“There is nothing to be lamented if a tiger eats a weaker animal, including a man, because that is the law of the Supreme Lord. But although the law states that a human being must subsist on another living being, there is the law of good sense also, for the human being is meant to obey the laws of the scriptures. This is impossible for other animals. The human being is meant for self-realization, and for that purpose he is not to eat anything which is not first offered to the Lord. The Lord accepts from His devotee all kinds of food preparations made of vegetables, fruits, leaves and grains.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.13.47 Purport)Download this episode (right click and save)
Vedanta philosophy goes deep into the matters of life and death. More than a blind faith, more than something morphed and degraded through time and the management of an institution influenced by politics and votes, Vedanta is the conclusion of all conclusions. It is a philosophy that is equivalent with the truth.
In assimilating the values of that truth, the individual is encouraged to bring every doubt. The human species is the most auspicious due to the advanced intelligence. Only with a sober and rational mind can the living being reach the pinnacle of living. That mind can understand the spiritual science and then go beyond.
Bhakti-yoga is that beyond, and since it is equivalent with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it automatically includes all the benefits that come from understanding Vedanta philosophy. One of the doubts that may be raised when learning about bhakti-yoga is the issue of vegetarianism. Though at the highest levels, no single practice, either positive or negative, makes or breaks bhakti, in practically every case the individual tied to the Supreme Consciousness through a mood of love and devotion refrains from eating meat, fish and eggs. There are several reasons for this.
The first created living entity ran into trouble when beginning his prescribed duty. To get the proper direction on how to create, he simply meditated. He got instruction from the Supreme Lord, who is aja, which means “unborn.” From aja came the sound vibration, “tapa.”
divyaṁ sahasrābdam amogha-darśano
tapas tapīyāṁs tapatāṁ samāhitaḥ
“Lord Brahma underwent penances for one thousand years by the calculations of the demigods. He heard this transcendental vibration from the sky, and he accepted it as divine. Thus he controlled his mind and senses, and the penances he executed were a great lesson for the living entities. Thus he is known as the greatest of all ascetics.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.8)
Tapa means “austerity,” and it is a valuable tool for the human being. The animals don’t know about renunciation and austerity. They follow their instincts. If you keep giving food to a fish, it will not know when to stop eating. The human being can voluntarily implement a diet for receiving a specific benefit.
In all books of religion there is mention of food. “Sacrifice this animal at this specific time and you’ll receive some benefit.” The Vedas, from which Vedanta and bhakti-yoga come, are no different. An intelligent person thinks to themselves, “Why is food mentioned at all in these important books? We don’t need guidance on how to eat, do we?”
The purpose is tapa. By regulating eating and sleeping, the human being can remain sober in mind. The human life is meant for austerity, and one aspect of that austerity is restriction from eating foods that inhibit the advancement of the consciousness.
Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, gives the summary of bhakti-yoga philosophy in a book called the Bhagavad-gita. In one verse He mentions how the real yogi is temperate in their habits. They don’t eat too much or too little. The same goes for sleep.
nāty-aśnatas 'tu yogo 'sti
na caikāntam anaśnataḥ
jāgrato naiva cārjuna
“There is no possibility of one's becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.16)
This principle goes hand in hand with tapa. One way to moderate is to eat simple foods. Fruits, vegetables, grains and milk are sufficient for surviving. A person doesn’t need more than this. Scientists will release studies to the contrary, but you can in fact find people who are negatively affected by any kind of diet. Death is certain for the living being, so the lack of any single type of food does not automatically contribute to a shortened lifespan. Rather, combined with moderation, a simple diet is extremely beneficial for the advancement of the consciousness.
The root definition of karma is “fruitive activity.” It basically means doing something that has a consequence. Specifically, the consequence relates to the body. This life is not the only one we’ve had. Everything we do now will affect us in the future. The future consequences may not manifest right away, but they will come eventually.
There is meat eating in Vedic culture, but again the recommendation is there as a way to curb the appetite. In one of the rituals, there is a mantra spoken to the animal about to be consumed. The mantra says something to the effect of, “I will kill you in this life, so in your next life you have a right to come and kill me.” This is the reason the Sanskrit word for meat is mamsa. This means “me” and “he.” The two living entities involved in meat eating are inexorably linked.
The animals are not the proper food for consumption by the human being. The animals may be predators themselves, but they have their own karmic reactions to go through. The human being who kills the innocent animals interferes with that karmic progression. As a result, that human being must suffer negative consequences in the future.
A good argument against vegetarianism is the fact that all living things are spirit souls. This means that even vegetarians kill.
“How many plants will have to die before vegetarians wake up? They kill so many innocent living things to eat. They are no different than the meat-eaters. They just like to stand high and mighty, but there are so many microbes even that enter into the body through eating. Therefore what is the point in avoiding meat?”
Vedanta even acknowledges this argument. There is a Sanskrit saying that one living entity survives off another, jivo jivasya jivanam. This is an inviolable law of material existence.
phalgūni tatra mahatāṁ
jīvo jīvasya jīvanam
“Those who are devoid of hands are prey for those who have hands; those devoid of legs are prey for the four-legged. The weak are the subsistence of the strong, and the general rule holds that one living being is food for another.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.13.47)
Nevertheless, the human being uses discrimination. Even the meat-eater doesn’t consume every kind of flesh. If all living things were the same in terms of eligibility for consumption, then there is no reason not to eat one’s children. Why doesn’t the meat eater kill their parents and eat them?
The idea is that certain food is allotted for the human beings. To kill vegetables to sustain life does not by itself carry a karmic reaction. There is the issue of compassion as well. By leaving the animals alone, a person develops compassion, which is a necessary component of advancing in consciousness. A person who lacks compassion must stay in the material world to take rebirth.
This reason trumps all the others. The pinnacle of existence is bhakti-yoga in its pure form. When following love and devotion to God the person, there are offerings of food made. Indeed, the yogi in bhakti does not eat anything that is not first offered. The kinds of food eligible for offerings are kindly stipulated in the Bhagavad-gita.
patraṁ puṣpaṁ phalaṁ toyaṁ
yo me bhaktyā prayacchati
tad ahaṁ bhakty-upahṛtam
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.26)
If Shri Krishna wanted meat, the devotees would offer it to Him. He doesn’t, however. He prefers not to have other living entities suffer for His pleasure. The food offered to Krishna with love and devotion gets returned as prasadam, which means “the Lord’s mercy.” This food has tremendous potency. It is unlike any other food. There is no karma associated with prasadam preparation and consumption. Prasadam is the way to get austerity, renunciation, compassion, and karma-free all at the same time. Bhakti-yoga culture is the source of what is today known as vegetarianism. And without the key component of consciousness of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the vegetarian diet itself will provide little benefit.
Into intelligent species of human sent,
For austerity that life is meant.
Avoiding certain foods is way one,
Meat, fish and eggs consumed none.
With meat in future karma reaction,
Yogi sleeps and eats in moderation.
For Krishna’s benefit best reason of all,
Returned offering prasadam to call.