I am a vegan and I was born into a Hindu family, but the two things have almost nothing to do with each other.
There is a distinct fixation on the Eastern religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, among a contingent of Western vegans. Perhaps it’s all tied in with the current interest in yoga and related meditation practices, which are trending higher than ever. The Sanksrit term ahimsa, meaning non-harming, has been assumed by many vegans as a name. Ahimsa is not a particularly common name in India.
If you ask me, I would shrug and say this is all fine. I grew up when people wanted to explore Indian religions as part of the hippie culture in the ’60s and ’70s, so it’s what I am accustomed to.
But when Western people take a religion like Hinduism and insist that it conform to their specifications, that is cultural appropriation. Hinduism is not vegan. Buddhism is not vegan. Even Jainism is not vegan. Yet many vegans (and even non-vegans) are particularly incensed that this particular Hindu ‘saint’ eats dairy. Or that Tibetan lama eats meat.
Pointing to the fact that various Indian scriptures emphasize a vegetarian diet is misguided. A ‘vegetarian’ diet is not veganism, because veganism is not a diet, and should not be reduced to a diet. Veganism is recognizing and respecting the lives of other animals, which is different from merely refraining from killing animals for the sake of your own karma.
Even “Ahimsa” doesn’t mean abstaining from using animals, it means using animals nicely. Humane-washing is antithetical to veganism, but when you can buy Ahimsa silk and Ahimsa milk, you can see that Hindus are actually using the word quite differently. They believe it is ok to take as long as you don’t hurt or kill.
Some groups have popped up with the well-meaning intention of applying or extending Buddhism to include non-human animals, such as Dharma Voices for Animals. This also seems just fine to me, as long as they recognize that so much of the Buddhist scripture is very speciesist and violent. It describes the untrained mind as a wild elephant tied to post, needing to be broken. All kinds of stories are told around the Buddha drinking milk, particularly the one about Sujata after his enlightenment. The controversy as to whether the Buddha died eating poisoned pork will continue on.
Most important, Buddhism does say that misspent human life means being reborn as an animal — implying that it is a lesser birth. Buddhism says that the human birth is “precious”, but not that a cow birth is precious, or a bee birth, or a snail birth. Vegans will try to argue and try to twist the meaning, but as Kim Socha has noted, the appropriate metaphor here is the Procrustean bed. You might as well cut bits off your body to try to fit the bed. Buddhism might talk about compassion and loving-kindness and karuna, but they are only talking about humans. Even if they get you to practice compassion toward cows, that doesn’t mean they want to stop the slavery of cows. In any case, in Buddha’s time that would have been impossible. His was an agrarian society that depended on bullocks to plow the fields for crops, even if they could dispense with stealing the milk that rightfully belongs to the calf.
So some vegans are disillusioned with Buddhists. I was among them too.
But I came to realize, what is the point of wishing for something to be different than it is? Buddhism, whether in the form practiced by Buddhist countries, or repackaged for Western sensibilities, is not vegan.
Things reached a new level when people start hounding Hindu spiritual figures to stop dispensing Hershey’s Kisses. The figure I am referring to here is Amma, the Hugging Saint.
Devo Tee, or Alain Rostain, a vegan follower of Amma, has asked that she stop dispensing Hershey’s Kisses because Kisses contain milk, the product of animal violence. He sent her one video message asking her to stop, and then a another video message when the response from her staff was not what he expected.
This video message shows Amma's response to my plea for her to stop contributing to the horrific suffering of innocent…
Now, Amma and I grew up in very similar cultures, not too far from each other in time or space. The vegans who complain about the Kisses have no understanding of this culture. How we give sweets and candy at special occasions as a gesture of good wishes. How the idea that we are “stealing” milk from cows is incomprehensible. People like Amma have been told, and they believe, that cows are here to provide us with milk, they are our mothers. She offers her milk to us. That cow’s milk is what is needed for human babies to grow. It is as essential to their wellbeing as their own mother’s milk. The gods themselves partake of cow’s milk.
Other Westerners have understood our culture, and have used it to their ends. Here is one wild tale about how cows ‘feel’ and what cows ‘want’ spun by a Western Hindu practitioner.
“Here we find an example of this, the cows of Brajbhumi, so much trouble carrying around this big big big milk bags, they can’t run very well, they can’t walk very well, they can’t sit and lay very well, but having those milk bags, its greatest pleasure to them, because it’s for Krishna.”
This story was rattled off by Radhanath Swami, born Richard Slavin in Chicago, one of the ‘seers’ at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, who continue to promulgate the humane lie without shame), about whom there is some suspicion of some serious wrongdoing.
So, returning back to my current concern about vegan cultural appropriation of ancient religions. Here’s what I am NOT saying.
I am not saying the Amma the Hugging Saint or whoever else is justified in taking milk from cows. This is STEALING, whatever self-serving lies they tell about it.
I am not saying that Amma the Hugging Saint and whoever else is beyond reproach; on the contrary they should be scrutinized and subject to skepticism at every turn.
What I am saying is that it is no business of people like Alain to be hounding someone like Amma about handing out candy. Alain gives us three options in this video:
- That Amma is ignorant of his video
- That Amma is being intentionally kept unaware
- That Amma is fully aware of the suffering of cows in factory farms and doesn’t care
Alain asks if we can think of a fourth option. Yes, Alain, I can.
