It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.
- Albert Einstein
Today, more than ever before, the most controversial issue regarding diet is whether or not to be vegetarian. The generally understood and accepted definition of vegetarianism is abstention from animal flesh and related products. However, various forms of vegetarianism have arisen because of conflicting opinions regarding the suitability of eating eggs, fish and dairy products. Strict vegetarians, or vegans, do not eat eggs or fish, while many people who consider themselves to be practicing vegetarians do. Thus the definition of vegetarianism depends on individual interpretation.
There are many arguments for and against vegetarianism. Most people go to one extreme or the other and the subject is generally discussed dogmatically, emotionally and with too much emphasis on the moral aspects. Therefore, in order to gain a balance perspective, we must examine the question from both view points. Here are some of the arguments in favour of meat.
Meat is an excellent source of first class protein containing all the essential amino acids for proper growth and maintenance of the body. Amino acids are the building blocks for all body proteins. Vegetable is a second class protein because it does not contain all the essential amino acids. However, if we mix grams legumes in the ratio of 4 parts grain to 1 part legumes, all the amino acids are available. For example, rice and dhal or baked beans on toast, in the correct ratio, supply the body with all it needs in the way of protein.
Meat is high in vitamin B12 while a vegetarian diet is considered to be low. However, it has been shown that there is sufficient B12 in green vegetables to supply the needs of the body. Vitamin B12 is also found in yeast and yeast extract, eggs, milk, yogurt and other fermented foods such as bean curd or pakhal (fermented rice). Some vegetarians claim that because certain bacteria produce B12, it is possible to achieve a state in which friendly bacteria can be induced to live in the intestines producing our own B12 as occurs in certain ruminant animals. These people state that a meat diet is detrimental to the vitamin B12 production in the body.
Among the arguments against meat, one of the most thought provoking is the fact that many modern methods of slaughter result in an end product which is contaminated by various chemicals such as the hormone adrenaline. Animals are highly stressed at the time of slaughter and large amounts of adrenaline are released into the bloodstream. This chemical remains in the blood and meat and is ingested into our system charging us with stress and creating a nervous, aggressive, fearful state.
The use of artificial methods to stimulate an animal's growth is becoming more common throughout the world. Antibiotics, hormones, vaccines and other substances are given to animals by mouth or injection. These also remain in the meat and when consumed they unbalance the neuroendocrine system and are detrimental to health.
The flesh of dead animals can be a breeding ground for many different types of bacteria. It is known that bad meat and fish produce some of the most powerful poisons known to man. Meat must be cooked properly, especially when there is inadequate refrigeration. Apart from these poisons and the poisons introduced by man, all of the animal's natural waste products are found in the cells of its tissues. Expelling these toxins and waste products consumed in meat products imposes an extra burden on our organs of elimination.
Surveys in various countries have shown that those with high levels of meat consumption, particularly New Zealand, USA, Australia and other industrially developed countries had the highest rate of colon cancer. In countries that did not consume much meat such as Nigeria, the level of colon cancer was negligible. Demographical studies are difficult to interpret, so these results are not conclusive but they suggest that excessive meat plays a role in causing cancer. Many other conditions have been associated with a high meat intake, for example arteriosclerosis, rheumatism, haemorrhoids and constipation.
The body requires a certain amount of protein to build up and rejuvenate all the worn out cells. If more than this amount is ingested, the excess is utilised for providing energy needs. This is not very economical in terms of energy expenditure, however, as the total amount of energy gained from the extra protein. Thus we lose energy in the process and this is why protein diets are good for losing weight. The proteins that are converted in this manner tend to leave behind certain residues or ‘ashes’ in the body as a by product. These have to be eliminated by the kidneys, lungs and skin, thus placing a greater load on these organs. This is also the reason why people who eat meat have a strong body odour, and when they change over to a vegetarian diet, this odour leaves them.
Throughout the ages, sages and philosophers have advocated vegetarianism as the preferred way of life. Archemedies and many other Greek philosophers urged people to become vegetarian. George Bernard Shaw told people that if they wanted to eat meat they should first be able to watch their food being slaughtered and made ready for the dinner table.
