In a widely viewed video posted on Facebook on September 2, 2017, promoting what is falsely called “ahimsa milk” as suitable for vegans, Sivarama Swami, one of an all-male group of gurus in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement), dubbed himself a “veggie-vegan.” What he means by this is that he will not consume commercial milk or other dairy products because of the cruelty involved, but he does consume “ahimsa milk” when he has access to it. At a meeting of 80 European ISKCON leaders held in 2013 to discuss the issue of whether or not to drink milk, a survey of those present showed that 23% of participants took the same position—that if they could not have milk from “protected” cows, i.e. the kinds bred and raised on Hare Krishna farms for so-called “ahimsa milk,” they would not consume milk at all. And it’s my understanding, based on surveying ISKCON material online, that many—but not all—of those in ISKCON who call themselves, “vegan,” use the term in this sense. They don’t reject consuming milk per se; they only reject standard, commercially produced milk. And since “ahimsa milk” is not widely available, then, unless they live on or near a Hare Krishna farm that produces it, they end up going without milk and other dairy products most of the time. Should an opportunity to consume “ahimsa milk” arise, they would have no problem with doing so.
(Read Part 1 here)
This use of the term, “vegan,” is false and misleading. It’s a corruption of the legitimate meaning, which is not eating, wearing or using animals, as far as is possible and practicable. Abolitionist vegans consider veganism to be a moral imperative that involves a total refusal to violate the fundamental rights of animals. Rights violations occur with all animal use, regardless of how animals are treated. Abolitionist veganism involves adhering unequivocally to an absolute moral principle that it’s wrong to use sentient nonhuman persons as things, or resources. It’s not something that’s picked up and put down depending on convenience and situational factors, such as whether “happy” or “holy” animal products are available.
“Veggie-vegan” is particularly meaningless because vegetarianism and veganism have nothing in common morally and should never be conflated. Lacto-vegetarianism is just another form of non-veganism. So to say that one is a “veggie-vegan” is to make the nonsensical claim that one is a non-vegan-vegan. It’s as meaningless and contradictory as saying that one is an “atheist-theist.” You are either one or the other; it’s not possible to be both when the categories are mutually exclusive. What Sivarama Swami is saying is no different from someone saying they are “veggie-vegan” because they only eat “humanely” produced eggs or any other non-meat animal product.
There’s no moral distinction between consumption of meat and dairy—including “ahimsa” milk—because both involve use of animals exclusively as resources, and neither product can be procured without violence, even under the most “humane” conditions. If someone is only a part-time “vegan,” dependent on the opportunity to consume “happy” or “holy” milk, then that person is not a vegan at all. She or he is a non-vegan flexitarian. What this means is that she or he is an animal exploiter. As I’ve previously quoted Gary Francione as saying, “There is veganism and there is animal exploitation. There is no third choice. If you are not vegan you are participating directly in animal exploitation.” ISKCON devotees, and other lacto-vegetarians, as much as anyone else, need to reject the idea that veganism is ethically interchangeable with non-vegan approaches such as vegetarianism, reducetarianism, “ahimsa milk” and other forms of “happy,” “holy,” “compassionate,” or “reduced” exploitation, all of which are still exploitation, and are focused on lessening suffering, rather than respecting fundamental rights. What’s essential is that people authentically embrace veganism as a fundamental principle of justice and nonviolence, and not just as one way of reducing suffering.
We need to be very clear about one thing: there is no such thing as “ahimsa milk.” All animal products involve himsa—violence. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest. And that includes those who wear orange robes and use the title, “Swami.” If we agree that using nonhuman persons as things necessarily involves exploitation or harm, it follows logically that “ahimsa milk” is impossible. It’s not possible to derive an “ahimsic” product from practices that are inherently violent. And just because someone is in a position of spiritual authority does not mean they cannot make moral errors, or that they should not be challenged when they do. On the contrary, such a person should be strongly challenged on their speciesism because they are in a position to do a great deal of harm by misleading others.
Sivarama Swami is either genuinely ignorant of what the term, “vegan,” means, or is deliberately misleading people that veganism can include consuming some animal products. This falsifies and degrades the whole concept of veganism. It sows more confusion in an arena that’s already rife with confusion, thanks to the large, corporate animal charities, none of whom promote veganism as a moral imperative. Now, to add to “veg,” “veg*n,” “veggie,” “vegan before 6,” “cheegan,” “plant-strong,“ “anti-carnist” and other nonsensical terms, we have the fatuous “veggie-vegan” to further muddy the waters of what needs to be a very clear ethical concept: veganism. Veganism as the moral baseline is the minimum we owe animals as a matter of justice.
