Are We Special? Understanding the difference humans and animals

by February 18, 2011

The impenetrable shell of the tortoise, the breathtaking swiftness of the leopard, the incredible ability of the chameleon to change its color; the variety in nature is amazing. Every species of life has a special gift from nature, an ability that is vital for its survival and success in the struggle for existence.



Humans have no extraordinary external ability; their bodies are soft and vulnerable, they are not particularly fleet-footed and they can do little to camouflage themselves when in danger. And yet humans stand far above all other species. A puny human can tame a massive elephant and encage a ferocious lion. How? What is the special gift of nature to humans, the unique ability that makes them superior to all other species? Undoubtedly it is the advanced human intelligence. Empowered by their intelligence, humans have subjugated all the lower species. Not only that, humans have also build civilizations, developed cultures, devised languages, written literatures, come up with fine arts, inquired into metaphysics and advanced in science and technology.

Strangely enough, in the modern times, by that same intelligence, humans have created weapons of mass destruction, which threaten to wipe out all life on the planet. Furthermore by that same intelligence, humans have developed perverted ideologies, by which they foster animosity and hatred for others of their own species. William James states in The Atlantic, “Man, biologically considered and whatever else he may be, is simply the most formidable of the beasts  of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.” This then is the strange irony of the present condition of humanity: the very source of protection for the human race – its advanced intelligence – is threatening to become its cause of destruction.



Let us look at the situation from another perspective. All living beings are driven by a craving for pleasure. All subhuman species search for pleasure through the bodily activities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending. Humans do the same, but in more refined ways. For example, a bird lives in the same type of nest year after year, generation after generation, but humans try to improve their residences – from huts, to apartments, to bungalows, to villas. A cow eats the same kind of grass lifelong, but humans choose their food from a large variety of cuisine.

Modern scientific advancement has given a sophisticated look to human activities; humans move about in cars, fly around in planes, work on computers and communicate globally through the internet. Despite all their scientific progress, humans still seek pleasure through food, sex, sleep and show of strength just like animals. Animals may gorge on refuse in a garbage pile, whereas humans may titillate their tongues with processed and packed food in a jazzy fast food store. Animals may mate in the middle of the street, whereas humans may cultivate erotic fantasies through magazines, television, movies and internet before indulging in carnal revelry. Animals may sleep on the hard street, whereas humans may sink into oblivion on a soft bed in an air-conditioned room. Animals may snarl and show their teeth, whereas humans may brandish their weapons of mass destruction. Thus scientific advancement may have changed the forms of human activity, but it has hardly changed the purpose. Hence it is no surprise that worldwide most of the funds for scientific research come from the military (which is a hi-tech arrangement for defending) and the consumer industry (which offers sophisticated methods for eating, sleeping and sex).

Despite all these sophisticated arrangements, are modern humans better off than the animals? Animals never die of starvation due to artificial shortages created by others of their own species, animals never suffer from insomnia, animals never suffer heartbreaks due to betrayed love, animals never feel stressed due to overwork and loneliness, animals never fall prey to addictions and animals certainly never commit suicide. Mark Twain has commented, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”



The Vedic texts offer some interesting insights into this strange irony. They agree that humans are endowed with a higher intelligence that makes them unique among all forms of life. They further state that this higher human intelligence is meant for a purpose far loftier than searching for better ways of obtaining bodily pleasures. Equipped with their special intelligence, humans are meant to probe into the deepest mysteries of life. The Vedic texts thus urge intelligent humans to explore the spiritual frontier of life.

For such enterprising spiritual scientists, the Vedic texts present a comprehensive, consistent and cogent body of knowledge that answers all the fundamental questions of life. In essence, they explain that a non-material self, known as the atman or the soul, animates the body and a similar non-material Supreme Being, known as the Paramatama or the Supersoul, animates the cosmos. When the soul and the Supersoul are in harmony, the fullness of life can be experienced. When the soul is in a subhuman body, it has no opportunity to achieve this fullness as the undeveloped consciousness of the animal body allows no access to the spiritual dimension. Only in the human body does the soul have the intelligence to penetrate the superficial world of matter and perceive the spiritual energy within the cosmos. Humans alone can harmonize themselves not only with the cosmic energies, but also with the Supreme Energetic Person, who is the source and the basis of the cosmos.



