“Exploitation of the weaker living being by the stronger is the natural law of existence; there is always an attempt to devour the weak in different kingdoms of living beings. There is no possibility of checking this tendency by any artificial means under material conditions; it can be checked only by awakening the spiritual sense of the human being by practice of spiritual regulations.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.13.47)
It’s just you and this other creature. No one else is around. In size you are likely multiple times larger than this creature. You could kill it without any effort. Accidentally making a sudden move, turning your foot one way, swatting your hand in the air to remove particles of dust - any of these motions could end the life of this creature that stands before you. What will you do? Will you show mercy or will you kill? The choice is yours.
As there is no one else around to see this, only you will know what decision you made. If you should happen to show mercy, there is no extra credit given. No one will pat you on the back. By the same token no one will know if you decide to kill the creature. It takes one swift motion; the deed is done in a second. What harm is there to you? There is no effort expended. No one will know what you did.
To find out which path to take, try imagining that it’s a larger creature. If it’s not a spider or a bug, what if it’s a cat or a dog? Does that change how you will act? The dog can move on its own, listen to basic commands, eat when it’s hungry, and sleep when it is tired. At the same time, it is not as intelligent as you are. It is not capable of carefully crafting a plot for your demise. As the stronger entity, you have this choice. You can take it upon yourself to do away with the dog, though the effort will be a little more strenuous than it would be with an insect.
Now let’s go one step further. What if it’s a more intelligent creature, like another human being? The newborn child is still innocent, as it is completely dependent on the elders. The child emerging from the womb needs its head supported, otherwise a terrible injury could occur. The child can’t feed itself or move to anywhere important. All of this is taken care of by the elders. Yet in the majority of cases, there is no question as to whether or not to provide support. Naturally, based on the loving feelings directed towards the innocent child, the elders will offer help. This includes people not directly related to the child, such as friends and neighbors.
Think of another scenario. What if there is a large creature next to you, but they don’t have the same intelligence. They are thus inferior to you as a species, but in this instance you know that their flesh tastes good. If the animal should be killed for the purpose of eating, maybe the act isn’t so bad? But what if the same logic was applied to the dependent child? Should what is done with the slain life be a factor in determining whether or not they deserve to live? Should anything besides their right to exist or their threat to your life be a factor in influencing behavior?
Your merciful attitude is tested not on how you treat those who are obvious candidates for love and affection. Rather, it is on how you treat the most innocent members of the community, who have no ability to provide for themselves and whose deaths won’t make much of a difference to others. It is how you act when no one is looking, when there is no visible benefit to your kindness, that shows whether or not you value mercifulness.
The same kind of principle is applicable in other areas. For instance, with governments there is sometimes the issue of free speech. In the Constitution of the United State of America, the stipulation is made that the Congress, the governing body that creates legislation, shall make no law infringing upon the freedom of speech. This means that private institutions can filter what is said or heard in their areas of jurisdiction, but the government can’t institute laws that stifle speech.
There is a reason for this stipulation. The most rhetorically charged speech is directed at the government, who institutes laws and regulations using force. As the government can use force, it has the most authority, and authority figures are the ripest targets for complaint. If the citizens couldn’t complain about the actions of government, there would be really no weight behind any type of public speech. In one’s commitment to free speech, it is their defense of those they disagree with that determines their level of honesty. I may say that I am all for the freedom to express oneself, but once a dissenting viewpoint arises, if I try to stifle that speech through the arm of government my commitment to free speech means nothing.
It is important for the human being to be merciful because at the end of the day they are not the ultimate arbiters of fortune. Just because we get up when we tell our body to doesn’t mean that we have total control. The body can be stricken with disease, the nature around us can cause a catastrophe, or someone else can get in the way and pin us to the bed. These factors influence the outcome of our decision, showing that the intended result happens because of the simultaneous absence of external inhibiting forces.
“Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)
There is a science to how those factors interact with us. For instance, if I steal from someone today and get away with it, this doesn’t mean that I am insulated from pain in the future. At some point in time, the same fate will await me, i.e. I will be a victim of theft. This is only fair after all. The system of karma handles these issues, and sometimes the results don’t have to come in the present life. They may only manifest for a short while, but the results will come all the same.
Therefore virtue is its own reward. The commitment to mercifulness, towards harboring compassion for other creatures, is important in the grand scheme because it shows a valued dedication to religious life, which is the aim of the human form of birth. The rubberstamp method of religion doesn’t do much because the resulting behavior can be the same as if that acknowledgment were never made. For instance, if one person says they believe in such and such person as their lord and savior and they then go on to lie, cheat and steal, their profession of faith is meaningless. The person who doesn’t make the same profession and yet takes to the same nefarious activity is on an equal level.
For religiosity to have teeth, there must be qualities that develop within the individual that then manifest through activity. Mercifulness and tolerance are two of the qualities that indicate a godly nature. The living beings can become godly but they cannot become God. The difference may seem subtle, but it is stark enough to take note of. I am the ruler of my own body, deciding which actions to take and what thoughts to think, but I cannot extend that influence to other living entities. Someone residing halfway across the world has to get up the next morning, and there is no way for me to enter their mind and force them to move. I can give them persuasion through communications channels, but the decision is ultimately theirs.
Mercifulness begins with treatment towards the most vulnerable creatures and then works its way up. Harboring compassion for family members is something even the most brutal dictators do. Therefore that alone doesn’t show a high level of intelligence or affection. The more that fraternal feeling is extended, the more one shows the divine qualities. In the highest state of existence, the smallest creature, the indragopa, is regarded as equal to the most powerful person.
The equality is based on the constitutional position, not the relative conditioned positions. The difference is that the constitutional position will always stay the same, while the conditioned state is a sort of disease. One person may have a cold and another may not, but this doesn’t mean that the sick person will always have a cold. There is a unifying attribute in all life forms. It is the identification with Brahman, or pure spirit.
The differences in outer coverings relate to maya, or that which is not Brahman. It is due to the influence of maya that we see differences in the species, though in reality all life forms are the same in quality. The differences, the relative positions of inferiority and superiority, result in the tendency to exploit, to hurt the weaker because of spite, jealousy, greed, or the desire to satisfy the taste buds. None of these reasons are valid, and there are negative consequences to the behavior.
There are movements in place to stop the exploitation of the lower animals, the less powerful gender, and the underrepresented ethnic groups, but none of these movements succeed in the end because the identification with Brahman is absent. In the discipline of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, the proper identification as Brahman is known from the outset, as Parabrahman, the Supreme Lord, is identified and served.
More than just an acknowledgment, bhakti-yoga changes the way a person lives, giving meaning to their claim of religiosity. The term “spirituality” works as well, as there is nothing material about the bedrock activities of devotion such as the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Devotion is targeted at the Supreme Personality, who is known as Krishna in the Vedic tradition because He is all-attractive. As Govinda, Krishna personally sets the example of mercifulness by protecting and giving pleasure to the cows of Vrindavana.
“The cows, being fed by new grasses, became very healthy, and their milk bags were all very full. When Lord Krishna called them by name, they immediately came to Him out of affection, and in their joyful condition the milk flowed from their bags.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 20)
The most innocent members of society deserve the protection of the most intelligent species, the elder brother known as the human being. Through devotion to God as the primary activity, mercifulness is automatically extended to the lower species. If that kindness is shown to the least powerful, the attitude will extend upwards towards other species as well. The equality of vision that comes to the devoted soul ensures that the attitude of exploitation ceases to be.
Humans, deer, insects, cows and trees,
With vision of Govinda all creatures pleased.
As Supreme Lord He is the most powerful,
And yet to all His children He is most merciful.
How will you act when no one else will know,
Whether you gave protection or life-ending blow?
Right to life of most innocent you must defend,
Otherwise your mercifulness is just pretend.
Follow bhakti principles to get proper vision,
Learn that all souls equal in quality, no division.