Religious and Spiritual reasons for being a Vegetarian

In Part 1 and Part 2, we discussed health, ethical, moral, environmental reasons for being a Vegetarian. Though important, by themselves, the reasons might not seem complete. For example, in the future there might be a way to slaughter animals without the violence, a more environmentally friendly way, or one might consider some vegetarian food as bad to health as a meat based dish. Hence, this article explores the basic spiritual perspectives of preferring a meatless diet.

Equal Vision – Love, Compassion, Respect to all beings:

Bhagavad-gita outlines symptoms of living beings as beings that perform activities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending; beings that are born, grow, remain for some duration, produce by-products, dwindle, and die. Such beings are also conscious, and capable of feeling, thinking, acting, according to their different capacities. It is not hard for anyone who has had a pet, or visited a zoo, or observed an animal even on media to come to this conclusion. There might certainly be differences in the sophistication of intelligence and emotions, but this distinction is insufficient to claim superiority.

Bhagavad-gita explains that such consciousness is a symptom of the presence of a soul. The soul is what fundamentally gives life to the body, and what keeps our identity as the body changes from that of a baby, to youth, to adult, to old age. After all, a dead body possesses all the physical organs of a living body. The individual souls of living entities all posses similar characteristics and capabilities, though in its current state might be covered to different degrees as fire covered by smoke or mirror covered by dust or embryo covered by the womb. Thus the Bhagavad-gita urges us to see all living entities with an equal vision and hence treat them all with love, compassion, and respect. So, whether it’s a dog or a cow, one has to treat them equally.

Karma – Reactions to our past activities:

In the human state, a soul has the ability to execute upon its capacity to inquire and question – question about existence and make choices. With this ability, comes responsibility to use it appropriately. Hence, as humans we are subject to the laws of Karma, reactions to our past activities. A lion, due to its limited consciousness, does not consider whether killing its prey is right or wrong, ethical or not, whether it would cause pain or not. Whereas, when a human consumes meat, he / she has the ability to think whether it was right or wrong to have killed the prey, whether it was ethical or not, whether it would have caused pain or not. Thus, by making the choice of consuming it, humans become subject to the reaction of having committed the violence (even though not everyone might have been involved in the direct act of violence or one might have given it sufficient thought).

It is true that one living entity is food for another. After all, with every breath, we probably are killing several microbial beings; we would have killed many bugs on our way to work; we would probably die if the white blood cells stopped killing the bacteria. But as humans, we are urged to resort to the violence only as much as necessary. So we are urged to discriminate: “If I can live by eating fruits and grains and milk, why shall I kill animal?” In a vegetarian diet, for the most part, we do not kill the plant (when we take its leaves, fruits, etc). Even in the cases that we do kill the plant, the violence committed is comparatively smaller, since the plants are not as neurologically developed as animals.

Since there is violence even in vegetarian food, there are Karmic reactions attached to it. Hence, it is important to cultivate a proper consciousness for consuming even vegetarian food. The different levels of consciousness are explained in detail in the Bhagavad-gita (these do not apply to meat based diet). In summary:

One should accept food with gratitude, acknowledging that food is a blessing bestowed.

In a more personal relationship with God, perform the act of cooking for God’s pleasure and offer food unto Him. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna, God, explains: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” We can then partake of the remnants (prasadam). In association with God, the food becomes spiritualized, just as an iron rod kept in fire assumes the properties of fire and the food is karma-free.

Modes of Material Nature – Effects on our consciousness:

The environment we subject ourselves to, has a direct effect on our consciousness, which ultimately governs our actions. For example, one would feel different after hiking in the forest than after walking the downtown streets of New York City. One would feel different spending time in a classical concert than after spending time in a bar or night club with loud music.

These effects are primarily categorized as Goodness (sattva), Passion (rajas), and Tamas (ignorance) and they manifest a particular type of existence. Goodness endows a person with happiness, virtue, knowledge, and other good qualities. Passion endows a person with desire to work hard to acquire prestige, fortune and leaves person experiencing great anxiety. Ignorance causes a person to fall into lamentation and illusion, sleep excessively, indulge in false hopes, and display violence to others. These 3 primary modes are like the 3 primary colors, the combination of which in different degrees results in unlimited characteristics.

The foods we eat similarly affects our consciousness. Food in the mode of goodness is juicy, wholesome, fatty, and pleasing to the heart. It increases longevity, purifies existence, gives strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction. They are foods that are wholesome, pure, and obtained without much difficulty. Food in the mode of passion is bitter, sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry, and burning. They give immediate pleasure to the senses, but result in distress, misery, and disease. Food in the mode of ignorance is tasteless, decomposed, putrid, composed of untouchable things and result in great distress.

Meat falls into the category of the mode of ignorance (tasteless, decomposed, putrid, untouchable, etc.) causing disease and distress. In addition, the anxiety, fear, suffering of the animal results in karmic reactions that immediately has negative effects on one’s psychological, mental, and physical state and has even more severe manifestation of reactions after death, even to the extent of having to go through the same suffering and being killed the same way.

Based on the modes of material nature, even some vegetarian food as onions, garlic, mushrooms are to be avoided, since they are classified as being tamasic and rajasic. Vegetarian foods are to be cooked in a healthy way. Discussion of these and other topics as milk will be taken up in future articles.

Bhagavad-gita As It Is by A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Symptoms of Living Being. Gita 8.4
Explanations of the Soul. Gita 2.13, 3.38.
Releasing from Karmic reactions. Gita 3.13.
Offering food to God. Gita 9.26.
Foods and their modes. Gita 17.8, 17.9, 17.10.