Swami Mungalmurti Saraswati

There are those who claim that eating meat is in opposition to ahimsa, one of the ethical observances recommended by yoga for bringing peace of mind. In this context, ahimsa is usually translated as 'non-violence' to all forms of life. The standard argument is that meat-eaters should visit a slaughterhouse to witness personally the violence perpetrated against innocent beasts. The usual reply to this is that vegetarians are being unnecessarily sentimental. Those who eat meat often extend ahimsa only to their fellow humans, or shrug it off altogether as being outside their philosophy.

Others claim that if one takes ahimsa to its logical conclusion, it must be applied to plants and insects, in which case mankind would starve, for those who can survive on sunlight and water are rare souls indeed. There is really no answer to this point, for the scriptures make it clear that consciousness is inherent in all creation, even that which is apparently lifeless. The Rudrayamala Tantra, for instance, is adamant that "Brahman resides in the stone".

The experiments of Cleve Backster in the USA have demonstrated that plants are actually very sensitive to the vibrations of the life forms around them, including the feelings and thoughts of human beings. His findings have been supported by the experience of the spiritual community of Findhorn, Scotland where extraordinarily large, healthy and beautiful flowers and vegetables have been grown by showering the plants with love, care and kindness. There is now abundant scientific evidence that plants too have feelings and so should come under the umbrella of ahimsa.

The crux of the matter, however, is that ahimsa does not mean 'non-violence or 'non-killing'. A means 'not' and himsa more truly means 'hatred' or 'revengeful attitude'. Ahimsa has long been misunderstood and misinterpreted. It does not mean one should never kill, but that one should do what one must do free from the attitude of vengeance, without spite or vindictiveness.

Even though Krishna's story is not totally devoid of violence, and though he drove Arjuna's chariot into battle, in almost all the scriptures it is said that the life of Krishna is the living definition of ahimsa. They say this because Krishna acted without any personal hatred. He acted with full knowledge of the higher good, inspired by his divine love for all creatures. So ahimsa also involves the notion that one should protect the more significant life. If a poisonous snake should come into your home, you would take a stick and kill it; by taking one life you save more precious lives. There is no difficult decision here, for any man with a little common sense will understand which is the more valuable life. If a centipede has gone into your bed you know immediately which life is more significant. It's a very simple affair. In social terms, a person who is a mischief maker and is creating havoc must be punished. He who is poor and unprotected, he must be given protection.

We are therefore justified in eating plants and even animal flesh, because both are lower forms of life than human beings. We must eat something, and using plants and animals for food serves the more highly evolved consciousness that has taken human embodiment. By the same token, however, protection of the more significant life requires that we choose plant foods in preference to animal foods wherever possible.

From the standpoint of ahimsa the strongest argument for vegetarianism is our responsibility to ourselves and our neighbours. There is no need to breed and kill large numbers of animals just for food, because all the nutritional elements of meat are available from plant sources. Moreover, most livestock production actually takes food from the mouths of the world's starving millions. Huge quantities of grain and other foods that could be eaten directly by humans are fed to animals, and the amount of flesh food provided by animals is much less than the amount of food they consume. This is the principle of ahimsa in reverse.

It is doubtful that someone who eats a lot of meat does so from a hatred of humanity or that those involved in the meat industry are deliberately trying to starve the earth's poor. More likely they are acting from blind ignorance. However, when the facts are known, and they are being more widely publicised all the time, then it is time to weigh one's actions in the light of ahimsa.