8.1 : QUESTION ON VEGETARIANISM
QUESTION: If you are a stickler regarding vegetarianism, what is your logic to make a distinction between plants and animals? Both have life!
It doesn't need unusual intelligence to recognize that animals have an extra dimension of sentience than plants. But more than that. Here is something which the animals themselves would put forth as their plea!. You cut a plant and eat it ; the remaining thing left on its roots sprouts again and it grows. You cut one leg of a lamb, but the remaining three legs remain as three for ever; the fourth leg never grows!
The concept of non-violence has its roots in the Hindu theory that every life is a spark of the divine and our recognition of the divine must be so universal as to identify ourselves with this divinity in every living being., and therefore, the least harm that you can do to life is all that is permitted. The ideal state of non-violence may never be reached. Eating plant food is also a kind of harm done to the plant world. In consonance with this , Hindu rituals prescribe various compensatory, repentant rites as a daily chore, for the several explicit and implicit killings that we cannot do without in our day-to-day lives. It is in this context that the practice of vegetarianism varies from region to region in the country and from one level of society to another. In fact, the higher you consider yourself in the cosmic evolution to spiritual perfection, the nearer you would yourself like to be to the ideal of non-violence.
A delicate balance has to be attempted. Earth is the most concrete form of expression of Nature through its five elements. These five elements themselves - earth, water, fire, air and space - are nothing but expressions of the same divinity. This expression is what is technically known as prakRti. [See also 11.6 Essay on Prakriti] So for worship, we take the most concrete form of prakRti and that is why, the linga and the salagrAma risen from earth are worshipped the 'forms' bordering on the 'formless'. Plants are the next in evolution from this concrete form of prakRti. But still they have no soul. Animals have a soul. So they should not be killed. Eating plant food with proper disc ipline is called vegetarianism. Even among plant food there are taboos from the point of view of sAtvic food!
In sum the understanding of the concept of non-violence is dependent on the extent of one's conviction about the identity of all living beings. The nearer one is to this conviction the more non-violent one is likely to be. It is this attitude of identity that matters. The amount of violence that one cannot but do without in one's own life depends upon the intensity of identity with all beings that one feels or can train oneself to feel. This coupled with various traditions and sociological habits that different regions of the country have evolved for themselves in tune with their environment, results in different practices of so-called vegetarianism in the different geographical areas of the world.
It is true that the purANas and itihAsas speak of meat-eating even by the brahmins of tht society. There are records of such traditions. Because of these traditions historians have been distracted to think of vegetarianism as a later interpolation into Hinduism. It is here that the emphasis on attitudes has to be taken into account. The scriptures say, for instance, whatever is offered to the Lord with intense devotion, is acceptable to Him. The natural mischievous rejoinder by the modern intellectual is: what if I offer an animal? Is this the justification for animal sacrifice? The story of the great Kannappar who offered meat to the Lord and became a model of devotion, is cited. But what was the attitude of Kannappar in that context? He was ready to pluck his only remaining eye for the sake of donating it to the Lord, even though he was already blind by one eye which he had just plucked and offered to Him!. The attitude in this case of extreme devotion was obvious and the blessing of the Lord was automatic.
It is also true that in vedic times there were animal sacrifices and these were part of certain rituals, which had been vogue almost till the beginning of the twentieth century. But it was merely because of the misue of these that a Buddha had to appear on the scene and wean people away from their other-worldly ambitions and make them concentrate on compassion, sympathy and non-violence as one's basic dharma. It was because of the misdirected emphasis on the ritualistic sacrifices still persisting even after the Buddha's time, that a Sankara appeared and emphasized the transience of every benefit whether of this world or of the other world and led everybody on to think in terms of their upward path of evolution rather than keep circling in the quagmire of the cycle of births and deaths.
Every one must cultivate these five cardinal virtues in all their generality. As one rises in the ladder of perfection of these virtues, one will find that one's own concepts and dimensions of these virtues begin to embrace everything that has been enjoined to be good by all the religions of the world. The simultaneous effort to suppress the gang of twelve ignoble channels of the mind along with their captain Ego has also to be carried on. Ascent on the ladder of spiritual perfection depends on both. This uphill task is a never-ending exercise. One who has gone a long way in this journey is usually called a dharmAtmA. y.