A few years ago I read an article in Elephant Journal about a young American woman who’d journeyed to Peru to work in an orphanage. In the States she’d practiced yoga and at the behest of her teachers had become a committed vegan, believing that it was the most “spiritual” diet. Shortly after her arrival in Peru, she attended a meal in the jungle featuring fish freshly caught from indigenous waters. Staying true to her vegan path she abstained from the fish and filled her plate instead with a heaping scoop of rice and vegetables.
A Peruvian shaman who was present at the meal turned to her and asked why she wasn’t eating the fish. Upon hearing her explanation of what veganism is, he broke into ten minutes of uncontrolled laughter. The incident shook the young woman and to her credit led her to a reconsideration of her diet and a deeper understanding of the relationship between earth and humans and how the eating of animals is a just and fundamental part of that symbiosis.
It’s a well-written article and begs the question: What about her explanation of veganism did the shaman find so funny?
A Child’s Mindset
We can never really know what went on in the mind of that Peruvian shaman, but we can speculate. The young vegan woman concludes (I paraphrase) that the shaman sees the fish as a gift from the earth, the jungle, the river… and the receiving of such as a natural part of the never-ending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The notion that abstaining from the nutrition that fish or any other meat provides is somehow virtuous is a proposition that the shaman found fantastically hilarious.
I tend to think her assessment is accurate. I also wonder if the shaman found something childish about the vegan’s aversion to killing animals, perhaps a phenomenon that the children in his village confront and quickly grow out of upon their first hunt. Perhaps an adult expressing a similar sentiment and attaching spiritual significance to it is what struck the shaman as funny?
We who’ve grown up in the disconnected dystopia of modern life can surely never truly appreciate how differently an indigenous shaman sees the world (and I’m a little embarrassed to even speculate) but I do wonder what the experience of a young hunter-gatherer is like upon making a first kill.
I think of my uncle (now passed) who grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado where hunting and fishing were an integral part of life. He used to tell a story about going as a young man on a deer hunt with his father and how when faced for the first time with the eyes of a doe he could not pull the trigger. Instead he swore off hunting and became an avid trout fisherman for the rest of his life.
A child growing up in a hunter-gatherer culture does not have the luxury of swearing off a primary food source. But looking in the eyes of a living creature and taking its life for the first time must be some kind of significant experience for a young indigenous hunter.
As a teenager I was fascinated by Native American cultures and read whatever books on the subject I could get my hands on. The most memorable of those books was Black Elk Speaks, the first-person story of a Lakota medicine man who grew up in the Black Hills during the times of American invasion. One of the many things that struck me about his descriptions of traditional Lakota life was the reverence with which the buffalo was held.
The buffalo was the Lakota’s main food source and also supplied the skins by which clothing and shelters were made. Beyond that, the buffalo seemed to be a source of spiritual nourishment, as if the Lakota took the spirit of the animal into their bodies along with its flesh. I’m not sure if Black Elk states it explicitly, or if I am reimagining the text, but I don’t think it would be wrong to say that the Lakota thought of themselves as “people of the buffalo.”
What are the implications of taking the life of an animal that your own culture elevates to the highest levels of spiritual symbolism? For the ethical vegan it seems an impossible contradiction. The ethical vegan looks to the Brahmanic cultures of India, who forbid themselves from eating the meat of the sacred cow, as models of moral purity. But what about the Lakota, who consider the buffalo to be sacred because they eat it? Is it a monstrosity or an act of moral courage to kill and eat one’s “god?”
I assert that taking the life of a being you revere as sacred is an act of moral courage. For the young indigenous hunter it is an initiation into adulthood, into the realities of life and death. Every being serves a purpose greater than its own biological existence. For the buffalo of the Lakota, that purpose is to convert grass into high-quality protein; to be a sacrifice, a source of nourishment for other beings. The hunter who kills with that knowledge in his heart understands something about the sacredness of all life and is humbled. To hunt without due reverence for the hunted is to invite callousness. It is telling that the Lakota routinely purified themselves through ceremony before going out on a hunt.
The Peruvian shaman who can’t stop laughing at the vegan woman’s sense of virtue surely does so with the understanding that all beings are food for other beings and that coming to terms with that reality is a common-sense part of life. To accept the jungle’s gift of nourishment in a spirit of awe and praise is something that the children in his community would have integrated into their psyche from a young age. I like to think that part of what the shaman found so hilarious was that an adult woman was stuck on a problem that was easily overcome by his children – and that she thought this somehow made her virtuous.
Ahimsa and Spiritual Bypass
(Spiritual Bypass is a term coined by psychologist and Buddhist teacher John Welwood to describe a “tendency to use spiritual ideas to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”)
If much of western vegan ethics is rooted in a child’s mindset, what can we make of India’s history of religious vegetarianism? For millennia the Indian continent has birthed some of the world’s most sophisticated spiritual technology, from mantra, meditation, yogic breath, and tantra, to astrological science and beyond. Indian mythology has given us rich maps for navigating the spiritual path as well as keys to unlocking secrets of the human psyche. It’s not easy to dismiss the wisdom of Indian tradition.
