Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Yoga and the Roots of Vegetarianism

The Roots of Vegetarianism

Modern yogis who struggle with the question of whether to eat meat can look to ancient wisdom for the answer.

By Jennifer Barrett

Ask any number of yogis to describe their diets and you'll likely get responses as varied as the styles they practice. Many traditionalists see yoga as being inextricably linked with the meatless path, citing numerous ancient Indian texts to prove their conviction. Others put less stock in centuries-old warnings like "the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven" (from the Dharma Sutras) than in what their bodies have to say. If eating flesh begets health and energy, they argue, it must be the right choice for them--and their yoga.

Today's range of dietary habits might seem like a recent development, but delve back into the historical record and you'll find a long tradition of ethical wrangling with respect to animals. Indeed, the different stances yogis now take on vegetarianism reflect just the latest turn in a debate that started thousands of years ago.

The Past-Life Argument

The history of vegetarianism in India began in the Vedic period, an era that dawned sometime between 4000 and 1500 b.c.e., depending on whom you ask. Four sacred texts known as the Vedas were the bedrock of early Hindu spiritual thought. Among those texts' hymns and songs that described with reverence the wondrous power of the natural world, we find a nascent idea that sets the stage for vegetarianism in later centuries. "The concept of the transmigration of souls... first dimly appears in the Rig Veda," explains Colin Spencer in Vegetarianism: A History (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2002). "In the totemistic culture of the pre-Indus civilization, there was already a sense of oneness with creation." A fervent belief in this idea, he contends, would give rise to vegetarianism later on.

In subsequent ancient texts, including the Upanishads, the idea of rebirth emerged as a central point. In these writings, according to Kerry Walters and Lisa Portmess, editors of Religious Vegetarianism (State University of New York Press, 2001), "gods take animal form, human beings have had past animal lives, [and] animals have had past human lives." All creatures harbored the Divine, so that rather than being fixed in time, life was fluid. (A cow alone, notes Spencer, held 330 million gods and goddesses. To kill one set you back 86 transmigrations of the soul.) Again, the idea that the meat on a dinner plate once lived in a different--and possibly human--form made it all the less palatable.

Dietary guidelines became explicit centuries later in the Laws of Manu, written between 200 b.c.e. and 100 c.e., say Walters and Portmess. In this text, we discover that the sage Manu doesn't find fault just with those who eat meat. "He who permits the slaughter of an animal," he wrote, "he who cuts it up, he who kills it, he who buys or sells meat, he who cooks it, he who serves it up, and he who eats it, must all be considered as the slayers of the animal."

The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the most influential text of the Hindu tradition (written sometime between the fourth and first centuries b.c.e.), added to the vegetarian argument with its practical dietary guidelines. It specifies that sattvic foods (milk, butter, fruit, vegetables, and grains) "promote vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life." Bitter, salty, and sour rajasic foods (including meat, fish, and alcohol) "cause pain, disease, and discomfort." At the bottom rung lies the tamasic category: "stale, overcooked, contaminated" and otherwise rotten or impure foods. These explanations have endured, becoming the guidelines by which many modern yogis eat.

Spiritual Contradiction

The case for vegetarianism mounted as centuries passed, while another practice--animal sacrifice--persisted alongside it. The same Vedas that extolled the virtues of the natural world also emphasized the need for animal sacrifice to the gods. The uneasy coexistence between India's emerging inclination toward vegetarianism and its history of animal sacrifice continued over hundreds of years, says Edwin Bryant, professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University. Oftentimes the conflict played out in the pages of the same text.

The sage Manu, for instance, condemned recreational meat eating, stating, "There is no greater sinner than that man who...seeks to increase the bulk of his own flesh by the flesh of other beings." But orthodox followers of Vedic culture--including Manu--were "forced to allow the performance of animal sacrifice," Bryant notes. Ultimately, the discomfort that many in ancient India felt about animal sacrifice helped fuel the demise of the practice.

Some orthodox traditionalists, for instance, felt uncomfortable challenging the ancient texts on the issue out of respect for what they believed were the writings' divine origins. However, they did condemn everyday meat eating, adding a number of conditions to animal sacrifice so that "the practice accrued ghastly karmic results that far outweighed any benefits gained," explains Professor Bryant in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion and Ethics, edited by Kimberly Patton and Paul Waldau (to be published in 2004).

Others simply deemed the ancient texts outdated, and went on to form groups such as the Jainas and the Buddhists. No longer bound by Vedic authority, Bryant says, they "could scorn the whole sacrificial culture and preach an unencumbered ahimsa," or doctrine of nonviolence. This concept of ahimsa, championed by Mahavira in the sixth century, has emerged at the core of the vegetarian argument in modern times.

