One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world. – Mahatma Gandhi

For Hindus, the cow symbolizes the life-giving virtue of gentleness, which is why cattle represent the sacred in many Hindu societies. The main teaching of Hinduism, called ahimsa, means refusing to do injury to other living beings. The cow stands for that principle, because it only eats grass and provides humans with milk and cheese and butter and dung for fertilizer. Hindus believe all life has spirit, and revere the cow’s spirit of non-injury and, as Gandhi suggested, the cow’s personification of all plant and animal life.

But do cows have souls?

The rabbinical scholars of Judaism, and the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, say that Genesis 2:7 in the Torah tells us that every human being has both a nephesh and a neshama. They define the word nephesh, which literally means “living being,” as the animal spirit, or the instinctual life force. The neshama, in contrast, means the human soul—that part of us exemplified by the intellect and the awareness of God, the divine spark that yearns for spirituality—and distinguishes man from animal.

boy-and-his-dogOn the same subject, news outlets around the world recently reported that Pope Francis told a 12-year-old Italian boy that his dog would be with him in heaven. But that never actually happened. Instead, the reports came from Corriere della Serra, an Italian newspaper that quoted Pope Paul VI (who reigned as Pope from 1963-1978), when he consoled a tearful child whose dog had died by telling him: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ.”

Of course, Pope Paul wasn’t expressing an official doctrine of the Catholic Church. Most other major religions don’t have that view, either. Despite our love for our furry friends, most people understand that animals cannot create civilizations or make art or possess the higher, eternal spiritual aspirations of human beings. Animals are captives of the world of nature, while the scientific and technological achievements of humans allow us to plumb nature’s mysteries, go beyond its laws and use them for our benefit–and sometimes, sadly, our detriment.

No animal has the divine spark that makes humans seek the transcendent in life. Animals certainly have emotions, can feel pain and happiness, can even understand human communication sometimes–but that doesn’t mean they have souls, or what we normally think of as the human spirit. Almost all of the world’s major religions say that the soul belongs exclusively to human beings—that only human beings have the capacity for the intelligence, the insight and the spirituality necessary to forge a relationship with the Creator, transcend the physical world and achieve an eternal existence after death. The Baha’i teachings point out that our souls set us apart from the natural world:

Man — the true man — is soul, not body; though physically man belongs to the animal kingdom, yet his soul lifts him above the rest of creation. Behold how the light of the sun illuminates the world of matter: even so doth the Divine Light shed its rays in the kingdom of the soul. The soul it is which makes the human creature a celestial entity!

By the power of the Holy Spirit, working through his soul, man is able to perceive the Divine reality of things. All great works of art and science are witnesses to this power of the Spirit. The same Spirit gives Eternal Life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 86.

This definition of what it means to be human, the Baha’i writings emphasize, does not make animals somehow less than us, or allow us to be cruel to them. From a Baha’i perspective, animals should inspire our loving-kindness, because their animal spirits can evince the same kinds of feelings we feel. Also, because we each have a human soul, we have a responsibility to evince tenderness and loving-kindness toward all creatures. In many ways, the Baha’i teachings say, animals are perfect in their own right:

Even the most developed dog has not the immortal soul of the man; yet the dog is perfect in its own place. You do not quarrel with a rose-tree because it cannot sing! – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 97.

Despite that perfection of the animal’s station, the human station—with its ability to perceive and explore the unknown and discover the truth of things unseen—allows us to transcend the world of nature with reflection, with intellect and with soulful understanding:

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible… Such power of accomplishment is beyond the range of animal intelligence. Therefore, this power is a distinctive attribute of the human spirit and kingdom. The animal spirit cannot penetrate and discover the mysteries of things. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 58.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.


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  • jessica maboudi
    Apr 08, 2017
    Why then Baha'is are cruel to animals, especially Iranian Baha'is. They look with disgust to dogs and sacrifice sheep right front their children. Not to mention they serve meet in their holy houses.
    Jessica Maboudi
  • Sammy the Cat
    Mar 09, 2017
    The ego and the Id, part of the psyche of animals, yet this writing admonishes humans from that realm. If you are going to prognosticate the Morals of how we should treat animals perhaps more should be communicated to the Baha'i community on readings of vegetarianism at feasts. I've seen humans that lack the "intellect" you ascribe to transcendence, does that mean they don't have souls? The problem with this belief is the anthropomorphization of god and separating humans from animals. Just turn on the news for a few minutes to get yourself back to this planet. The statements have ...a lot of logical flaws, so what you are asking people to do is haven blind faith that the Baha'i writings are correct about animals souls.
  • Ernestas Radvila
    Mar 08, 2017
    It is really, really annoying. I want simple answer, yes or no. Yet page after page bothers me with exhaustive explanations who in the end does not say anything. I hate this type of writing. Be specific. Make your point at the start and then explain.
  • Ruby Jorma Love
    Oct 01, 2016
    I can't believe that this is all there is to the subject. How can heaven be wonderful if it doesn't contain my old dog chewy? I doubt it can be wonderful without chewy. So, heaven is not wonderful. Well there goes that.
  • Brian Crenna
    Aug 10, 2016
    I will not remain in any afterlife that doesn't admit my dog, who is, spiritually, far superior to me in most ways. Either the Baha'i Faith is wrong, or I'll take the first exit available from the wretched realm it envisions.
  • Feb 23, 2015
    I personally believe that beautiful and loving creatures exist in heavenly realms. Can you imagine being supremely happy in eternal places without birds and butterflies? When there has existed pure love between animals and humans why would that not be continued in conditions beyond time/space. . I have not seen a specific statement in Baha'i teachings that states there is no animal life in the next world. Not having human consciousness and intellect does not mean exclusion from continuing existence.
  • Feb 23, 2015
    I do wonder if that energy of a specific animal that you bond with, will it be recognizable in the next world. I know that they do not possess the soul of a human being, but each of the animals, they have an energy that makes them identifiable to us here on this earthly plane, will that "same" energy be recognizable to us after we shed our earthly body?
    I certainly hope that this is the case, because I have had the bounty of bonding with my service dog, and and feel it would be a loss to my soul ...if I failed to carry that bonding into the next world... But I am just a student of this world and do not profess to have the answers to such questions.
  • Feb 22, 2015
    Perhaps we can say that there are different stages to a soul and perhaps we can consider minerals, plants and animals as having a category of soul of their own which is not comparable to "the immortal soul of the man"
  • Feb 22, 2015
    How pure the animals, particularly the domestic dog. It loves you and licks your face and only asks that you scratch it behind the ears, rub it's stomach, and a little food once in a while. We can love the animals more than most people.