In the modern times, humans have exercised their intellects tirelessly to understand the world of matter. This has resulted in significant advances in science and technology. But  modern science has been dogmatically reluctant to investigate the spiritual dimension of life. A thinking person can easily perceive that life has an aspect higher than the material. Can electrons think? Can atoms have emotions? Can molecules desire? Can chemicals experience love? Obviously not. Indeed within the framework of material science, there is no explanation whatsoever for the phenomenon of consciousness. Although the reality of consciousness is undeniable, modern science has done precious little to understand it; indeed most scientists have religiously restricted themselves to the study of matter.

The Vedic texts assert that to keep the human intellect locked within the realm of matter is gross under-utilization of the potential of human life. Worse still, when deprived of access to the spiritual realm, a human being cannot experience the fullness that he intrinsically longs for. He frantically searches for that fullness by manipulating matter in newer and newer ways, but to no avail. The resulting frustration causes such a human being to become stunted, throttled and distorted. Overindulgence in matter and negligence of spirit backfires and results in disharmony, distress and disaster.

Over the last five centuries, the widespread acceptance of the scientific worldview and the concomitant negligence or rejection of  spirituality has resulted in a colossal imbalance of material and spiritual values. The modern world, especially the West, is witnessing the catastrophic consequences of disharmonious living. Individually there is an increase in dissatisfaction, stress, depression, addiction and suicide and globally there is an increase in unrest, criminality, violence and terrorism.



The Vedic texts explain that real happiness comes not by sensual titillation, but by selfless love. And the perfection of love is when it is reposed in such a way that it is never limited or thwarted. Every soul has such an eternal loving relationship with the Supreme Person in a higher dimensional deathless realm. Human life, with its developed consciousness, provides the soul the opportunity to revive that relationship. Therefore the Vedic texts urge intelligent humans to focus their energies not on pandering to the demands of the mortal body, but on awakening the loving nature of the immortal soul.

For achieving this divine harmony of love, the Vedic texts delineate a systematic program centered on meditation on divine sound, especially the chanting of the maha mantra Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. As a human being advances on the way to harmony, he gains access, in this very life, to a whole new world of profound knowledge, thrilling experience and ever-increasing happiness. The concomitant result of experiencing this higher happiness is that one becomes indifferent to the hankerings of the flesh. Ultimately this sweet harmony of divine love culminates in the return of the soul to his original spiritual milieu, where he rejoices eternally in endless love with the Supreme.



The essence of a living being is his desires; it is our desires that direct and determine our entire life. A person may have seemingly special externals – a fancy hairstyle, a fashionable dress, a hi-tech mobile, a flashy car and so on, but if his internal desires are the same as those of the ordinary animals – to attract the opposite sex, to seek titillation of the tongue and so on, such a person is nothing more than a sophisticated animal. Srila Prabhupada would poignantly remark thats a dog may be moving on four legs and a human in a car with four wheels, but if the essential purpose for which both are moving is the same – seeking bodily pleasures, how is the human superior to the dog?


A human being becomes truly special only when his desires are higher than those of the animals. Such a human being dares to desire the highest happiness that genuine spirituality alone can provide. Being a connoisseur of pleasure, he rejects the pleasures that the animals are seeking, considering them unworthy of his developed intelligence. He wisely refuses to tread the beaten track that all other living beings are pursuing, a path that leads to old age, disease and death. The Bhagavad-gita (7.3) declares that such a human being is very special and rare; indeed he is one among millions.


Therefore the onus is on every intelligent person to choose his desires. Will he continue to be just another ordinary creature, having the same desires of eating, sleeping, mating and defending that all the millions and billions of life forms all over the globe have? Will he continue to be just another figure in the meaningless statistics of this world? Or will he be bold enough to be special – by pursuing lofty spiritual goals in life? Will he take up the challenge of pioneering an ongoing global spiritual awakening that is the only hope for the modern misdirected civilization? The world is waiting to see.


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