This is from a debate over the title subject. A little more speculative than usual. Edited for context.
It’s an interesting consideration. We tend to take a human-centric view of it, seeing ourselves at the top of the food chain and having the necessary equipment to sustain enlightenment. The way I describe the unfolding of stages of enlightenment is for humans. And for humans in the current age. In a golden age, most everyone experiences life as-if enlightened, but it’s the group consciousness that is sustaining that so eventually when the actual numbers drop, the age ends.
Some describe a progression up through different types of progressively more advanced life forms until we achieve a human body. I’ve seen others describe being born as domestic animals between human lives. And I once met a fellow having his first human incarnation after many lives in an alien race. There are also references to “fallen” angels learning through human incarnations. What it all suggests is the diversity of the process. There isn’t one path for all.
Due to the laws of karma, we tend to incarnate in related life forms and with people with whom we’re connected. There are literal energetic connections between us. So it’s much more common to have a series of somewhat similar lives and with a series of somewhat similar people but often in different roles (wife before is now friend or child, etc). I’m aware of extensive past life connections to many of the people I’ve been close to, for example.
On enlightenment, I largely see enlightenment as a progressive unfolding of post-personal stages of development. But its a sloppy term used various ways. I’ve found that each stage effectively puts me back in kindergarten. So what stage do we consider enlightenment?
We could say enlightenment begins when Shakti rises to join Shiva, where consciousness wakes up to itself, through a form or point value. What the Yoga Sutra called Kaivalya. This shift reverberates throughout creation. Is it necessary for that form to be human for that to happen? I’d say a human form is a good vehicle for it, but why would the divine be limited by that? We’ve all heard stories of the enlightened cow and such. And we’ve all met dogs and cats far more with it than their species would expect.
It seems less likely but if a soul has accumulated lots of sattva and atman and then for some reason is reborn a cow, that development is still sustained. How much can be expressed through that form? Good question.
Also, darshan is not limited by species. What happens to the dog who’s owner is enlightened? And in a golden age with high group consciousness, then the lion lies down with the lamb and all that.
I agree with Guru Dev that a human life is a precious thing and should not be wasted on other than returning to the divine. But I would not presume to think the divine is waiting for us to have a human birth and learn X practice and meet X teacher before grace can come. Those to me are surface expressions of a deeper underlying unfolding.
I am reminded of the story of Bhusunda the crow in the Yog Vasishtha. This is a very enlightened crow who discovered how to live through the dissolution of creation and has since lived through 10 cycles. The sage had come to see him to learn of this in 8 of those cycles. (which offers some fascinating insight into the unfolding of the universe being both structured by the Veda (predetermined) and also allowing for variation via choice (free will))
Another simple issue is means. In the modern age with the Internet, humans have the ability to discover teachers and teachings from around the globe and across time. This is a profound opportunity not afforded to foxes and trees. They would have to come into this life with a knowing of means or be blessed to live with someone who has them.
I can also note that when the universe is reaching completion, everything that remains would become enlightened, even the amoebas. They would not experience that the same way we do, but that would not invalidate it.
In other words, other beings here on earth apparently have the potential to become enlightened but their experience of it would not be the same as a humans and their means to support the process are profoundly more limited. So a cat would not typically become enlightened just continuing to be a cat.
But I would never consider those absolute limitations. Grace does what grace does and anything is possible.
P.S.: Not everyone was convinced of this position. 🙂