Some later Indian sages strengthened the case for vegetarianism. Swami Vivekananda, writing a hundred years ago, pointed out the communality we have with other animals: "The amoeba and I are the same. The difference is only one of degree; and from the standpoint of the highest life, all differences vanish." Swami Prabhupada, scholar and founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, offered a more stark pronouncement: "If you want to eat animals, then [God] will give you... the body of a tiger in your next life so that you can eat flesh very freely."

In most cultures today, the rights of animals have at least prevailed over the ritual of sacrifice, if not meat eating. Scores of yogis live and eat with the understanding, as expressed by B.K.S. Iyengar, that a vegetarian diet is "a necessity" to the practice of yoga. But other, equally dedicated yogis find flesh a necessary fuel, without which their practice suffers. Those yoga enthusiasts still on the fence when it comes to the meat question should take heart, however. It seems that a thoughtful, deliberate, and at times even challenging consideration of vegetarianism is very much in the spirit of the Indian spiritual tradition.

Contributing Editor Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly. She lives in Connecticut.

July/August 2003

This article can be found online at http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/999_1.cfm

Living Ethically

Beginning the Journey

Living ethically, according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, is the first step on the true path of yoga.

By Judith Lasater

When our children were young, my husband and I would occasionally summon up the courage to take them out for dinner. Before entering the restaurant, one of us would remind them to "be good" or we would leave. This warning was only mildly successful, but then one day my husband reasoned out a more effective approach. On our next outing we stopped outside the restaurant and reminded them specifically to "stay in your chair, don't throw food, and don't yell. If you do any of these things, one of us will take you out of the restaurant at once." We had stumbled upon a very effective technique, and it worked like a charm.

Interestingly, Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra written some two centuries after the life of Jesus, demonstrates a similar approach to the study of yoga. In the second chapter of his book he presents five specific ethical precepts called yamas, which give us basic guidelines for living a life of personal fulfillment that will also benefit society. He then makes clear the consequence of not following these teachings: It is simply that we will continue to suffer.

Arranged in four chapters, or padas, the Yoga Sutra elucidates the basic teachings of yoga in short verses called sutras. In the second chapter Patanjali presents the ashtanga, or eight-limbed system, for which he is so famous. While Westerners may be most familiar with the asana, the third limb (posture), the yamas are really the first step in a practice that addresses the whole fabric of our lives, not just physical health or solitary spiritual existence. The rest of the limbs are the niyamas, more personal precepts; pranayama, breathing exercises; pratyahara, conscious withdrawal of energy away from the senses; dharana, concentration; dhyana, meditation; and samadhi, self-actualization.

The Yoga Sutra is not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives. The sutras don't imply that we are "bad" or "good" based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior we get certain results. If you steal, for example, not only will you harm others, but you will suffer as well.

The first yama is perhaps the most famous one: ahimsa, usually translated as "nonviolence." This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions. Try practicing ahimsa by observing your thoughts when a smoker sits next to you. Your thoughts may be just as damaging to you as his cigarette is to him.

It is often said that if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all the other practices are subsumed in it. Whatever practices we do after the yamas must include ahimsa as well. Practicing breathing or postures without ahimsa, for example, negates the benefits these practices offer.

There is a famous story about ahimsa told in the Vedas, the vast collection of ancient philosophical teachings from India. A certain sadhu, or wandering monk, would make a yearly circuit of villages in order to teach. One day as he entered a village he saw a large and menacing snake who was terrorizing the people. The sadhu spoke to the snake and taught him about ahimsa. The following year when the sadhu made his visit to the village, he again saw the snake. How changed he was. This once magnificent creature was skinny and bruised. The sadhu asked the snake what had happened. He replied that he had taken the teaching of ahimsa to heart and had stopped terrorizing the village. But because he was no longer menacing, the children now threw rocks and taunted him, and he was afraid to leave his hiding place to hunt. The sadhu shook his head. "I did advise against violence," he said to the snake, "but I never told you not to hiss."

Protecting ourselves and others does not violate ahimsa. Practicing ahimsa means we take responsibility for our own harmful behavior and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral is not the point. Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love.

Patanjali lists satya, or truth, as the next yama. But telling the truth may not be as easy as it sounds. Researchers have found that eyewitnesses to an event are notoriously unreliable. The more adamant the witnesses are, the more inaccurate they tend to be. Even trained scientists, whose job it is to be completely objective, disagree on what they see and on the interpretation of their results.

So what does telling the truth mean? To me it means that I speak with the intention of being truthful, given that what I call the "truth" is filtered through my own experience and beliefs about the world. But when I speak with that intention, I have a better chance of not harming others.

