Humble salutations to the Supreme Intelligence, The Advaitha Guru Parampara (lineage teaching non-Duality / Advaitha Vedantha) and my own Acharya (Preceptor) for the content that I put forth in this blog !
How many times have you come across articles and FAQs on, “I am Spiritual. Do I need to turn vegetarian to continue with success on the path?” It makes me smile a bit whenever I see such things! Before we get into this subject, I would like to say that this blog by no means is meant as a debate between which is better, vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism. Neither is it a tool of judgement or attack towards a particular group. It simply is a genuine attempt at discussing at length where vegetarianism stems from.
First things first, vegetarianism is not just an act of eating fruits and vegetables! It is a state of mind! Vegetarianism like any other quality (kindness, peaceful,hating), is simply abiding in a particular state of mind. Here, that state of mind / quality is called AHIMSA which the Vedhas (most ancient Scriptures) qualify as “Paramo Dharma”. “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma” is a Sanskrit phrase that was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi. Loosely translated, in Sanskrit,
- Ahimsa means Non-injury / non-violence
- Paramo means topmost, ultimate, or supreme, and
- Dharma means duty towards others and ONESELF
Thus, the entire phrase means that non-injury is the topmost duty to the extent that it supersedes all other duties. For someone who holds this true, it means that there is no selective application of Ahimsa...it must be applied in every case and in all matters. At the Individual level, it must be applied whether at the level of thoughts, words or deeds and in all circumstances possible. When a mind is naturally abiding in this highest quality of Ahimsa, the thoughts, words and deeds generated will automatically be in line with the principle of non-injury without any deliberate effort. Once a person is established in the value of non injury, even at the level of thought and words when a mind is not capable of harm, where is the question of harm at the level of the gross physical body!
Having defined vegetarianism as a state of mind, how does one come to become established in any state of mind? The intellect, when convinced of a value as rational, right, and ethical, will automatically direct the mind to follow its directions while abiding completely in that value. Such a person, the Bhagavad Gita (The most well known Hindu Scripture on Self Knowledge) calls a YUKTHA PURUSHA meaning, a well integrated person whose intellect is in blissful union with and control over the mind. This state is beautifully described by means of a Chariot metaphor (Ratha Kalpana) in the Katah Upanishad verses 1.3.3 -11 (Ancient Scripture of Self Knowledge) Here, the comparison goes thus:
The body is equated to a chariot
the horses are the senses,
the reins are the mind, and
the charioteer is the intellect.
It is but common sense to conclude that only when the charioteer is in complete control of the horses will the chariot even reach its destination and that too safely. Similarly, only when man’s intellect is at command, convinced and abiding in “right values”, can that individual reach his Goal! But convincing the intellect is no easy task because it is the nature of the intellect to continuously generate doubts and questions until totally satisfied.
One cannot be convinced of anything, let alone vegetarianism! Just because someone tells them to be so, or because they are born into a family of vegetarians, or because the Scriptural books they follow are prescribing it one cannot abide in vegetarianism. Such things can only result in a fickle minded vegetarian who cannot stand the test of pressure or temptation. I know of people who suddenly would call themselves vegetarian, then suddenly non-vegetarian. They go back and forth succumbing to the pressure of their taste buds. Teach the same person the value of Ahimsa (non injury) and when such person intellectually becomes convinced of that value as morally, ethically and spiritually right, what ensues is the natural flow of peace and non violence, at all levels of his personality. This person cannot be swayed by anything henceforth. I am the brightest example for this. I was introduced to meats and fish in my childhood. But when I was around 10 or 11, I watched the slaughter of a cow on a BBC documentary. That moment was the turning point and nothing can make me go back to eating meat again, not those tantalizing smells that sometimes remind me of the taste, nor pressure from around me. My firm decision rose from deep within me!
Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a senior Preceptor of the tradition says, “A Value is a value for me only when I see the value of the value as valuable to me.” In his lovely book, The value of Values, he explains how conflicts are born in our minds because we have not assimilated the moral, ethical and spiritual values parcelled out to us when we are growing up.
FYI, Sanatana Dharma / Hinduism as it is commonly called doesn’t have ONE Holy Book. Scriptures pertaining to Hinduism are so vast and innumerable that they are almost incompletable in one lifetime for this very same reason. The teachings on every subject are vast and elaborate requiring the intellect not simply to obey out of fear but to comply out of total understanding and conviction. Scripture itself agrees and accepts that’s such conviction doesn’t come overnight but is cultivated and evolves through time, with understanding.
Thus, Vegetarianism is the natural reaction of a mind infused with the value of Ahimsa / non injury. It takes no special effort to be vegetarian for such a mind! I know that I HAVE to breathe to live. Then doesn’t breathing just come naturally to me? Is there any special effort involved?
