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Some observations on 'Vegetarian'ism

From: Anand PB (
Date: Thu Nov 08 2001 - 07:53:52 PST

Dear Sriman Mukundan, Sriman Sathya, Sriman Srikanth,

I am sure a lot has already been discussed on this
august list on spiritual aspects of why a 'satvik'
diet is essential for anyone interested in seeking the
guidance of the Lord and why vegetarian food is more
likely to be of satvik variety than other foods. I
humbly submit my two cents' worth.

With regard to the question posed to Sriman Mukundan
by the young kids, the question is not about food and
whether eating plants is ok, but not animals, but
about relativist versus absolute ethics. As in most
circumstances, there are two (or possibly more)
ethical principles operative here. One of these is
'the principle of non-violence to other beings';
another principle is the 'promotion of well-being of
oneself and other members of one's family'. (A third
principle could be that of serving others). If we
interpret either of these principles absolutely, we
have extreme positions: 

-one where you cannot eat anything at all and hence
starve to death or 

-where only your enjoyment matters and nothing else
(and not even the lives of other beings -in extreme
case, cannibals). 

Absolute interpretations cannot take us very far in a
world where (ethical) conflicts exist. 
You can ask the kids, if the road is for vehicles,
then pedestrians should not set foot on the road. They
will probably tell you, yes, but, you can cross at
places marked on the road as pedestrian crossings. It
is possible to build cities where pedestrian paths and
vehicle paths never cross each other, but history
shows us that it is both impractical and inefficient.
On a similar logic, you can say that our elders want
us to be non-violent to other beings but at the same
time, they do not want us to starve to death and
hence, like the pedestrian crossing, they have
provided these allowances. It is for us to observe the
allowances and not abuse them. (You can relate the
above arguments with incidents in Mahabharata and why
dharma allows violation or transgression of a lower
order principle when it is done solely in the
achievement of a higher order principle).

The questions posed by Sriman Sathya involve another
moral principle, that of non-cognisance (or
ignorance). Are you morally responsible for using
incense sticks if you were ignorant that a certain
animal product was used in their making? In any case,
I am not sure, in our sampradayam, agarbathis are
used. As far as I know, in the DDs, only special types
of resins (sambrani) are used. However, the question
is still relevant. (Instead of incense sticks, think
of a garland you have purchased, but not sure if the
person who made it used their teeth to cut the thread,
for example.). In such cases too, there is no absolute
answer. Once again it depends on the context. 

Practising of dharma involves both the identification
of moral conflict in a particular context and also the
relative placement of the moral principles involved.
As in case of a Supreme Court judge weighing various
factors, we are also required to show our judgement,
keeping in view of course the various laws, the
precedence and established judgements in similar moral
dilemmas.  At the same time, we are not supposed to
take umbrage of ignorance as a solution. We are
supposed to actively seek knowledge so that we do not
commit mistakes of ignorance (similar to the
requirement of passing a theory test before taking a
practical driving test and becoming a driver).  

I attach below a few excerpts from some of my notes on
vegetarianism. Hope these are of some interest.

Apologies if I spoke too much.

Adiyen, Ramanuja dasan,
Anand PB
Some Personal Notes on Vegetarianism.
(mainly based on history and not scriptures or
teachings of acharyas or faiths)

1. According to historians, vegetarianism or a
preference for non-flesh diet evolved in both Indian
and Greek traditions at about the same time (the
middle of first millennium BC) - which also coincides
with the development of Budhist and Jain traditions.
Among the prominent early proponents was Pythogoras of
Samos (530 BC) - though these ideas continued to be
seen in the teachings of Plato onwards. While in
Budhist and Jain traditions, non-violence towards
sensient beings seems to be the main reason, the Greek
tradition appears to be closer to the 'satvik'
reasoning mentioned above (avoidance of opulence, food
as a means than a festish and so on). Two plausible
reasons are suggested for the development of
vegetarianism in Indian subcontinent during that
period:(a) the moral conflict between recognition of
cow as sacred and flesh-eating; (b) economic
circumstances rather than ethical choice. The former
is more likely to have been the reason during the
period 500bc to approx. ad500 (coinciding with the
spread and then gradual waning of budhist practice in
India) and the latter as the likely reason for the
period after that. We can only speculate. 

2. Though early christian teachings also maintained
discussions on the benefits of vegetarianism, we are
told that in the western world, many of these subtle
messages were lost in the so called 'dark ages'
i.e.,until about the middle of AD second millennium
(except in some specific orders of catholic church).  
Thereafter, we are told, some of the lost traditions
were rediscovered (about AD1500) and by early 19th
century, harbingers of modern vegetarian societies
began to emerge, mainly from particular branches of
christian thought. One early event is attributed to
the formation of a vegetarian society in 1809 in
Manchester (England). 

3. In the late 19th and early 20th century, we are
told that in Germany, a different and more interesting
interpretation of vegetarianism was given by relating
it not to vegetables but to the Latin root of
'vegetus' to mean being active and vigorous (according
to Foods and Nutrition Encyclopedia,volume 2, ). 

4. Among the various prominent people whose names are
quoted by different sources to have supported the
benefits of vegetarianism  or a non-flesh based
diet(not the same thing as claiming that they were or
are vegetarians) are: Voltaire, PB Shelley, Thoreau,
more recently Annie Besant, Leo Tolstoy, GB Shaw, and
even closer to present times, Olympian Moses and
Martina Navratilova.

(When a certain sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan,
offered a job to a particular young man in 1866 to
develop a cereal based diet for vegetarians,  none of
those involved may have envisaged that the decision
will eventually lead to the emrgence of a
multi-national corporation producing breakfast

5. For a lot of excellent info on vegetarianism etc.,
if you have not already seen, see the homepage of 
International Vegetarian Union

6. Scientific opinion, per se, as to whether by nature
(i.e., the genetic design - for example,relating to
digestive track or the evolution of the shape of our
teeth) we are supposed to be vegetarians or otherwise,
is divided. The site mentioned above has some
interesting articles on this.

I am quite comfortable with the view that our
spiritual teachers (our well-wishers) have in their
wisdom suggested this to be in our interest. 

7. Is vegetarianism equal to self-denial? I think the
'satvik' reasoning is important to remember. It is
very easy to be vegetarian and gluttonous
simultaneously. Our acharyas remind us the meaning of
the word 'annam' (one which destroys the person who
consumes it) and why in our sampradayam we do not
desire food as an end but only as a means to Lord's

However, nutritionists tell us that to absorb the
required amount of (daily allowance) of protein and
iron, for a person with vegetarian diet, the problem
is not protein per se, but that of amino acids of
plant origin which are difficult to digest. If
adequate calories are provided by the food - then, it
seems, absorption of amino acids will not be a
problem. (Hence, the need for properly balanced and
adequate amount of food.).

8. To look up: Some years ago, HH Srimannarayana
Chinna Jeeyar Swamyji clarified in an excellent and
very easily accessible article in Bhaktinivedana, a
number of important aspects of vegetarianism. The
article was titled 'kokkorokko' (the alarm call of
rooster). It will be nice if we can access that
article or its gist.
Britannica, Macropaedia, Uni of Chicago.
Foods and Nutrition Encyclopedia, Pegus Press, Cal.
Various articles in food magazines.

Anand Prathivadi Bhayankaram, PhD

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