All that Sivarama Swami is achieving with his use of the term, “veggie-vegan,” is to reinforce the property status of animals. That is, that animals are just things that we own and exploit as resources. The term completely denies their personhood as sentient beings who have inherent, and not just extrinsic, value based on the products for which they are exploited. It ignores their interests and promotes the violation of their fundamental rights.
It’s an utter travesty to link, or conflate, veganism with lacto-vegetarianism, regardless of whether that involves standard, commercial milk, or so-called “ahimsa milk.” Donald Watson, who founded the Vegan Society in 1944, coined the term, “vegan,” very explicitly to distinguish the practice of avoiding all animal products from lacto-vegetarianism (and ovo-vegetarianism). “Veggie-vegan” is regressive and seeks to negate that distinction. Doing so amounts to trashing veganism. It helps keep in place the paradigm that is responsible for 60 billion land animals and approximately a trillion sea creatures being unnecessarily killed each year for food alone. I’m referring to the paradigm of “happy” exploitation, or the idea that it’s morally acceptable to exploit animals as long as we do so “humanely.” This is the paradigm promoted by all of the corporate animal charities and it’s an ongoing disaster for animals, since it legitimises their exploitation. If Sivarama Swami really decries this vast amount of torture and violent death for animals, as he claims he does, in his more recent video of September 16, “Don’t Be Part Of That,” then he needs to stop engaging in, and stop promoting, “happy-holy” exploitation. In short, he needs to stop being “part of that,” and set the right example. Otherwise his credibility is at zero.
As it is, demonstrating just how in step he is with the corporate, welfarist animal groups, in the comments section of this more recent video, Sivarama Swami directs viewers to PETA. PETA is an organisation that praises and gives awards to vendors of “happy” meat and other animal products, such as McDonalds. It also gave an award to Temple Grandin, the slaughterhouse designer, who calls her macabre contraption the “stairway to heaven” system of slaughter. Here’s Bell & Evans, leading corporate chicken killers, showcasing the plaudits given them by Ingrid Newkirk of PETA, for adopting controlled atmosphere killing (CAK) of chickens in order to promote their chicken corpses, with PETA’s full approval:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals…agree that Bell & Evans continually raises the benchmark for the entire poultry industry: ‘Bell & Evans shows that animal welfare and good business can go hand in hand…and by listening to consumers’ wishes, Bell & Evans has set a new standard for the chicken-supply industry.’—Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA.
Here’s Bell & Evans telling us again that PETA (along with HSUS and Temple Grandin) “approve” of their killing chickens with CAK.
In other words, PETA, like other corporate animal groups, partners with corporate animal exploiters to help them sell their “happy” animal products. Since Sivarama Swami is himself a promoter of “happy” animal exploitation in the form of “ahimsa milk,” his directing viewers of his videos to PETA is quite consistent. But it renders hypocritical his ostensible lamentations over the massive killing of animals that this morally bankrupt and failed approach actively supports.
PETA is also a chronic offender in using sexism to fundraise, refusing to heed the message that as long as women are treated as meat, animals will continue to be treated as meat. PETA also directly harms animals by killing a great many of them in their Virginia “shelter.” Here, they’ve been killing approximately 2,000 animals a year for decades, the majority of them healthy, adoptable animals.
Sivarama Swami also links to “Vegetarian Times,” an online magazine featuring recipes containing dairy and eggs—products that necessarily involve torture and killing of animals, morally no different from meat.
Sivarama Swami appears to be either very confused, or, just like the corporate animal charities, to be talking out of both sides of his mouth—promoting the very things he claims to reject. If it’s a case of simple ignorance about these matters, despite the information being easy to access, as well as ignorance about the meaning of the word, “vegan,” along with a general lack of education in animal ethics, he needs to stop posting slick videos online and start educating himself as a priority before he promotes himself as a teacher of others on animal protection. Justice for animals is a serious issue and demands a serious approach. The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights takes justice for animals seriously, and anyone who’s interested in finding out more can start here.
In conclusion, what Sivarama Swami is doing in promoting the incoherent idea that one can be a “veggie-vegan,” as part of his fronting for the “ahimsa milk” falsehood is counterproductive to justice for animals and undermines the work done by abolitionist vegans to educate the public. I hope he will seriously consider dropping the “veggie” and going vegan.
By Linda McKenzie
To learn about how to go vegan, please see here.
This essay, and others that will follow, draws on the ethical theory of Professor Gary Francione, founder of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights.
Thanks to my dear abolitionist vegan friend, Balint Balasa, for his feedback and suggestions.