Chapter 5 – Vegetarian/Vegan Diet
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Some years ago, I went on a surf trip to the Lakshadweep Islands and met a certified ashtanga-yogi who was also a surfer and had studied under a famous yoga instructor from Mysore. He was also an architect who worked for the prince of Dubai. He had been practicing yoga for eight years, and as we talked I was surprised to learn that he didn’t even know that being a vegetarian is a quintessential part of being a yogi! I was very disappointed to hear several years later that he died of a heart attack. Doctors attributed this to his keeping an unhealthy non-vegetarian diet and his consumption of junk food. Unfortunately, he failed to follow some of the most rudimentary teachings of yoga and this led to his early demise.
During my conversation with him, I explained that at the Kumba Mela festival held in India every twelve years, there are thousands of yogis of every description, some of whom have lineages that go back ten-thousand years. They are all vegetarian. At Kumbha Mela, if someone were to cook meat or attempt to sell meat, it would result in a massive protest. For the Indian yogi, to think of anything other than a vegetarian or possibly a vegan diet, is bizarre, bordering on the absurd.
Recently, I was surprised to read an article in a popular yoga journal about ahimsa (non-violence) which actually advocated the eating of meat. According to the author, one doesn’t need to become a vegetarian or a vegan. Her interpretation of ahimsa was to, “reflect on ways you might support or be kinder, gentler and non-violent to yourself” – this included enjoying a meat-based meal if it made you feel good. This incredibly selfish sentiment goes along with the old ‘if it feels good, do it’ philosophy. This article completely overlooked the fundamental principle of ahimsa which means non-violence to any living creature, not just non-violence to yourself.
For someone who actually knows about yoga, meat-eating is inconceivable, but many yoga teachers today will say nothing, for fear of losing a student (which translates into losing a client). They will not even venture to take the risk of saying that, “Vegetarianism is an important principle – not only for human health and the well-being of animals, but also for the environment we live in.” To reduce violence to the animal kingdom down to zero should be our first major goal, but in the case of commercial yoga, there is no emphasis on this point. If you stumble upon it yourself, then your yoga instructor might say, “Yes, that’s good.” In most cases, the instructors themselves don’t follow vegetarianism because they haven’t understood the importance of this principle. The yoga that is being taught today is like having a fragment of the Mona Lisa’s cheek – only part of her smile is there, but it’s not the whole picture.
At present, many vegetarians have turned to a vegan diet, rejecting milk and all dairy products. This is because getting real organic milk in western countries is very difficult and cows in commercial dairies are grossly abused. Although this is certainly laudable, a vegan diet should not be confused with being a superior yogic diet. In fact, according to the Vedas, the ideal yogic diet, practiced by yogis consisted of milk and occasionally a few wild fruits and berries from the jungle.
Currently in India the necessity to reduce animal slaughter has become a major political issue. As of March 2017, all slaughterhouses have been completely banned in the holy cities of Mathura, Vrindavana, Haridwar, Rishikesh and others. This includes the slaughter of chickens, goats, sheep, buffaloes and cows. The issue of cow-killing has become a nationwide debate and it is already banned in several states with a potential lifetime imprisonment for offenders. Cow-killing and modern day slaughterhouses have only been in existence in India for a short period of time. Previously, cow-killing and the mass slaughter of animals, and even the eating of eggs was considered an abomination – not just by yogis, but by Hindu society in general.
Our readers may be surprised to learn that in previous times, not only was cow-killing prohibited in India, but in other countries as well, such as Japan, China, ancient Egypt and others. The history of how cow-killing began in Japan is as follows – in 1853 Commodore Perry of the US navy fired his ship’s canons upon the port of Edo, forcing the sovereign nation of Japan to submit to trade relations with the United States. Not long after this, a small Buddhist temple named Gyokusen-ji was converted into the first U.S. Embassy headed by Consul General Townsend Harris. Upon taking office, he ordered a cow to be brought to the embassy where it was killed and roasted for his lunch. Before this event, no cow had ever been slaughtered in Japan. In 1931, the embassy became a shrine again and was renamed, ‘The Temple of the Slaughtered Cow.’ Even today, the Japanese regularly come to this shrine to offer incense, flowers and prayers of forgiveness for this abomination.
What is often misunderstood is why the cow is protected, revered and even worshipped depending on the culture of the country. The primary reason for this is that the cow is a provider and the cow’s two most important contributions are milk and dung. Cow dung is, for all practical purposes, a complete fertiliser and also antiseptic. The cow’s urine has a medicinal value in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Unani natural medicines. Most important of all is cow’s milk which is a complete vitamin, protein and energy source for humans. Throughout history, we see that human beings from their infancy until old age have been nourished and benefited by drinking whole milk. Whole milk is considered a miracle food – from milk so many nourishing milk products can be made. Because of this, the cow, being a giver of abundant milk, is essential for the development of the body and mind – thus the cow is protected, revered and worshipped. In India, the cow is considered one of the seven mothers and the bull is considered to be father because he assists man in ploughing the fields, producing grains, vegetables and herbs that sustain life. For this reason, in advanced civilisations in Asia, parts of Europe and North Africa, the cow and bull were never slaughtered for food. The seven mothers of Vedic culture are mentioned by the great sage Chanakya as follows:
आत्ममाता गुरो:पत्नी ब्राह्मणी राजपत्निका
धेनुर्धात्री तथा पृथ्वी सप्तैता: मातर: स्मृता: ।
“One’s own mother, the wife of the guru, the wife of a brahmana, the king’s wife, the cow, the nurse and the earth – these should be considered as our seven mothers.” (Chanakya Niti-shastra 5.23)