Chakra Living

Vegan Ethics

by Vasu Murti

Posted May 22, 2006

In his May 14 posting, bhakta Jason asks if becoming vegan will adversely affect his neophyte devotional life. I think the answer clearly must be a resounding "No!" I can speak from personal experience here. I have been in the association of devotees since 1982. During the 1980s, I read the first nine cantos of Srimad Bhagavatam. In 1988, I became an ISKCON Life Member, and have been following between at least three and all four of the regulative principles consistently since 1991. I chant four rounds per day. Unfortunately, I had a secular upbringing. Srila Prabhupada said that young people should be given religious instruction from the beginning, and that as we get older, it becomes harder to take up spiritual life and follow a regimen (e.g., rising early), because we become further entangled in bodily consciousness.

He's right. I didn't realize how secular I had become until 1994, when my friend Ratha Yatra dasa (Randall Bostwick), a Prabhuapda disciple, commented about the demoniac nature of Western civilization; probably meat-eating or some other such violence. I responded that the only hope for the West lies in animal rights. Ratha Yatra corrected me, saying that the only hope lies in Krishna Consciousness. And this was at a time when I was following all four regs in addition to chanting regularly!

I became vegan for a few years beginning in 1995. I was pointing out to friends at a Feminists For Life meeting how for 1800 years, Christians had upheld and defended (human) slavery on biblical grounds, and that history was repeating itself with regards to animals. The response I got from the women present there was that my words would carry greater weight if I were vegan rather than vegetarian, and I had to admit they were right. There is a great deal of cruelty in the way dairy products are obtained through modern factory farming. To ignore this kind of suffering merely because we believe dairy products are somehow "necessary" for our spiritual advancement (they are not) is to trivialize the former and it will allow people of other faiths to counter that we are vegetarian merely because we follow "dietary laws" rather than out of concern for animals.

Lord Chaitanya made vegetarianism central to the sankirtan movement when He brought up the subject of meat-eating with the Chand Kazi of Navadvipa. And Srila Prabhupada followed our Lord's example by repeatedly bringing up the subject with people of other faiths ("thou shalt not kill"). In a purport from the First Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada writes: "It is nonsensical to say that the killing of animals has nothing to do with spiritual realization." Similarly, in his purport to the Srimad Bhagavatam 6.10.9, Srila Prabhupada writes: "One cannot continue killing animals and at the same time be a religious man. That is the greatest hypocrisy. Jesus Christ said, 'Do not kill,' but hypocrites nevertheless maintain thousands of slaughterhouses while posing as Christians. Such hypocrisy is condemned..." Srila Prabhupada even candidly told a Catholic priest in London in 1973, that, "Animal-killers cannot understand God. I have seen this. It is a fact."

Srila Prabhupada said, " far as meat-eating is concerned, every cow will die--so you just wait awhile, and there will be so many dead cows. Then you can take all the dead cows and eat...Don't kill. When the cow is dead, you can eat it." One of the first things I learned from devotees back in 1982 was that Srila Prabhupada said this about meat in general: if you want to eat flesh, wait until the animal dies of natural causes. This indicates that Srila Prabhupada was not thinking in terms of "dietary laws," or food in the mode of goodness, passion, or ignorance, but rather in terms of the animals and their rights. The Mahabharata (Santi-parva 141.88) also says that the eating of "unclean" food is not as terrible as the eating of flesh. (It must be remembered that the brahmins of ancient India exalted cleanliness to a divine principle).

This theological distinction between following "dietary laws" versus not harming and not killing animals to begin with is crucial for interfaith dialogue. Perhaps Christians would better understand the case for vegetarianism and animal rights if the focus were on the killing rather than the eating. Perhaps they would understand it if the issue were hunting, rather than meat-eating. As far back as 1795, the Quakers passed a resolution condemning the killing of animals for sport.

The Srimad Bhagavatam quotes Maharaja Pariksit as having said, "only the animal-killer cannot relish the message of the Absolute Truth." And Srila Prabhupada said, "If the Christians want to love God, they must stop killing animals." Srila Prabhupada taught that nonviolence is the first principle in spiritual life (Letter to Bhakta das, August 3, 1973). Srila Prabhupada not only opposed killing animals for food, he also opposed killing animals for sport and animal experimentation. On numerous occasions, Srila Prabhupada taught us that even rodents and insects have rights, and (like Pythagoras) he even opposed the unnecessary destruction of trees. These facts indicate that devotees of Krishna are vegetarian out of compassion for animals, and not just because meat, fish and eggs are unofferable to Lord Krishna. It is a significant fact that Srila Prabhupada did not reject any of his fallen disciples, as long as they did not return to flesh-eating. Like Lord Chaitanya's dialogue with the Chand Kazi, this underscores the importance of vegetarianism to the sankirtan movement.

Vedic civilization did allow animals to be used for human ends (milk, wool, labor, etc.), as long as they were treated humanely. In The Hare Krishna Explosion, for example, Hayagriva dasa (Howard Wheeler) writes about how Srila Prabhupada approved of the use of horses at New Vrindavan to draw carts, calling them "beautiful animals", rather than have devotees rely on automobiles. But Vedic civilzation also allowed activities for all kinds of people in the lower modes of nature as well, which Srila Prabhupada would not have permitted: Srila Prabhupada said, for example, that only sudras divorce and remarry; Yudhistira gambled away a kingdom; prostitution was legal (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.11.19, verse and purport); rice wine was offered to goddess Kali, etc.

