Jeekc (Wikimedia Commons) 
  • What connects the great ethologist Jane Goodall to a simple tale told by Sita to Hanuman in the Ramayana?

On 3 April this year, Jane Goodall, the primatologist who changed forever our conception of human ingenuity and made us cross the species chasm by showing how chimpanzees make tools, turned 85. A small field observation for a young primatologist became a giant leap for humanity in inter-species empathy.

In her foreword to the book The Emotional Lives of Animals by Dr Marc Bekoff (New World Library, 2007), she gives a brief biographical sketch of Goodall’s scientific career.

As a girl she was fascinated by her pet animals including her ‘extraordinarily intelligent mixed-breed dog, Rusty’ which taught her ‘that animals, at least those with reasonably complex brains, have vivid and distinct personalities, minds capable of some kind of rational thought, and above all, feelings’.

Then, in 1960, she got an opportunity to study the chimpanzees of the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Without any prejudice imparted to her by scientific worldview of that period, she recorded everything she saw, the way she saw. Then Louis Leakey, an authority in anthropology got her into a PhD programme in ethology (science of studying animals, particularly primate behavior) in Cambridge University.

There I was criticized for my lack of scientific method, for naming the chimpanzees rather than assigning each a number, for “giving” them personalities, and for maintaining they had minds and emotions. For these, I was told sternly, were attributes reserved for the human animal. I was even reprimanded for referring to a male chimpanzee as “he” and a female “she”: Didn’t I know that “it” was the correct way to refer to an animal? Well, a nonhuman animal. And so, for the most part, my observations were written off as merely those of a naive young woman who had had no university education. ... Indeed, ethologists, along with many philosophers and theologians, argued that personality, mind, and emotions were uniquely human attributes and that the behavior of other-than-human animals was for the most part merely a response to some environmental or social stimulus. But I could not accept this — it absolutely contradicted all I had learned during my years with Rusty and my new experiences with the chimpanzees. 

Her thesis supervisor, Professor Robert Hinde made her understand the way of science. So she could not write 'Fifi was happy,' but could write the same as 'Fifi behaved in such a way that, had she been human, we would say she was happy'. Even so, her work created a storm in the cup of the discipline of ethology. Soon, it would become an oceanic hurricane across disciplines and would fundamentally change how we viewed our evolutionary cousins. Goodall writes:

During the late sixties, more and more biologists went into the field and started long-term studies on all manner of animal species: apes, monkeys, elephants, whales, dolphins, wolves, and so on. And these studies made it clear that animal behavior is far more complex than was originally admitted by Western science. ... Certainly we are not the only animals who experience pain and suffering. In other words, there is no sharp line between the human animal and the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a blurred line, and becoming more so all the time.

So what does Jane Goodall have to do with Sita?

In Ramayana, the Rakshasas are a group of people who were not, as many consider, uncultured, demonic people. Rather, they considered themselves superior to other humans and animals. In fact, when Ravana asked for the boon of invincibility from the creator Deity, he left out humans and animals because he thought they were too inferior to be bothered about.

The Rakshasa women who guarded Sita when she was being held captive were instructed by Ravana to torment Sita endlessly. Their taunts and threats even led Sita to contemplate suicide. But for the timely intelligent intervention of Hanuman - a Vanara emissary from Rama, she would have succumbed to the thought of suicide.

Now Rama had vanquished Ravana with the help of the Vanaras - the monkeys or the non-human primates. Hanuman was here to tell Sita the good news. Then he looked at all those Rakshasa women who had tormented her. He asked her permission to punish them.

Sita refused him to give permission but then told Hanuman what a bear once told a tiger.

This story told by Sita is known throughout India for millennia now . It is about how a hunter chased by a tiger in a forest, escaped by climbing a tall tree. In the tree was a bear. The tiger told the bear that the hunter is the killer of wild animals and hence the bear should push him down. The bear refused. He said that the tree being the home of the bear, the hunter had become its guest. And it was the dharma of the householder to protect the guest.

The tiger waited. Soon, the bear fell asleep. The tiger told the man that despite the grand words, the bear was actually reserving the man for himself. So, the tiger suggested that if the man pushed the bear down, then the tiger could easily devour and eat the sleepy bear and would go its way while the man too could be free of danger. The hunter yielded to the temptation and pushed the bear down. The bear, adept in living on the trees, saved itself.

Now the tiger appealed again to the bear. Pointing out the treachery of the man it asked him to push him down. The bear told the tiger that a noble person does not do evil deeds to revenge evil deeds. A good person, he said, always does good deeds irrespective of what the others do. After saying this, Sita defined the term ‘Arya’ in a very famous statement:

Kaaryam kaarunyamaaryen na kashchit naaparaadhyati (कार्यं कारुण्यमार्येण न कश्चिन्नापराध्यति) : Showing kindness (towards the saintly and the sinner alike) defines a person as Arya for there is none who has never committed a wrong.
Valmiki Ramayana: Yuddha Kanda: 46

Here, the term ‘Arya’, much maligned by colonial Indology, European historiography and Nazi racism , is defined as a quality that is even above mercy, compassion and empathy combined, possessed not only by humans but by all living beings. Only a being who possesses that quality irrespective of what species it belongs to, should be considered as noble - ‘Arya’. Thus defined Sita the term ‘Arya’.

Can non-human animals too show compassion even in an evil situation, as Sita says through an ordinary Hindu folktale? In a ‘scientific’ study, macaque monkeys were given food only if they pulled a chain that administered electric shock to another unrelated macaque monkey whose pain could be seen by the hungry macaque through a one-way mirror. If they did not pull the chain they would starve. In one instance of the experiment, 87 percent of the monkeys chose to starve than get food by hurting a fellow animal.

One macaque preferred to starve for two weeks rather than hurt his fellow. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan who narrate this experiment in their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search For Who We Are’ (1993) make the following caustic remark:

If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves—suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others—our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. ... By conventional human standards, these macaques—who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson—seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil.

This ability to show empathy and compassion in the face of even an evil milieu, Sita says, is the hallmark of an ‘Arya’. Sita explained it and made Hanuman feel it. That Jane Goodall feels and explains it and makes the current humanity feel it, unites both these women across the ages and geography.

Happy Birthday Jane Goodall!

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