Prominent animal rights website Abolitionist Online recently interviewed ISKCON scholar Steven J. Rosen about his 2004 book Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism and Animal Rights. Rosen, who is known as Satyaraja Dasa in the Hare Krishna movement, is the author of twenty books on Vaishnavism and related subjects. Holy Cow is his second on vegetarianism, which he has strong views on and last wrote about in Diet for Transcendence: Vegetarianism and the World Religions.
Abolitionist Online’s interview deeply explores animal rights in relation to Vaishnavism, covering diverse topics such as offering food, non-violence, vegetarianism vs veganism, and ISKCON’s Food For Life relief program. You can read the full interview below or visit here.
We heard him speak passionately on the often neglected subject of a veggie diet through the Canadian animal advocacy radio show Animal Voices. The greatest success story over the past 25 years for the Hare Krishna’s has been their ‘Food For Life’ program. It has served hot, nutritious vegetarian meals throughout America, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe. Lately there’s been some controversy though. Here Steve Rosen speaks to us about his book ‘Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism and Animal Rights’ and their ‘Food for Life’ program in India.
How did you come to write your book Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism and Animal Rights?
I happened to be at an academic conference, the American Academy of Religion, I believe it was in 2002, and I met Martin Rowe there. He's the publisher and senior editor -- the owner, I think -- of Lantern Books. He was aware of my work. So he cornered me at that conference. He said, "You've published a book on vegetarianism and the world religions (Diet for Transcendence, Torchlight Books, 1998) and you're also a scholar on India and the Hare Krishna movement. Why not do a book that combines the two -- why not do something on vegetarianism and animal rights in relation to India, Vaishnavism and the Hare Krishnas?" It seemed like a no-brainer. As soon as he uttered the words, I started thinking of the contents, of how this book could really take shape. I mean, vegetarianism and animal rights are huge in India, and the Hare Krishna movement -- the Vaishnava tradition -- has always been a strong supporter of ahimsa and the harmless way of life, to the point of vegetarianism. So I agreed to do the book.
What is the Hare Krishna’s contribution to vegetarianism and animal rights?
Well, the Krishna movement partakes of the classical Vaishnava tradition, which has a strong teaching on vegetarianism and animal rights. First of all, they only eat food that can first be offered to Krishna in sacrifice. The texts make clear that Krishna only wants vegetarian foods as an offering. So no true devotee would offer meat, fish, eggs, or anything of the kind, because Krishna simply does not ask for such foods. Why would they offer their loving Deity something He doesn't want? In fact, they don't. So vegetarianism is a binding part of the tradition.
Animal rights speaks to the kindness component in Vaishnava teaching: jiva doya. This means "compassion to all souls," regardless of outer covering, or regardless of the specific body nature gives to them. You see, all beings are made of the same spiritual substance -- we're all parts of Krishna. Therefore, we should all receive the same respect and love, even if we happen to be animals. This is a cardinal teaching of Vaishnavism. So Hare Krishnas believe that animals should be given the same rights -- or at least similar rights -- as we give to humans.
Is prasadam always veggie based?
Yes, as I said before, Krishna only accepts vegetarian foods as an offering. So meat is off-limits. Prasadam is always vegetarian-based, at least in the Vaishnava or Hare Krishna tradition. Shaivism and Shaktism are another can of worms all together. These are various types of Hinduism that accept animal sacrifices and often include adherents who might eat animal foods. But true Vaishnavism eschews the use of animal products. Certainly those animal products that cause harm to the living beings from which they come -- that's a strict no-no. Dairy is another matter; devotees ideally want to raise cows with love and kindness, and they indeed have some workable farms where this takes place. The cows give enough milk for their offspring and even have leftover for human society. But veganism is an option, too. Devotees are not opposed to veganism, and more and more of them are embracing it.
Why vegetarianism and not veganism?
