The term veganism was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 with the intention of creating a moral standard that, as far as practically possible, minimises suffering and abuse of animals. Within a few years the Vegan Society realised it wasn’t a new idea but had it’s roots thousands of years ago in the Vedic culture of ancient India, and for that reason Jay Dinshah founded the American Vegan Society in 1960 and the vegan magazine they published was titled ‘Ahimsa’.
The Sanskrit term ahimsa means non-harm, and many people attribute it to Buddhist teachings in which it appears prominently, but the oldest reference to it pre-dates that by about 2,500 years, appearing in the 51 century old text Bhagavad-gita. As a central part of the vast canon of literatures known as the ‘Vedas’ (literally meaning ‘knowledge’), it held the same principle of non-harm to all living beings, and other literatures from the same culture elaborated that true ahimsa is practically impossible and as such the term ‘nati-himsa’ was coined meaning ‘reduced harm’. Realistically, reducing our harm to others is all we can aspire to do, which will always fall short of absolute non-harm in a world where every living being subsists on another – whether animal or plant. Even in cultivating plant food we harm and kill moving beings, but the crucial difference is in the intention to minimise harm therefore the omnivore’s common excuse that plants are alive too is unjustifiable as many more plants are harmed to feed the animals that in turn feed humans. Checkmate meat eater!
A crucial distinction is made in the Vedas of moving and non-moving entities, so even though plants are counted amongst the 8.4 million various species of life, the distinction is there that it’s a lesser harm to take the life of a plant than that of an animal due to the level of consciousness being much less developed in the plant species. That conscious awareness is more and more developed in insects, fish, birds and mammals – up to the point of humans being more acutely aware and able to understand the pain they and others are in, whereas in a lifeform less developed the suffering is there but not such an acute awareness of the suffering.
In Bhagavad-gita one verse states that learned people see with equal vision all species of life, mentioning a human, cow, elephant, dog and dog-eater as a few examples. Interestingly, the dog-eating human is placed below the dog, showing it’s not so clear cut the hierarchy of consciousness – many humans act in a much lesser state of awareness than many animals, and cause much more intentional harm. Seeing beyond the outer covering of the body, to the conscious spark of life within that animates the body, the intelligent person sees the true equality of all beings and naturally feels compassion for them all and indeed doesn’t see any important distinction between them. They see ALL beings as suffering the same essential pains of material nature – birth, old age, disease and death. No being embodied in this world is free from these four prison walls, and unaware of that truth, we assume life is meant for unlimited enjoyment through the bodily senses and thus we entrap ourselves in a perpetual cycle of attachment, which leads to suffering – as the pleasures of the senses are temporary just as the body is temporary. The living force within the body is described as permanent, eternal, in line with the law of conservation of energy that is never created or destroyed, merely transformed, and as such that living force of consciousness or ‘atma’ passes through the phases of appearance/birth, growth, maintenance, production of by-products/children, dwindling, and vanishing. As we survive all these stages yet remain the same essential person within, we simply observe the body changing about every 7 years into a completely different bodily construction of cells, and due to ego identify with the changing body as ‘us’.
Krishna mentions offering with devotion (bhakti) a leaf, fruit, flower or water – no mention is there of using animal products. Although the discourse was spoken at a time when civilisation was entirely rural, meaning dependence on animals rather than machinery as a sustainable way of life we cannot match with our crumbling oil based civilisation and all it’s wars (hardly in line with veganism…), cow protection is mentioned as of great importance not the killing of cows and countless other sentient beings we see now. This return to a more natural rural way of life is required also in order to have a peaceful non-violent civilisation, industrialised capitalism is totally unsustainable and thus anti-capitalism and anarchism are strongly tied with the goals of veganism.
