At first there was only the vigorous snuffling sound of an inquisitive snout near my brow, then the sensation of humid breath falling tenderly upon my neck, then the light brush of a cool wet nose against my cheek, and finally the tentative probing tip of a broad ductile tongue along the rim of my ear. I stirred, an inarticulate but vaguely interrogative moan rising in my throat. At once, a voice hauntingly like Laurence Harvey’s said, “Yes, I thought you were awake.”
I opened my eyes, and could tell from the deep, almost cerulean darkness that it was still night. A moment later I realized that the shape looming over me, silhouetted against the moon-drenched linen curtains of my window, was that of my dog Roland’s shoulders and head. “What . . . ?” I began.
“I can guess why you’re so restless,” he said. “I expect it’s all the turmoil and vexation that all these debates you get involved in cause you. But you mustn’t allow indignation or personal passion to rob you of sleep.”
“But I was . . .”
“And I know that some of it’s because of your feelings for me . . . the arguments about animal consciousness, and animal rationality, and animal eschatology, and such . . . and, well . . .”—I could see his head drop slightly, almost shyly—“I’m genuinely moved.” Then his silhouette lurched toward me and the edge of his tongue ran along the bridge of my nose. “That’s the customary gesture,” he helpfully explained as he moved back away, turning his head to one side so that the wan moonlight now framed his glistening nose in a jeweler’s foil of pale silver.
I thought it best to say nothing.
“I have to say, though, I think you tend to take the positions you do chiefly because you’re a Hindu.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, all at once bewildered: “Because I’m a Hindu?”
“Precisely,” said Roland. “So you’re naturally going to see things from a different angle. You naturally think of all living things in terms of the jiva within, which is a spiritual reality transcendent of species.”
“But . . .”
“The poor karmic vagabond,” Roland continued, morosely shaking his head, “the wanderer between lives: now a cow, now a man, now a god, now a paramecium . . .”
“Look,” I interrupted, “there’s some misunderstanding. I’m not Hindu.”
Here, I believe, Roland laughed (though the sound was largely indistinguishable from the noise he makes when regurgitating his “sweet viridescent purgative” of grass each morning). Then with a hapless sigh he said, “Really? Then why do you have all those volumes of Sanskrit and all those Indian books and . . .”
“Asian religions and literatures are a passion,” I said, “a field of study. That’s not the same . . .”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Anyway, the next piece you write should . . .”
“No,” I protested, “I’m tired. You write something.”
At once, a cold silence descended, and lingered several moments. When Roland spoke again, his voice had dropped in register, sounding now like Stewart Granger’s: “You know they wouldn’t print it. We’ve talked about that particular glass ceiling before.”
“Oh, nonsense . . .”
“So what you need to do now,” he continued, “is raise the deeper question: not, say, ‘Can animals be saved?’ but ‘Can persons be?’”
I briefly tried to deduce (or at least intuit) his meaning, conscious of having given him the impression in the past of a certain sluggishness of wits on my part; but I soon gave up. “You’d better explain.”
“Well, all religious pictures of the last things are little more than dream images, shadows moving on the other side of veils of hope and horror. Whenever people try to foresee a state of things beyond time, whether they’re Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus like you, or whatever, the issue is what it is they think can be saved in themselves and in others. It’s a moral question, isn’t it? A question of the metaphysics of persons.”
“I . . . suppose so . . .”
“Persons, that is, as opposed to anonymous essences. I mean, look, you know how many Christian thinkers have tried to make sense of the idea of heaven and hell as an eternal division breaking right through the middle of families, of friendships, of loyalties? How they’ve had to assert that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes or memories of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless delight of heaven?”
“Yes,” I said with a wince.
“But what’s a person?” Roland suddenly barked. “What’s a personal identity except a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments . . . ? If those are removed, if one’s loves are lost or converted into indifference, or even into satisfaction at the torment of those once loved . . . or even just forgetfulness, well . . . what’s saved? Surely someone else—something else—altogether: a spiritual anonymity . . . a vapid spark of pure intellection . . . the residue of a soul reduced to no one. Have you read any Michel de Certeau?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised. “I didn’t know you had.”
