Vegetarianism in the Religious Traditions

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Vegetarianism in the Religious Traditions

From Oh Why Oh Why

Genesis 1:29: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed which is upon the face of the Earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food."

Albert Einstein: "A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical illusion/ delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

Every spiritual tradition since time immemorial has dedicated an aspect of their teaching to the nourishment, sustenance, purity and cleanliness of the human body. The journey up the mountain to partake of God’s divine sustenance is one that begins with the relationship of nutrition to the light of communion with God.

Through vegetarian and vegan diets, fasting, and cleansing the human vessel, we increase our capacity to experience energy, clear perception, humility, oneness and stewardship of the natural world. Expanding one’s consciousness and awareness are fundamental tenets of spiritual practice, whether observed as mindfulness of others, attentiveness to the moment or acknowledging the inter-connectivity of life.

A pragmatic understanding of awareness simply acknowledges that the interconnection between all particles of existence is intelligent, alive, communicative and part of a designing force that we all exist within; these insights emerge from contemporary quantum physics and quantum mechanics, a realm where the dividing line between spirituality and science becomes increasingly blurred.

A spiritual recognition of the interconnectedness of life admonishes anyone walking a spiritual path to walk softly upon the earth and cause as little harm as humanly possible to themselves and others (we’ve done plenty as is), including animals.

Veganism and vegetarianism are lifestyle choices that transcend cultural, religious, racial, nationalistic, political and societal boundaries. In different spiritual traditions, this lifestyle choice is encouraged for various reasons, although syncretic idealism (ideal integration of most common overlapping aspects between systems) beckons us to explore the areas of commonality between these traditions in order to arrive at some understanding of the deeper inner truth of why these traditions support vegetarianism.

All spiritual traditions that advocate vegetarianism insist on compassion for all living sentient beings, nonviolence, surrendering attachments, ego-identifications, and illusions of the personality and ultimately surrender into the divine Self.

This process of surrender and “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures,” to borrow from notable vegetarian Albert Einstein, is one that requires a profound inner work and sublimation of our lower impulses and desires. By overcoming our animalistic impulse to consume meat and flesh, we undergo a process of sacrifice and surrendering our lower nature, loosening the grip of our ego, and more fully embracing the sacred interconnectedness of life.

In discussing his belief in Ahimsa or non-violence under all conditions, Hindu statesmen and spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi states "I do feel that spiritual progress does demand, at some stage, that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants."

And, in the words of Leonardo Da Vinci, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." Da Vinci raises an interesting observation concerning the ethics of eating animals, which draws provocative parallels to the spiritual dimension of vegetarianism.

In his New York Times bestselling work Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explores ethical considerations of animal consumption. He ponders the curious current surge of vegetarian “popularity” in contemporary culture and animal rights, “the fringiest of fringe movements….Given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn” (305).

The obvious dissenters over the years- Ovid, St. Francis, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Buddha, Haile Selassie I, Thomas Aquinas, Da Vinci, Moses, Einstein, Mahavira, Guru Nanak, Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers- have defended vegetarianism from multiple ethical perspectives. However, these viewpoints do not explain the popular resurgence in animal rights consideration.

Michael Pollen writes, “It may be that as a civilization we’re groping toward a higher plane of consciousness. It may be that our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals- like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior beings- can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame” (305).

Pollan explores the ethical consideration of vegetarianism by following the argument of the world’s leading philosopher of animal rights, Peter Singer and his famous work Animal Liberation. Following this argument allows us to see the connection between ethical regard and our inherent compassion for other living beings, which serves as an underpinning of the world’s spiritual traditions.

The simplified dialectic goes something like this: “We consider all men/ women to be created equal not as a matter of fact- some are smarter than others, handsomer, more gifted, whatever- but as a moral idea that everyone’s interests ought to receive equal consideration. Therefore, “if possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle a human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?”

But humans differ from animals in morally significant way. “Yes they do, Singer readily acknowledges, which is why we shouldn’t treat pigs and children alike. Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment, he points out; children have an interest in being educated, pigs in rooting around in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain” (Omnivore’s Dilemma 308)

Singer further strengthens his argument by quoting eighteenth-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham discusses the decision by the French to free their black slaves and grant them fundamental rights, before the British or Americans had acted.

He writes “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights.” In considering the characteristics that entitle any being to moral consideration, he asks “Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversational animal, than an infant. The question is not Can they reason Or Can they talk? But can they suffer?” (308)

This argument contains a multitude of powerful ramifications, but at its core is a message of compassion for all living things. Society as a whole has inherited a Cartesian dualistic split from nature, an objectification of nature as extractable resources and the animal world as expendable fodder.

Many believe that the superficial, desacralized and consumption-based culture of the modern world is rooted in this split. It was Descartes who famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling.

This schizophrenic duality that runs contrary to spiritual tenets of Oneness, is seen in our relationship with animals today “in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of the pig- an animal easily as intelligent as a dog- that becomes the Christmas ham” (Omnivore’s Dilemma, 306).

