"Do Unto Others..."
I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals. - Thoreau
I do feel that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants. - Gandhi
Each year about 134 million mammals and 3 billion birds are killed for food in America. But few people make any conscious connection between this slaughter and the meat products that appear on their tables.
A case in point: in television commercials a clown called Ronald McDonald tells kiddies that hamburgers grow in "hamburger patches." The truth is not so pleasant - commercial slaughterhouses are like visions of hell. Screaming animals are stunned by hammer blows, electric shock, or concussion guns.
They are then hoisted into the air by their feet and moved through the factories of death on mechanized conveyor systems. Often still alive, their throats are sliced and their flesh is cut off. Describing his reaction to a visit to a slaughterhouse, champion tennis player Peter Burwash wrote in his book A Vegetarian Primer, "I'm no shrinking violet. I played hockey until half of my teeth were knocked down my throat. And I'm extremely competitive on a tennis court ... But that experience at the slaughterhouse overwhelmed me. When I walked out of there, I knew all the physiological, economic, and ecological arguments supporting vegetarianism, but it was firsthand experience of man's cruelty to animals that laid the real groundwork for my commitment to vegetarianism."
Ancient Greece and Rome
Ethical considerations have always attracted many of the world's greatest personalities to adopt a vegetarian diet.
Pythagoras, famous for his contributions to geometry and mathematics, said, "Oh, my fellow men, do not defile your bodies with sinful foods.
We have corn, we have apples bending down the branches with their weight, and grapes swelling on the vines. There are sweet-flavored herbs, and vegetables which can be cooked and softened over the fire, nor are you denied milk or thyme-scented honey.
The earth affords a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter: only beasts satisfy their hunger with flesh, and not even all of those, because horses, cattle, and sheep live on grass." The biographer Diogenes tells us that Pythagoras ate bread and honey in the morning and raw vegetables at night. He would also pay fisherman to throw their catch back into the sea.
In an essay titled "On Eating Flesh," the Roman author Plutarch wrote: "Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstinence from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of mind the first man touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, set forth tables of dead, stale bodies, and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that has a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb"
How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?
It is certainly not lions or wolves that we eat out of self-defense; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us. For the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being."
He then delivered this challenge to flesh-eaters: "If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill for yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources, unaided by cleaver or cudgel or any kind of ax."
Da Vinci, Rousseau, Franklin ...
The Great Renaissance painter, inventor, sculptor, and poet Leonardo da Vinci epitomized the ethical approach to vegetarianism. He wrote, "He who does not value life does not deserve it." He considered the bodies of meat-eaters to be "burial places," graveyards for the animals they eat. His notebooks are full of passages that show his compassion for living creatures. He lamented, "Endless numbers of these animals shall have their little children taken from them, ripped open, and barbarously slaughtered."
French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was an advocate of natural order. He observed that the meat-eating animals are generally more cruel and violent than herbivores. He therefore reasoned that a vegetarian diet would produce a more compassionate person. He even advised that butchers not be allowed to testify in court or sit on juries.
In The Wealth of Nations economist Adam Smith proclaimed the advantages of a vegetarian diet. "It may indeed be doubted whether butchers' meat is anywhere a necessary of life.
Grain and other vegetables, with the help of milk, cheese, and butter, or oil, where butter is not to be had, afford the most plentiful, the most wholesome, the most nourishing, and the most invigorating diet. Decency nowhere requires that any man should eat butchers' meat."
Similar considerations motivated Benjamin Franklin, who became a vegetarian at age sixteen. Franklin noted "greater progress, from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension." In his autobiographical writings, he called flesh-eating "unprovoked murder."
The poet Shelley was a committed vegetarian. In his essay "A Vindication of Natural Diet," he wrote, "Let the advocate of animal food force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth and, plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood ... then, and then only, would he be consistent."
Shelley's interest in vegetarianism began when he was a student at Oxford, and he and his wife, Harriet, took up the diet soon after their marriage. In a letter dated March 14, 1812, his wife wrote to a friend, "We have foresworn meat and adopted the Pythagorean system." Shelley, in his poem Queen Mab, described a Utopian world where men do not kill animals for food.
... no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging Nature's broken law,
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.
The Russian author Leo Tolstoy became a vegetarian in 1885. Giving up the sport of hunting, he advocated "vegetarian pacifism" and was against killing even the smallest living things, such as the ants. He felt there was a natural progression of violence that led inevitably to war in human society.
