Transcendental Commentary on the Issues of the Day
What’s Wrong With Animal Rights?
by Kundali dasa
The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine recently ran an article by William Ecenbarger on the animal rights movement. It was an informative and compelling version of the facts and arguments put forward by people who fight against speciesism—exploitation of animals. These people feel that the time has come to stop man’s tyrannical “dominion” over animals. They disagree with the traditional notion that animals are meant to serve man’s ends in cages, laboratories, traps, and kitchens.
The animal rights activists feel that their cause is cut from the same moral cloth as other crusades against injustice—the struggles against racism and sexism, for example. Their strongest argument against speciesism is summed up in a quote from the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who wrote in his Principles of Morals and Legislation: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they think? but, Can they suffer?” The answer, of course, is an unequivocal “Yes, animals certainly can suffer.” Therefore, say the animal rightists, logically we should extend that ethic to include animals. Thus one of their primary goals is to stop commercial production of animals for food.
Naturally, animal liberationists espouse strict vegetarianism. They say it is an important first step we can all take to combat speciesism. They are confident that in time their goals will be realized because “the weight of reason” is on their side.
Whether “the weight of reason” is sufficient to convince people in general to change their eating habits is certainly doubtful. But more important is the argument meat-eaters sometimes give to counter the animal rightists. They take the argument against inflicting suffering on other living beings one step further and try to lodge the animal rightists in an ethical sinkhole. This came out in the editorial column in the same issue of the Inquirer, wherein David R. Boldt, the editor of the magazine, wrote in response to Ecenbarger’s article: “My own excuse for eating meat is that plants, research has shown, have feelings, just like animals. Why choose between them? Before considering the fate of the steer, imagine the dread and horror that spreads across a wheat field when the thresher starts its work.”
Boldt’s challenge carries “the weight of reason,” although most reasonable people would not equate the suffering of wheat being harvested with the suffering of a steer being slaughtered. Obviously the steer is more sensitive to pain and more aware of its fate. We all know this. Our stomach reacts considerably less if we observe the threshing of a wheat field than if we observe the grisly work in a slaughterhouse. From a spiritual point of view, the sinful reaction, or karma, for animal slaughter is many times more severe than for taking a plant’s life. By nature’s arrangement, every living being is food for another, but the Vedic scriptures advise us that violence should be kept to a minimum. A vegetarian is therefore generally considered a more sensitive, refined, and spiritually advanced human being than a meat-eater. Thus the efforts by the animal rightists to end ghastly animal slaughter is commendable.
Still, being a vegetarian is not entirely free of inflicting some suffering and the concomitant karmic reactions. A moral argument based on “the weight of reason” would have to eliminate plants’ suffering completely, or the all-out moralist could not eat at all. Indeed, the animal rightists would be hard put to answer Boldt’s challenge purely on the grounds of reason.
How does the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, considering that it advocates strict vegetarianism, resolve this moral conundrum? This point was discussed in a conversation between Srila Prabhupada and Father Emmanuel, a Roman Catholic priest, in 1974:
Srila Prabhupada: The Vaisnava [Krsna consciousness] philosophy teaches that we should not kill even plants unnecessarily. In the Bhagavad-gita [9.26] Krsna says:
patram puspam phalam toyam
yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahrtam
“If someone offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or a little water, I will accept it.” We offer Krsna only the kind of food He demands, and then we eat the remnants. If offering vegetarian food to Krsna is sinful, then it would be Krsna’s sin, not ours. But God is apapa-viddham—sinful reactions are not applicable to Him. He is like the sun, which is so powerful that it can purify even urine—something impossible for us to do.
Krsna is also like a king, who may order a murderer to be hanged but who himself is beyond punishment because he is very powerful. Eating food first offered to the Lord is also something like a soldier’s killing during wartime. In a war, when the commander orders a man to attack, the obedient soldier who kills the enemy will get a medal. But if the same soldier kills someone on his own, he will be punished. Similarly, when we eat only prasadam [food offered to Krsna], we do not commit any sin. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita [3.13]:
bhunjate te tv agham papa
ye pacanty atma-karanat
“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is first offered for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.”
Father Emmanuel: Krsna cannot give permission to eat animals?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes—in the animal kingdom. But the civilized human being, the religious human being, is not meant to kill and eat animals.
For the devotee of Krsna, therefore, the decision to be vegetarian is not based on sentiment, whim, fad, or incomplete reasoning. It is based on the authority of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Someone may try to argue that this conclusion is mere religious belief; it doesn’t have “the weight of reason” on its side, Their argument is due only to ignorance of the scientific nature of the Krsna consciousness philosophy and of how it establishes Krsna’s existence and authority beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt. For more on this question see “The Quest for Certainty,” in BACK TO GODHEAD, Vol. 19, No. 6.)
