In 1913, after having founded a hospital in Gabon, the religious philosopher and polymath Albert Schweitzer took a boat ride on the Ogooue River, to contemplate ethics and civilization. He spent two days in deep thought and, on the third, had a moment of enlightenment, which he called “Reverence for Life.”
In short, “Reverence for Life” is the idea that all life must be respected and loved and that humans should enter into a personal, spiritual relationship with the universe and all its creations. For humans such an outlook would naturally lead to a life of service to others.
Schweitzer was born into a well-educated family in Alsace, which was part of Germany in 1875, the year of his birth. His father was a Lutheran pastor and Schweitzer followed his footsteps and studied theology and philosophy. He also became an accomplished organist, but found his lasting passion in medicine.
With a degree in Medicine, Schweitzer and his wife Helene Bresslau, a nurse, he moved to Gabon, Africa, where he lived for most of his days, to start a hospital.
He had always had a kind heart towards animals. He wrote “One thing that especially saddened me was that the unfortunate animals had to suffer so much pain and misery…when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me good-night, I used to silently add a prayer that I composed myself for all living beings: ‘Oh heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath, guard them from evil, and let them sleep in peace.’”
He carried this understanding throughout his life. In Africa, when planting a seed on a farm he had started, he was noticed gently scooping out a spider that had fallen in the hole. His reverence for life, while self-manifested, was developed and refined by Schweitzer’s reading of Indian philosophy. In his book, Indian Thought and Its Development, he wrote the following: “The laying down of the commandment to not kill and not to damage is one of the greatest events in spiritual history. Starting from this principle..ancient Indian thought..reached the tremendous discovery that ethics know no bounds.”
Ahimsa, the principle he referred to, appears in both yoga philosophy and in the religion of Jainism. In yoga, it is the first of the Yamas, one of the eight limbs of yoga. The five Yamas (standards of behavior) are Ahimsa (non-violence); Satya (truthfulness); Asteya, non-stealing; Brahmacharya (continence) and Aparigraha (non-covetousness.) The Jain religion brought Ahimsa into daily practice.
Schweitzer’s writings had a tremendous impact in a world that had suffered violence during the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1952, and he used the money to start a leprosarium in Gabon, Africa. Until his death in 1965, he worked tirelessly for peace, speaking out against nuclear weapons and for the humane treatment of animals.