Revered Sant Rajinder SinghJi Maharaj,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by thanking the Science of Spirituality and the organizers of the VeggieFest for inviting me to be amidst you this afternoon and providing me with a unique opportunity to exchange my thoughts with you on this interesting subject.
Many of us are aware that ‘Vegetarianism’ as a movement has been gaining momentum in Europe since the middle of the 19th Century. It is believed that the word ‘vegetarian’ was coined in 1842 by the founders of the British Vegetarian Society, of which Mahatma Gandhi was an active member during his student days in London. Gandhi in his book ‘My Experiments with Truth’ cites many references pointing towards the benefits of vegetarian food from different points of view. It is not surprising that we have all gathered here today to take the cause ahead.
India, the world’s second most populous country, with a population of over 1.2 billion has around 500 million vegetarians. Vegetarianism is much a mainstream way of life with 42% of Indian households eschewing meat, fish and eggs. This constitutes 70% of the world’s vegetarians. India has more vegetarians than all the world’s vegetarians put together.
Vegetarianism is ingrained in Indian society and there are laws requiring all packaged products to be labelled with a mandatory mark showing if the product is vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
You all are familiar with US multi-national food giants McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut. But I doubt whether you have ever heard of McDonald’s McAloo Tikki, which is a burger made from spiced potatoes or the McVeggie, a patty of carrots, peas and potatoes or the McSpicy Paneer which is a burger filled with Indian cottage cheese. Similarly, KFC’s India menu is dominated by vegetarian items like the ‘Veg Zinger’, the ‘Veg Snacker’ and the ‘Veg ZingKong’. Pizza Hut serves amazing pizzas in India like Tandoori Paneer, Paneer Makhani, Veggie Lovers, Simply Veg and Paneer Vegorama. Domino’s Pizza has opened exclusive vegetarian outlets in Mumbai and Gujarat as did McDonald’s earlier near a pilgrimage site sacred to Sikhs in the city of Amritsar in northern India.
While this may seem like an ingenuous adaptation of the local culture by Global Food Majors to tap the increasing purchasing power of the expanding Middle Class in India, it also reflects the growing acceptance of the concept of Vegetarianism in the world. Vegetarianism has enjoyed a long and diverse history and has been preserved in most cultures since the beginning of time.
Historically speaking, the earliest records of vegetarianism come from ancient India and ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE (Before the Common Era). Vegetarianism found favour with some of the great figures of the classical world, most notably Pythagoras (580 BCE), who was believed to be an exact contemporary of Gautama Buddha, and it is possible that the Greek thinker may have come under the influence of Indian mystical teachings. Pythagoras’s ideas mirrored, in part, the traditions of much earlier civilizations including the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians. A vegetarian ideology was practised among religious groups in Egypt around 3,200 BCE, with abstinence from flesh and the wearing of animal-derived clothing based upon karmic beliefs in reincarnation. Far from being a relatively new phenomenon, vegetarianism has enjoyed a long and diverse history and has been preserved in most cultures since the earliest of times.
In Asia, vegetarianism was closely connected with the principle of ‘Ahimsa’ or non-violence and was promoted across history by many religious leaders and philosophers. Thus, abstention from consumption of meat (and consequential ‘vegetarianism’) was central not only to ancient religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that originated in India but also to later religions like Zoroastrianism or the ‘Parsis’.
The history of vegetarianism in India can be traced to the Vedic period, an era that dawned sometime between 4000 and 1500 B.C. The Vedas were the sacred texts that formed the bedrock of the early Hindu spiritual thought. Among those texts’ hymns and songs that described with reverence the wondrous power of the natural world, we find an emerging idea that set the stage for vegetarianism in later centuries. In subsequent ancient texts, including the Upanishads, the idea of ‘rebirth’ emerged as a central point. All creatures harboured the Divine, so that rather than being fixed in time, life was considered fluid. Therefore, the idea of having meat that once lived in a different form made it less edible. In the Manu Smriti, the ancient law book from India, it is said, “Having considered the disgraceful origin of meat and the cruelty of killing the living beings, one should completely abstain from eating meat.” The Yajurveda says, “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they be human, animals, or whatever.” (12:32)
In the Bhagavad Gita (5:18), Lord Krishna explains that spiritual perfection starts when one can see the equality of all living beings as spirit souls; “The humble sage, in virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a peaceful and erudite brahmana (priest), a cow, an elephant, a dog and a social pariah.” It is written in the epic Mahabharata: “He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take his birth”.
Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism, which enshrines compassion to all living creatures but consumption of meat was not completely banned. Buddha insisted that his followers should not eat the flesh of any sentient being. The Indian king Ashoka (who reigned between 264~232 B.C.) converted to Buddhism, shocked by the horrors of the battle of Kalinga. Ashoka promulgated detailed laws aimed at the protection of many species, abolished animal sacrifice at his court, and admonished the population to avoid all kinds of unnecessary killing and injury.
Jainism advocates ‘ahimsa’, the doctrine of non-killing, non-violence and non-injury. It believes in the Law of Karma and considers ‘Hinsa’ (violence), ‘nirdaya’ (lack of compassion) and ‘krodha’ (anger) as some of the primary causes of suffering and injustice in the world. Jains hold it is wrong to kill or harm any living being and adopt a rigorous form vegetarian diet that also excludes onions and garlic.
The ancient Tamil text ‘Tirukkural’, which was authored by a Jain ascetic Thiruvalluvar, a poet who is said to have lived between the 2nd century BCE and 5th century CE, is regarded as the world’s greatest ethical scripture. It states:
“How can he practice true compassion…who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own flesh? Riches cannot be found in the hands of the thriftless. Nor can compassion be found in the hearts of those who eat meat. Goodness is never one with the minds of these two: one who wields a weapon and one who feasts on a creature’s flesh.”
Bhakti Saints like Kabir, Tulsidas, Mira Bai and Sant Tukaram always encouraged and preached Vegetarianism to their followers. In Sikhism, only vegetarian food is served in the Gurdwaras or the Sikh temples but Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free, although some religious sects of Sikhs like the Damdami Taksal and the Namdharis believe that the Sikh diet should be meat-free.
Vegetarianism is consistent with the parallel Zoroastrian attitude towards the harm caused by dead flesh. In the section of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, titled Patet Pashemani, the prayers for repentance from sins, the category of mortal sins includes whoever is “polluted with dead matter, cooks dead matter on a fire, throws dead matter into water and conceals dead matter under the earth”
The High Priest Atrupat-e Emetan in Denkard Book VI written in the 9th century circa states “Be plant eaters, O you, men, so that you may live long. Keep away from the body of cattle, and deeply reckon that Ahura Mazda, the Lord has created plants in great number for helping cattle (and men).”
While there are undoubtedly communities like Jains and Vaishnava Hindus who observe strict vegetarianism, there are millions of other ordinary Indians who are vegetarians as well. Even in many Indian families where meat is consumed, it is done no more often than one day a week, usually on a Sunday afternoon. For many other families, meat — again, usually chicken or mutton — is partaken three or four times a year, most often at weddings. Here obviously, the consideration has more to do with economy and adorability than religion or ethics.
At this point let us also look at how some of the other religions have looked at the concept of vegetarianism.
‘The Torah’ (Hebrew Scriptures) describes vegetarianism as an ideal. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and all creatures were instructed to eat plant foods. (Genesis1:29-30) Several rabbinic oral traditions preserved in the Talmud and Midrash have many instructions on how people should treat animals and the rest of the creations.
The Bible presupposes a pristine state of vegetarianism. In the creation story, God creates people (male and female) and says to them (Genesis 1:29), “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” It was only after the Great Flood, as Noah and family emerged from the Ark, that God told them (in Genesis 9:3), “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.” Thus, we can safely presume that the first humans created by God – Adam & Eve – must have been vegetarian.
