“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?” – Buddha
“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” – Albert Schweitzer
Every country has its list of animals that are consumed by humans, and you would be surprised at what some countries consider delicacies. Some Asian countries buy Rhino horns, since they believe they have medicinal qualities, even though Rhino horn is made of keratin, just as human nails and hair are. As Americans, we may find using Rhino horn odd. But let me tell you something I have long considered strange. Adults read these little board books to their chubby fisted toddlers about cute animal babies on the farm, and then later that night, the family eats lamb for dinner. What do you tell the child when she asks “What are we eating?” “Oh, we’re eating one of those cute baby animals we were just reading about!” I had a friend who used to tell her young children they were eating “alien food” when some meat was about to pass their lips, otherwise the kids wouldn’t eat it. What a weird, schizophrenic thing we grown ups are able to do! It’s a kind of compartmentalization. This little box in my head appreciates baby animals and thinks they are so cute, but this box in my head was taught that there are certain animals we eat, even baby animals.
Aside from dogs, cats, bunnies and perhaps guinea pigs, the idea of animals as sentient beings is something foreign to many of us. From an early age, we have been taught to compartmentalize and been told that we need to eat meat to survive, yet there is so much current nutritional science that tells us this is not so. Current science tells us that the lives of animals are characterized by sensation and consciousness, yet some animals we love, and those unfortunate others we eat. For a devout Buddhist like myself the idea of slaughtering or eating animals is morally repugnant, a sin if you will. Buddhists believe that all creatures are so interconnected that any sentient being you encounter was in one lifetime your mother. Now there’s an idea that will influence your food choices!
Who decides why it is all right to eat one animal and taboo to eat another? In Hinduism, the cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed. However, many non-Hindus interpret these beliefs to mean that Hindus worship cows. This is not true. It is more accurate to say the cow is taboo in the Hindu religion, rather than sacred.
Furthermore, cows do not have an especially charmed life in India. Sometimes people around the world see images of India in print or on television, or they travel there, and see cows in public places, unfenced and unrestrained. From such scenes, they conclude that Indians consider cows gods, but this is a false idea and below you will find clarification on this subject.
In the spiritually fertile period that produced Jainism and Buddhism, Hindus stopped eating beef. This was mostly for practical reasons as well as spiritual. It was expensive to slaughter an animal for religious rituals or for a guest, and the cow provided an abundance of important products, including milk, browned butter for lamps, and fuel from dried dung. Some scholars believe the tradition came to Hinduism through the influence of strictly vegetarian Jainism. But the cow continued to be especially revered and protected among the animals of India.
By the early centuries AD, the cow was designated as the appropriate gift to the brahmans (high-caste priests) and it was soon said that to kill a cow is equal to killing a brahman. The importance of the pastoral element in the Krishna stories, particularly from the 10th century onward, further reinforced the sanctity of the cow. The cow remains a protected animal in Hinduism today and Hindus do not eat beef. Most rural Indian families have at least one dairy cow, a gentle spirit who is often treated as a member of the family.
The five products (pancagavya) of the cow — milk, curds, ghee butter, urine and dung — are all used in puja (worship) as well as in rites of extreme penance. The milk of the family cow nourishes children as they grow up, and cow dung (gobar) is a major source of energy for households throughout India. Cow dung is sometimes among the materials used for a tilak – a ritual mark on the forehead. Most Indians do not share the western revulsion at cow excrement, but instead consider it an earthy and useful natural product.
Despite their sacred status, cows don’t seem very appreciated in India. Visitors are often surprised to see them walking neglected around city streets, living on garbage from the gutters. But the cow is honored at least once a year, on Gopastami. On this “Cow Holiday,” cows are washed and decorated in the temple and given offerings in the hope that her gifts of life will continue. In India cows may have to scrounge for food, but it seems their life is better than those food animals living on factory farms which I can only imagine is a living hell.
Here is another practice which is strange to us but common practice in other parts of the world. In Korea and some other Asian countries, people eat dog. There are dog meat farms in some parts of the world where canines are treated the same as factory farm animals in this country. Normal to some Asians, but repugnant to the West. Fortunately, the International Humane Society is bringing attention to this issue, and many animals are being saved and brought to this country. If you would like to find out more about this you can visit the San Diego Humane Society webpage. They are doing great work to raise awareness of the plight of dogs in Asia.
These are some ideas to consider; it’s always good to ask why we do the things we do if we want to learn more about ourselves. As Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” I think food for thought is the very best kind of nourishment.