Vegetarianism: Faith in the unity of life
Belief in the sanctity of all life
Vegetarianism is not a dogma nor a fad. We belong to the fraternity of believers in the sanctity of all life. Vegetarianism is not a doctrine but a way of life as well as an outlook on the whole of life. It is based on an unflinching faith in the unity of life. So a vegetarian will earnestly strive to interfere with the life of as few creatures as possible. It is not only an attitude of 'Live and let live', but an attitude of 'Live to help other creatures live'. I must warn this gathering against reducing this vegetarian way of life to an ascetic or a sectarian creed. As soon as a sublime way of life becomes a sectarian creed, it loses its Social value.
Betrand Russel in one of his books has narrated a story. There were two islands in the vicinity of each other which were inhabited by the people who were inimical to each other on religious grounds. The inhabitants on one of these islands were strict vegetarians, while the people of the other island believed in non-vegetarianism on principle. So, they both lived in perpetual mutual hostility. The vegetarians simply cold not tolerate the proximity of people who believed in meat-eating. So, in a fit of righteous indignation they made war on the meat-eaters and subdued them completely. That is to say, they annihilated the whole wretched lot, with the result that the whole island of meat-eaters was littered with dead bodies. Now the vegetarians were at a loss to dispose of those carcasses. So they solemnly decided to eat them. Edgar Snow has said that we Indians 'sin also religiously'. That is what happens when a human and sublime way of life degenerates into a denominational creed.
A great writer has said that there is only one religion though there are a hundred versions of it. This is true of vegetarianism also. There are some who will eschew all animal products. In our own country Parushottam Das Tandon, the great patriarch of the Hindi movement, abjured milk and its products. Such was also the devout Gandhian leader of Maharashtra, Appasaheb Patwardhan whose practice never belied his profession, and a few others who lived and died in obscurity. But on the whole we have been, what they call, 'lacto-vegetarians' who use milk and milk products. Then there are others who include eggs and still others who include fish in a vegetarian diet.
No Word for 'Satan' or Devil
Though animal-sacrifice is very much in vogue and an over-whelming majority of our people have been non-vegetarians, a non-vegetarian feast was never the fashion and on social occasions a non-vegetarian diet was never prestigious. There are two distinctive features of the Indian way of life of which we may be pardonably proud. One is that we have never believed in the existence of evil as a distinct entity. As a matter of fact, the word 'Satan' or 'Devil' cannot be translated in any indigenous language. The concept is exotic to our way of thinking. So, we have no word for it. If God is the creator of all things in the universe how can he disown the Devil? Who else could have created the Devil? In Indian thought the existence of the Devil is transitory. Like all other creatures the Devil also ultimately returns to his Creator. Even the Devil is not beyond redemption. The Devil repays his debt to his creator by masquerading in his guise and pays his tribute to his Father by quoting the scripture. This is the basis of our implicit faith in the unity of life.
Even Demons our Step-brothers
I have alluded to the Indian concept of the fatherhood of God as the creator even of the Devil. In our mythology our gods and demons are either stepbrothers or cousins on the mother's side. A grand vision which claims kinship even with the devil! Even butchers and hangmen are not devoid of the milk of human kindness. It is this concept which permeates the vegetarian way of life. This is a faith totally opposed to the concept of alienation which has proved the bane of all our social life throughout history.
Let me state in all humility that vegetarianism is not irrational. Rationalism is not the same thing as rationality. Rationalism is sometimes extremely irrational and lands us into logical pedantry. The reduction is often asked, "Science has now proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is life even in plants. What sense is there then in objecting to eating flesh?" Could there be a more ludicrous argument? Could we on that account justify cannibalism? Because we eat vegetables and cereals, is it reasonable to argue that we could also eat the flesh of the members of our family? I trust, you will agree that this kind of argument does not hold water.
For Human Survival
Our great Savant and saint, revered Vinoba has been of late stressing the need for excluding all meat-eating on pragmatic grounds. No animal which lives on other animals can subsist only on the flesh of carnivorous animals. These animals have to eat herbivorous animals. This means an additional strain on our already overstrained agriculture which, they say, is the basis of all culture. Vegetarianism has thus become incumbent on practical considerations of human survival.
