This month's issue is devoted to vegetarianism to coincide with the 24th World Vegetarian Conference in Calcutta, which will be addressed by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Yoga does not necessarily demand the adoption of vegetarianism, but as an ancient science of life with a message for the new age, it does have a point of view on the vegetarian debate.
The controversy over meat-eating is itself a product of the modern era. Traditionally mankind has eaten a grain-based diet the world over, and flesh foods played so small a part that they presented no problem. The trend to eating large quantities of meat began early this century, and with increasing prosperity has accelerated dramatically since the Second World War. In little over one generation, the world consumption of animal flesh has tripled! It is not that vegetarianism is a radical new idea; rather, high meat consumption is to be seen as an aberration from the traditional norm.
Space age communications have shrunk the world to the 'global village' and this has resulted in an exchange of cultural habits - and food recipes. Yet, in choosing from an international menu, people often do not choose wisely. In abandoning their traditional food wisdom, many people have become confused as to exactly what to eat for the best nourishment.
As people become more prosperous, they tend to spend additional money on luxury foods, and the world's wealthiest nations, notably the USA, have become trend-setters in food fashions despite growing evidence that their meat-based diet is detrimental to health. In January this year, a USA Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs made the following comment:
"Our diets have changed radically in the last fifty years, with great and often very harmful effects on health... Complex carbohydrates - fruits, vegetables, and grain products - which were the mainstay of the diet, now play a minority role."
These changes are unequivocally linked to 'six of the leading causes of death in the US'.
The affluent diet has spread to the Soviet Union, Japan and the prosperous urban elite in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In India, the wealthy are eating more and more meat, importing western ills with western technology. Worldwatch Institute, an independent research body, warns:
"As the affluent diet has spread, so have a variety of previously rare diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, arteriosclerosis and bowel cancer."
Our eating patterns carry a high emotional charge, and are rarely decided on the basis of intellectual conviction. Yet, access to the facts on nutrition does increase awareness, and expansion of awareness is the very essence of tantra. Yoga practices further refine awareness, helping us to recognise the emotional bias at the root of the various aspects of our personality-including food preferences. We are able to take a more objective look at what we eat and why.
This increased awareness makes us more responsive to our environment, internal and external, and if we venture to test food theories against our personal experience, our greater sensitivity will enable us to choose foods which heighten our physical and vital energy. The experience of yogic sages over the centuries is that simple plant foods, according to season, are the best for maintaining vigour and vitality. Their experience is supported by Chinese and Japanese Zen monks, Nepali and Thai Buddhists, and several Christian sects who are vegetarian to this day.
Yoga means union, and at the most elementary level of existence this means being at one with the body and eating in accordance with our requirements for physical and spiritual well-being. Yoga does not specifically require that one give up meat, but it does emphasise the need for nutritious food, and it is simply that evidence indicates meat does not satisfy this need.
Science alone cannot solve our dietary dilemma. Yoga would suggest that we take account of the traditions of the past and integrate them with modern technology. From the yogic point of view, it is a union of the insights of ancient and modern, eastern and western ways of eating, that will yield the most satisfactory solution for the present era.