This is a complicated question. Basically, Krishna accepts milk as an offering; so devotees offer it to Him and thus include it in their diet -- they drink the remnants. You see, when He appeared on earth, 5,000 years ago, it was a rural economy, at least in Northern India, where He appeared. People lived close to the land -- they had a little acreage and a cow, or many cows. The animals grazed freely, were healthy and happy, and they were loved by the cowherd men and women of Krishna's bucolic village. It was a simple life, where the calves were fed, and so were the people. Butter, cheese, milk, yogurt -- all were obtained without harming the animals, and augmented a healthy meal of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and so on. Veganism wasn't necessary or desirable at that time.
Now it's a different time, and factory farms and animal exploitation is rampant. Devotees are aware of this and long to establish farm communities where animals can be given the best life possible, without exploitation or harm. Many are turning to veganism, too, since this is a practical and viable option, given the philosophy and the practical implications of a modern workable farm in which animals are treated properly. Not bloody likely!! So many are turning to veganism or at least an abbreviated form of veganism, de-emphasizing dairy in their diet.
You'll notice my book is extremely vegan friendly, giving recipes that can be prepared without milk products. This is revolutionary -- many of these standard Vaishnava dishes have been prepared for centuries with dairy. But I wanted to show that Vaishnava vegetarianism can be vegan friendly.
What are the principles behind Vedic culture and plant-based Ayurvedic medicine?
Basically, while most modern medical treatments address symptoms, and attempt to relieve them, Ayurvedic treatments work at a much deeper level, looking to the cause of the disease. By balancing the doshas, which are primary life-forces in the body, the root of the problem is solved. This is Ayurveda.
Now, Ayurveda also tells us that there are three body types, each indicating individuals of specific bodily tendencies. Sometimes people are a combination of two body types (with one being dominant), and Ayurveda accommodates these complexities. The three basic types are vata (ether, air), pita (fire, water) and kapha (water, earth). These are the doshas. Depending on one's dosha, a person will benefit from specific types of food, herbs, environment, and lifestyle. So it gets complicated. Suffice it to say that Ayurveda is a holistic system originated by the sages of India, and it works.
What role does nonviolence play in your philosophy of life?
Nonviolence has many dimensions. Of course, its simple and most direct manifestation is important: Do no harm. Actually, a better translation of ahimsa, which is where we get the idea of nonviolence, is “non-aggression.” This is so because violence is sometimes necessary – you might need to save a loved one, to defend a child, or whatever. But aggression is never sanctioned.
It is also violent to tell a lie. That is, it behooves one to know the truth – or lying becomes inevitable. Therefore, devotees labor to study sacred texts and to engage in activities that lead to self-realization. Otherwise, one’s words cause harm, because they’re all based on lies. How could it be any other way? If you don’t know the truth, you can’t express the truth. You implicate yourself and those around you in one big lie, and that leads to increasingly greater levels of suffering. This is the modern world, isn’t it? One lie after the next. Politicians say any damn thing to get into office and men lie to women in order to sleep with them.
Further elaborate your thoughts on “the killing of plants is still killing” for us here Steve.
What can I say? The idea is to minimize the amount of violence one performs. In this world, violence is inevitable – when you breathe you necessarily kill thousands upon thousands of microorganisms. What to do? Breathe for God. Then all living being attain liberation. That’s what breathing is for. Otherwise, if you misuse your breath, you’re culpable – you’re responsible for all those microorganisms. Heavy, eh?!
Most vegetarian food can be obtained without any killing at all, through the gathering of ripe fruits and nuts, berries, melons, seeds, legumes, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, and assorted other vegetarian foods. As Keith Akers writes in The Vegetarian Sourcebook, “Finding an ethically significant line between plants and animals . . . is not particularly difficult. Plants have no evolutionary need to feel pain, and completely lack a central nervous system. Nature does not create pain gratuitously, but only when it enables the organism to survive. Animals, being mobile, would benefit from having a sense of pain; plants would not.”
