Meat-eating: the West’s Sacred Cow
Americans tend to scorn India’s recent national ban on cow slaughter. We have difficulty appreciating the Hindus’ view that the cows are holy, and most Americans have little knowledge of how a rural economy like India’s is dependent on the life of the cow and her by-products. But a more basic tenet we all hold dear—the right to live—is one we should consider in its relevance to the mass slaughter of cows and other animals.
In the U.S. there is still strong support of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Our federal constitution guarantees everyone the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The protests against nuclear energy and the lobbying of the environmentalists put human survival above other priorities. Our reluctance to take part in wars is also based on strong desires to protect American lives as well as the lives of others. The U.S. government’s objections to executions in Iran as well as our other strong stands on human rights around the world are examples of our tendency not to take cheaply the elimination of human life. Although we in this country commit a million abortions yearly, a very significant percentage of Americans abhor this practice as equal to murder and so have launched a vigorous right to life” movement. And when a convicted murderer was recently given the death penalty, opponents of capital punishment protested that to take the life even of a habitual criminal was cruel and inhuman.
But although millions of harmless cows are slaughtered daily, hardly a single cry of objection is raised anywhere in the land. Indeed, almost everyone affirms the killing of animals by daily eating their flesh. But there are good reasons to think that the ethic “Thou shalt not kill” should also be applied to animals, and especially the cow.
Many of us rarely even see a live cow. We see the cartoon figures of Elsie the Cow and Elmer the Bull on the cartons of milk, yogurt, and cheese that we get from the freezer of the supermarket. And we also see a version of a happy Elsie on many restaurant signboards. One restaurant in New York bears the sign “The Sacred Cow—Fabulous Steaks:” Another place, “The Happy Cow Restaurant—Beef Steaks;” is advertised by a blissful-looking cow standing in a blazing-hot frying pan..
Another, “The Jolly Cow;” shows a Disneyesque cow happily licking her lips and inviting us to steaks and hamburgers.
But does anyone really believe that the cow likes to be killed, dances happily in the frying pan, or relishes the thought of her flesh being served to casual diners? If you have ever seen the cows peacefully grazing or heard their pitiful screams as they are executed in the slaughterhouse, you know very well that they have the same “gut feelings” as humans do regarding their own right to live. Yet slaughtering cows does not disturb the consciences of billions of meat-eaters, because they choose not to apply the ethics of the sacredness of life to animals. But we should reconsider this double standard.
Our American ethic draws much from the Judeo-Christian commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” as well as from the humanistic Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” But we choose to take the commandment to mean that although thou shalt not kill the human, thou shalt kill the animal. Members of the Krsna consciousness movement, which is based on the Vedic scriptures, have basically the same monotheistic theology as Christianity: There is a Supreme Being by whose intelligence and will everything is created, maintained, and annihilated—and man can be happy in this life and the next only by adhering to the codes of religion as given by God in holy scriptures. “Thou shalt not kill” is also a tenet of Krsna consciousness, and it is for this reason that the followers of Krsna do not kill the cow or other animals. Krsna devotees have not taken the protection of the cow as an all-in-all conclusion of religion, but rather as a natural consequence of following God’s order not to kill.
Theologically, the reason a God conscious person cannot take another’s life is that he recognizes every person as having an individual spiritual nature or soul and thus as being a son of God. The Vedas cite six symptoms by which we can understand the presence of the soul in a living being: birth, growth, production of by-products, duration, dwindling, and death. These symptoms signify the difference between dead matter and a living being. It is indefensible, therefore, to say that the human has a soul but an animal like the cow does not.
“But,” we may say, “the animals cannot understand philosophy or science.” Still, this is no reason to kill them. A small child cannot understand philosophy either, but that does not mean we can kill him. If an elderly, successful son approaches his father and advises him to kill a younger son because he is only a baby or simply because he is foolish and less successful, the father will not agree. Nor does the Supreme Father approve of the so-called Christian son who kills the cows and claims that this is sanctioned by God the Father.