We have also inherited a post-Darwinian anthropocentrism in which man is the center of the universe and reigning king/queen of the planet, yet we often fail to acknowledge the absolute interdependency of all life on earth. For the first time in human history, we face the exceedingly real threat of the extinction of our own species.

It is precisely our sense of “speciesist” collective egoism that is currently threatening our survival, much less harmonious coexistence, and our lack of compassion for the life of animals. As Einstein noted, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

Anyone who questions the suffering of the objectified animals we consume need only watch the documentaries Earthlings by Shaun Monson or Food Inc. by filmmaker Robbert Kenner, which document the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA.

For many, spiritual notions of expanded consciousness and oneness remain abstract intangibles that have little to do with their consumer choices at the local supermarket. However, compassion and suffering are fundamental experiences of the human condition. It is with this understanding, that many of the spiritual traditions encourage a vegetarian lifestyle.

In the words of the Buddha, "The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion” (Mahaparinirvana Sutra). Throughout the ages, spiritual teachers of many faiths have encouraged vegetarianism for an even more compelling reason. They stress vegetarianism as one of the cornerstones of a successful meditative and spiritual life.

Sant Darshan Singh Ji Maharaj, author of "The Vegetarian Way of Life," tells us that a vegetarian diet is based on compassion and nonviolence. It helps us to maintain a balance between our body, mind, emotions and soul. He says, "Should we stop to think about it, we would realize that the food we eat has an effect upon our physical, emotional, and mental makeup. If we are trying to lead a life of nonviolence and compassion, if we are trying to become more serene and peaceful, if we are trying to control our mind and senses, then we will naturally want to follow a diet that helps us achieve our goal."

It is scientifically proven that all meat products, especially red meat due to its highly acidic composition, affect the body in ways detrimental to meditation and spiritual practice. This insight operates in many ways.

The Islamic perspective is captured in the following: "If a man eats meat, he will take on the qualities of the animal he eats and once those qualities enter, the man's anger, his hastiness, and his animal qualities will increase. If he does not kill anything on the inside he will not kill anything on the outside" (Islamic Holiness M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen).

This belief is echoed in Buddhist and Hindu texts, which emphasize that we take on the experience (the suffering of animals “raised” in mechanized Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO) of whatever we consume.

The consumption of meat is not conducive to deep meditation or spiritual practice because it affects us on a physiological level, raising blood pressure, increasing degenerative disease, and requiring more energy for digestion, as well as affecting us on a mental and emotional level.

Further, fat from flesh foods is a major storage site for pesticides, herbicides and other environmental toxins that enter the food chain and that effect the proper functioning of our body and mind. The energy of a flesh-food diet adds to the impurities of the mind and the nervous system. Flesh consumption also disrupts the energetic channels of the body.

In the words of respected doctor, vegan and spiritual teacher Gabriel Cousens M.D., “awakening of our awareness of illuminated truth and connection to the divine is assisted by the activation of our sacred spiritual anatomy, which includes the chakras, nadis, koshas, subtle bodies and field of awareness” (Spiritual Nutrition, Intro).

From this perspective, as well as current explorations in quantum physics, all matter is seen energy vibrating at different frequencies. Therefore, food also carries a vibration that affects the energetic bodies of man.

Cousens notes, “Flesh food creates a tamasic (Ayurvedic medicinal term for dull and heavy) effect on the physical body and mind. It clogs the channels of the subtle body, the 72,000 nadis through which the kundalini needs to move freely to do its spiritualizing work, and tends to make the mind insensitive…. It communicates the energy of destruction to the cells and brings the energy of death into our auric fields, reducing the flow of higher prana into the body. The lives of the creatures we’ve eaten weigh down our astral body with their negative feelings of fear and suffering at their time of death” (Spiritual Nutrition 250).

For many reasons, spiritual seekers throughout history have insisted on a vegan or vegetarian diet as a key component of their spiritual unfoldment. All traditions encourage the seeker to refer to their own inner knowing on the best path for them and to check all spiritual ideas against their own experience.

Hence, the great Platonic edict to “know thyself” and the Taoist saying “The man who knows others is learned, yet the man who knows himself is wise.” Whatever one’s path, principles of nonviolence, compassion, mercy, connectedness, selflessness and health serve as a foundation for a happy and meaningful life.

Veganism/vegetarianism is an immediately accessible means of fostering these principles in one’s daily life and embodying the virtues that spiritual teachers discuss as the foundations for growth, authenticity and eventual enlightenment.

Finally, the Buddha states in the Dhammapada, "One is not a great one because one defeats or harms other living beings. One is so called because one refrains from defeating or harming other living beings.", (Ch. 19 (15/270) Max Muller, Trans.)

Such words are not about justifying vegetarianism as a dogma but rather imploring to our hearts the deeper side of nutrition and it's importance in modern society.