India’s religious vegetarianism is founded on the principle of Ahimsa, which is commonly understood to be a philosophy of nonviolence but is more accurately translated as “doing no harm.” How can one argue against doing no harm?
Despite practicing religious vegetarianism for years, I was never fully convinced that eating meat was immoral. Something about the idea didn’t quite ring true. And since returning to a meat-centric diet, I’ve struggled to put my finger on exactly why. Part of my reason for writing this article is an attempt to do just that.
So let’s unpack it.
To fully appreciate the meaning of Ahimsa, I think we need to look at it as more than a mere moral construct. It requires deeper consideration than a question of right vs wrong. It’s a question of what best serves life, what is aligned with a life of spiritual practice, and what is not. There are both immediate and longterm consequences of any action. When considering the principle of do-no-harm, we need to look at both.
In a modern context, one could argue that a plant-based diet has more detrimental longterm consequences to “all life” than taking the life of a single animal, such as a cow, whose meat can feed many mouths over the course of weeks or months. Anybody who has done farming at any scale will tell you that it is impossible to grow crops without harming animate life forms. There are snails, insects, rodents, birds, and other animals who come to feast on one’s bounty, and they must be dealt with either by poisoning, trapping, shooting, or other means (and that’s not to mention the habitat destruction that large-scale farming entails). It is naive to assume that one can avoid killing by eating a vegetarian diet. The Jains of India, pioneers of vegetarianism, who were uncompromising in their commitment to not killing any animate life form, understood this reality and so purchased their food from non-Jain farmers or had their servants do their farming for them so as to avoid “having blood on their hands.” We find a similar practice among early Buddhists, who also practiced Ahimsa but ate meat as long as they didn’t have to do the killing themselves.
Questions of hypocrisy aside, it’s interesting that both the early Jains and Buddhists made distinctions between eating food that was sourced by killing and doing the actual killing themselves. Modern religious vegetarians fail to make any such distinction. They consider their way of life ultimately virtuous and free from “violence,” and in doing so bypass any consideration that something had to die for their food.
The history of religious vegetarianism is complicated. India for most of its history has not practiced vegetarianism and politics has often been involved in its adoption. A brief version of that history goes something like this: The Jains (celibate ascetics) originated the idea of a vegetarian diet both for the practice of Ahimsa and, conveniently, as a way to subdue the sexual impulse. Hinduism, which had always considered the cow sacred (but sacrificed and ate it), outlawed beef consumption as a means of demonizing Muslims, who relied on beef because they didn’t eat pork. Buddhism, under the leadership of the Emperor Ashok, adopted the vegetarianism of the Jains to distinguish itself from Hinduism. Upper-caste Hindus later adopted full vegetarianism to keep up with the perceived piety of Buddhists. Like I say, it’s complicated. (For a deep dive into the history of Indian vegetarian politics I recommend the books The Myth of the Holy Cow by D.N. Jha and Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men by B.R. Ambedkar.)
Returning to the principle of Ahimsa, I liken it to Tibetan Master Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings on non-aggression. It requires humility, gentleness of spirit, and the self-discipline to not indulge in the territorial tendencies of ego. It’s a practice of openness, of receptiveness, of letting things come, of accepting what is. It is not a practice of non-action. It’s a practice of acting without grasping, without aggression, without doing harm.
One could argue that hunting animals or raising livestock to provide nourishment for one’s body as well as the bodies of one’s community, is a non-aggressive action, especially when done in a spirit of gratitude and humility. One could also argue that eating large ruminant animals, or fish, or even smaller animals, takes fewer lives and does less overall “harm” than the habitat-destroying practices of large-scale agriculture. And it provides far better nutrition per calorie.
In his book, Black Elk speaks of the Lakota living within the “sacred hoop of the world” and laments the fact that when the Americans decimated their way of life the sacred hoop was broken. What he meant by the sacred hoop of the world could be compared to an ecosystem. Within an ecosystem, all life is food for other life. Every animal, including the human animal, must eat to survive and in turn is food for other life. In Black Elk’s sacred hoop of the world, humans nourish themselves on the meat of “the four-leggeds” and in turn are stewards of the earth and by the grace of their unique consciousness provide “food” for the spirit world as well as the Creator.
Before the sacred hoop of the world was broken, men hunted animals and gathered plants as medicine. Taking the lives of animals brought the hunter face to face with the realities of life and death and taught him to kill and receive in a spirit of gratitude.
In modern life, it’s all too easy to eat without the awareness that something had to die for you to live. Religious vegetarianism as practiced in modern life is a spiritual bypassing of a reality that hunter-gatherers have always instinctively confronted. I would argue that making friends with that reality is fundamental to the maturation process of the human psyche and thus of crucial importance to a life on the spiritual path.
Religious vegetarianism practiced in a true spirit of Ahimsa is a noble idea and we can admire the intentions of its adherents. I find more wisdom in the ways of the Peruvian shaman.