Growing up in Singapore, a melting pot of culinary flavours ranging from chicken rice to satay to bak kut teh (a kind of peppery/herbal pork rib broth), I never imagined I would ever turn vegan.
It started when, at the age of 10, I stumbled upon videos exposing what happened in slaughterhouses. The blood, the screams, the animals’ eyes dilating with fear as their throats were slit – it all looked like a scene out of a horror movie. Traumatised by the reality of how meat was made, I decided I could not eat meat anymore. When I told my parents my decision, they reprimanded me and told me I needed to eat meat to have a balanced diet.
It was not until I turned 20 that I finally stopped eating meat. A few months ago, I stopped consuming eggs and dairy as well.
After studying yoga philosophy, I started to reflect on how a vegan diet related to yogic principles.
As a starting point, yoga does not enforce veganism, or any diet for that matter, on its practitioners. In fact, there are many yoga practitioners who consume meat and animal products.
Nevertheless, it seems that a vegan diet is supported by a few key yogic principles.
(1) Three Gunas and Food
In yoga philosophy, the mind is formed from the essence of food. If the food consumed is pure, the mind can develop a strong subtle intellect.
Tamasic food, which includes meat, fish and intoxicants, is considered to be “stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten and impure refuse” (Bhagavad Gita, XVII, 10). Such food makes a person dull and inert; fills his mind with impure thoughts; and increases his risks of getting chronic ailments and depression. This age-old philosophy has been partially backed by modern science, which has established links between meat consumption and heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity and harmful cholesterol levels.
On the other hand, a Sattvic diet consists of pure natural food which increases health and vitality, while rendering the mind pure and calm. It includes vegetables, pulses, nuts, fruits, seeds, and whole grains such as oats and quinoa. It includes dairy products only if the cow is fed and milked in the right conditions. However, cows are abused in modern dairy practices. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated repeatedly and slaughtered for cheap beef once they stop producing milk. Their calves are removed within 36 hours after birth, breaking the strong bond between mother and child. These calves are killed if they are male, or raised to be dairy cows if female. In addition, milk is now filled with hormones and antibiotics, which are harmful to our health.
Therefore, a vegan diet, which excludes all meat and animal products, is Sattvic and ideal for nurturing our physical and mental health.
Santosha is about being contented. I may not get to eat a lot of my favourite dishes like butter chicken or char siew rice (roast pork rice) anymore, but I still get a healthy and delicious diet which meets all my nutritional needs. For this, I am contented. There is no need to compare myself with others around me who get to eat a larger variety of food than I can.
Ahimsa is about respecting all living beings and practicing nonviolence to others.
In a place with little or no plants available for consumption, perhaps due to environmental conditions (like in the Arctic or Mongolia), a person would certainly need to hunt for meat to survive. Otherwise, he would be committing violence upon himself.
However, in most modern cities like Singapore, people have access to a large variety of food. Thus, most of us can choose to adopt a vegan diet if we want.
Veganism applies to ahimsa in several ways.
First, by turning vegan, I am renouncing the confinement, abuse, and killing of animals. This is a direct way to disengage myself from one of the most prevalent (but overlooked) forms of violence. Modern factory farming is inherently cruel to animals. Unlike farmers in the old days, today’s factory farmers show no concern about individual animals. They embrace any practice that increases profit, regardless of how much pain, suffering, and death it inflicts on the animal. Nearly all farmed animals live in intensively crowded and filthy factory farms. Castration, debeaking, and other painful mutilations are routinely carried out without pain-relief. Egg-laying hens are crammed into cages so tiny they can’t spread their wings. Male chicks, an unwanted by-product of egg production, are often ground up or scalded alive. By adopting a plant-based diet, I stop contributing to this systematic violence.
Second, veganism is an act of nonviolence towards the earth and other fellow humans. Animal agriculture uses natural resources at a way higher rate than plant crop production. Veganism would, therefore, drastically reduce the damage inflicted on the earth.
Third, veganism extends compassion to other fellow humans. There are millions of starving people in the world. Farmed animals are fed huge amounts of crops and water. In fact, it takes 13 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. These plants crops could have otherwise been used to feed more people, saving them from starvation.
Finally, veganism is an act of nonviolence to myself. I feel more at peace, and my conscience is clearer than before.
One of the most popular mantras is a Shanti (peace) mantra, which takes into account all living beings, not just humans:
Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah
Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah
Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih
May all beings become happy
May none fall ill
May all see auspiciousness everywhere
May none ever feel sorrow
Om Peace Peace Peace