“Oh yes,” he said blandly, “he has quite a canine following. Especially among spaniels, because of their special tradition of interpretatio obliqua. But I was just thinking of that lovely line of his . . . what is it? ‘The I is the place of another?’ Something like that. Well there’s the point: as a living person in communion with a world, my spiritual identity is constituted by all my encounters, memories, and affinities, intimate or remote. I am others. So how could I truly be in heaven when those I love are in hell? Wouldn’t I—the person I am—also be in hell with them? As Abraham Lincoln said about heaven, it’s everyone or no one. Not merely a warm sentiment: a logical maxim.”
“The old argument,” he said: “the impersonalist Advaita Vedanta of Shankara or the personalist Vishishtadvaita of Ramanuja.”
“I suppose so,” I said, beginning to feel weary.
“But neither school really thinks of persons as persons, probably, in quite the way Westerners do—in quite the particular, contingent . . . fragile way, that is.”
“I suppose not,” I replied, feeling still wearier.
Roland became quiet momentarily, then stretched out and lay down, pressing up against my side. “You love the Mahabharata, don’t you?” he said.
I was momentarily taken aback. “Yes,” I said. “I love few books better.”
“Well,” he said with a yawn, “all this makes me think of that last lovely tale in the Svargarohana Parva. Decades after the battle of Kurukshetra, well after krishna’s death, the five Pandavas and their beloved Draupadi leave their kingdom and try to ascend to Svarga, Indra’s heaven, in the flesh. But as they climb the Himalayas they fall, one by one, into crevasses or down cliff faces: beautiful Draupadi, clever Sahadeva, winsome Nakula, invincible Arjuna, mighty Bhima . . . till only Yudhisthira, great king of righteousness, remains. He alone reaches the gates of Amravati, the blissful gardens of Svarga, and the gods welcome him; but, at the last moment, they say he can’t bring with him a dog who’s loyally followed him all the way from Indraprastha, as dogs are animals of ill omen, fond of crematory grounds and with unfastidious eating habits.” Roland sighed deeply. “I suppose my fondness for Sevruga caviar wouldn’t get me in. But, anyway, wonderfully, Yudhisthira refuses to enter paradise. ‘He did not abandon me; I’ll not abandon him.’ Greyfriar’s Bobby at the pearly gates . . .”
“Yes,” I said, “but then of course the dog turns out to be Yama, god of dharma, testing Yudhishtira’s virtue one last time.”
“Right,” said Roland with another sigh. “A distinctly unsatisfactory narrative trick. The tale seems subversive at first, and allows for another demonstration of Yudhisthira’s goodness, but then doesn’t really break the rules governing that restricted neighborhood. Oh well. Not the last time a dramatic impasse would be resolved by an implausible deus ex canili.”
“Perhaps he’d have been better off if the dog had really been just a dog,” I said. “You know, he finds the Kauravas in Svarga, in bliss, and his brothers and wife in torment down in the darkness of Naraka, atoning for unpurged lapses of dharma.” I scratched Roland’s jaw. “Though, of course, in the end, they’ll reach paradise and be reconciled with the Kauravas. And Yudhisthira himself ascends beyond Svarga, to the Vaikuntha of Vishnu, the very heaven of God, never to be reborn. And, of course, dogs can attain jivanmukti also . . .”
“But not as dogs,” said Roland in a dour whisper; “only after many ‘higher’ rebirths . . .”
“All religious traditions have their prejudices,” I said softly.
Roland was silent for nearly a minute. Then, quietly, hesitantly, he said, “Would you do it for me? Forsake Indra’s paradise, I mean?”
“Without a second thought.”
“Of course,” I said, closing my eyes. “Dogs are better than gods.”
“Well, that goes without saying,” Roland replied.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer at First Things.