same cycle of life. That we interexist.

In Hinduism, God has names and aspects not only in human form, but also animal form, which makes perfect sense because Spirit dwells in them as well. Many of the same archetypal forces that shaped our species, shaped other species as well. In my own Vaishnav tradition, there is a God known as Hanuman, one of the heroes of the Ramayana, who personifies devotion, diligence, and service to God and all of creation.

Hanuman was the monkey and servant of the divine incarnation or avatar known as Rama. Lord Rama appeared six thousand years ago in the holy city of Ayodhya in order to show members of our race how to sanctify all of their relationships: he exemplified the ideals within all human relations: he was the ideal husband, the ideal king, the ideal master, the ideal brother, etc. His loving relationship with Hanuman shows us how to treat other species.

The psalm known as Hanuman Chalisa tells of an instance in the epic of Ramayana where Lord Rama embraces Hanuman, and tells him: "Friend, I love you just as much as I love (my brother) Lakshmana". Imagine if Jesus the Christ had said this to a highly intelligent, loyal ape sidekick and pet, with genuine love and thankfulness, and you may begin to understand the tenderness that this Christic incarnation had for Hanuman, and the tenderness that this episode evokes in the devotees. That is the example that was set by Lord Rama for us to follow in our relations with lesser animals. He did not treat Hanuman even as an inferior, or as a beast, but as the highly intelligent living entity that he was, fully capable of loving and worthy of being loved.

The stories from the holy epic of Ramayana are often used in India to teach human values to children. They are oftentimes no different from the tales of super heroes in the West, except that to his devotees, Lord Hanuman is a real person, a God that protects children and helps them get good grades in schools, a true living super Hero that they can literally count on and that exemplifies obeisance to parents and service to creation.

It is said that Hanuman cries tears of love everytime people chant the holy names of Lord Rama and that he is devotion personified. The merit and the sanctifying effects of the cult of Hanuman are endless: he is one of the main deities that helps develop Hindu children's characters from an early age, so that they will be diligent, responsible and devoted citizens as adults. With Hanuman, we learn about the true purpose of religion.

Even if our animal nature is over-developed, through Hanuman's grace we can still reach the feet of Lord Ram through devotion to creation, by following his example. If our minds are like monkeys, unstable and always running after the senses, and keep us from doing yoga and staying focused on one thing for more than three minutes, with Hanuman's grace we can learn discipline and diligence by channeling our energy into service like he did.

Hanuman also reinforces the idea, which is prevalent in Hinduism, that everyone worships according to their own nature: there is a dharma, a path of religion and righteousness, which is appropriate to each peculiar soul according to their peculiar karma and tendencies. True to one's nature, one can always turn to God, for as Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita 3:33: "what use is there in repression?"

Even dogs serve humanity and the rest of creation: they lead the blind, they work as shepherds and guardians, lead our sleds, and in doing so they channel their inherent tendencies into service to creation and incur karmic merit. Work is worship in Hinduism: it is noble, in fact it is one of the very definitions of the word dharma, some of the other definitions being religion, decency and righteousness.

I cannot discern a huge difference between a simian mother who, with infinite patience, raises her children, teaches them how to hunt termites, how to find food and shelter, gives them love and protection throughout the years, and a human mother who does the equivalent for her human children. The ideal of the loving ape mother was embodied in Hanuman's holy mother, Anjana.

In India, when apes and elephants die, funerals are held: they are cremated and prayed for just like a human. Even in the Ramayana, Lord Rama himself held a funeral for a vulture. Few other cultures take compassion for other living entities to this level: how relevant this is to us, in this age of Kali where we're pushing thousands of species to the verge of mass extinction. These are the values that we should be fostering and teaching our children, who usually limit their love of animals to familiar pets, like cats and dogs.

If even elephants have been seen solemnly observing silence before the bones of ancestors and holding funerals of a sort, why should humans, who ostentate complete and very elaborate religious systems, not also hold funerals for other species? When one ponders the possibility that animals have spirits, it becomes evident that Spirit transcends species and that we may transmigrate back and forth between species.

I would like to invite my readers to look at the members of other species, especially the most innocent, defenseless animals, with the eyes of Spirit. Do not limit your sense of social justice and compassion to the members of our own species. For as Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita 5:18:

The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcaste.

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