Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Vegan or Lacto?

Krishna and Balarama: pic BBT International

My dear friend and godsister Sudevi Dasi recently brought up this issue on Facebook and it set me thinking... We are taught by the sastras (scriptures) that milk products are healthy, increasing the intelligence and Mode of Goodness and that Krishna and Balarama lived as cowherd boys in Vrndavana. Indeed, dairy farming underpins Their lilas (transcendantal activities) there; the gopis (Radharani and Her friends) were milkmaids and all the Vrajvasis relished fresh milk, butter, ghee etc. Krishna is also known as Govinda or Gopala, or He who finds the cows/ He who protects the cows.  - So what could possibly be wrong about eating dairy products? Why have many devotees in the West (myself included) now turned towards veganism? And are our reasons for doing so spiritual, material or a bit of both? Will our level of bhakti be affected by whether we are vegan or not? I'm not intending to write an exhaustive essay on this subject, nor am I trying to persuade anyone adopt my own way of thinking, but I would like to put forward a few thoughts and opinions on the issue so that people can make informed choices.
Firstly, I would like to point out that the Vedic way of raising cattle for milk is ideal; the cow is respected and cared for as a life-giving mother, and even offered puja (worship). Mother cows are allowed to suckle their calves for longer, and the bulls and male calves are never sent to be slaughtered but used to pull carts and do other agricultural work. The cows can live out their natural lifespans free from over-exploitation: no killing involved. There are very, very few farms in the West operating to this standard; the only ones I have heard of  are those run by communities of devotees. In the West, even organic dairy farms and "Freedom Food" farms slaughter the male calves and bulls, inextricably linking the dairy industry to the meat industry. This is the ugly truth.
So if you have decided to detatch yourself from being possibly implicated in cow slaughter, where does that leave you in relation to the Vedic teachings that milk is good for you? Well I guess it is milk from properly protected cows that is good for you, because in addition to the karmic aspect, cows from modern dairy farms are pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and goodness knows what else; the milk is heavily processed... and all this is clearly not going to do you any good healthwise. More people these days are allergic or sensitive to dairy products than ever before. for myself, I know that the times in my life when I have been vegan have been the times when I have suffered less catarrh, sore throats, headaches etc. and had more energy and better skin. These are just some of the material reasons for going vegan.
But what about the words of our Spiritual Masters? For it is their advice practitioners of Bhakti-Yoga must take on board if they are to progress in terms of spiritual life. Srila Prabhupada said that at least the poor exploited cows will benefit spiritually by having their milk offered to the Lord; and I know many who have taken this to heart sincerely and use it to inform their dietary choices. It would be very wrong indeed to try to deny the truth of Prabhupada's statement, but on the other hand, as far as I know, he did not tell us we don't need to give up dairy products either. My own Gurudeva, Srila Narayana Maharaja, said that it would be better to avoid products which come from dairy cows who have their babies and bulls slaughtered and to only use those products which come from Vedically-raised herds or your own cows which you will not, of course, kill. By their abundant mercy, then, our Gurus have not told us to do anything which we might find hard to obey (because disobeying the Spiritual Master is a grave matter), but rather they have made the facts known and left us to excercise our tiny bit of free will in an informed way.
Lastly, my wise husband put another angle on the issue: if you have real bhakti (devotion), then everything you do is for Krishna therefore everything you do is favourable for Krishna-bhakti. (Obviously, this doesn't meant you can do anything you like, as you will not want to do anything that is not pleasing to Krishna; rather you will be following Vedic injunctions such as the "four regs" of not indulging in meat, fish, eggs, intoxicating substances, gambling or illicit sex.) This means that when you are on this platform, then it does not matter spiritually if you take dairy products or not. Before you reach this stage, however, you might need to consider the issue of veganism carefully, follow your conscience and also consider your material as well as your spiritual health. It's a personal thing.
I'd love to know what you think about all this, so feel free to use the comments box!