Animals suffer horribly when they are killed for the sake of our palate, whereas plants do not suffer in the same way. Since we require plants to survive, and they do not suffer a horrible fate by contributing to our survival, they constitute our natural source for food. Hence, it is morally superior to live by eating a healthful vegetarian diet. This is not to encourage a “holier than thou” attitude among vegetarians, but rather to establish a demonstrably appropriate diet for human beings. I think any thoughtful person would agree
Have you noticed that a few places have now moved away from feeding the poor to charging for prasadam or making the original concept into a business? Was this Prabhupada’s intention?
Prabhupada wanted a revolution in consciousness. He was more concerned with helping people spiritually than in helping them materially. Of course, as a compassionate Vaishnava, he wanted to do whatever he could to relieve suffering. But his priorities were spiritual. Along these lines, he wanted people to eat prasadam, food offered to Krishna, because this, he believed, would transform their consciousness, making them more amenable to spiritual truths. This was his concern. Vegetarianism was a by-product.
Charging for prasadam? Prabhupada was not against it. In some quarters, this went on even while he was here. In actuality, Prabhupada was a practical man, and he knew that people valued things more when they paid for it. He said this directly in relation to his books. When a well-meaning disciple suggested giving the books away freely, Prabhupada stopped him, saying, “No. People will then toss it in the garbage bin. If they pay for it, they will keep it, value it. For that reason, charging money is preferable.”
As the global food shortage continues to affect millions of people around the world speak more about the ‘Food for Life’ program in India and feeding the world’s poor.
There’s a touching story that I tell in my book, about Prabhupada and the founding of ‘Food For life’ (FFL): In March 1974, Swami Prabhupada summoned his leading disciples to his room. At the time, he was staying at ISKCON’s international headquarters in Mayapur, West Bengal. When the devotees entered, they were shocked to see him standing with tears in his eyes, staring intently out the window at what was evidently a ghastly sight. They immediately rushed to his side, hoping to understand the intense emotions emanating from his face. As they gazed upon the scene below, they saw, a short distance away, a group of small children and several dogs rummaging through piles of garbage in search of food.
“How hungry they must be,” said Prabhupada. “We must arrange for prasadam.” He looked at the temple walls surrounding them: “If you want to make this a temple, a house of Lord Krishna, you must see that within a ten-mile radius no one goes hungry. God is everyone’s father. How can the child go hungry in the presence of the father?” As a result of Prabhupada’s compassion as articulated on that day, the devotees began to distribute sacred food to the needy. This was the birth of the FFL project.
Today, the project is one of the world’s primary free food initiatives around the world. Where people are poor and needy, FFL is there with free food and accommodations. It’s a truly beautiful phenomenon.
George Negus’s current affairs show Dateline a few shows ago showed that the ‘Food for Life’ (FFL) program in Northern India is becoming so big now meat is being fed to people who come and partake of the lunches. How can one control and maintain integrity of the feeding the world’s staving and poor before it becomes “corporatised”. See ref 1.
Regarding FFL and meat eating in Northern India -- it just isn't the case. I had heard the same rumor, and so I thought I would go to the source -- to the top representatives of FFL -- to see if there was any truth to it whatsoever. I spoke to Paul Turner, who's the guy in charge. He's a hands-on kind of manager -- so he knows what's going on. And he vehemently denies it. The midday meal program, he told me, is a government initiative and there are many organizations involved. All of them are committed to vegetarianism. ISKCON food relief foundation and the Akshaya Patra foundation are the biggest players, and they swear there's no meat involved. I asked others who play a role in the FFL initiative in that part of the world -- donors as well as detractors, people who know the activities of FFL really well, to get a rounded view. They all assured me that there's no meat eating involved. So wherever this "meat" rumor came from, you can be sure there's no truth to it. Bottom line: Food for Life Global, the headquarters for all FFL projects, would not and does not endorse any non-vegetarian projects. It's simply against the principles of FFL and the Krishna movement.
What are your future plans Steve?
I, again, write on Hinduism and related Indic traditions, specifically Vaishnavism. I guess this is my dharma, and, hopefully, I'll be doing it for years to come.