Originally posted to God Made The Rainbow on 28th August, 2008
Recently, after being accused of pursuing veganism with the passion of a religious zealot by my roommate, I have been considering the parts of the vegan ethic which is comparable to religion. Veganism is not simply the avoidance of meat or dairy products, but, according to the Vegan Society; “a way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment’. And so, it is not just a diet, but more of a practical philosophy of non-violence towards animals.
Veganism in itself has deep roots in religious structures, and arguably grew out of a mixture of eastern thought and Christian practice. Albert Schweitzer, the Christian theologian, was highly influential for the vegan movement with his ‘Reverence for Life’ message. As the Christian Church was struggling with the revelations of Darwinism, Schweitzer argued that in a stark material reality, humankind must create new morals based upon respect for all life; the acceptance that, as we will-to-live, so do other, non-human, animals. Schweitzer wrote to the American Vegan Society: ‘flesh-eating is not in accordance with those finer feelings (of respect for life), and I abstain from it whenever I can, to be compassionate towards all creatures… I am convinced that the destiny of Man is to become more and more humane’. Other people found veganism through an extension of the commandment not to kill, and through other biblical passages referencing pacifism, animal welfare, and human stewardship over non-human animals.
I am often surprised by the distinct lack of mainstream discourses on animal rights within Christianity. When I asked a Christian friend how they justify eating meat, despite biblical references to non-violence and compassion towards all creation, they quoted to me Matthew 15:10-11 : “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”. The context of this quote is Jesus’ conviction that the Pharisees focussed too much on precise rituals surrounding food and lacked sufficient compassion towards their fellow humans. A reasonable criticism, but these words shouldn’t be taken out of context and shouldn’t be seen as an ‘OK’ for not considering the consequences of what you do eat. My room-mates’ criticisms of veganism is similar; there is a danger of becoming so focussed on animal rights that you lose focus on fighting for human rights. This is a real issue within veganism, some vegans would not dream of eating egg, but would happily, although most probably unthinkingly, go and by a T-shirt produced in sweat shop. And so it becomes important to attribute a complete sense of Ahimsa (अहिंसा), the eastern concept of non-violence, to veganism; to make sure that veganism isn’t just what you eat, but what you do.
Ahimsa is a concept in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism; and is given varying importance in each system. Ahimsa is a central tenet of Jainism, where veganism or lacto-vegetarianism (eating dairy but not eggs) is pretty much mandatory, where monks can be seen brushing small insects off pavements to avoid people stepping on them. For Jains, hunting and killing animals is strictly banned, they take steps to reduce harm to plants, and eating honey is outlawed as it is seen as committing violence against bees. The sage Mahavira taught; ‘there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life’, along with strict rules on what people should and should not eat. The basis for Ahimsa in these three eastern religions is that in a world where all is united in absolute reality, and where your thoughts and actions have consequences for your resent and future lives, violence against others can only be considered violence against yourself.
Hindus, like Buddhists, follow the tenets of Ahimsa to a less radical conclusion; for which Jains have been traditionally critical. The text Manu Smriti strongly condemns animal slaughter and meat eating, but the Mahabharata permits hunting for the Kshatriya (warrior-ruler) class. There seems to be a conflict amongst Hindus regarding Ahimsa; some argue that ‘lawful slaughter’ (such as ritual sacrifice) is non-violent, whereas others such as the highly respected Sannyasin hermits live a strictly non-violent lifestyle on a fruitarian diet to avoid unnecessary harm to plants. Gandhi, the Indian political and spiritual leader, based his spiritual teaching and civil disobedience on the concept of Ahimsa. Gandhi extended his political view of ahimsa to a personal one; he was vegetarian, and later remarked that the ‘tragedy of (his) life’ was his reliance on goats milk.
For Buddhists, the concept of Ahimsa is less rigidly defined, but it is generally taken to mean that killing and eating animals is wrong in accordance Buddha’s sayings in the Dhammapada; “a man is not noble if he injures living creatures”. In Mahayana Buddhism, lay believers are asked to be vegetarian (‘those who eat meat will never attain enlightenment’ – Surangama Sutra), but the monks are asked to be vegan. These rules are not universally heeded, as it is well known that monks will humbly accept anything placed in their bowls, but it also differs across the varying sects of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists traditionally do eat meat, and it is only relatively recently did the Dalai Lama himself famously become vegetarian. Since then he has campaigned with PETA, encouraged vegetarianism amongst Tibetans, and led a campaign to stop KFC from franchising in Tibet.
My purpose for writing this article was not to persuade you all to become vegan (although that would be nice), but to comment on how veganism can affect spiritual practice. Veganism is non-violence in practice, a compassionate way of living that brings together spirituality and practicality. It is important to note that as with our own spiritual paths, veganism is a journey, not a destination. Everyone can become more compassionate in their daily lives, whether you are a meat-eater or a fruitarian Sannyasin, there is always room for improvement. Similarly with our path towards G-d, or enlightenment, we should always be seeking to become more mindful. In a practical sense, one way for me to improve would be to stop buying sweatshop clothes and participating to suffering that way. Veganism should be seen, not as a diet, but as a conscious decision by the individual to become more compassionate and reduce suffering.
“We are part of a single organic whole, this is the very basis of spiritual vegetarianism” – Bhagwan Shree Rajnessh
“And G-d said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” – Genesis 1:29 (King James Version)
‘The message from mahakaruna [Sanskrit: ‘great compassion’] has clearly asked us to follow and preach love and compassion for all living beings’ – Dalai Lama
‘Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of Ahimsa, but it is its least expression. The principle of Ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody’ – Mahatma Gandhi
Jess is an anarcho-queer activist who currently teaches about the environment and sustainability in Bradford. Follow her at @charliethescarf.