They recommended vegetarianism because they knew about the intimate relationship between the body and the mind, and that what we eat has a definitive effect on our state of mind. Vegetarianism has been shown to promote inner calmness and harmony between the body and mind, while eating meat has been linked with internal tension, disharmony and arousal of passion. This does not mean that vegetarianism will immediately give you a peaceful mind, but it will definitely aid the process while yogic techniques perform the main work.
Vegetarianism is the basis of a sattwic diet which increases vitality as it is light and easy to digest. Meat, on the other hand, is heavy, rajasic and takes a lot of energy to digest. From the point of view of digestive problems a vegetarian diet goes a long way in aiding therapeutic techniques. In some cases diet alone is therapeutic and the yogic exercises only aid to speed up the natural healing process. Constipation, for example, is due in many cases to a low resistance to meat diet, which does not have the necessary bulk to stimulate movement of the intestines. As a result of this, haemorrhoids and perhaps even cancer can also form.
If you do not have any digestive problems and you are eating meat, then perhaps this is the correct diet for your occupation and lifestyle. However, a meat-eater with indigestion will greatly benefit from at least a short term vegetarian diet. Of course, many vegetarians also get indigestion but, from our experience, it is much easier to cure these people by minor dietary changes than those who eat meat. This seems to be because vegetarians are used to lighter, more easily digestible food and thus have more reserve energy in their system. Vegetarianism combined with regular and sensible eating habits and the appropriate yoga practices will definitely relieve all digestive problems. Try to adopt a vegetarian diet while you are using the techniques given here, even if it is only for 3 months. During this time you may find the benefits of vegetarianism outweigh the disadvantages.
As a staple diet, vegetarianism does not have to be strict and rigid. Eating meat occasionally on social occasions or with friends does no harm in the long term. Manu, the codifier of laws in ancient India summed up the sensible approach to the whole subject when he said:
"There is no wrong in eating meat or drinking wine, but abstention gives many benefits."
When making the changeover to a vegetarian diet, it is important to know what else to use in order to maintain the body's protein supply as well as other aspects of diet. Soya beans are known to be richer in protein than meat, weight for weight. This is often a surprise to many people. Soya beans have been used by the Chinese and other oriental people for centuries. Nearly 40% of the soya bean is pure protein. This is about twice that of meat and four times that of eggs, wheat and other cereals. There are many other fine foods that contain a high percentage of protein, the most widely known being nuts of all types, lentils, sunflower seeds, milk, yogurt, cheese, as well as all other dairy products.
One thing is certain, you will always obtain your protein and all other nutrients if you eat a reasonably varied vegetarian diet. People often say that vegetarian food is tasteless and monotonous compared to non-vegetarian food. This is only true when there is lack of imagination and un-skilful preparation on the part of the cook.
It is assumed that vegetarianism is an integral part of yogic practice. This is only partially true, however, for while yoga views vegetarianism as the most beneficial system of nutrition, it does not for an insist that practitioners of yoga become vegetarians. Although becoming vegetarian is preparation for higher forms of yoga, nonvegetarians are heartily accepted as practitioners of yoga. Yoga advises but does not preach vegetarianism.
Actually yogic practices in themselves have nothing whatsoever to do with diet, whether vegetarian or nonvegetarian. The aim of yoga is to expand the awareness and awaken the prana shakti which can sustain the body even in the absence of a so called nutritious diet. By practicing yoga, both mental and physical health are improved regardless of whether one is vegetarian or nonvegetarian.
At the same time yoga recognises that food is as much a necessity for the aspirant as mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment. In yoga, a simple diet is used to fuel the physical body (annamaya kosha), and hatha yoga to remove its impurities. Pranayama charges the vital energy body (pranamaya kosha) while meditation develops the mental and psychic bodies (manomaya and vigyanamaya koshas). As far as making food a path to higher consciousness, however, no diet has yet succeeded in this, and yogic diet is no exception.
