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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Veganism and Spirituality: A Commentary

Dear Readers, greetings! The festive season is upon us and today is the first day of the Navaratri. The Navaratri period is marked by the theme of the victory of 'good over evil'. This is that time of the year when people worship 'shakti' (the divine power) and embark on a 'purification' drive by consuming 'strictly vegetarian' food. While we believe that self-cleansing is an ongoing process that does not need a special occasion, we do however appreciate the emphasis given in these nine days to live a 'good life' and the willingness of people to accept it. We fervently believe that one day all the evils, whether of thought or of action, will become passé and humankind will be able to completely realize its true spiritual self. This is the self that can give and receive all-pervading love, kindness, and compassion, both towards other humans and non human animals.

To grace this occasion, we are privileged to introduce our guest writer on the blog, Dr. Krishnaiyengar Varadarangan, who will share his thoughts on the topic of 'veganism and spirituality' and comment on how both are interconnected, just like the helices of the DNA. Dr. Varadarangan holds a Ph.D degree in Applied Physics and is currently working as Director – Wireless R&D, Melange Systems, Bengaluru. He is also an accomplished musician and a musicologist, and has several publications to his credit. Needless to say,
Dr. Varadarangan follows a vegan lifestyle and is actively involved in the promotion of ethical values and compassion towards animals through his blog PREVANKA, Facebook, campaigns, and writings.

Dr. Varadarangan can be reached at We are immensely grateful to Dr. Varadarangan for enriching this space with his pearls of wisdom.

By Dr. K. Varadarangan

At the outset we shall briefly explore the meaning of the terms, ‘veganism’ and ‘spirituality’. The key objective of this article is to demystify spirituality and examine what it involves to lead a spiritual life.

I)    Demystifying Spirituality

Veganism: Veganism (pronounced ‘vee-gun-ism’) is a lifestyle based on the core ideal of non-violence and, for that reason, seeks to avoid the use of animal products and products tested on animals. According to Donald Watson, the father of veganism, “Veganism” may be defined “as a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. We explore more about veganism later in this article.

Spirituality: Spirituality is the process of inner awakening that enables one to realize complete purity of thought, word, and deed. This inward journey takes a person to a higher level of consciousness. Through spiritual practice, one develops the ability to recognize his/her pure, absolute, and unbiased true self. Spiritual practice involves giving up selfishness, greed, arrogance, and cultivating the qualities of composure, inner power, moral strength, love, compassion, and respect for all beings human and non human. A spiritually-aware person is able to envision that we all are part of a whole and that all forms of life are interconnected. Spirituality inspires a human being to assume responsibility and not run away from life.

For many people, spirituality is synonymous with understanding God. For many others, it is seeking the ‘reality’ or the ‘truth’. Some others see spirituality as reaching out to our inner core or the ‘soul’. Whatever the approach, it should be clear that spirituality is our fundamental nature and may be experienced by all theists and atheists included.

Spirituality and Ahimsa: Compassion and respect for all beings is the core element of spirituality. Thus, the practice of ahimsa is an essential aspect of spirituality. Ahimsa literally means non injury, not only to humans but to all sentient beings, including animals. In the broader sense, ahimsa implies ‘compassion and respect for all life’. In his book, Bliss Divine, Sri. Swamy Sivananda writes:
Practice of Ahimsa develops love. Ahimsa is another name for truth or love. Ahimsa is universal love. It is pure love. It is divine Prem. Where there is love, there you will find Ahimsa. Where there is Ahimsa, there you will find love and selfless service. They all go together...There is one religion the religion of love, of peace. There is one message, the message of Ahimsa. Ahimsa is a supreme duty of man...Ahimsa is a great spiritual force.
A man on the path of spirituality sees no difference between himself and others. He treats every being with equanimity, love, and compassion. He has no ego, no superiority complex. He has rid himself of selfishness, greed, arrogance, and materialistic desires. He sees no difference between himself, a dog, or a cat. He seeks to live in harmony with his fellow humans, animals, and the environment. He seeks to harm no one. He seeks the well being of all life forms, and all his thoughts, words, and actions are directed to achieve that goal.