Many early Christians were vegetarian such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and others. The historian Eusebius writes that the Apostle “Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh.” In late antiquity and in the Middle Ages many monks and hermits renounced meat eating in the context of their asceticism. The most prominent of them was St. Jerome, whom they used to take as their model. The Rule of St. Benedict (6th century) let the Benedictines eat fish and fowl but forbade the consumption of the meat of quadrupeds.
It was not before the European Renaissance that vegetarianism re-emerged in Europe as a philosophical concept based on an ethical motivation. Among the first celebrities who supported it were Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). In the 17th century the paramount theorist of vegetarianism was the English writer Thomas Tryon
In the United States, there were small groups of Christian vegetarians in the 18th century. The best known of them was Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, a religious community founded by Conrad Beissel in 1732. Benjamin Franklin (one of the Founding Fathers of the United States) became a vegetarian at 16, but later on, he reluctantly returned to meat eating. He is later believed to have introduced Tofu to America in 1770.
During the Age of Enlightenment and in the early nineteenth century, England was the place where vegetarian ideas were more welcome than anywhere else in Europe, and the English vegetarians were enthusiastic about practically implementing their principles. In England, Reverend William Cowherd founded the Bible Christian Church in 1809. Cowherd advocated vegetarianism as a form of temperance and was one of the philosophical forerunners of the Vegetarian Society. English vegetarians were a small but highly motivated and active group. Many believed in a simple life and “pure” food, humanitarian ideals and strict moral principles. Vegetarianism was often associated with cultural reform movements, such as Temperance and Anti-Vivisection. It was propagated as an essential part of “the natural way of life.” Some of its champions sharply criticized the civilisation of their age and strove to improve public health.
Even the Islamic traditions mention the virtues and health benefits of several fruits and vegetables like olives, black seeds and dates.
Mahatma Gandhi was, perhaps, India’s most famous exponent of vegetarianism. Gandhi sought to draw a close association between the practice of vegetarianism and observing non-violence, understood both as the renunciation of violence and positively as conduct leading to the good of others. Gandhi attached great importance to diet and argued vigorously that vegetarianism was more conducive to a life led according to the precepts of ahimsa.
Now the ethics of being a vegetarian can be well derived from what Mahatma Gandhi said, “Ethically they had arrived at the conclusion that man’s supremacy over lower animals meant not that the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two as between man and man. They had also brought out the truth that man eats not for enjoyment but to live.” The Gandhian thought had a profound impact on the Western world and contributed to the popularization of vegetarianism in Western countries.
Contrary to the popular notion that eating meat was an essential step in human evolution, leading scientists and anthropologists have pointed out that “Humans are Natural Vegetarians”. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus at Cornell University explains that including meat in our diet came well after we became who we are today. Dr Neal Barnard says in his book, ‘The Power of Your Plate’, in which he explains that “early humans had diets very much like other great apes, which is to say a largely plant-based diet, drawing on foods we can pick with our hands.
Renowned palaeontologist Dr Richard Leakey explains the essential herbivore traits of human beings by noting that “you can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand…. We wouldn’t have been able to deal with a food source that required those large canines”. Dr. William C. Roberts, editor of the American Journal of Cardiology writes, “Although we think we are, and we act as if we are, humans are not natural carnivores. When we kill animals to eat them, they kill us, because their flesh, which has cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for humans, who are natural herbivores.”
Ample evidence from science proves that when we choose to eat meat, that causes problems, from decreased energy and a need for more sleep to increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There is a growing inclination on the part of people across the world towards naturopathy, Ayurveda, Siddha, Homeopathy and other traditional forms of alternate medicines.
Last word: I would like to sum up my thoughts with three quotes from three different personalities in history.
Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), Russian novelist; and author of War and Peace said: “A human can be healthy without killing animals for food. Therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.”
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), a Swiss-German scientist; and author of the theories of relativity, said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” “It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”
However, it was Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), considered as the ‘Father of the Nation’
by Indians, who took vegetarianism to the next level by observing:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.”
Let the Gandhian thoughts and the spirit of vegetarianism live!
* This talk was delivered on August 9, 2014, during the 9th Annual Veggie Fest held in Chicago.