The Teaching of Rabbi Dr. Gabriel Cousens

The following is adapted from Dr. Gabriel Cousens, Conscious Eating (2000), Chapter 19.

Hinduism is one of the religions that has maintained its vegetarian perspective, perhaps from the beginning of written history. There are about 550 million Hindu vegetarians. It is clearly part of the spiritual path as described in the Vedas, ancient spiritual scriptures somewhere between six and eight thousand years old. The wisdom of the Vedas underlies a wide variety of spiritual paths related to the practice of Hinduism. Also involved in the practice of a vegetarian diet is the science of Yoga and the science of Ayurvedic medicine that itself originates from the Vedas. As pointed out earlier, Ayurveda describes three diet types. One of them, called the sattvic diet, enhances inner peace and spiritual development; it is a simple vegetarian diet. Ahimsa is another primary force behind vegetarianism in India. Ahimsa may be broadly defined as nonviolence or a dynamic compassion for all of life. Mahatma Gandhi, a vegetarian, taught that the two pillars of ahimsa are truth and compassion.

The following quotes represent the Vedic teachings on vegetarianism. They emphasize compassion, respect, and nonviolence for all of God’s creation.

Having well considered the origin of flesh foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh. (Manusmriti 5.49)

You must not use your God-given boy for killing God’s creatures, whether they are human, animal, or whatever. (Yajur Veda 12.32)

By not killing any living being, one becomes fit for salvation. (Manusmriti 6.60)

The principle of ahimsa can also be found in the Buddhist Eightfold Path, which has been a guide to living a harmless, compassionate life for thousands of years. In Ahimsa, by Nathaniel Atman, Buddha is quoted as saying:

Him I call a Brahmin who is free from anger, who gladly endures reproach, and even stripes and bonds inflicted upon him without cause. Him I call a Brahmin who slays no living creatures, who does not kill, or cause to be killed, any living thing.

Often translated as ‘nonviolence’ in the West, the principle of ahimsa has a broader meaning in the East. Ahimsa incorporates an active stance in the world with a dynamic compassion for all of life. Nonviolence, without the dynamic aspect, has more of a passive, restraining-from-violence connotation. Ahimsa is acting from a compassionate awareness for life that affects every facet of daily existence. It involves a personal responsibility to respect, and work for, the well-being of all sentient creatures. Although often thought of as compassion between humans, ahimsa is compassion for all of the Earth and its life forms.

One consideration that arises in the discussion of ahimsa and vegetarianism is the killing of plants. Ever since the publishing of The Secret Life of Plants, which scientifically documents the pain plants experience in being harvested and cut up, I have been aware that plants do experience some pain. For most of us, it is necessary for our survival to eat plants. Our very existence causes some sort of pain on the planet, but there is a relativity to it. For those who want to equate all pain as equal in order to justify their flesh-centered diet, I find it hard to compare the blood slaughter and eating of a sentient being, such as a cow, with the simple harvesting and eating of a carrot. To even the most callous observer, the experiences are magnitudes different in pain and violence.

A vegetarian also creates less pain than a nonvegetarian because he or she is not participating in the systematic slaughter and pain of billions of animals every year. The US Department of Agriculture reports that 4.5 billion cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, hogs, chickens, ducks, and turkeys are slaughtered yearly in the US. A vegetarian also causes less overall death to plants than a meat-eater because the animals the flesh-eater raised for consumption have eaten thousands of plants before they themselves are slaughtered. There is a significant difference between the gross exploitation of animal life because of greed and a flesh-centered diet, and living simply and relatively harmlessly on a vegetarian diet so that others, including the planetary organism Gaia, or Mother Earth, will simply live and survive.

It is possible that there may be no perfect state of nonviolence while we are in a physical body. Although vegetarians cause significantly less pain and global ecological destruction than flesh-eaters, fruitarians cause even less pain than vegetarians because they do not destroy the life of the plant when they pick fruit off trees. Those rare few who live on just water and air cause even less pain than fruitarians.

Ahimsa is a practice that strives to create less and less disorder and pain in the world as we do our best to live our lives with ever-increasing harmony, compassion, and love. Theoretically, since there is no cut-off point where we stop causing pain by our very existence, the guilt about causing pain could be endless. Perhaps we were given the grace of Genesis 1:29, God’s command to be vegetarian, as a way to establish a relatively peaceful, guilt-free way of living on the planet.

Because our planet offers herself for our survival, I feel humble and grateful for the pain she endures. We would do well to take the minimum from Mother Earth and cause the least amount of pain and destruction so that the mutual survival of all life on the planet will be harmoniously ensured.