Spirituality and Liberation: The ultimate goal of spirituality is liberation liberation of the ‘society at large’, consisting of both humans and animals from abuse, exploitation, bondage, pain, and suffering. Liberation starts at the individual level and gradually expands to the whole Universe as more and more people make spirituality a way of life. Dr. Will Tuttle, author of the book, World Peace Diet regarded as one of the most important books of the 21st century, succinctly puts the idea of spirituality and liberation as follows:
Spirituality is about liberation, and thus always calls us to awaken to the interconnectedness of all life, and to practice kindness and respect for others. These are both pre-requisites forand the natural results ofauthentically realizing our essential nature as spiritual beings.
Action and Reaction: We Reap What We Sow: One of the basic laws of nature in general and a law of physics in particular is, ‘action and reaction are equal and opposite’. So every action of ours has an equal and opposite reaction. These laws not only apply to physical entities such as the natural forces but also to every kind of action that occurs in the Universe.

During our lifetimes we indulge in several activities and our actions create an influence on the external world. When we commit brutalities such as cruelty to animals, where will the reaction to such evils go? They can not just vanish. There has to be a reaction to neutralize the action because everything in nature is balanced. This cumulative evil has to react upon us. Conversely, good actions such as acts of compassion and love to fellow beings and animals are sure to bring us everlasting happiness and peace. Thus we reap what we sow.

Most often, the connection between our actions and the results of the actions may not manifest immediately or in ways that we understand. This is primarily because of the limitations of our senses. We understand our external world through the five senses of touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight. Coupled with our ability to think and reason, we are able to understand things that are beyond our senses. However, our sense organs and the ability of the human brain hit a limit to which our perceptions and knowledge can stretch.

By developing a compassionate and loving attitude, we create a win-win situation. We save the animals from enormous pain and suffering, we save our flora and fauna, we save our environment, we save our Earth our only home, and we save ourselves from the horrific effects of our crimes. Lord Mahavira proclaims:
Non-violence and kindness to living beings is kindness to oneself. For thereby one's own self is saved from various kinds of sins and resultant sufferings and is able to secure his own welfare.

II)    Why Vegan?

Ethical, personal health, and environmental issues are the three major aspects of a vegan lifestyle. However, the primary reason for people converting to vegan is ethical.

Vegan is Ethical: At the core of a vegan lifestyle is the ideal of ‘ahimsa’ or non injury. Thus vegans avoid all products that are derived from animals. Even milk is avoided as it rightfully belongs to the calf and not to us. Modern dairy practices involve unimaginable cruelty to cows in the form of artificial insemination, killing of male calves, constant cycles of pregnancies leading to shortened lifespans, unethical hormone injections to increase milk yield that leads to diseases, and finally treacherous transportation and brutal murder at the slaughter houses. How can a person with conscience consume milk under such conditions?

Animal sacrifice in the name of God is one of the most heinous, disgusting, and absurd acts that one can ever imagine. Animal sacrifice amounts to murdering and then offering the corpse of the butchered animal to the creator Herself! What an irony! What gross ignorance! What shame! She is the creator, the mother, of every one of us, including the animals. How can we offer a butchered child to its own mother? What will the mother think of us? We call her mother, then kill her own baby and even worse, expect her to consume it!

Sacrifice means surrendering ourselves to the supreme force in all humility. We need to surrender our ego, selfishness, greed, hatred, and arrogance and not the lives of hapless animals over which we have absolutely no right of ownership. Cruelty to animals is indeed a grave crime. In what way is killing an animal different from the murder of a human being? In the words of Sri. Rabindranath Tagore:
Cruelty (to animals) a fundamental sin, and admits of no arguments or nice distinctions.
Vegan is Healthy: Innumerable studies have shown that a plant-based diet is healthy and associated with a lowered risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and mortality. Replacing non-vegetarian food with a diet of whole grains, vegetables, dry fruits, nuts, and fruits, combined with a regular exercise regime helps in greatly lowering blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and obesity. Plant-based foods in general have lower saturated fats and cholesterol. They are also rich in soluble fibres that reduce serum cholesterol. Further, a vegetarian diet of fruits and vegetables is rich in antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, flavonoids, folic acid, phytosterols, and caretenoids that provide a good measure of protection against cardiovascular diseases.