The Vedic scriptures admit, “One living being survives by eating another.” Nevertheless, they also advocate nonviolence. This means that in order to live, one should keep violence to a minimum. Vegetables are also a lower form of life, and so, strictly speaking, being a vegetarian does not in itself free one from the impiety of violence and killing. In Krsna consciousness the taking of life for eating becomes sanctified, because the devotees eat only food first offered to God. This act of devotion transforms eating into taking prasada, Krsna’s mercy.
But Krsna does not ask for the cow in such offerings unto Him. When He appeared on this earth some five thousand years ago, Krsna Himself showed affection and favor to the cow. In fact, He personally took to cowherding. The Bible, Koran, and Buddhist teachings also stress that nonviolence is applicable to the animals, and that their lives should be protected. Only in dire necessity can one justify the taking of a life; and selfish indulgence of the tongue is not a dire necessity.
But meat-eating is truly “a sacred cow” in America. The beef industry is so extremely powerful that when President Carter held a token meatless luncheon at the White House in 1977, he was sent all sorts of threatening telegrams. For most Americans, giving up meat-eating is as unthinkable as giving up driving. We think we cannot live without it. And because of greed and attachment to a standard of living that allows us to eat meat three times a day, we refuse to recognize that “Thou shalt not kill” should, according to logic, scripture, and common decency, apply to the animals as well as to men.
There are subreligious arguments, also, in favor of sparing the life of the cow. Huge amounts of farming land in America are taken up to grow corn and other feed for fattening up doomed cattle. Much of the same land could be used to grow grains for human consumption, and because grains yield many times greater food value when consumed directly than when transformed into meat, this would alleviate world hunger. At any rate, what with the pressures of inflation, Americans may eventually find it impossible to maintain their “high standard” of meat-eating.
The biggest superstition of the meat-eater is that without meat he cannot be healthy. But proteins and vitamins that are available in meat are also amply provided in nature’s diet of grain, nuts, beans, and milk products. The Krsna conscious diet provides ample protein in preparations such as capatis (whole-wheat bread patties) and dahl (split-pea or mungbean soup). As the New York Times noted recently, new discoveries about the habits of early men on this planet show that man is actually intended to be a fruit-eater, and that his present diet of meat is harmful to him.
Even among animals, the cow is considered special, and this is based not on myth but on reason. The magnanimous cow requires only a little grass, which is available naturally in the pasture, and in return she gives abundant milk, not only for her calves but also for the human family. And thus she supplies mankind with food rich in vitamins. In the original Vedic culture, life was rural and agrarian, and each man kept several cows and grew his own produce on his own land. He also used bulls to plow the fields. We may think that a life based on drawing milk from the cow and crops from the bull is primitive and peculiar, but the artificiality of our present mechanized, urbanized way of life is becoming obvious, even to the die-hard champions of technological progress, and the day may not be far off when man will actually be forced to return to these natural ways of life. Reverence for mother cow is not useless but practical, and therefore Lord Krsna advises in the Bhagavad-gita that a section of humanity, the agriculturalists, should take protection of the cow as part of their social duty.
What is at stake is America’s role of world leadership. Our leadership does not consist merely in maintaining the highest material standard or the biggest military power. It is a leadership that has always been essentially spiritual. This is the meaning of the U.S. stand on human rights. Commentators who recognize our moral decay offer various suggestions about “moral rearmament.” We suggest that those who are interested in a spiritually vital America give unprejudiced deliberation to the points we have made regarding the sin of animal slaughter. Although our moral deficiencies are multiple, the bad reactions resulting from the single anomaly of animal slaughter are enough to offset all humanitarian or religious improvements that may otherwise appear in our American way of life. Reaction to sinful activities is known in Vedic philosophy as karma, and the slaughterhouse is bringing severe reactions (bad karma) upon our society. Cow killing is killing America. And to halt this bad effect, we need not adopt artificial ideas, but just turn sincerely to the unavoidable meanings of the Golden Rule and “Thou shalt not kill.”—SDG