In his essay "simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling - killing." By killing, Tolstoy believed, "man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity - that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like himself - and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel."
Composer Richard Wagner believed that all life was sacred. He saw vegetarianism as "nature's diet," which could save mankind from violent tendencies and help us return to the "long-lost Paradise."
At various times in his life, Henry David Thoreau was a vegetarian. Although his own practice of vegetarianism was spotty at best, he recognized its virtues. In Walden he wrote, "Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way - as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn - and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet.
Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized."
The Twentieth Century
It goes without saying that the great twentieth-century apostle of nonviolence Mohandas Gandhi was a vegetarian. His parents, being devout Hindus, never gave him meat, fish, or eggs. Under British rule, however, there was a great attack on the age-old principles of Indian culture.
Under such pressures, many Indians began to adopt the meat-eating habits of the West. Even Gandhi fell victim to the advice of some schoolfriends, who urged him to eat meat because it would increase his strength and courage.
But he later resumed a vegetarian diet and wrote, "It is necessary to correct the error that vegetarianism has made us weak in mind, or passive or inert in action. I do not regard flesh-food as necessary at any stage." he wrote five books on vegetarianism.
His own daily diet included wheat sprouts, almond paste, greens, lemons, and honey. He founded Tolstoy Farm, a community based on vegetarian principles. In his Moral Basis of Vegetarianism Gandhi wrote, "I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species. We err in copying the lower animal world if we are superior to it." He felt that ethical principles are a stronger support for lifelong commitment to a vegetarian diet than reasons of health.
"I so feel." he stated, "that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants."
Playwright George Bernard Shaw first tried to become a vegetarian at age twenty-five. "It was Shelley who first opened my eyes to the savagery of my diet," he wrote in his autobiography. Shaw's doctors warned that the diet would kill him. When an old man, he was asked why he didn't go back and show them what good it had done him.
He replied, "I would, but they all passed away years ago." Once someone asked him how it was that he looked so youthful. "I don't," Shaw retorted. "I look my age. It is the other people who look older than they are. What can you expect from people who eat corpses?" On the connection between flesh-eating and violence in human society, Shaw wrote:
We pray on Sundays that we may have light
To guide our footsteps on the path we tread;
We are sick of war, we don't want to fight,
And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.
H.G. Wells wrote about vegetarianism in his vision of a future world, A Modern Utopia. "In all the round world of Utopia there is no meat. There used to be. But now we cannot stand the thought of slaughterhouses. And, in a population that is all educated, and at about the same level of physical refinement, it is practically impossible to find anyone who will hew a dead ox or pig ... I can still remember as a boy the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughterhouse."
Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer became a vegetarian in 1962, at the age of fifty-eight. He said, "Naturally I am sorry now that I waited so long, but it is better later than never."
He finds vegetarianism quite compatible with his mystical variety of Judaism. "We are all God's creatures - that we pray to God for mercy and justice while we continue to eat the flesh of animals that are slaughtered on our account is not consistent."
Although he appreciates the health aspect of vegetarianism, he states very clearly that the ethical consideration is primary. "Even if eating flesh was actually shown to be good for you, I would certainly still not eat it."
Singer has little patience with intellectual rationalizations for meat-eating. "Various philosophers and religious leaders tried to convince their disciples and followers that animals are nothing more than machines without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal - be it a dog, a bird, or even a mouse - knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty."
Vegetarianism and Religion
Avoidance of meat has been a part of religious practice in nearly all faiths. Some Egyptian priests were vegetarians, avoiding meat in order to help them maintain vows of celibacy. They also avoided eggs, which they called "liquid flesh."
Although the Old Testament, the foundation of Judaism, contains some prescriptions for meat-eating, it is clear that the ideal situation is vegetarianism.
In Genesis (1:29) we find God Himself proclaiming: "Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in that which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat."
In the beginning of creation as described in the Bible, it seems that not even the animals ate flesh.
In Genesis (1:30) God says, "And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat; and it was so."
Genesis (9:4) also directly forbids meat-eating:
"But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it."
In later books of the Bible, major prophets also condemn meat-eating.
Isaiah (1.11) states, "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats."
Isaiah (1.15) "And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood."
Isaiah (66:3), the killing of cows is particularly abhorrent: "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man."