Vegan is Environment Friendly: As several large-scale scientific studies have confirmed, severe environmental degradation is taking place due to animal farming. Animal farming for meat, leather, and milk is depleting our natural resources at an alarming rate. This depletion rate is estimated to be anywhere between 10 to 1000 times. Green-house gas emissions from animal farms are a major contributor to global warming. Enormous amounts of water and plant food is required to produce meat. It is estimated that about 100,000 litres of water, 100 kilogram of hay, and 4 kilogram of grain is required to produce just one kilogram of meat. Another serious issue is managing the waste produced in these animal farms. Such wastes are becoming potential threats and causing air, soil, and water pollution. Referring to the practice of animal farming Keith Akers in his well researched and highly popular book, A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1989) notes that:
This is a matter of historical record. Most of the world's soil, erosion, groundwater depletion, and deforestation—factors now threatening the very basis of our food system—are the result of this particularly destructive form of food production.
All of Us are Born Vegans: All of us are born impeccably pure. The food that a new born child needs is only the mother’s milk and nothing else. Nourished by the mother’s milk, her love, and care, the child develops to become a pure and perfect human being. It opens its eyes to the beautiful world around with awe and joy. It makes an instant connection with the beautiful animals around and wishes to befriend them and play with them. There is no discrimination, no superiority. Only love, that is unconditional, pure, and absolute. This love is our essential being.

The human being is created to be an herbivorous animal. Thus, we are all born vegans. But what happens over our socialization with the world is a profoundly saddening process of corruption of our pure being. Cow’s milk is poured into our mouths in the name of nutrition. Flesh is thrust upon us in the name of food. The lesson of ‘might is right’ is taught. We are assured that God has sanctioned all this. We are made to believe that all is well with this utterly heinous, tragic, and nonsensical stuff. We are told that it is our habit, culture, and tradition. After years of brainwashing we turn ourselves in to the kind of unthinking adults that we are. We start advocating all the negative conditioning we inherited. Thus the cycle of crime goes on and on.

III)    Veganism at the Core of Spirituality

With the ideal of non-violence being the core, veganism and spirituality are inseparable from each other. The practice of ahimsa in thought, word, and deed automatically purifies our mind and elevates our consciousness. We become sensitive to the consequences of our actions. Our diet changes to a plant-based one because we can never hurt an animal for the purpose of eating. We are unable to tolerate violence and so, animal products such as leather, silk, fur, wool, and so on get eliminated. We stop traveling or transporting our goods by animal driven carts. We boycott the use of animals for entertainment. We stop using products tested on animals. We abhor the use of animals for medical experimentation. We never abuse and exploit an animal for any purpose, whatsoever. We always weigh our words before we speak to others and be kind and polite to them. Our very thought process becomes pure, lofty, and noble.

We Are what We Eat: As the saying ‘sound mind in a sound body’ goes, a healthy body is essential to have a sound mind. However, many foods influence our mind directly and in this context, a vegan diet is most appropriate for a spiritual life. A vegan diet helps to develop a healthy body, mind, and spirit. Most plant-based foods are gentle as they emit positive vibrations. Animal protein is a potent carcinogen. Many animal products are found to influence our mind adversely. Most importantly, when flesh is consumed, there is a tremendous amount of negative vibration, because the animal had died in pain, agony, and horror. Toxins are also produced in animal bodies during slaughter. Such food is simply incompatible with the practice of spirituality.

Veganism as Spirituality: For most vegans who choose to be so on ethical grounds, veganism is no different from spirituality. At the core of veganism is the recognition that all life forms are interconnected. In the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, author and Nobel laureate:
When one becomes a vegetarian, it purifies the soul.
A vegan diet promotes good health and creates positive thoughts. The philosophy of veganism is all-encompassing and promotes the harmonious coexistence of humans and animals on this planet. Veganism has enormous potential to conserve our plants, save the animals from pain and suffering, conserve our environment, and reverse global warming and climate change. What more can we ask for? Simply by changing our attitude towards life we can accomplish so much! Let us create a world that is cruelty free. Human sufferings will melt like snow when we end cruelty to animals. Our planet will breathe easy. Let us celebrate Freedom!

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