Goats were also offered in sacrifice to goddess Kali, the understanding being that this ritual (and restricted killing) was meant to purify its practitioner and eventually bring one to the point of vegetarianism. Srila Prabhupada did on at least one occasion, take a decidedly neutral stance with regards to the killing of lower animals, saying, "we neither sanction nor prohibit," but that the cow, a sacred animal, must always be given protection. Beef, not pork, is thus forbidden to all Hindus. I'm surprised when I see Hindus wearing leather in Krishna temples--the cow is supposed to be sacred to us! The kshatriyas were permitted to kill under certain conditions, but Srila Prabhupada said in Kali Yuga there are no real kshatriyas (or brahmanas, for that matter--everyone is less than sudra). Srila Prabhupada considered the Sikhs to be kshatriyas, but the Sikh religion permits abortion! On the other hand, when visiting Moscow in 1971, Srila Prabhupada told Professor Kotovsky, "our point is not to try and bring back the old type of Hindu society. That is impossible. Our idea is to take the best ideas from the original idea."

Thus, the Vedas, like the Bible (Genesis 1:29; Isaiah 11:6-9), uphold vegetarianism and nonviolence as a moral ideal. Again, Srila Prabhupada said that ahimsa, or nonviolence, is the first principle of spiritual life (Letter to Bhakta das, August 3, 1973). It's my contention that Srila Prabhupada did not contradict the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition when he brought up the moral issue of killing animals with people of other faiths, rather he called them to a higher standard, as taught in their own scriptures. It's my contention that the biblical phrase "they shall not hurt or destroy" (Isaiah 11:9) is the Judeo-Christian equivalent of "ahimsa", the cardinal doctrine of the Eastern religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Satsvarupa Maharaja writes in the Lilamrita that before visiting Professor Kotovsky in Moscow (in the former Soviet Union), Srila Prabhupada wrote, "We do not begrudge an atheist, provided he has got some philosophy." A Back to Godhead magazine from the early '80s points out that in Vedic civilization, even an atheist like Charvaka would never have eaten meat; thus indicating that even atheists who are vegetarian are more worthy in the eyes of devotees than so-called "religious" people who engage in all kinds of demoniac activities in the name of religion. On the other hand, Vedic civilization is meant to purify people in the lower modes of nature; Srila Prabhupada once said that Krishna even wants the demons to be purified. So perhaps the agnostic and atheistic philosphies of Buddhism and Jainism are more consistent with the secular moral philosophy of animal liberation than the Hindu religious tradition.

I discussed this point several years ago with Gopisvara dasa (Tom Dudek), a disciple of Tripurari Swami. I suggested that Krishna temples all go vegan. Gopisvara replied, "We're all about cows and gopis. What would become of all that if we all went vegan?" I told him that I read somewhere how because of invasions from the Mongols (who were milk-drinkers), the Chinese associated drinking milk with barbarism. So when Buddhism came to China and they learned about ahimsa, they all became vegans. Gopisvara pointed out that the goal of Mahayana Buddhism is not to know God or have a loving relationship with Him, but to merge into the void! He was sympathetic to my plea, though, saying he had been vegan for a few years himself.

In a 1987 interview with Vegetarian Times, bhaktin Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders (a long time animal rights advocate and friend and well-wisher of devotees) said that in Krishna Consciousness, the milk is obtained from farms and rural communities where the animals are treated humanely, so there is no cruelty involved. In all honesty, this was just great public relations on her part! The sad truth is that most Krishna temples are in the cities, and most devotees purchase their milk from the supermarkets, where the dairy products are the result of modern factory farming.

If devotees re going to use dairy products, they should come from Krishna Conscious farms and rural communities, where the cows are treated humanely. This would not only be cruelty-free, but spiritual as welll. The 1992 Hare Krishna Resource Guide and Directory lists small businesses such as Ahimsa Silk in Colorado. Why not Ahimsa Milk as well?

I think it would be great if Krishna temples all went vegan. Nonviolence is the highest ideal of all religious traditions, even if they do make concessions for people in the lower modes of nature. In his 1982 edition of Judaism and Vegetarianism, for example, Dr. Richard Schwartz points out that throughout the Bible, Israel is called a land flowing with milk and honey, in making the case for Jewish vegetarianism. Yet Dr. Schwartz himself went vegan in the late '80s, and the 2004 edition of Judaism and Vegetarianism promotes veganism, while admitting that 90 percent of American vegetarians do consume dairy products and eggs.

To what extent Krishna Consciousness is compatible with urban life, a secular society, democracy, etc. is beyond the scope of this article. I'm just a lay person. The leaders in the different Vaishnava traditions across the globe will have to come to terms with what kind of moral standards clergy and laity should observe and how to respond to social progress, be it women's rights or animal rights. I can only conclude that Srila Prabhupada's teachings on nonviolence ("thou shalt not kill") will carry greater weight if we went vegan.

---Vasu Murti