Protagonists of Flesh-less Diet
If we the vegetarians arrogate to ourselves the monopoly of compassion we should be guilty of unpardonable insolence and bigotry. Flesh-eating communities have produced individuals like Pythagorous, Plutarch, Epecurus and groups like the Neoplatonists, who were protagonists of a fleshless diet. According to the Hebrew Bible, in paradise the earliest human being as had not eaten flesh. In medieval times Voltaire praised whereas Shelley, Thoreau and in modern times Shaw, Tolstoy and Switzer practiced vegetarianism.
Certain Protestant Christians and the Seventh day Adventists and Theosophists carried forward the message. 'The Bible Christian sect of England and U. S. also preached a fleshless diet, and the first 'Society of vegetarians' was started in England in 1847. So, a modest demeanour on our part will be more becoming. Jesus himself has regarded the lamb as the symbol of innocence and what vegetarian can hold the candle to St. Francis of Assisi? It will, therefore, be blasphemous to adopt an attitude of lofty contempt for those who are not strict vegetarians.
Cruelty to Animals
It seems to me, on the other hand, that those who have been vegetarians by tradition have been, more often than not, callously indifferent to human suffering and cruelty to animals. Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence in modern times said that the cow to him was a poem of pity and yet he did not hesitate to declare that he would not kill a human being to save a cow, though he would be quite happy to sacrifice his own life to save a cow. This means that a sense of proportion is necessary.
Meat-Eating an emblem of Modernity
Humanity is endeavouring to attain a state of affairs when no man shall kill another man for any reason whatsoever. The immediate step forward is that man shall regard as sacred the life of as many other creatures as possible. This is the direction of all cultural progress. But unfortunately even in India where the number of vegetarians is greater than the populations of some other countries, meat-eating has become an emblem of modernity. Modernism like rationalism has become the latest orthodoxy and we are apt to forget that modernism is not necessarily modernity and it may well be more regressive than some old customs. It appears as though we are heading towards becoming omnivorous.
Science and Spirituality
Our reverence for life will be an index of our outlook on life. Both science and spirituality must together help us reach that consummation. Science without spirituality is reduced to a tissue of purposeless discoveries, and spirituality without science will lose itself in the waste of unrealistic speculation. Hence, Vinoba with his characteristic foresight, declared that the future of mankind depends upon the happy marriage of science and spirituality.
Sufferings of Men and Animals
So, it behaves us who have faith in the unity and sanctity of life to be as sensitive, if not more, to the sufferings of men as we profess to be to the sufferings of other animals. Not a few of us are guilty of ruthless exploitation of human beings. There is the violence of the wolf and there is the violence of the leech which sucks our blood. There is nothing to choose between the two. The exploitation of man and indifference to his sufferings is sometimes defended on the plausible ground that human beings can take care of themselves since they are responsible for their good or bad actions. This plea is as specious as it is diabolical.
Stand for all sufferers
Be it our part to stand for all those who suffer; in the words of Rabindranath, for those who are 'the poorest, lowliest and the lost'. Let vegetarianism connote something more comprehensive than mere non-flesh-eating. Let it represent an integrated out look on the whole of life. Let it be our part stoutly to oppose first the oppression and exploitation of man by man and at the same time the wanton slaughter of other animals by man for his food.
Share life with fellow creatures
Those who have studied the subject of food and dietetics assure us on good authority that man can enjoy a healthy and vigorous life without resorting to non-vegetarian diet. I am told on good authority that the latin word 'vegetus' means active or vigorous. So, if we art: in right earnest about it further research in this direction will enable us to find vegetarian substitutes for non-vegetarian proteins and fats. Even as we have been able to find substitutes for leather and furs. Let us hope and trust that human ingenuity is not bankrupt. It is for unity of all life. Let us press on 'heart within and God Overhead' in the direction of translating that faith into actual life. If we start with that unflinching faith, life on this planet will become a benediction. Vegeteranianism is not for ascetics or for those who want to live an austere life. It is also for connoisseurs of food and even for gormandisers. But what makes life more enjoyable is the exciting fact of sharing it with our fellow creatures.