4. Alain has no idea what Amma really believes, what constraints she works under, no understanding of her Hindu background, and that she just doesn’t think his video worthy of a response
Consider the life of this woman, Amma. She was born into a family where the father’s profession was fisherman; she fed her family’s cows and goats with scraps she gathered from her neighbors. Speciesism is a part of this woman’s psyche, as hard to separate as conjoined twins. They caught and ate fish, they kept cows and goats for milk and flesh. All of this is sanctioned by her religion. So by some combination of inherent compassion, selective though it is, and fortuitous events Amma has reached a level of fame and influence. But all her compassionate and humanitarian efforts are channeled toward human suffering. Even if she cared about non-human animals, she does not comprehend that animals like cows are here for themselves. For Amma, as for Hindus in general, cows are here to give humans milk; that is their function. To be able to grasp that they are here for themselves is possible with an understanding of evolutionary theory, maybe; or a culture of equality with others, such as some indigenous American cultures; Amma does not have the latter, and probably not the former either.
To think that the concerns of some vegan will be enough to overthrow centuries of traditions about cows and their role in human society is sheer arrogance.
To expect to change an ancient religion to fit your expectations is cultural appropriation.
To expect Amma to change her attitudes and behavior based on a video message is presumptuous.
For a privileged white man to repeatedly address an Indian woman from fisherman family, even if she has now gained notoriety, is bullying.
Vegans from the West just expect that Indians and Hindus will somehow automatically understand speciesism, and that animals are here for themselves, just because we traditionally venerate cows. Here’s a facebook status that encapsulates that view (paraphrased slightly) by “Katie” .
“In India, cows are regarded as sacred. People there won’t eat them, yet a lot of Indians will happily sell cow’s flesh and skin to the West for “food” and leather. Even though they are “sacred”, the female cows are enslaved for milk because they believe she is their mother. Cows are not human’s mothers. They have their own babies who need the milk, but humans take take take from animals constantly….I have vegetarian Indian friends here in the states who won’t touch animal flesh, but they will gladly profit off of it in their stores. I am not singling out Indians either. There are extreme hypocrisies in all religion. This was just one example which arose today and many other days in my life. I just needed to address this. I have nothing against Indians. Many of my dearest friends are Hindu. ”
Katie is not the only Western vegan who has said that they “don’t understand” Hindus, and here I address those people. While our customs may look odd to you, those of your culture look odd to us. You take a dog to bed with you, and wake up in the morning to eat pig flesh. You cry about homeless puppies, but grab a burger during lunchtime. You love all dogs, but breed some so that they can’t even breathe because you think a squashed face is cute. You celebrate Easter by killing and eating baby lambs, and give thanks by killing and eating turkeys. These are just some of the things that seem incomprehensible to us, but we accept all this and more, because of white imperialism.
You need to realize that we are no more hard to understand than you are. It’s just your narrow vision and parochialism and that makes it seem that way. Yes, the world should be vegan. But you can’t be scorning Hindus because they need to be vegan before Christians or Muslims. Hinduism is not vegan. The dominant ideology for human culture everywhere around the world is speciesism and hierarchy. Just because some cultures look like they might be open to considering the lives of other animals, to target them with subtle or not-so-subtle vegan messages is inappropriate.
Just a couple more points and I am done. First, when I quoted the above passage to a large group of Indians (mostly vegan), they actually agreed with it, and many even shared the post! They did not see any underlying racism the way I did. They don’t see the double standard. For them, it looks like acknowledgment that Indians or Hindus are ‘special’. Perhaps they are of the mindset that any recognition from the West is approval. I agree with the young (much younger than me) writer of this article.
Our parents grew up in a time where white people were inherently superior, and while it was commonplace for Indians to ditch their traditional clothing for jeans and t-shirts, white people were reluctant to do the same for them.
Years later, our parents’ generation is bursting with pride at the thought of all the customs they accepted being embraced by the mainstream — whether it’s being exoticized or not.
I guess in the case of vegans appropriating ancient Indian religions, I am more like this young woman than her parents. There will be a generation of Indians who will not mind, or even think it is a good thing when white people tell us how to practice our own religions. But the rest of us are not buying that ‘white people (are) inherently superior’ any more. Even if they read our obscure Sankrit or Pali scriptures, they still don’t know how our religions are practiced day-to-day, and how they are handed down from our parents and grandparents. Are you really going to tell my mother, or my grandmother, that she is not really a Hindu because she isn’t a vegan? Western vegans love to quote this, supposedly from the Bhagavad Gita, “When you feel the suffering of living thing in your heart, that is consciousness.” Fine, but that doesn’t mean Hinduism is vegan, or that someone needs to be a vegan just because they are a Hindu.
A final observation is that many vegans who are “devotees”, like Alain, must feel bereft when they realize that these religions are not vegan, and that they never were. You might have lost whatever comfort that the religion was affording you. Even I can’t listen to people like Gil Fronsdal, whose talks I used to love, because he will inadvertently and repeatedly reference the “peace” he experienced on a dairy farm. As vegans we know that dairy farms are places of violence, not places of serenity. I was crushed, and I tweeted at him a few times, and I complained bitterly to my friends. But it was just once too many times I heard that dairy farm reference, and I have not been able to shake it off, and and I haven’t gone back to listening to him again. I have definitely lost something, a source of comfort, peace, stillness and acceptance. If that is how you feel, that you lost your source of spiritual inspiration, then I understand. I am sorry that that we cannot find a tradition of spiritual teachings that are vegan.