The Selfish Yogi and Eating Animals

Sri Dharma Mittra (left) by ahsup via flickr. Swami Rama Tirtha (right) via Wikimedia Commons.
Sri Dharma Mittra (left) by ahsup via flickr. Swami Rama Tirtha (right) via Wikimedia Commons.

By Jeff McMahon

This is the second of two posts exploring the yamas and niyamas as moral codes vs. practical steps. The object of this post is not to debate vegetarianism, but to show the dual motivations for vegetarianism offered in yogic texts. Please read the first post first.

Every class I’ve attended by Sri Dharma Mittra has included a blunt, unapologetic argument for vegetarianism.

“If you eat meat,” I’ve heard him say, “your stomach is a graveyard.”

“If you have animals in your refrigerator, your home is a morgue.”

Dharma Mittra believes we should spare the lives of animals out of compassion, and in observance of ahimsa— non-harming—the first of the yamas.

But not all yogis agree. The early 20th Century Swami Rama Tirtha would say that Dharma Mittra has the wrong idea:

“As to meat, people think that the people of India abstain from meat-eating on the ground of mercy to animals. It may be that there are some sects that abstain from meat-eating on that ground, but Vedantins at least do not,” Rama Tirtha said.

“Vedanta does not ask you to abstain from eating meat on that ground. O no. Vedantins, and usually Swamis, do not eat meat, but they do not abstain from eating meat on the ground of cruelty to animals. That argument is not right.”

In fact, Rama Tirtha insists pity is a weakness. And if one attains self-realization, if one no longer identifies with the body, he says, then concern for others no longer makes sense:

“If you realize your true Self, if to you the consciousness of this little body is unreal, then as far as you are concerned, regard for the outside flesh and blood of others will disappear.”

This divide between yogis illustrates the dual motivations given in yogic texts for observance of the yamas and niyamas. And just as the accompanying post predicts, this divide between yogis eventually closes.

While Dharma Mittra and Swami Ramatilda disagree about the value of compassion, both are vegetarians. Both say we should not eat animals. And both agree on another reason why.

Rama Tirtha:

“Meat-eating puts you in a state or condition where you are not able to concentrate the mind easily,” Rama Tirtha says. “Different kinds of food produce different effects. If a man drinks wine, he becomes intoxicated; if a man takes opium, does it not produce a particular kind of effect? a man takes arsenic and it produces a particular kind of effect; so a particular kind of food produces a particular effect, and so does meat. The effect which meat produces on the body is not the effect which the students of Religion require.”

Dharma Mittra:

Your mind will never go deep,” Dharma Mittra says. “You may do your meditation, stop your mind, and control your breath, but you won’t find spiritual bliss because the psychic channels are blocked. It’s through the psychic channels that the love of God flows to our heart. The meat pollutes the subtle body, especially the Anandamaya Kosha, so the mind cannot realize reality.”

You can read more about the rajasic and tamasic qualities of meat—the qualities that render meat unsuitable for a calm mind, according to yoga and ayurveda, in these texts by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda and Michael S. Dick.

Our point here is this: whether or not yogis observe ahimsa for the sake of animals, for the sake of others, we have reason to observe it for ourself.

Teachers and Teachings:

Sri Dharma Mittra on Ahimsa and Vegetarianism (interview)

The Vedantic Idea of Eating Meat, by Swami Rama Tirtha (text)

Regarding a Vegetarian Diet by Michael S. Dick (text)

Ayurveda and Food by Dr. Robert Svoboda (text)

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