In this article, Swami Satchidananda answers questions about Yoga and vegetarian diet.
Q: Is it hypocritical to be a vegetarian for spiritual reasons and also to cook for others who insist on eating meat?
A: Just because you have become a vegetarian, it doesn’t mean you have to force others. When the right time comes, they will themselves change. Until they realize that vegetarian food is the right food, give them their food. Of course when the opportunity comes, gently instill the idea of how beneficial it is to be vegetarian. Explain to them that our bodies are made to be vegetarian. Give them all the information, but don’t be forceful. Tell them gently that when you kill an animal it dies. They don’t eat animals that are alive. So when the animals die, what is it that they are eating? A dead body. They don’t like to hear that. Even though the fact is that they are eating dead bodies, they don’t realize it. So, you can gently tell them, “You are eating nothing but dead bodies.” Gently, gently, when they are in the mood to hear your reasons for being vegetarian, give them a talk. Who knows, suddenly, one day they might change their attitude and want to be vegetarians.
Q: What diet is believed to be the best for optimum health?
A: The natural diet that is made for your body. If you have a car that is made to run on high octane gasoline, you cannot use regular gas. It will run, but it will lose its energy and power. Likewise, our bodies, our engines, are made for a clean, simple and natural vegetarian diet. We are by nature vegetarians. Fruits, roots, vegetables and nuts are our natural food. And, remember, not all the vegetarian diets are clean and simple. We complicate even the vegetarian diet. We put a lot of spices, fry a lot. That is not a clean food. As far as possible, eat food in its natural state. Ideally, uncooked food if possible, but if that’s not possible, lightly steamed or cooked on low heat. Remember, the day human beings invented kitchens, they started laying the foundation for hospitals.
Only human beings eat cooked food. All the rest of the species eat food they get directly from the nature. If everybody had to go out and catch their own food, nobody would eat meat. How many people are ready to run after a goat, catch it, tear it, eat it at that spot? No. That’s why clean, natural, vegetarian food is very important. You are what you eat. Remember that truth.
Q: Does Yoga believe an individual shouldn’t eat meat, chicken or fish?
A: It’s not just “believing.” A yogi will not. If you want to be an easeful, peaceful and useful person, you should not and you will not.
Q: I know we were meant to be vegetarians and not even kill bugs. Why did God set up a system where the animals eat each other? I cannot reconcile this.
A: There is a natural balance, an ecological balance. The frog shoots its tongue, catches a fly and eats it. As soon as the frog finishes putting the fly into the mouth there is a cobra that will jump at the frog. And then the cobra can be meat to some other animal. It is an ecological balance. We are not going to change those things. But, as far as we are concerned, we should reduce our violence in eating.
Q: Doesn’t it cause violence to vegetables and fruits to pick them?
A: If you go and pull a raw apple, you are causing violence. You are hurting the tree. But if you go after a few more days, you can simply stretch out your hand and the fruit will fall into it without any strain whatsoever. That means the tree is ready to give now, while some days back it was not ready. So if you really want to reduce your violence, these little examples will be enough for you. The consciousness of animals is more expanded. They feel the pain more than the plants. So by eating plants, you are reducing the violence.
Q: If I don’t get enough protein, won’t I lose my strength?
A: The human body doesn’t need all that saturated protein. People say, “Oh, I will lose my strength if I don’t eat meat.” Go, ask the elephant, “Where did you get your strength?” The elephant will reply, “Oh, from the leaves I eat.”
Q: In America, dairy products are produced in a way which causes extreme suffering to dairy cattle. Do you think it better for us all to not use dairy products?
A: Those who like not to use dairy are better vegetarians. I certainly recommend that you don’t have to drink milk or use dairy products. It’s not necessary. I leave it to the individuals to decide. Strictly speaking we don’t need dairy products. No animal drinks milk when it is grown. The cow produces milk to be given to the calf. After some time the calf stops drinking. But humans continuously drink and consume too much of dairy products.
The milk is not that good in the western world and especially in this day and age. The quality of the cow is very different than how it was in India in the olden days. Because the climate in America is not as warm as India, the cow has thicker skin, is more hairy and it has more fat. When you take that much of fat you may not digest it very well. The excess fat and cholesterol, gets settled, causing thickening of the veins, and leaves sediments in the joints which gives rise to gout, arthritis, rheumatism and so on. These are all caused by excess fat in the system. And cow’s milk nowadays is no good for drinking because the cow eats chemically treated grains, grass and hay that contaminates the milk.
Q: What is best way to eat?
A: Whatever you eat, eat well, chew well and mix it with saliva. That’s why there is the saying, “Drink the solids, eat the liquids.” Solid should be made into liquid in the mouth before you swallow. It’s a healthy habit.
Q: Must one be a vegetarian to become God-realized?
A: It’s not a must, but it’s easier if you are a vegetarian. To realize God you need your body and mind in a sattvic condition, in a tranquil state. It’s almost like when you clean the rough surface of a mirror by polishing it well and it becomes a beautiful mirror to reflect your true nature. A non-vegetarian diet is not conducive to the cleanliness of the body and mind.
But, if one is really intelligent, through that pure intelligence, he or she may even be able to rise above the obstacles of the body and mind and get that experience. But it’s not that easy for the common person. There were great saints who, after that realization, didn’t even worry about what they ate. They ate simply for the sustenance of the body and ate whatever was offered.
When you reach that level, you don’t have to worry about right food or wrong food because it’s not going to affect you—you have already gone beyond the body and mind. That is why some scriptures say that when you rise to a certain level you are not controlled by the doing or not doing, the right or wrong. To a realized person, where are the do’s and don’ts? But, if you have not reached that level of God-realization, don’t use “non-vegetarian” saints as an excuse for you not to follow certain disciplines.
Further resources: The Yoga Way by Swami Satchidananda