17 July 2009

Animal Companions in Life and Death

People who have animal companions are often distressed about the question of what happens to their cherished friends after their deaths. “No matter what anybody says, I know I’ll be with Dusty in Heaven,” somebody said. Another observed, “My cat will be in the same condition I will be after I die -- nowhere and nothing. It’s just a big, dark nothing.”

For the 15 years that I have been on donkey and dog email lists, people have been sending condolences to those whose pets have recently died, in the form of a poem called “The Rainbow Bridge.” (Rainbow Bridge) While some, thankfully, find the image comforting despite getting teary whenever they re-read it, we are left with the same question we started with. How do we truly know?

How do the Writings of the Baha’i Faith approach the question, then, and what conclusions can we draw from this guidance?

Shoghi Effendi, the late Guardian of the Faith, wrote to a believer: “Your letter clearly indicates that you are familiar with the teachings of the Faith, which state that the animal spirit is not immortal. As you are seeking some consolation, however, over the loss of your pet dog, you may recall the following statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions: “The exaltation of the animal world is to possess perfect members, organs and powers, and to have all its needs supplied…. But real prosperity for the animal consists in passing from the animal world to the human world...”

When asked about the individual persistence of the animal’s personality after death, 'Abdu'l-Bahá said: “Even the most developed dog has not the immortal soul of the man; yet the dog is perfect in its own place.”

In 1995 the Universal House of Justice wrote: “For an animal, the joys and realities of life are basically physical and emotional. It neither possesses, nor can it understand, the spiritual reality of a human being. The world it inhabits is perfectly attuned to its needs and level of existence. If it were to be transported to a purely spiritual world, it would be deprived of all that it knows and values.”

So, the animal accepts life and death as they come to it, without question. Dusty didn’t lose any sleep wondering whether he would accompany his human companion through all the worlds of God. As my elderly cocker spaniel gazed at me with absolute trust, when I held her while a vet mercifully ended her life. The Universal House of Justice also says, however:

“As for a human soul who has known and loved an animal – those experiences, as memories, have become a part of his or her eternal life. This, indeed, is what happens to our relationship to all material things. They will eventually be dispersed, so all the physical beauties of this world will ultimately remain only in our memories; but, as such, they constitute an enrichment of our lives which will continue to develop in the spiritual worlds.”

Reflection on these statements coupled with my own experiences with both human and animal deaths in my own life resulted in an epiphany while talking to a friend who was mourning for her cat. In brief, it is clear from studying Baha’i and other scriptures, as well as science, that when a human dies, nothing of the person’s material life goes along with the departing human soul. Not an atom, not a quark, not a gluon. Yet Baha’i teachings as given above plus in numerous other sources make it clear that the human soul is immortal, that we retain our memories in the next world, and that our station there will be decided in large part by our spiritual development while we were on earth. Those who have loved one another here will continue on together “through all the worlds of God”, as Baha’u’llah stated when He declared that His beloved wife Navvab would be His consort through “all the worlds of God”. It appears that those who spent little time developing spiritual capacity in this world will be at a low level in the next, so low that to those above it appear appear unpleasant. A bit hellish, perhaps.

Thus, the love, comfort and experiences shared together by a human and an animal are imprinted into the human’s soul. One analogy might be that these emotional bonds are etched into the spirit as data is recorded on a DVD. And so the spirit reality of the animal individual becomes a part of the human’s immaterial being, to endure as long as the human cherishes it.

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Here’s a blog about my relationship with an old mule who showed up at my place in need one morning: Train Wreck Brays

6 comments:

  1. I like the last analogy about the experiences shared between human and animal being imprinted onto the human soul. In the writings it states that all things possess certain names and attributes of God. I grew up with a black labrador retriever, who gave me a lot of memorys and taught me a couple of attributes which now I can take with me in this life and beyond

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  4. Thank you for your contribution, Emily. I wrote a paper and put it on Baha'i-Library a few years ago. A few days ago, I was thinking about revising and contributing it for a topic of discussion for Cognition as well; and I looked - and here you presented this fresh look on the topic so eloquently. You re-articulation Jason is a nice summary of this idea. Here's the first two paragraphs of the 9-page paper I wrote on the subject (Now also posted in full, as "Part II" on this subject):

    This essay was prompted from questions from a friend interested in the Bahá’í Faith and I did a quick search on Bahá’í-Library online, but I did not find any answers to the question of my satisfaction. There was a thread that began a couple of years ago on this topic with a nice compilation for a reply, but I felt it is due more treatment. This essay is meant as my own personal hermeneutic on the subject, based on what the Bahá’í Writings say on the reality of members of the animal kingdom and its relationship to the purely spiritual realm the Scriptures say that a person enters upon death. With this analysis of the Writings, I encourage Bahá’í friends to take on a much more nuanced approached to this question, rather than the simple, “When your animal dies they are gone forever.”

    Many Bahá’ís who have taken a look at this question or heard from other Bahá’ís answer this question with a fairly accurate articulation of the Bahá’í view: "NO – animals do not have eternal souls that go to heaven.” However, there are many people who have very strong relationships with their pets and animals in general and just giving this somewhat over generalized answer can lack sensitivity as well as be missing a broad overview look of the Baha'i Writings on such a subject. Furthermore, with an expansive reading of the Writings and their description of spiritual and physical reality, another view might be developed. I am going to suggest that although it is true that the individual personality of an individual animal lasts only the span of its mortal life on earth, this personality or “spirit” that we attracted to is based on the eternal Signs and Attributes of God, which are our companions all the more substantially in the purely spiritual realm of existence that we enter upon death.

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  5. Thank you for this study Emily, however, I would like to comment on your idea: "when a human dies, nothing of the person’s material life goes along with the departing human soul. Not an atom, not a quark, not a gluon."
    We speak about a soul "departing", but a divine essence, as Baha'u'llah explains in Iqan p 98 "is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress." To my understanding the soul is immaterial and has no geographical site and neither arrives nor departs. The "appearance" of the soul at conception does not imply that the soul descends or arrives, but it appears, just as an LSA appears when it's members meet and disappears when the members depart to reappear when the LSA meets, makes decisions or acts.

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  6. I've been searching for a long time for a quote by Abdu'l-Baha that I read a long time ago and can no longer find. Can any of the Bahai's help me locate a passage in which Abdu'l-Baha talks about our beloved pets being in the next world if we need them. It was in reference to an elderly woman who was devastated by the loss of her dogs and asked Abdu'l-Baha if she would be re-united with them in the next world, to which He replied that she wouldn't need her pets in the next world, but if she did need them, they would be there for her. Patrick and I derive much solace from the Baha'i Writings with regards to our children who died during my various pregnancies and who we know we will meet in the next world. It would also give us much solace if we knew our beloved pets would also be re-united with us in the next world. Thanks for any input you might have on this subject.

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