Used with permission of the author: Originally published in November of 2015, this article was written by Willem Vandenberg (Varnadi das), who joined ISKCON in Amsterdam in 1990. He served in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Sweden as a translator and editor and as a manager of one of its sub-complexes. After officially leaving ISKCON in 2010 he went on to further his career as a computer programmer in higher education. He now lives in Texas and enjoys life reading, writing, and traveling the world.

 

 

Deciding Your Comfort Zone

 

The topic of meat consumption remains one of deep concern for many former followers of the Hare Krishna cult. For those who weren’t vegetarians before they joined the cult, this is often the only one of the four “regulative principles”[1] they take with them. Not all do so for the same reason, though.

As there are different ways to leave the cult, there are different reasons to change or not change adopted and learned behavior. Some leave and literally break with everything the cult stood for, giving up everything connected to the cult: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some cases, of course, this means they throw out the baby with the bath water. Others leave the cult on a particular level only, abandoning only what they do not like or disagree with, usually centered on the politics of management or what they consider outdated social mores disguised as philosophy. A very small portion of former followers aren’t really “former” followers at all. Regardless of their misery, they remain within the fold of the cult – albeit on the far fringes – only out of guilt and the fear that leaving may bring about calamity and rob them from attaining their spiritual goal.

All the folks coming and going in this way have their own outlook on the principle of vegetarianism. Many converts were vegetarians before they joined the cult and remain so after they leave. Their reasons for being vegetarian may have changed in the interim, but, if so, will often fall back to the pre-cult core values and principles once free from dogma. The majority of converts, however, became vegetarian because of the cult’s requirements. A small portion of those, when they leave, will revert to eating meat again. The remainder usually remains vegetarian. Both do so for various reasons.

Some remain vegetarian because, despite their distance from the cult’s culture and tenets, they cannot remove themselves from the simple existential implication of the cult’s philosophy that states that if you eat meat (and particularly beef), you go to hell. Others prefer the ahimsa (non-violence) aspect of the philosophy and therefore abstain. Some remain true to the claim that god does not accept offerings of meat, while others connect with the perceived suffering involved in the slaughter of certain living beings for food. There usually is no one specific reason. There is, however, a lot of misleading information as far as the cult’s requirement for vegetarianism is concerned, and those deriving their stance on it from this information do well to educate themselves, so they can re-align their values and principles – if so desired.

So I’d like to get this cleared up first. The Hare Krishna cult makes the case for vegetarianism based on three main points:

  • The founder’s interpretation of select verses of their canonical scriptures and supporting scriptures
  • The cult-given impression that, scripturally, the taking of any life is inherently sinful and subject to unimaginable punishment, both in this world and in the hereafter
  • The cult-given impression that historically most of the Earth population was vegetarian, and certainly the Brahmin caste and all of “Vedic” India throughout millennia

As is often the case, digging a bit deeper reveals that these are misrepresentations of social and cultural traditions with a scriptural twist. The cult’s main references to scripture in support of vegetarianism are one particular verse from the Bhagavad-gita and select verses from the Manu-Samhita. A smattering of references to the Mahabharata can also be found.

Disregarding the origin of the Bhagavad-gita and the way it was interpreted and produced by Bhaktivedanta Swami, the verse in question is 9.26, which states:

    patram puspam phalam toyam
        yo me bhaktya prayacchati
    tad aham bhakty-upahrtam
        asnami prayatatmanah

This verse literally translates as: “I will accept a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water presented with love by anyone of pious character.”

Since there is no mention of meat, fish, or eggs, the cult doctrine concludes that this alleged statement by Krishna establishes a purely vegetarian diet. In his purport to this verse Bhaktivedanta Swami claims: “Thus, meat, fish and eggs should not be offered to Krishna. If He desired such things as offerings, He would have said so. Instead He clearly requests that a leaf, fruit, flowers and water be given to Him, and He says of this offering, ‘I will accept it.’ Therefore, we should understand that He will not accept meat, fish and eggs. Vegetables, grains, fruits, milk and water are the proper foods for human beings and are prescribed by Lord Krishna Himself. Whatever else we eat cannot be offered to Him, since He will not accept it.”

That there is no mention of roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, honey, grains, beans, squash, or milk products does not seem to factor into the he-would-have-said-so methodology of exclusion. The assumption here is that these are all covered in the “prescribed” clause provided by the swami and cunningly attached as an extension to what is listed in the verse. It would be fair to conclude that this is in reference to the three verses in chapter 17 of the Bhagavad-gita that describe the different kinds of food in relation to goodness, passion, and ignorance.[2] Most commentators on these verses mention meat, fish, fowl, eggs, wine, alcohol, garlic, onions and mushrooms directly or simply associate the Sanskrit amedhyam (unfit for sacrifice) with the items enumerated in the Dharma Sastra. These do indeed include the above-listed, but with the caveat that they do not constitute a blanket prohibition.

