Many people are concerned about the violence in our society and about the threat that violence poses to the very existence of our planet. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means non-violence. Following ahimsa doesn’t simply mean not killing. We cannot live without destroying other lives. When you eat vegetables, you are killing, destroying something. Even if you don’t eat anything, you kill. Do you know how many bacteria you kill each time you take a drink of water? Millions. If it is a matter of avoiding killing alone, I would advocate eating meat. Why? Simple mathematical calculations: If you want to eat spinach, how many plants must you kill? Certainly ten or twenty for even one meal. But how many people can eat from just one sheep? Say ten people. If every life you take is one “sin,” which is better? Certainly, killing one sheep would be better. So it’s not killing we are talking about here. We are talking about non-violence.

What do we mean by violence? If I do something to you and you feel hurt, my act was violent. Causing pain is violence. If we want to be non-violent, our food should come with as little pain as possible. Many people would say, “But plants are alive, too. They feel pain if we pluck and eat them. So why give up meat if not causing pain is the idea?” Yes, plants have life; animals have life; human beings have life; even an atom has life. In having life we are all equal. But in the expression of consciousness the plant is not as developed as the animal, nor the animal as developed as the human being.

Human beings are bestowed with discrimination; it’s human beings who even think of all this, who think of comparing themselves with other beings. Animals don’t compare themselves with humans. Plants are even less developed in the expression of their consciousness. The more developed the expression of consciousness in a particular form of life, the more pain is felt when you destroy it. Cutting off the branch of a tree causes less pain than cutting off the limb of an animal. Many studies show that plants do experience pain; but still, we believe it’s not as much as the animal’s experience.

Here is an analogy that might help illustrate this principle. Imagine a classroom of thirty students with a teacher standing in the front of the room, writing on the blackboard. Somewhere in one of the rows two of the students are talking loudly. One is the brightest student in the class. Normally he would not be doing such a thing, but today somehow the other fellow drew him into it. The other boy is “number one” at the other end. He is the worst student and has no interest in studying at all. He simply came to the classroom because it was even worse at home. So they are both talking. The teacher looks at them and yells, “Hey, you fools, what are you doing there?” Which of the two do you think would feel most hurt by being called a fool in front of the whole class? The “number one” brilliant boy. The other one might just shrug it off, thinking “I’ve heard it many times . . .” Or he might even feel proud: “Finally, the teacher noticed me, paid some attention to me!” But the first one would say, “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again!” He might even burst into tears because he’s never been addressed like that before.

How can the same word create two different feelings in two individuals? One had a sharper, more evolved mind. The other one had a duller mind. It all depends on the development of the consciousness. The bright boy’s consciousness was more developed. The other one’s was still a little dull. So the same action will hurt the evolved soul more than the unevolved soul. Now, let us apply this analogy to the animals and the vegetables. The animals are supposed to have evolved a little bit more in their consciousness than the plants. The Hindu scriptures say, “Consciousness sleeps in mineral life, dreams in plant life, awakens in animal life.” In animals we see instinct functioning. Then, in the human level, we see intelligence, and finally in the superhuman—the yogi—intuition functions. It’s all the same consciousness functioning at different levels.

It’s with this awareness that we say the animals feel pain more than the plants. Since we still have to eat to live, but we want to reduce the pain-giving, the violence, where should we go? To the plants.

We say we want a loving world, a peaceful world; but we cannot cultivate that love if negative vibrations get into us. One way in which we can bring negative vibrations into ourselves is through our food. That is why food should come to us as an offering of love. Whatever we eat should be the product of love. When I say a loving offering, I don’t mean that someone cooks a nice chicken soup or broiled steak and then offers it to you lovingly. The question is, “Did the animal who died to make that steak love you?” I don’t think that any animal would die lovingly for you. Will a cow come and say, “Oh, you seem to be very weak and hungry, would you like my thigh for a soup? Take it.” No, you have to kill it, destroy it.

In the same way, when you catch a fish, it does not come willingly. You have to cheat the fish by throwing a worm. Every time you catch a fish you are literally deceiving it. It’s as if you are saying, “Come on, my friend, I will feed you.” But when it comes to you, you hook it and kill it. Could you say that it is a love offering? The animals we kill hate us. If our food brings hatred, we cannot develop love.

You do not know how many thousands of animals will worship you if you become a vegetarian. You can be certain of that. A great South Indian saint Thiruvalluvar said, “If a person refrains from killing to eat, such a one will be worshiped by all the creatures of the world.” It is true. Even a wild dog will wag its tail at you. The animals will feel that you are a non-violent person. Do not think that only the human beings have telecommunication. The animals have their own media, and fortunately their media carries the good news as well as the bad. If you have saved the life of another animal somewhere—it need not be even of the same species—the other animals will know, “You saved my brother or sister over there.”

So, eating the products of violence brings a violent vibration to the mind. You are what you eat; don’t forget that. Your food should be a gift of love because the vibrations with which food comes to us will affect us. Let’s develop universal love. Universal love doesn’t mean only love the other human beings. We can learn to love all and serve all, including animals, then we are truly living a life dedicated to ahimsa.

By Sri Swami Satchidananda. Excerpted from The Yoga Way: Food for Mind, Body & Spirit, (c)2017 Integral Yoga Publications.