by Devamrita Swami
Whether it is a new vegetarian restaurant around the corner, a doctor who recommended a vegetarian diet or environmentalists contemplating the growing impact of the livestock industry on the planet, you may have caught yourself wondering—what is vegetarianism all about? What is the full impact of vegetarianism on our lives and society as a whole?
The impact is undeniable, most noticeably on the environment. A 2006 United Nations report tells us that the livestock sector plays a greater role in greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars. A recent article in Time magazine, “How a Vegetarian Diet Can Save the Planet,” quoted research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA to show how the widespread adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets could save millions of lives and trillions of dollars. “There is huge potential,” says study author Marco Springmann, a researcher at Oxford University, “from a health perspective, an environmental perspective and an economic perspective.”
Surely the shift to a plant-based diet will be instrumental for creating a healthier planet, but what does a healthier planet truly mean? Are we simply talking about more trees and clean water, or does a healthier planet include higher consciousness? Is there a connection among spirituality, self-realization and a vegetarian diet?
Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, the prime yoga text, presents anna-maya—realizing our dependence upon food for existence as the first of five progressive stages of self-realization. Simply put: “I eat well, healthy or organic.”
The Bhagavad-Gita also presents the concept of annad bhavanti bhutani, or, “all living bodies subsist on food grains,” directly acknowledging the value of vegetarianism. However, while recognizing the value of vegetarianism, the yoga texts point out that other species like pigeons and elephants are also vegetarian, but that in-and-of-itself does not guarantee higher consciousness, the real asset of human life. The essential question yoga texts raise is therefore not whether you are vegetarian, but who you are and what is the nature of your connection with the source of all existence. It is this yoga, or connection, with the source that is the quest of human life.
While yoga texts recognize the value of vegetarianism in creating fertile grounds for the seeds of compassion and ahimsa (nonviolence) muscles to grow, they also point out that it is not the end of the journey, and that there are much higher stages of consciousness achievable in human life. The yoga texts define “evolution” as “evolution of consciousness,” or a living entity’s progressive journey from bodies of lower to higher consciousness.
Having passed the industrial revolution, we earthlings now live in the era of factory farming, complete with specialized equipment to facilitate the mass slaughter of animals. Not only is the experience painful for the animals and disastrous for the planet, according to yoga texts it has deep consequences on individuals and our society as a whole.
How can there be global peace if such mass-scale atrocities are propagated just to sustain the most basic level of our existence? How much do you really understand what you are eating? If we know so little about the food we eat and its effects on our consciousness and society, then why cry for global peace in a world so disconnected from food and its sources? What chance do we have to get a glimpse of the higher stages of self-realization when we have yet to address the issues at the most fundamental level of our consciousness?
So, let’s go beyond the confines of economics and social trends to consider a deeper, more holistic perspective on vegetarianism.
Beyond vegetarianism, the Bhagavad-Gita emphasizes the role of consciousness in transforming the quality of our food and society by applied mantra meditation for the distillation of our consciousness. In the world of yoga and meditation, consciousness is understood as the major player on the stage. Your consciousness is deeply influenced by the consciousness of not only the food you eat, but also the cook who makes it.
Certainly we have had the experience of food tasting special when made by loved ones. Could it be that the consciousness of the cook somehow transfers to the food? And what, then, about the last conscious feelings of the animal who may have become our food? These questions are at the heart of the ancient yogic texts.
The adoption of a vegetarian diet is not the end, but rather is an essential beginning for laying the groundwork in our consciousness for the process of self-realization. Try the ancient yoga technology as presented in the Bhagavad-Gita. We may discover that what we are dealing with is not just a food problem or an environmental problem—but a consciousness problem.
Devamrita Swami is a monk in the Krishna tradition, born in New York and a graduate of Yale University. His books include “Hiding in Unnatural Happiness.” He is the director of Philadelphia’s Mantra Lounge meditation studio and Gita Nagari Farm Sanctuary. His pioneering work of building the farm-city connection brings to Philly a working model for sustainable living and spiritual thinking.