Both the food categories and fitness for sacrifice of food items lack an adequate connection to 9.26, the verse used as the cult’s main proof for their restriction to a vegetarian diet. That a leaf, flower, fruit and water are the basic ingredients in the average worship ritual (arati) does not seem to ring a bell, either. To many serious students of the Bhagavad-gita the context in which this verse appears has Krishna explain the various ways people worship him, even those who do so indirectly, and how he accepts (ritual) worship from anyone who does so lovingly. This is naturally followed by the well-known conclusion that “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform – do that, O son of Kunti, as an offering to Me.” To extract the restriction of a vegetarian diet from these verses is contrived at best.

As masters of quoting scripture out of context and utterly disregarding their origin, the founder of the cult and his followers likewise quote whatever verses they come across that appear to support their ideas of “Vedic” vegetarianism without understanding the larger picture.

The Manu-samhita, one of the foremost of the Dharma Sastra, for example, details an idealized governance of society based on castes. As with many Indian scriptures, it has seen extensive modification over time. It is important to understand the idealized part, as there was never a time in India’s history that such governance was exacted in reality, and certainly not on a homogenous, large scale. The book draws from many earlier sources and most scholars agree that it is the product of many authors put together over a long period of time.[3] The Mahabharata suffers the same inconsistencies, but to a much greater degree, as this scripture reached its final form over a millennium[4], increasing from approximately 20,000 verses to a staggering 100,000. It deserves to be mentioned here that the Bhagavad-gita is a later addition to the Mahabharata.

When Hare Krishna cult followers invoke the authority of the Manu-samhita, they do so in the same illogical way the founder did, by cherry-picking a handful of verses that support their arguments while casting aside more than 2,000 verses with rules they do not and will not follow.[5] The fifth chapter does indeed make statements against the eating of flesh, but that is hardly the complete picture. The context of the fifth chapter is found in a question posed to the sage Brighu as to what “faults death seeks to shorten the lives of Brahmins” and therefore the answer given pertains to this caste in particular, unless specifically mentioned otherwise.

Manu begins with an explanation of what foods can and cannot be eaten, and makes no qualms as to the fact that meat is just fine as long as it is in the list of permitted items offered in sacrifice to the gods and forefathers.[6] Remember the amedhyam mentioned in the food category of ignorance? Not only that, when present at a sacrifice where meat is involved, a Brahmin must partake in eating it, lest he be born as an animal himself for 26 lives. Now, a general thread making its way through the highly selective world of Brahmanism is, of course, that Brahmins who do something wrong usually get off with a comparative slap on the wrist. It should therefore come as no surprise that all a Brahmin who intentionally eats forbidden food, like unpermitted meat, needs to do to atone is follow the annual Krikkhra penance.[7]

So why would cult followers invoke this scripture at all? Because Manu also makes clear what happens to people who kill and eat animals for their own pleasure, without consideration of the gods and forefathers. They do, however, pick out only the verses that do not inherently make this clear, like verses 5.48-49, which recommend abstinence from meat eating based on the cruelty involved in fettering and slaying of corporeal beings, or verse 5.51, which enumerates the seven animal slayers, or verse 5.55, which explains that the meat eater will be devoured by his victim in his next life. What they will usually not quote is the next verse:

“There is no sin in eating meat, in (drinking) spirituous liquor, and in carnal intercourse, for that is the natural way of created beings, but abstention brings great rewards.”

You see, this is really what it all boils down to.

Being an omnivore, intoxicating yourself, and having sex are all completely natural things for human beings to do. There is nothing wrong with any of it. Now, if you want to be a driven spiritualist who aims to transcend basic human nature, principles of non-violence may play an important role in your chosen diet, but for everyone else such considerations are by no means required.

As shown, the Hare Krishna cult’s selective, interpretive quoting from inconsistent scriptures of poorly-understood origin does not make for very good arguments. Neither does their plentiful talk about the ancient “Vedic” civilization, where everyone was a self-realized, god-loving spiritualist in a world ruled over by a divine emperor – and therefore everyone was vegetarian. Yes, this extrapolated argument is actually proposed by many of the cult’s followers, in a similar way that they propose that the vast majority of India is vegetarian, and certainly was so in the past. Of course, here too reality begs to differ. India was never completely vegetarian, and, with two-thirds of the country eating meat, isn’t currently, either.[8]

What’s left? Arguments about monkeys and pigeons being vegetarian?[9] Do these even matter? Humans and pigeons have little in common, and it is documented that Gorillas, Baboons, and Chimpanzees opportunistically kill and eat other primates and monkeys. That vegetarianism comes easy to herbivores and therefore merits little credit is totally beside the point. So no, these arguments don’t matter at all. Moreover, despite being at the forefront of the cult’s proselytizing efforts, vegetarianism itself also doesn’t matter. Bhaktivedanta Swami has made it amply clear on multiple occasions that the only thing that does matter is that food is offered to Krishna. Nothing else does.[10] So you can leave the Hare Krishna cult behind you with peace of mind, even where vegetarianism is concerned. All of it was make-believe.

