Plants, Animals and Humans
Where is the difference?
Corné van Nijhuis
I recently asked my daughter what was a “big question” for her when you think about the mystery of existence. She then indicated that she sometimes wondered to what extent people, animals and plants have metaphysical similarities and whether they are connected to each other. A very nice but of course also a very comprehensive question. In this contribution I will give my view on this issue. To that end, I will first reformulate the question into three parts and then answer each one:
What is life?
How do various manifestations of life – humans, animals and plants – differ from each other?
are these manifestations connected?
When I look at a question like this – existence – I can answer it from two perspectives. The first is that of absolute reality – the non-dual reality – and the second is that of relative reality – the physical and spiritual world in which we live. In this consideration I limit myself to the relative reality: our everyday world.
What is Life?
From a physical/biological perspective, life can be seen as the characteristic difference that distinguishes an organism from non-living things. This manifests itself in particular in the ability to self-regulate, to respond to external stimuli, to adapt to the environment, to grow and to reproduce. In this, organisms seem (at first impression) to be self-contained. Each has its own place in the multitude of existences.
The brain is like a projector,
the mind (thoughts) is like a projection
and the underlying consciousness is the screen.
However, if we look at it from a more metaphysical (psychic) perspective, then human and animal life includes things like mental processes and emotions (I’ll go into plants later). However, if we look closely at this, both – thoughts and emotions – are ‘objects’ in consciousness (more precisely, they are vibrations in and of consciousness). From a metaphysical perspective, therefore, consciousness is fundamental (underlying) and mental processes and emotions are phenomena in consciousness. In other words, metaphysically, human and animal life is “contemplative consciousness.” With our mental faculties (thinking and feeling), we (from birth) and to a lesser extent animals, have created a personality or individuality (an ego) in it. However, this is a thought construct. We, as “beings”, are not the created thought construct (the ego). We as a being are the underlying consciousness that, residing in a body with mental faculties (brain), has created an individuality and personality (ego).
The mind is the uninterrupted stream of thoughts
who has made a construct what we call the ego
making us live in an illusion of separateness.
How do people, animals and plants differ from each other?
When we look at the many forms of life from a biological perspective, we see an almost infinite variety of appearances. Outwardly, the three main forms – man, animal and plant – certainly seem to differ substantially from each other. So this is not the reason for asking the original questions in this contribution.
More interesting is the picture from a metaphysical perspective. If life can essentially be seen as ‘consciousness’ in that respect, then the real question is: how does the consciousness differ from humans, animals and plants? I have indicated above that we as human beings are fundamentally the underlying consciousness that, residing in a body, has created an individuality and personality (ego) with our mental faculties (brain). This idea applies similarly to an animal, it said that an animal has less developed mental faculties, so that it only experiences an individuality to a certain extent and has no personality (and therefore no self-awareness). A more far-reaching difference applies to plants, namely that they have no thinking capacity, which means that they are unable to make a thinking construct and that they therefore have no individuality or personality. I indicated above that I would come back to the powers of plants. They may have no thinking ability, but the phenomenon of emotions or being able to ‘feel’ is something that is certainly the case with plants. There are many examples of how plants protect or support other plants, for example in the event of water stress or other threats from the shared environment. Like this
can a plant produce stress hormones and spread them through the air when a caterpillar is gnawing on a leaf. Other plants can absorb these and start producing biochemical substances, so that the leaf becomes less attractive to such a caterpillar. Although plants do not have a brain and therefore no thinking ability, there is talk of van information transfer that is comparable to an ability that we could refer to as ‘sensing’ in humans. A clear metaphysical phenomenon.
Are people, animals and plants connected to each other?
For this I have indicated under “What is life?” that from a biological perspective, organisms, in a physiological sense, are, at first impression, self-contained. As far as I am concerned, however, the question remains: how autonomous is this isolated physiological position really? Because without trees/plants there is no oxygen and without oxygen there are neither people nor animals. This applies to many things, for example water, food, and so on. So also biologically it is still questionable whether ultimately not all life is connected to each other, or whether all life is one after all.
The Ego is a veil between humans and God
From a metaphysical perspective, there is certainly a connection in my view. Even stronger, in my view there is unity. As said, I consider (from the perspective of relative reality) “contemplative consciousness” to be the essence of “life”. In addition, the original universal contemplative consciousness manifests itself in every living organism. However, due to its connection with the physiological appearance (organism), the contemplative power is limited to a greater or lesser extent. On the one hand, this limitation entails an illusory fragmentation (in humans and animals an individualization and in humans also a personification). An apparent separation of consciousness arises in the organism of universal consciousness. This isolation is imaginary. So there is no question of being ‘connected’, but in reality there is only one universal consciousness, which is present in all beings, but under the illusion of separateness.
I hope that with the above I have been able to inspire you to realize your vision on this again.
Dhr Corne van Nijhuis is a scholar and has devoted his time to the study and practice of Vedanta. He is a regular contributor to this magazine.