Being vegetarian is just one expression of the deeply assimilated value of Ahimsa. The expressions of this one value at the gross level are really many. You start choosing not to pluck flowers from plants; you learn to care for the life that pervades plants and trees. Where you HAVE to pluck leaves / flowers / fruits from a plant, you become aware enough to do it as gently as possible exerting minimal injury to the plant. You abstain from killing every insect passing by you on your path and thus slowly learn peaceful coexistence with all beings around, as long as they are not super venemous and on the verge of killing us 😬. Afterall, can my fear be reason enough to end the life of another!
Have you seen monks belonging to Jainism? They wear white masks covering their mouth. The reason for the same is the very basic principle of Jainism: “If you have a choice between bad and worse, then do bad” , in other words, do as less damage as possible. Actions like speaking and breathing also cause death of microscopic organisms and even those organisms which are smaller than microscopic. The white mask that covers the nose and mouth acts as a buffer zone which kills lesser beings.
Such is beautiful outpour of the value of non injury. It stems from a deep understanding that every living being, plant included, has a basic and strong will and urge to survive. No living being knowingly walks itself to death except for this particular species of rodents, lemmings I hear, which commit suicide by jumping off a cliff and swimming the sea undeterred until they drown and die. Some studies suggest that it does so for population control. So even in this case, wellbeing (of the species in this case)is the reason. Every morning after I sweep the house, I use a wet tissue to pick up the gathered dirt. Invariably always while doing so, I see 1 or 2 ants running about the dust and they will carefully avoid the wet streaked areas on the floor. It amazes me every time that a creature the size of a dot actually demonstrates it’s will to live thus!
Today the world is far more “vegetarian” understanding than it was a couple of decades earlier. In the previous country that we lived in, both my kids and I have been subject to playful taunts by “so called” friends about us being vegetarian. I’ve had people ask me, not just once or twice, “If you are vegetarian on grounds of non injury, how come it’s ok to kill plants?” Another couple from a foreign country when they first met us remarked, “Bahhhh, no alcohol? No meat? You must be boring people!” Interestingly, the day we were relocating out of the country this friend promptly told me, “You have taught me so much about vegetarianism and vegetarian cooking and I thank you so much for it.” My kids have been told by their schoolmates, “It’s because you don’t follow our Religion that you are fated to lower plant foods!” We’ve been asked only couple 100 times, “But where do you get your protein from?” Whose shortcoming is it that you don’t know that our diet is rich in beans and legumes of so many different kinds which you aren’t even aware of? Also as an added information, both my paternal and maternal grandparents lived long, healthy lives and died well into their 80s and 90s. They were vegetarian to the extent of not including even onion and garlic in their diet. As a family we just smile and move away from such silliness because our values are far too deep rooted to let us be perturbed by the smallest disturbances at the gross level.
When understanding is deep rooted, one is not pressured by the culture and values of the immediate surroundings that we live in. I try to keep the rich cultural tradition and values alive in me and the family no matter what part of the globe I am in. I know they say, “Be a Roman while in Rome!” But now I think, if I constantly change myself and my values to fit in with the surroundings, like a chameleon, there certainly will come a day when all the values and tradition that I stand for will be lost completely. I am a proud parent of 2 teenaged boys who are vegetarian, initially because they were taught to be so but today not only have made it their personal choice but can stand up for themselves whenever “vegetarian” pokes come at them. I am a parent who is not worried about whether this choice might change later because their abidance in vegetarianism arises from teaching them about non injury rather than forcing it upon them without explanation. Having said that, if they do choose to be non-vegetarian in the future, I have maturity enough to understand that their mind isn’t ready for complete abidance in Ahimsa too.
Yes Ahimsa is the highest value taught but it is not just towards others but most importantly, towards ourselves too! In the name of non injury, if I starve my body to death, that would be the biggest disservice and disrespect to myself and the chance given to me to evolve! Buddhism lays forth the Middle Path which concurs perfectly with the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita both teaching that neither extreme is good for man, whether over indulgence complying with sensual pleasure or total abstinence. This is close to Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean” whereby “every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice.” We consider the body a “temple” (holy abode) which houses the Self and so even while all values including non injury are practiced, it is necessary to adequately feed, nourish and take care of the physical body while outwardly indulging in the least injury as possible. This is where the use of a rational intellect is employed. I do have to eat to survive as a physical being. So I adopt the least invasive, least injurious and least violent ways of living, eating being only one facet of the whole process life and it’s various expressions. Besides, it’s simply common sense that consuming the fruits and flowers from plants doesn’t totally destroy the entire plant!
We have discussed at length how Vegetarianism stems from a deeply rooted value called Ahimsa. But that’s really not the end of it. In my next blog, I will continue this trend of speech on vegetarianism closely linking it to state of mind and influence of mind from food. Stay tuned…………..
OM! Peace! Peace! Peace!