In Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination, Reiko Ohnuma has succeeded in writing a readable, lively, entertaining, and outstandingly scholarly study. I was grateful for both her wit and lively turn of phrase and the depth of the analysis at hand. It is a work that will be central to any discussion of animals and animality in Buddhist studies for years to come. It will also clearly be of interest in religious studies and related disciplines whenever there is a discussion of religion and our nonhuman friends. Ohnuma’s topic is very clearly explained in the introduction. So too are her key themes. She is not so much interested in the fact that the Buddha, as a bodhisattva, appears in animal form (though she does occasionally cover this area). She is more concerned with “a simultaneous kinship and otherness, identity and difference, and attraction and repulsion in humanity’s relationship to the other” (xv). This sufficiently describes the “unfortunate destiny” in the title of the book, but the phrase is an English rendering of the Sanskrit durgati and refers to the traumatic and unfortunate rebirths that animals often embody. The reason for this description, as Ohnuma stresses, is that to be born as an animal is very often a staggering and fearful rebirth. When not being fed for slaughter, animals are being cooked for the feast. The book is comprised of three parts, each containing separate chapters. Part 1 is titled, appropriately, “Unfortunate Destiny,” and its two chapters contain two key and fascinating themes. Ohnuma begins with the horror of being an animal. The animal realm, in Buddhist cosmology, is one of the “unfortunate destinies” (5). She uses canonical passages to illustrate the horrendousness of such realms, as when the Buddha is quoted as saying, “I could speak in so many ways about the animal realm, but it wouldn’t be easy to capture the suffering of the animal realm” (8). There is a vividness, a provocative and well-intentioned vulgarity to Ohnuma’s descriptions, reflecting the textual material being used. She alludes to the maggot feeding on a corpse, and the disgust we feel at this. Why do we feel disgust? According to Ohnuma it is because we too (and one might want to turn away if sensitive) “eat, drink, piss, shit, bleed, vomit, have sex, give birth, grow old, and finally die” (9). Whereas some studies of Buddhist ethics consider a continuity between the human and animal realms, Ohnuma emphasizes a discontinuity, and a moral and religious distinction between being a human and being an animal (15, 22). The reason for this is the lack of moral agency attributed to animals. Because animals lack the “higher mental faculties” together with language and some essential social constructs, they cannot escape from suffering. The conclusion is that, far from the sunnier-than-sunny view of animals often presented as being prevalent in Buddhism, the position of animals is comparable to that in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Chapter 2 poses the natural question as to the ability of animals to climb from their lowly position. How do they get from unfortunate (durgati) to fortunate (sugati) rebirths? A number of tropes on this subject are familiar in Buddhist studies. Ohnuma discusses them in her usual vigorous way (with an eye for details that could otherwise easily miss key points). The “cosmic loophole” (28) is fundamentally the idea that the animal needs to find itself in the physical presence of the Buddha (or one of his disciples, or a stupa) and for this “seeing” to give rise to “faith” (22–26). Ohnuma also refers to a “karmic loophole” to describe some ambiguities in the Buddhist description of karma (34). Chapter 3 (the opening of part 2 of the book) is a discussion of animals in the Jātakas. This genre of Buddhist texts contains descriptions of the previous lives of the Buddha, when he was striving to be reborn to achieve awakening. They are very popular in many Buddhist cultures and in them the “Buddha to be” often appears as a highly anthropomorphized animal (41). These are animals that can talk and are, in the words of Ohnuma, “allegorical human beings” (45). These texts often tell of the horrific nature of an animal rebirth, and to great effect Ohnuma includes a description of the children’s film Babe (52–54), and of the occasional execution of elephants at the turn of the twentieth century in England and the United States (69–71). These episodes emphasize the cruelty shown to animals and are cleverly discussed alongside the Buddhist material. Chapter 4 considers “animal saviors.” These virtuous animals, mainly those depicted as previous incarnations of the Buddha (81), as is usually the case in the Jātakas, which again provides the source material. The point of this chapter is to suggest that the moral superiority of humans is “not all it is cracked up to be” (82). Our supposed superiority is something of a sham. Therefore, the animals considered in this chapter are guides, even saviors. Most remarkably, these animals can understand the teaching of the Buddha, they can gain insights into his dharma, whereas humans, in these passages, cannot. Part 3 of the book, “Animal Doubles of the Buddha” consists of chapters 5, 6, and 7. Each chapter describes a specific animal that is prominent in the Buddha’s biography. These are the Buddha’s horse, Kanthaka, and the elephants Pārileyyaka and Nāḷāgiri. These animals do not speak or preach or understand the teachings of the Buddha. They are more closely aligned with the animals discussed in the opening chapters, particularly chapter 2. It is their contact with the Buddha and their transformation that is central (95–96). Each animal is named and has a specific character. They are also central in the life of the Buddha. As is often the case in the telling of his life, key themes and characters appear in a set order and have a specific function in his religious journey. This is central to the narratives that describe Kanthaka, Pārileyyakam, and Nāḷāgiri. They are “doubles,” explains Ohnuma, because each animal is a shadow, one that identifies with the Buddha. In this identification with the Buddha, similarities are noted, and the differences illuminate specific aspects of the Buddha’s own character. Each animal is further used in a specific way (as a “scapegoat,” “mirror,” and “billboard”) in the life of the Buddha to exhibit specific qualities, and, I would suggest, subtle tensions in his biography. Reiko Ohnuma has written a book of exquisite detail. She has made connections and drawn parallels between often disparate material that I take to be a key feature of excellent scholarship. Her coverage of both Pāli and, where necessary, Sanskrit material is to be highly commended. One could have arguments with some of her assumptions. I’m sure some might question the final three chapters and the validity of some of the specific uses of “the scapegoat,” for example. Whether such parallels can so easily be made could be questioned. However, in the presentation of these ideas, and the research that underpins them, we have an excellent and much needed consideration of the key themes of animals and Buddhism. Their unfortunate destinies make this book essential reading for those in a number of disciplines related to religious studies. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. 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Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 24, 2018
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