That said, what about other concerns? An important question, considering we just found out that the cult doesn’t shape reality, yet here we still are and we still have to eat.

The human species is an apex species. Not an apex predator, mind you, but an apex species. Where evolution and natural selection are concerned, humans are on top of the world. Despite cries of human expansion and activity, including self-destruction, being unnatural, they are all but that. Evolution has driven our species to dominate through improved intelligence and collaboration, and it will continue to do so. Where we are at as a species is the result of this progression. Every species has the drive to dominate, but not every species has the means. Humans do, and as omnivorous opportunists they have created an advanced world for themselves where they can choose what they eat, for whatever reason they see fit.

Here then is the crux of the vegetarian matter: choice. You can choose what you eat, which is a very personal thing to do. You choose what you eat in accordance with what you feel comfortable with; with what you feel matches your values and principles. You choose what you eat, whether it is for health reasons, ethical reasons, humanitarian reasons, economical reasons, fuzzy-warm-feeling reasons, activist reasons, spiritual reasons, pacifistic reasons, or whatever else floats your boat. Just make sure you understand that others make their own choice too. You are your own judge; they are theirs.

And just in case you wondered, nah… the universe couldn’t care less. Our little planet has seen mass extinctions that would make your head spin around like a dreidel.[11] Even our own two-legged species has seen times at which world populations dwindled to less than 30,000. The loss of billions of living beings in an extinction level event is pretty much all in a day’s work for the cosmic and planetary forces in our solar system, without much care for a blip-in-time ism, silly cults, or an old man who liked pakoras.

So yes, choose, but do it for yourself, and for yourself alone.

That, too, is the result of where evolution has gotten you as an individual.

Bon appétit!

 

– Willem

 

 


References

[1] Upon initiation into the cult, followers vow to uphold for life the following four so-called regulative principles: 1) No consumption of meat, fish, or eggs, or products thereof; 2) no intoxication of any kind (including tea, coffee, and tobacco); 3) no gambling; and 4) no illicit sex and no sex inside marriage, other than for the purpose of procreation.

[2] BG 17.8-10: “Foods dear to those in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such foods are juicy, fatty, wholesome, and pleasing to the heart. Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry and burning are dear to those in the mode of passion. Such foods cause distress, misery and disease. Food prepared more than three hours before being eaten, food that is tasteless, decomposed and putrid, and food consisting of remnants and untouchable things is dear to those in the mode of darkness. ”

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manusm%E1%B9%9Bti

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabharata

[5] Women and the Laws of God, Willem Vandenberg, 2008

[6] Manu-samhita 5.22-23: “Beasts and birds recommended (for consumption) may be slain by Brahmanas for sacrifices, and in order to feed those whom they are bound to maintain; for Agastya did this of old. For in ancient (times) the sacrificial cakes were (made of the flesh) of eatable beasts and birds at the sacrifices offered by Brahmanas and Kshatriyas.”
Manu-samhita 5.27: “One may eat meat when it has been sprinkled with water, while Mantras were recited, when Brahmanas desire (one’s doing it), when one is engaged (in the performance of a rite) according to the law, and when one’s life is in danger.”
Manu-samhita 5.32: “He who eats meat, when he honours the gods and manes, commits no sin, whether he has bought it, or himself has killed (the animal), or has received it as a present from others.”
Manu-samhita 5.42: “A twice-born man who, knowing the true meaning of the Veda, slays an animal for these purposes, causes both himself and the animal to enter a most blessed state.”

[7] Manu-samhita 5.21: “Once a year a Brahmana must perform a Krikkhra penance, in order to atone for unintentionally eating (forbidden food) but for intentionally (eating forbidden food he must perform the penances prescribed) specially.”

[8] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country#India

[9] Letter to Nandarani, October 18, 1968, Seattle: “There are many vegetarians animals also; the monkeys are vegetarians, the pigeons are vegetarians, so to become vegetarian is not very good credit.”

[10] Letter to Nandarani, October 18, 1968, Seattle: “So we are concerned with Krishna Prasadam, neither vegetarian or non-vegetarian.”
Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers, Chapter 5: “Srila Prabhupada: Vegetarian is no qualification.”
Letter to Kirtanananda, New York 14 April, 1967: “’Why we cannot eat meat’, to answer this question the straight reply is that ‘because Krishna does not eat meat’’. We are concerned with Krishna Consciousness so our eating is dependent on Krishna Consciousness. We cannot eat, cannot do, cannot think, cannot will or can do nothing without Krishna consciousness. By nature one has to eat some weaker living being and therefore animals are eaten by man, vegetables are eaten by animal or the weak is eaten by the strong and therefore one living being is eaten by another stronger living being. But there is a systematic rules and principles for eating and a human being is to eat Krishna Prasadam. If Krishna would have eaten meat, we would have also eaten His meat Prasadam.”

[11] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_event