Like most children in America, I grew up eating animals. Specifically, in a Puerto Rican household, I was served fried chicken, roasted pork, steaks, and stewed chicken on a rotating basis. Many Latin American diets are rich in carbs and animal protein, and leave little room for plants, thus I was very much used to meat being an integral part of my meals.
More often than not, we are not raised with an understanding of where our food comes from. We are trained to think that beef, chicken, pork, fish, etc., are simply shipped in trucks and magically appear on supermarket shelves, a sanitized narrative that is removed from reality. I remember that as I got older, eating meat made me increasingly uneasy, but I still ate it, because I enjoyed the taste and it was hard for me to envision adopting a plant based diet.
Fast forward to the end of high school, when I began practicing Hinduism. I at first was hesitant to give up my meat eating. I had read articles on the question of whether one needs to be a vegetarian in order to be a Hindu, and many of the articles parroted the same conclusion: it’s your own personal choice, but we are called to practice ahimsa (nonviolence), and you should determine for yourself whether or not eating meat is keeping ahimsa. I came to the conclusion that observing ahimsa meant giving up meat, and I started with beef because even among Hindus who eat meat, beef is strictly prohibited because of the reverence we have for cows. Watching the film Food, Inc. in my Anthropology 101 class also accelerated my rejection of animal flesh. I remember a scene where a small-scale chicken farmer is demonstrating how chickens are slaughtered. He puts a screeching, flailing chicken into a funnel-like contraption to keep the chicken from moving and then quickly slits the chicken’s neck. The screeching and squawking of that defenseless chicken and the nonchalant slaughter is an image that has stayed with me, and is something that I come back to when I think about why I do not eat meat. As a Hindu, as well, I found it very difficult to reconcile the fact that meat is not a food considered suitable for offering to God, and thus, if I would not offer it to God, then why would I put it in my own stomach?
Until recently, I was eating a lacto-vegetarian diet, meaning that while I did not consume animal flesh, I still ate dairy products such as butter, milk, and cheese. After much personal contemplation and consultation with friends, I decided to give up dairy as well and embrace a vegan diet. For a long time, it seemed like a very natural progression for me, something that I would somehow end up doing, if that makes any sense. Yet I did not immediately adopt a vegan diet for several reasons: 1) dairy had been so fully integrated into my diet; 2) with Hindu diets specifically, dairy is given importance because the cow is sacred. Milk and ghee (clarified butter), because they come from a sacred creature, are sattvic (pure) substances, and should be consumed readily. In fact, we have been told that some rishis and saints survived solely on a diet of milk, so we can only imagine how consuming dairy affects us spiritually.
Unfortunately, we no longer live in the time of rishis and saints. We’re living in an era where the production of our food is incredibly mechanized and streamlined. Cows are very rarely milked by hand, but instead are milked by machines, after they are injected with hormones and antibiotics. They are routinely artificially inseminated so that they will produce milk. Instead of allowing her calf to suckle before taking her excess milk, we separate the cow from her calf and steal her milk. (We think it would be inhumane and cruel to separate a newborn baby from its mother, so why is it somehow different for another living creature?) Her calves either enter the dairy themselves if they are female, or are slaughtered to make veal and cheese if they are male. Then, when she can no longer produce milk, the cow will be sent off to the slaughterhouse herself: “While cows can live up to 25 years, dairy cows are typically removed from the dairy herd at age 2-5 when their milk production weans, their lives cut drastically short by entering the meat market.” That is the grim reality.
I saw a video recently, showing a disturbing scene in India: a cattle rustler is chased down a road by some vigilantes and is taken out of his truck and beaten senselessly, and then after the cows are set free, the flatbed truck is set on fire. Many Hindus have shared this video, lifting it up as an example of “cow protection” and “just punishment”. Now this is disturbing because although I care about cows (and all other animals), I do not believe in violent retribution. Criticism of this video has been met with comments of ‘Well, how many cows have you saved with your talk of nonviolence?’ I have to ask, how many of those same Hindus who have shared this video have seriously questioned where their dairy is sourced? If they have not, aren’t they also contributing to the cycle of pain and suffering of cows by consuming dairy that is produced in a cruel manner? What makes them any better? Instead of blowing up trucks and beating up cattle rustlers, wouldn’t a better solution be to embrace a cruelty-free lifestyle that will stem the appetite for beef and dairy products? In this way, will we not save thousands and thousands of cows, instead of however many will fit on a flatbed truck?
Some will say, “Yes, but what about goshalas (small community dairies)? Isn’t the dairy produced there usually cruelty-free?” While I appreciate the efforts of goshalas in the US (I haven’t been to one in India), they are unfortunately the exception, not the rule. How many will actually travel to a goshala to get cruelty-free milk and butter when regularly produced dairy is cheaper and easier to access at their local supermarket?
For me, as a Hindu who does believe that cows (and all other forms of life) are sacred, it has become unconscionable to continue participating in a system that exploits cows in a cruel manner for a commodity that we don’t even need. Of course, some will say, ‘But we need ghee and milk for puja!’ To that I respond, doesn’t Lord Krishna say in the Gita that God is pleased with whatever we offer with love and devotion (BG 9:26)? We can substitute dairy products like milk and ghee in puja—would this not also be more pleasing to God, because our offerings were not produced through the suffering of another living creature?
We practice a religion which exhorts us to question this limited, material ‘reality’—does this not also extend to our dietary habits? What we eat also has karmic implications. I would much rather take myself out of a cycle of cruelty than continue to finance a system of oppression for the sake of tradition. For me, eating a sattvic diet and following a lifestyle grounded in ahimsa has come to mean embracing veganism. For me, real cow protection means allowing cows to live in peace, out of harm’s way, not to exploit them for the sake of my own tongue.
I realize I may offend some of my Hindu brethren with this article. Know that my intention is not to offend but to prompt you to question your dietary habits and recognize where your food comes from, instead of picking up a carton of milk without question. What we should truly find offensive is the mistreatment of Mother Cow, and more broadly, all of God’s creatures.
“So, when people ask, Have you nothing more important to think about? the answer is: There is nothing more important to think about than the heart of empathy, which in the final analysis is nothing other than the ability to love. Becoming a vegan is simply one manifestation of that love.” – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Face on Your Plate