Bhagavad-gita describes a process of yoga that ultimately ceases the cycle of transmigration from one material bodily form to another, returning the conscious self to it’s original and blissful state from from the encumbrance of matter, uniting the ‘jiva-atma’ with the ‘param-atma’ or individual conscious being with the complete conscious being – Krishna, the ‘all attractive whole’. Only in this state can the living being be free from suffering, otherwise the suffering continues on a greater or lesser level according to the actions performed and reactions thus created. It’s a complex predicament, and by our own limited strength impossible to overcome, but by the power of the very source of the material energy it becomes possible in a gradual process of disentanglement from matter, which is actually foreign to us. We aspire for permanence, full consciousness and happiness – known as sac-cid-ananda. Yet here in this world we have the polar opposite – temporality, covered consciousness and various sufferings.
Back to the original point of non-violence as the goal of veganism. That goal of non violence is indeed a noble cause and full of compassion, yet often it’s misunderstood and limited in it’s approach by a lack of the bigger picture. Certainly avoiding unnecessary violence in order to eat and live is a huge step forward, yet non-participation in cruelty is only half the picture, the other half is freeing those that are being oppressed. In a relative sense that freedom means living out a natural life span free from harm or death, yet we cannot stop the inevitable process of old age and death, for others nor for ourselves, so it falls short of the mark of true liberation. Liberation from the cycle of ‘samsara’ in which the living being transmigrates through all the various forms chasing desires such as food and sex, is the goal the Vedas hold as the highest expression of compassion.
The great teacher Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada sometimes used the analogy of ‘saving the dress of a drowning man’, stating that if a person is drowning and the rescuer returns to shore only with the clothes of the person they’ve certainly failed to save the victim from drowning. Similarly, rescuing the ‘dress’ of the living being – the gross outward material body, without understanding of the being within the body still being entrapped, we fall short of actually helping them and the predicament of old age and death continues regardless.
Only in the human form can we actively choose the path that leads to freedom from the suffering of being embodied, and choosing a plant based diet certainly is a great step towards that end, which in turn elevates the consciousness above the lower level of fear and anxiety which comes from consuming the flesh of animals that inevitably died in great fear, especially those in factory farm conditions. If as humans we don’t act with that responsibility we’ve really not used our ability to intelligently discriminate right from wrong, and modern society is more concerned with increasing consumerism at the expense of morality.
The fact that veganism is growing rapidly in the world is a symptom of a kind of awakening, and was predicted to happen by great seers, as part of the inevitable cycle of ideas that come around again to provide solutions when world problems become overwhelming. This should be seen as a greatly positive thing by followers of Vedic culture and Krishna Consciousness, and vegans alike should appreciate the Ahimsa roots of modern day veganism. We are indeed allies in the fight for a more compassionate world, not enemies! Often the path of Bhakti-yoga that the Bhagavad-gita holds as the topmost, may be confused as another ‘religion’. And while the word yoga means to connect, similar to the word yoke in English, it’s not a sectarian concern but a universally applicable process that is perfectly scientific in that the results can be experienced by anyone that takes to the ‘laboratory’ of their own life.
To experience deep connection to the world around us including all it’s various living beings, is the difference between applied spirituality and the superficial rubber-stamping of identifying as Christian/Hindu/Muslim etc yet not factually having a change of heart. As conscious beings these are all simply external designations that divide us and prevent human unity, realising we’re not these outer bodies deals not only with racism and sexism, but also speciesism – the real frontier of this century. The very tangible results that come from the processes of yoga, especially those of mantra meditation that elevate the conscious awareness to higher and higher levels, automatically reveal to the practitioner the evils of eating animal flesh and naturally those lower desires quickly fall away.
So the solution that gets right to the root of the problem is to elevate the conscious awareness of humans individually and ultimately as a collective whole, because the very reason the problem of animal exploitation exists is due to the lower desires of people that wish to eat them instead of plant based foods which have far less impact. Unless people are elevated to enjoy food and activities that don’t cause great suffering to animals, they’ll be forced to consume those things just as a drug addict cannot avoid getting intoxicated. A great problem is that people become vegetarian and vegan yet fail to adhere to it long term and slip back into the habit of consuming meat, eggs and dairy. With the inner strength that comes from a tried and tested spiritual practice, we can commit to a lifelong abstinence from animal products, and from veganism we can springboard to even greater heights and inspire others to do the same. Viva la “Conscious Revolution”!!