Whether you’re a seasoned yogi or just starting the practice, the question over vegetarianism and yoga can be difficult to answer. You may eat meat yourself, or you may not, but encounter many meat eaters in your yoga classes or on yoga retreats. The result is often the same: heated discussions about what is right or wrong – yoga is deeply connected to vegetarianism and to leave out one part of the lifestyle for your own enjoyment seems contradictory to the very reasons one would become a yogi.
Unfortunately, sometimes these conversations can become more driven by opinion and judgement, and less by what is actually at play. So, can you be a yogi and not be vegetarian?
Bhagavad Gita and Vegetarianism
Traditionally, yoga is a practice that runs parallel to a vegetarian diet. In fact, many founding texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, yogis are provided with philosophical underpinnings that put emphasis on what many see as vegetarian principles:
- “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it. O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me. In this way you will be freed from all reactions to good and evil deeds, and by this principle of renunciation you will be liberated and come to Me.” (Bhagavad Gita, 9.26-28)
- Interpretation: Krishna mentions leaves, flowers, fruits and water – not meat. Krishna says this because when food, or anything, is acquired in the means of tamas, which advocates darkness and death, or rajas, which is rooted in passion, it causes pain to the object of the eater. This is counterproductive spiritually, and goes against the Yama’s, including “non-harming” or ahimsa. Therefore, one should not eat meat.
- “Foods in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such nourishing foods are sweet, juicy, fattening and palatable. Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, pungent, dry, and hot, are liked by people in the mode of passion. Such foods cause pain, distress, and disease. Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed and unclean, is food liked by people in the mode of ignorance.” (Bhagavad Gita, 17.7-10)
- Interpretation: The assumed benefit of a vegetarian diet falling along the first descriptions have been corroborated by modern science. Vegetarians have a reduced rate of heart disease, types of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. Vegetarian foods are the main source of nutrition for almost everyone in the world, whereas non-vegetarians sources of food are often a passion-driven choice. This is another reason why one should not eat meat.
- “One who is not envious but who is a kind friend to all living entities, who does not think himself a proprietor, who is free from false ego and equal both in happiness and distress, who is always satisfied and engaged in devotional service with determination and whose mind and intelligence are in agreement with Me—he is very dear to Me.” (Bhagavad Gita, 12.13-14)
- Interpretation: If one was a kind friend to all living entities, one surely would not slaughter and consume them. It’s simply not possible to attain meat without breaking a rule of kindness, compassion, and friendship to a being. This is also mentioned in the Manu-samhita (5.48-49), where it is also said that “By not killing any living being, one becomes fit for salvation.” (6.60).
What we have above is a compelling set of groundwork for a vegetarian lifestyle for yogis. When one begins to understand the fundamental tenets by which a yogi is directed to live by – generally characterized as one that is accepting, loving, compassionate, and open-hearted – it becomes difficult to determine scenarios when stepping outside a vegetarian life would be alright. What would be the cases?
Some Arguments Against Vegetarianism
So when may a yogi argue against a vegetarian diet?
- During times of holiday or family dinners, it may be more acceptable to eat non-vegetarian food, as it could be considered rude or hurtful to refuse dishes. Your hosts may interpret your refusal as a smug rejection that their food is somehow unholy or unfit for your consumption. This offense itself can violate ahimsa.
- Answer: While it’s important to not offend, it’s also important to lead as a yogi. There are many ways to politely decline a dish, and many find support from their loved ones, who may soon begin accommodating the diet wit special dishes during the holiday. You do not need to give up your beliefs every time someone may find them confusing or offensive, especially when it comes to your personal diet.
- The Bhagavad Gita argues we have equal vision with animals, (Bhagavad Gita,.5.18), but it also says that all living entities are precious and have souls. How are plants any different? Are they not too living, feel pain, and attempt to always survive? Why deny the presence of a soul in these beings?
- Answer: This is true – leaves, fruits, and vegetables are all living creatures. While one can accept that life inevitably lives on life, the Bhagavad Gita, and teachings of yoga, express that actions based in darkness purely for darkness or passion purely for passion are the actions to avoid. The fact of the matter is that people do not need to eat meat to live. You can be a vegetarian and consume life energy, even from daily products and eggs. However, to consume foods that are not necessary, like meat, is to be living in passion. One should not live beyond their needs.
- Ahimsa and other lessons in yoga teach people not to harm others. Why is casting judgement on non-vegetarians any different? Isn’t this a violation of the very principles that are applied to meat-eating?
- Answer: Like passing on food offered by family, it is not wrong to stand up or advocate certain beliefs, and you may encourage the person to be better in the process. Do not cast judgement, think poorly, or speak poorly of non-vegetarians. Simply state the principles by which vegetarianism is based, and let them be.
An Exception: How You Could Eat Meat and Be a Yogi
While the arguments in favor of vegetarianism can be compelling, it’s also difficult to see a devoted, kind, and compassionate yogi who occasionally eats meat as somehow “less than” another yogi, as touched on by the last point above. And again, one should never look down their noses at another. As a yogi yourself, though, and if one is remaining strict to vedic texts, meat-eating is a behavior that the yogi should work on, even if its gradual – their life and health could greatly improve because of it
But is there ever a case for a yogi to eat meat? Perhaps.
Technically speaking, the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t expressly condone eating meat. It does condone killing animals without remorse, in haughty or wicked means, and it does state types of food that are arguably better for the body, mind, and soul. But it’s here that one may see Krishna offering shades of grey in the explanation. For example, if one was journeying through the world, away from modern convenience, and had no source of nutrition or sustenance other than a non-dairy producing animal, would it be alright to eat its meat?
Arguably, it would.
While this is a limited case, it may be difficult to find justification for starving yourself (or your family) because it is somehow holier than consuming an animal. In a zero-sum game, where your actual means of survival, depends on either short or prolonged consumption of meat, it’s very understandable to be non-vegetarian. The question is, is this case true for you?