Many people are surprised to find that there is no fixed yogic diet; it varies from climate to climate, season to season, and sadhana to sadhana. Perhaps the ideal yogic diet can be summed up as the most natural, the simplest to purchase and the easiest to prepare and digest.
That diet which augments the balanced state of body and mind is said to be sattvic. In India this diet consists of fruit, nuts, milk (and milk products), steamed vegetables, cooked grains, beans and lentils. These foods are said to increase sattva in the body because they are light, simple and supply all the correct nutrients. At the same time they increase our mental and physical vitality so that we can more easily experience peace, bliss, lightness and clarity of mind.
Rajasic food differs from sattvic food in that it is prepared with many spices and plenty of ghee or oil. This food is heavier and creates restlessness in the mind. Meat and fish are rajasic. Some yogis also say that milk is rajasic because it excites sexual hormones and makes one stronger physically but not mentally.
Tamasic foods are old and stale. They lower the energy and produce inertia. Foods which are not cooked or chewed well also fall into this category as do dead foods and the great variety of highly foods.
By avoiding rajasic and tamasic foods as far as possible and sticking mainly to a sattvic diet, we can gradually alter the inner body chemistry. All the digestive enzymes and nutritional properties are renewed when the foods consumed are light and full of energy.
Why are so many people sick today? Why are so few in control of their bodies, minds and lives? Probably the main cause is a lack of willpower, discipline and common sense. Many people let their tongues rule their lives. When discipline is cultivated through yoga and the body systems become more balanced, we begin to naturally and spontaneously like those things that are good for us and reject those things which upset our bodies and minds. The desire for sattva develops from discipline.
When we control the mind we control the physical body. Vitality is conserved and concentrated. The nervous system is, calmed and the hormones of the pituitary are stored and then used more effectively and appropriately. These energy reserves are available for sensual activity but can also be transformed into spiritual energy, prana shakti or ojas. As we begin to concentrate our mind and become more sattvic, the body processes become balanced and less precious nutrients are wasted. When, through samadhi we transcend sattva altogether, the actual energy source changes and the body no longer requires food.
We are constantly taking food in and expelling wastes as part of the metabolic process. The sattvic diet maintains an even metabolism - input equals output, absorption of nutrients equals elimination of wastes. No excess or heavy demands are made on the body and thus health is maintained.
A rajasic diet increases metabolism and activates the nervous and endocrine systems. It demands a lot of attention as one must constantly satisfy the desires and cravings which arise from this over activity. A tamasic diet, on the other hand, makes one under active, lazy and dull. Parts of the physical organism may actually shut down due to it. Both rajasic and tamasic diets lead to disease; when they are replaced by a sattvic diet, the metabolism and whole body functioning are rebalanced.
The ancient yogic scriptures have given us extensive advice on how to maintain a sattvic diet. The recommendations vary with climate, season and personality type:
The ayurvedic teats give extensive advice for maintaining a sattvic diet based on the Indian climate, the 6 divisions of the year, and the foods available in India.
These basic recommendations have to be modified according to the temperament and constitution of the individual. For example, a person who has a predominantly vata constitution should eat those foods which do not produce wind in every season. The same applies to kapha and pitta. People who always practice meditation tend to develop excess vata and therefore can use milk, a rajasic and kapha producing food, for balance.
A man's work determines his diet to a large extent. Karma yogis who perform heavy physical work can digest any food, even meat. Heavy foods, however, would be poisonous to the jnani who sits and meditates each day. The same principle applies to the labourer and the sedentary worker. Suitable food must be selected, otherwise our system will be upset.
The beauty of tantra is that it accepts everything. Tantra says; enjoy what you have without becoming attached to any one way that you think is right, rather experience all and fulfil your desires. If you eat meat, enjoy it. If you eat rich, fatty foods and enjoy them, then continue. It is better to do this than to suppress your desires. The only thing that tantra suggests is that you remain aware of what you are doing. Watch what is happening to your body and mind when you eat meat, rich foods, or when you eat excessively. See what is actually going on, and experience all there is to experience, good and bad. Then you will know for yourself what is the right thing to cat and no neurosis or misunderstanding will arise.