In the Bible we also find the story of Daniel, who while imprisoned in Babylon refused to eat the meat offered by his jailers, preferring instead simple vegetarian food.
Major stumbling blocks for many Christians are the belief that Christ ate meat and the many references to meat in the New Testament.
But close study of the original Greek manuscripts shows that the vast majority of the words translated as "meat" are trophe, brome, and other words that simply mean "food" or "eating" in the broadest sense. For example,
in the Gospel of St. Luke (8:55) we read that Jesus raised a woman from the dead and "commanded to give her meat." The original Greek word translated as "meat" is phago, which means only "to eat." So what Christ actually said was, "Let her eat."
The Greek word for meat is kreas ("flesh"), and it is never used in connection with Christ. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any direct reference to Jesus eating meat.
This is in line with Isaiah's famous prophecy about Jesus's appearance: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good."
Clement of Alexandria, an early Church father, recommended a fleshless diet, citing the example of the apostle Matthew, who "partook of seeds, and nuts, and vegetables, without flesh."
St. Jerome, another leader of the early Christian Church, who gave the authorized Latin version of the Bible still in use today, wrote, "The preparation of vegetables, fruit, and pulse is easy, and does not require expensive cooks."
He felt such a diet was the best for a life devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. St. John Chrysostom considered meat-eating to be a cruel and unnatural habit for Christians.
"We imitate but the ways of wolves, but the ways of leopards, or rather we are even worse than these. For to them nature has assigned that they should be thus fed, but us God hath honored with speech and a sense of equity, and we have become worse than the wild beasts."
St. Benedict, who founded the Benedictine Order in A.D. 529, stipulated vegetable foods as the staple for his monks. The Trappist order uniformly prohibited meat, eggs, and other flesh foods from its founding in the seventeenth century.
The regulations were relaxed by the Vatican Councils of the 1960s, but most of the Trappists still follow the original teachings. Remarkably enough, however, many Trappist monasteries raise cattle for slaughter to support themselves financially.
The Seventh Day Adventist Church strongly recommends vegetarianism for its members. Although little known to the general public, the huge American breakfast cereals industry got its start at an Adventist health resort run by Dr. John H. Kellogg.
Dr. Kellogg was constantly devising new varieties of vegetarian breakfast foods for the wealthy patients of his Battle Creek Sanitorium. One of his inventions was cornflakes, which he later marketed nationwide. Over the course of time, he gradually separated his business from the Seventh Day Adventist Church and formed the company that still bears his name.
The largest concentration of vegetarians in the world is found in India, the homeland of Buddhism and Hinduism. Buddhism began as a reaction to widespread animal slaughter that was being carried out through perversion of religious rituals. Buddha put an end to these practices by propounding his doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence.
Indian Philosophy and Non-violence
The Vedic Scriptures of India, which predate Buddhism, also stress nonviolence as the ethical foundation of vegetarianism.
The Manu-samhita, the ancient Indian code of law, states, "Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to the attainment of heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun the use of meat."
In another section, the Manu-samhita warns, "Having well considered the disgusting origin if flesh and the cruelty of fettering and slaying of corporeal beings, let him entirely abstain from eating flesh."
In recent years the Hare Krishna movement has introduced these ethical considerations around the world. Srila Prabhupada, the movement's founder-acarya (spiritual master), once stated, "In the Manu-samhita the concept of a life for a life is sanctioned, and it is actually observed throughout the world.
Similarly, there are other laws which state that one cannot even kill an ant without being responsible. Since we cannot create, we have no right to kill any living entity, and therefore man-made laws that distinguish between killing a man and killing an animal are imperfect ...
According to the laws of God, killing an animal is as punishable as killing a man. Those who draw distinctions between the two are concocting their own laws.
Even in the Ten Commandments it is prescribed, 'Thou shalt not kill.' This is a perfect law, but by discriminating and speculating men distort it. 'I shall not kill man, but I shall kill animals.' In this way people cheat themselves and inflict suffering on themselves and others."
Emphasizing the Vedic conception of the unity of all life, Srila Prabhupada then stated,
"Everyone is God's creature, although in different bodies or dresses. God is considered the one supreme father. A father may have many children, and some may be intelligent and others not very intelligent, but if an intelligent son tells his father,
'My brother is not very intelligent; let me kill him,' will the father agree? ... Similarly, if God is the supreme father, why should He sanction the killing of animals who are also His sons?"