Krsna is Hrsikesa, the Lord and master of our senses. We are part and parcel of Him, just as the hand is part and parcel of the body. The constitutional duty of the part is to serve the whole; this is our practical experience. The standard of real satisfaction for the soul, therefore, is that whatever pleases Krsna’s senses pleases our senses and nourishes us, spiritually and materially. So the most important principle regarding diet is that we should eat only those foods He authorizes, and only after first offering them to Him in sacrifice.
According to this principle, if Krsna were to authorize offerings of meat, fish, or eggs, we would willingly comply and accept that as His mercy. On the other hand, eating for our own personal sense gratification, whether vested in steaks or salads, is immoral and entangles us in a greater or lesser degree of karmic reaction.
Now, it remains to be seen whether both Mr. Boldt and the animal rights champions, with their apparent willingness to follow “the weight of reason” to its ultimate conclusion, are ready to do so and surrender to the authority of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The ethical deadlock between the meat-eaters and animal rightists is one of many examples of how our finite minds are unable to discern the conclusive truth. The conclusive Absolute Truth, Krsna—the Supreme Personality of Godhead—is beyond our reasoning ability, and without His authority we have no criteria by which to choose whenever reason leads to ethical dilemmas.
Krsna consciousness is the only system of thought that can help us get out of such ethical dead ends. How is this so? Because Krsna consciousness is the philosophy propounded by the Absolute Truth personified, Lord Sri Krsna. To have this realization and appreciation, however, materialistic meat-eaters as well as vegetarians will have to learn the art of humbly appealing to Krsna for moral, philosophical, and spiritual guidance. The first revolutionary step in that direction is to sincerely chant His transcendental holy names: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Anyone who takes to this chanting gradually realizes that Krsna consciousness is indeed the Absolute Truth, without any logical inconsistencies or loose ends.
The Complete Perspective
by Drutakarma dasa
In the ideal social system described in the timeless Vedic scriptures of India, special protection is afforded to five classes of living beings: the brahmanas (spiritual leaders), cows, women, the elderly, and children. By this standard, modern society is doing a very poor job, especially in the case of children, as a recent outrage surely demonstrates.
Even for the most jaded residents of Southern California the case was shocking—over 125 children subjected to sexual abuse at the best preschool in affluent Manhattan Beach. The accused included the school’s operator, Virginia McMartin, seventy-six, and three members of her family. Under questioning children revealed that small animals had been killed in front of their eyes by their teachers in order to frighten them into silence. When one of the defendants was ordered released on bond, a parent told the news crews outside the courtroom that the government was failing in its job to protect the community’s children. The widespread nature of child abuse grew ominously apparent as more cases followed—public and private school teachers, choir leaders, and others, all accused of sexual abuse of children.
It goes without saying that everything possible should be done to protect children from the nightmarish horrors of sexual abuse. But a thoughtful person trained in the spiritual principles of Krsna consciousness can see the whole issue of protecting children in a more thorough and all-encompassing perspective.
Devotees of Krsna believe that children should be protected right from the very beginning of their existence. Krsna conscious married couples engage in sex only for the purpose of conceiving a child, thus insuring that every child is loved and wanted. Krsna conscious parents understand that in conceiving a child they are giving a spirit soul the opportunity to enter a human body. In this human body, the soul will be able to use its intelligence to become self-realized and thus escape the cycle of birth and death in this material world. At the end of its life the soul will be able to return to its real home in the spiritual world and there remain as an eternal servant of the Supreme Lord Krsna. To not give a child a chance to take full advantage of this opportunity is to condemn it to the painful experience of death and rebirth, perhaps in a species less than human. That is real child abuse. Krsna conscious parents desire to protect their children from this ultimate form of suffering. Indeed the Vedas state that those who cannot protect their child from repeated birth and death should not become parents.
Rather than protecting their children from death, however, Americans are killing almost two million infants each year through abortion. And it is not only the dead infants who have suffered. Abortion has resulted in a devaluation of children in relation to sex. The whole principle of abortion is that the right to experience sex is more important than the responsibility to assume the burden of raising and protecting a child. When confronted with the choice between unrestricted sex and the life of a child, society in general has chosen to kill the child. So there is a very real psychological connection between abortion and child sexual abuse that needs to be examined.
After a child is born, Krsna conscious parents protect it by giving it the opportunity to be trained in the principles of self-realization. Since this training must be given by a bona fide spiritual master, or guru, it is customary for parents to send their school-age children to a gurukula—a school run by such a bona fide guru. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness operates these gurukulas as private religious schools. At a gurukula, in addition to learning the normal academic subjects, the children are trained in self-realization and thus receive their “second birth.”
The first birth—the birth of the body—occurs when one is born of a father and mother. The second birth—the start of one’s eternal occupation as a servant of God—occurs when one accepts a spiritual master and Vedic knowledge. One of the most important qualities of spiritual masters or teachers is that they be completely free from sinful activities: gambling, intoxication, meat-eating—and illicit sex. It is now dawning upon the public in general that a teacher must have moral standards, not simply academic qualifications. From such a teacher, children can receive the spiritual training that will allow them to become free from the cycle of birth and death. If parents want to protect their children completely, they should not fail to give them this education.