Vegetarianism: Its Role in Mental and Spiritual Development

An illustration from Franklin's paper on "...
An illustration from Franklin’s paper on “Water-spouts and Whirlwinds.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is common to cite the advantages that a vegetarian diet bring to a person’s physical well-being, but relatively little attention has been played to the role of the vegetarian diet in the realm of mental and spiritual development. I would like to share my perspective on this issue.1) Toxic build-up does not only affect intestines, arteries, kidneys, liver and other organs — it also is bound to affect the nervous system, which is directly related to the functions of the brain. Therefore toxicity is bound to hinder the individual’s capacity to react appropriately to all sorts of external and internal stimuli. Toxicity also must dull one’s efforts to concentrate and to contemplate.2) Many people believe that the only exhaustion a person may experience is physical body-tiredness. Usually, however, when an individual becomes depressed or confused, by resting or sleeping he or she again feels mentally rejuvenated and clear. Due to physical struggle our bodies develop, and due to mental struggle our minds develop. When that struggle becomes excessive in quantity or duration, then the mind begins desiring to enter into the non-conscious condition during which it rests and gets energy by merging in the unconscious-mind. Poor physical health exhausts the body, destroys the effectiveness of our resting periods, and thus certainly creates an environment in which it is difficult for the mind to rest, in which case the mind’s development becomes stunted.3) Usually yogis explain to their students that the physical and mental exercises of yoga and meditation are closely related with glandular hormonal secretions, i.e. to increasing, decreasing or balancing the activities of the glands. They therefore encourage students to be vegetarian so that they may better control their glands, and thus better control their minds. Over thousands of years of experimentation yogis found that different foods differently affect the glands, and have categorized them accordingly. (A categorized list follows later.)4) The same yogis teach that lighter food is easier for digestion, and thus is generally better for meditation or for any other brain work.5) One’s ability to concentrate or meditate depends to a large extent on the mental strength derived from following one’s conscience. The evils of meat-eating include environmental destruction, harm to one’s own body, the immorality of unnecessarily killing innocent conscious animals, and helping to maintain a global economic imbalance due to the rich nations over-consumption of the expensive foods: meat, fish and eggs.The conclusion of the yogis regarding the effect of foods on the mind and body is contained in the following well-known list:SENTIENT FOODS (good for both body and mind): fruit, most vegetables, grains, beans, milk products, nuts, apple vinegar, honey, sugar (in small quantity)MUTATIVE FOODS (if taken in small quantity neither harmful nor helpful): coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks (like colas), brown chocolate, kelp, brewer’s yeast, hot spicesSTATIC FOODS (bad for body or mind or both): meat, fish, eggs, onion, garlic, mushroom, mustard greens, alchohol, tobacco, narcotics and many drugsThe yogis explain that the static foods which are harmful to the mind cause disturbance to the three lowest psycho-spiritual energy centers, called “chakras”. The main chakras are usually categorized as being seven in number, and are related to physical glands. The hormonal secretion of each of the glands affects various human emotions and instincts which are either beneficial or harmful to mental balance and development. The relationship is as follows (the list of emotions is only partial to avoid complication):When the static foods heat up the three lowest chakras the mind’s balance and concentration is directly disturbed. As a result, both mental and spiritual progress are sharply hindered.The yogis teach that monks and nuns should eat only sentient foods. Family people should likewise prefer sentient food, but they may consume small amounts of mutative food if they so wish. Everyone should strictly avoid static foods except when compulsorily required for medicinal purpose or in conditions where starvation would otherwise result.Considering that onion and garlic are generally praised as body cleaners, one may wonder why they are categorized as static. These two foods are affective as cleaners because they are mildly poisonous to the body. When the body tries to quickly reject them, usually other negative elements may be simultaneously expelled. This is not a good method because it causes a large amount of internal heat to be created in the area of the lower glands. It is far better, rather it is positively helpful, to use lemon water or apple cider vinegar in small quantity mixed with water to clean the body. These two sentient cleaners increase alkalinity and help the over-active glands to cool down.Very little has so far been done in physical laboratories to examine these yogic teachings. On the other hand, as previously mentioned, for thousands of years the relationship of food with mental and spiritual development has been the matter of experimentation by countless individuals working with their own bodies and minds. We may hope that such objective examination is done in the near future. It will be a great service to humanity to clarify these fundamental principles. In the meantime, however, any individual may try for himself or herself, and see the results within a matter of a few weeks.As such information cannot be objectively justified, we may refer to the large number of famous persons who personally analyzed the relation of food with the body and mind and decided to be vegetarian. The list of such famous people who have publicized their preference for vegetarianism is long indeed. The fact that such highly developed personalities were vegetarian is in itself a statement of the intimate relationship between a subtle diet and a subtle mind. To finish this article I quote a few of these famous people.Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s foremost leaders in physical science, ethics, social movement and many other fields, became a vegetarian when he was 16 years old. From his diet Franklin understood “greater progress, from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension.” He called flesh-eating “unprovoked murder.”The French philospher Jean Jacques Rousseau said that as meat-eating animals are by nature much more violent than herbivores, so the vegetarian diet generally produces more compassionate people. He even suggested that butchers not be allowed to testify in court or sit on juries.Because the great Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a vegetarian, so the vegetarian diet is sometimes called the Pythagorean system. He said, “The earth affords a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter; only beats satisfy their hunger with flesh.” Pythagoras was known to even pay fishermen to throw their catch back into the ocean.The essence of a strong mind is to follow one’s conscience, or in other words to be consistent with one’s beliefs. The poet Shelley pointed out that a meat-eater cannot have a strong mind because he is not consistent with his deeper feelings. He said, “Let the advocate of animal food force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth and, plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood….then, and then only, would he be consistent.”One of the world’s greatest physicists, Albert Einstein, said, “The vegetarian manner of living, by it’s purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”The great Renaissance painter, inventor, sculputor and poet Leonardo da Vinci wrote about meat-eaters, “He who does not value life does not deserve it.” He said that the bodies of meat-eaters are nothing other than “burial places”, graveyards for the animals they eat.Even Adam Smith, the propounder of free-market capitalism, was a vegetarian. He said, “Grain and other vegetables, with the help of milk, cheese, and butter, or oil, where butter is not to be had, afford the most plentiful, the most wholesome, the most nourishing, and the most invigorating diet.”The Russian author Leo Tolstoy said that by killing animals is “simply immoral,” and that by doing so “man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity — that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures lilkle himself — and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel.”Most Christians believe that their meat-eating is proper because they think that Jesus ate meat. Here we are faced with a trick of translation just to befool people, causing widespread misunderstanding for these 2000 years. Nowhere in the original Greek manuscripts of the Bible is there any reference to Jesus eating meat or encouraging others to eat meat. The words that have been translated as “meat” are such Greek words as “trophe, brome, and phago,” which simply mean “food” or “eating”. The Greek word for “meat or flesh” is “kreas”, which is never used in relation to Christ. Understanding this point, many of the early Christian saints were vegetarian, including St Jerome, St John Chrysostom and St Benedict. Also many early Christian fathers like Clement of Alexandria ate no meat.Today many Buddhists including even monks and nuns are eating non-vegetarian diets. This is the height of irony when one considers that one of the main thrusts behind the first spread of Buddhism was as reaction to the widely accepted practice of animal slaughter. By and large Buddha stopped this evil by preaching the doctrine of nonviolence.Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who became a vegetarian at an early age, even though many doctors warned him that the diet would finally kill him. When he was an old man, he was asked why he did not go back and show them what good it had done him. He replied, “I would, but they all passed away years ago.” Once someone asked him how it was that he looked so youthful. “I don’t,” Shaw answered. “I look my age. It is the other people who look older than they are. What can you expect from people who eat corpses?” On the relationship between flesh-eating and violence, Shaw wrote:We pray on Sundays that we may have light To guide our footsteps on the path we tread; We are sick of war, we don’t want to fight, And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.H.G. Wells wrote about vegetarianism becoming the only way of life in his vision of a future world in “A Modern Utopia”. He wrote, “I can still remember as a boy the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughterhouse.”Though the realization of Wells’ vision still looks far away, in one way any meat-eater can bring about the end of the slaughterhouse today itself. Because today every house in which flesh is eaten is just like a mini-slaughterhouse. All the humane loving creatures, be they animals, plants or humans pray that a change will come in the meat-eating humans. They pray that those meat-eaters, whose digestive systems squirm with the extreme unnaturalness of their barbaric habit, will embrace the lifestyle based on fruits, vegetables and other natural elements. And each time even one barbaric human opts for becoming civilized and shutting down his or her own personal slaughterhouse — the world rejoices.
Dada Dharmavedananda has been teaching yoga and natural therapy for nearly 40 years in over 50 countries. He is the founder of the Ananda Marga Wellness Center, which offers comprehensive in-patient natural therapy and naturopathic treatment. Visit his website: for more information.
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