Another aspect of satya has to do with inner truth or integrity, a deeper and more internal practice. Honesty is what we do when others are around and might judge our actions or words, but to have integrity is to act in an honest manner when others are not around and will never know about our actions.

In Sanskrit, sat means the eternal, unchanging truth beyond all knowing; ya is the activating suffix which means "do it." So satya means "actively expressing and being in harmony with the ultimate truth." In this state we cannot lie or act untruthful, because we are unified with pure truth itself.

The third yama is asteya, nonstealing. While commonly understood as not taking what is not ours, it can also mean not taking more than we need. We fail to practice asteya when we take credit that is not ours or take more food than we can eat. We fail also when we steal from ourselves—by neglecting a talent, or by letting a lack of commitment keep us from practicing yoga. In order to steal, one has to be mired in avidya, or ignorance about the nature of reality, a term introduced by Patanjali in his second chapter. Avidya is the opposite of yoga, which connects us with all that is.

The next yama is brahmacharya, one of the most difficult for Westerners to understand. The classical translation is "celibacy," but Brahma is the name of a deity, char means "to walk," and ya means "actively," so brahmacharya means "walking with God."

For some people, sexual love holds no great attraction. Others sacrifice this part of life to live as a monk or nun and thus consecrate their sexuality to God. Brahmacharya does not just mean giving up sex; it also means to transmute the energy of sex into something else, principally, devotion to God.

But for the average person who has taken up the study of yoga, brahmacharya might mean simply to remain faithful within a monogamous relationship. Dr. Usharbudh Arya, author of an extensive translation of the Yoga Sutra, once gave this simple explanation of brahmacharya: When you are having sex, have sex; when you're not, don't. Remain in the present and focus on what is happening right now without obsession.

Another approach is to use sexual energy, like all life energies, in accord with the practice of ahimsa. This means that we respect ourselves and our partner when we are in a sexual relationship and do not use others or have sex mindlessly. Remembering the divinity of self and other, we can allow sexuality to be part of the wider practice of yoga.

The final yama in Patanjali's list is aparigraha, or nongreed. This is a very difficult one to practice, surrounded as we are with advertisements that attempt to whip up our desire for more. In some ways our society's economic system is based on greed.

When my husband was in law school we lived a simple life; we wore jeans, drove an old Volvo, and rarely had money for such luxuries as new clothes, fancy dinners, or vacations. After he graduated and started working, things changed. One day he invited me downtown for lunch, and I met him in a richly appointed hotel lobby. As I waited for him to arrive, I couldn't help noticing the beautiful people who passed by in their elegant clothes, glancing at their expensive watches. I was filled with a strange and powerful longing. When I explained my feelings to my husband, his response was simple: "That's greed."

But greed is not just confined to material goods. We may hunger after enlightenment, difficult asanas, spiritual powers, or perfect bliss. One way to sidestep the trap of greed is to follow the advice of the sages: Be happy with what you have. This spirit of true renunciation will diminish the power of aparigraha.

In verse 30 of Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali calls the yamas "the great vow," to be practiced at all times. This is a difficult assignment, but if we follow this vow, the power released in our lives and the lives of others will be stunning. One way to do this is to choose one yama to focus on for a length of time. Then reflect upon how this practice has affected your life. Don't worry if you forget to practice your yama, or even if you can't follow through in each situation. Your effort and awareness will be the victory.

Judith Lasater is an internationally known yoga teacher and author of Living Your Yoga and Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times (Rodmell Press).
November/December 1998

This article can be found online at http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/462_1.cfm

Monday, October 24, 2005

Feeling Grateful

Last weekend, I found out that a friend of someone close to me had a stroke. This woman is somewhere in her mid-40's with 2 beautiful daughters. We went to visit her in the hospital and were shocked to see her partially paralyzed with slurred speech. She's a pretty spunky lady, so we expect she'll recover, and we hope she'll adjust her lifestyle to prevent future problems.

As we left, I stood in the lobby of the ICU and just observed everything happening. Plenty of people got wheeled by, unconscious, with tubes and machines, and nurses dressed all in blue carting them off somewhere. Not only the patients, but also the visitors of various patients, appeared quite overweight. At that very moment, I felt intensely blessed for my health, and blessed that the people I love are in generally great health too. If we could all just take better care of ourselves on a day to day basis, we could prevent so many illnesses.

I can't imagine what it would be like to have my mother in the hospital from a stroke, especially if I had to go through that as a woman entering my 20's. It would be devastating. Thank God my parents are both well. I'm sending my prayers for this other mom's speedy recovery.


"The goddess in me greets and honors the Goddess in you"
"I salute the divine qualities in you"
"I salute the God within you"
"My soul bows to your soul"
"I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells"