Why Be Vegetarian?
Being vegetarian is fashionable now, and that’s good. It seems as if every time you turn around, some celebrity, corporate CEO, health guru, IT genius, or your neighbor is extolling the benefits and virtues of a vegan or vegetarian diet—now often called a plant-based diet. People want to be healthy, to make dietary choices that are environmentally responsible, and to be moral human beings who honor the lives of not only other humans but animals too. In most countries without a tradition of vegetarianism, being vegetarian (or vegan) is no longer considered weird, as it once was. It is simply one lifestyle choice among many that people of all ages, races, and cultural backgrounds are more often than not free to make without dividing their families, being thought strange by business colleagues, or annoying restaurant servers – all common reactions not so long ago.
One of many benefits of this trend is that it’s much easier to be vegetarian than it used to be. Restaurants that cater to vegetarians, or that can at least accommodate them, are much more plentiful, especially in major urban centers. And many markets and grocery stores carry products like tofu and vegan pizza – to name just two examples – which were unheard of, or at least hard to find, as recently as the last century.
So there has never been a better time to be a vegan or vegetarian, in terms of convenience and cultural acceptance.
Which is why it’s important to be clear about exactly why we, as followers of Surat Shabd Yoga, are vegetarian, specifically lacto-vegetarian (a diet that includes dairy products, though many of us choose to avoid dairy as well as meat, fish, fowl, and eggs). It is not that followers of Sant Mat are better than other vegetarians – far from it! But there are important, specific reasons for the dietary requirement of vegetarianism in Sant Mat, and the better we understand those reasons, the less likely we will be to take our diet for granted. The danger is that if we take our diet for granted – for example if we were brought up in a satsangi family, and being vegetarian was just how we grew up – it will be easier for us to become slack in our commitment. If we don’t consciously choose to be vegetarian, the next time we’re super-hungry, and the only food available is a packet of biscuits, we might not be so diligent about reading the packet’s ingredients before digging in. This may seem like a silly example, but even people who have been initiated for decades can become lazy about checking ingredients, which may change over time. We cannot afford to take our diet for granted.
The truth is, it takes effort, attention, and conscious choice to embark on a vegetarian (or vegan) diet and most important, to stick with it over the course of our entire lives. That’s why we need to examine our commitment to this way of life and be sure that we understand our choice. Because if being vegetarian is not woven into our values in a very practical way, if we follow the diet blindly and don’t base our actions on our deepest beliefs and assumptions about the purpose of human life, then we won’t have the stamina and courage to live our beliefs day in and day out, even when that may be inconvenient or boring.
In Divine Light, Maharaj Charan Singh wrote a succinct explanation of why followers of Sant Mat are vegetarians: Eating “eggs and flesh meat, including that of fish and fowl, does retard one’s spiritual progress,” he wrote. “Taking of life hardens the heart and creates a heavy debt of karmas. The birds, cattle, fish, and so forth that we kill do not want to die. How piteously they cry and scream when we catch them to be butchered. Since they are capable of feeling pain and pleasure, the Merciful Lord, who is as much their Father as he is ours, will certainly call us to account for butchering them mercilessly. There is no injustice in God’s law.”
The term “God’s law” refers to the law of karma, which is the universal law of cause and effect. This law has been expressed in many different ways: As you sow, so shall you reap; every action has an equal and opposite reaction; what goes around comes around. Everything we do incurs a karmic debt. The karmic law plays out through the transmigration of our souls, which are reincarnated over and over again to live out the consequences of previous actions.
Our true essence is soul, which is born, dies, and then reborn into countless bodies until we can manage to break free by merging our souls back with the Lord. We’re trapped in this cycle by our karmas, or actions: In each body, we perform actions, which must by their nature result in reactions. Because we commit too many actions in one lifetime to live through their consequent reactions, we must be born again to reap their effects. And so the cycle continues until we can liberate ourselves once and for all from the karmic wheel.
The killing of any living thing incurs a karmic debt, which must be paid off. We want to incur as little debt as possible to lighten the burden that keeps our souls trapped in this world, so we are vegetarian because that diet entails taking the lowest form of life possible. But even then karmic law applies.
The fact is that we cannot remain in this world without killing. In the book Being Vegetarian, the author explains: “While every creature must eat to live – whether that means eating plants or other animals – humans can choose to do the least harm possible and consume a plant-based diet, perhaps including dairy products. Even a small child understands that, while picking a flower from the neighbour’s carefully tended garden may be naughty, harming the neighbour’s cat is a much worse offence. Harming the neighbour herself is worse yet. In the same manner, while consuming fruits, vegetables, and grains is taking a form of life, plants are less conscious than sea, air, or land creatures. We can keep our killing on the lowest possible level of consciousness, preventing immense suffering.”
What karmas we do incur from killing plant life can be neutralized through our meditation and leading an otherwise ethical life.
Aside from the ethical and karmic reasons for not extinguishing life merely to satisfy our appetites, there is a mental dimension. Saints tell us that extinguishing life to nourish ourselves affects the very structure of our mind. Our mind is scattered throughout the body and the entire world outside, which the mind perceives through the body’s senses. Mystics tell us that the path to self- and God- realization lies within ourselves and that we must collect our attention within, at the eye center, its natural focal point, rather than scatter it without.
Maharaj Charan Singh writes in Divine Light: “Food, like actions, affects the mind and therefore its capacity to concentrate at its natural focal point. Killing a man causes a more severe mental reaction than killing a goat. Similarly, killing a goat causes a more severe mental reaction than plucking an apple from a tree. Concentration of mind would therefore be … proportionately more difficult in the case of a man who has committed murder than in the case of a man who has killed a goat or one who has plucked an apple from a tree. The reason is that the manifest form of life in a man, in a goat and in an apple tree has different degrees of consciousness or awareness. Accordingly, the extinguishing of life in each of them causes varying degrees of mental reaction, and therefore obstruction to spiritual concentration of the mind.”
So the higher levels of life we kill to eat, the more scattered the mind becomes and thus the more difficult it is to withdraw our attention to the eye center in meditation.
Where does all this leave us in relation to the eating of eggs, and the harm of eating infertile eggs? Nature has made eggs for the hatching of chicks. The fact that infertile eggs contain no life is irrelevant; they were intended to be a vehicle of life, and so we should avoid them. In the words of Maharaj Sawan Singh, “Meat and eggs (fertile and infertile) … do not suit those who wish to subdue animal nature in them and who wish to still their mind and gain access to subtle planes.”
Saints and mystics advocate a vegetarian diet so that we can lighten our karmic load and thereby make spiritual progress in our meditation and everyday life. But being vegetarian makes sense even if we are not interested in the liberation of our souls from the wheel of birth and death. Sir Paul McCartney has said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” A life of nonviolence – not killing for food or sport – promotes peace in the world and peace within ourselves. Also, it is by now well documented that being vegetarian can make us healthier physically and can make a vast difference in the health of the planet, because by eating meat we contribute to climate change, destruction of the earth’s forests and the poisoning of our air and water.
Among all the animals and plants of the earth, only humans have the power of discrimination. Unlike other animals, which must obey their instinctual natures, we can make conscious choices. We can decide not to make a graveyard of our bodies by filling our bellies with the flesh of animals, which have souls just like we do. We can consciously choose to be vegetarian, not because we were raised that way, or because it’s cool, but because it’s just the right thing to do.
- Divine Light,letter 438 (“…eggs and flesh meat…”)
- Being Vegetarian, by Rebecca Hammons, publ. Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2017; pp. 5–6 (“While every creature…”)
- Divine Light, letter 439 (“Food, like actions…”)
- Spiritual Gems,letter 55 (“Meat and eggs…”)
- Being Vegetarian,Endnote 2 (“If slaughterhouses…”)
- Being Vegetarian, 72–81 (“Also, it is by now well documented…”)