In my previous essay, I pointed out that Sivarama Swami’s identifying himself as a “celibate monk” is irrelevant to his exploitation of animals for the falsely named “ahimsa milk.” Just as irrelevant is his claim that “tradition” justifies animal exploitation. He maintains that he is “from a 5,000 year old Krishna tradition…” and that this is “where [he is] coming from.”
As soon as I hear the word, “tradition,” I know that the person trying to justify their exploitation of animals is running out of excuses; that they have nothing of substance to say.
War, slavery, sexism, racism, bullying, economic inequality and class exploitation—all of these things are traditional. That doesn’t make them right. Similarly, animal exploitation cannot be defended on the basis of tradition. Yet clearly this is what Sivarama is attempting to do by bringing up his “5,000 year old tradition.”
As Gary Francione and Anna Charlton point out in Eat Like You Care:
To use tradition or culture to justify anything is just another way of saying that we’ve done something for a long time, so we are justified in continuing to do it. In other words, it offers not one single bit of support for the practice being challenged.
…Virtually anything worth talking about from a moral point of view has been going on for a long time and is part of someone’s tradition.
With this quote, we could conclude this essay immediately, and move on to refuting Sivarama’s next vacuous excuse for exploiting animals. It’s self-evident that there could be nothing about his particular tradition that distinguishes it from any other in being a failed attempt at justifying exploitation.
But it is particularly problematic that Sivarama would invoke the so-called “tradition” of the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the organisation in which he is a guru, to justify animal exploitation. To say that ISKCON has a scandal-ridden history would be an understatement. These scandals, reflecting dysfunctional cultic behaviour, include serious moral failures on the part of a number of Western gurus, and widespread human rights violations against the Society’s own most vulnerable members—principally women and children (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). The great majority of those who joined the movement have departed in disillusionment, largely as a consequence of this. That Sivarama would promote this same discredited, exploitative tradition that has already caused so much harm to so many as a supposedly respectable reason to exploit animals speaks of either deep denial or delusion at best.
Moreover, Sivarama’s claim that his “Krishna tradition” is 5,000 years old is wildly inaccurate.
ISKCON is indeed a sect within the traditional Hindu religion of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a monotheistic form of Hinduism based on the teachings of the monk, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534 CE). This in turn exists within a much older tradition of Vaishnavism—worship of Vishnu or Krishna.
Gaudiya Vaishnavism, like all orthodox systems of Indian religion, accepts the divine origin of the Vedic scriptures. The oldest of these, the Rig Veda, dates from approximately 1,500 – 1,200 BCE at the earliest. So even if Sivarama is basing his claim of tradition on the earliest of the Vedas, the entire Vedic tradition is only approximately 3,200 to 3,500 years old.
But the “Krishna tradition” of Gaudiya Vaishnavism has its roots in the post-Vedic period, around 1000 CE, when four great Vaishnava teachers presented their commentaries on Vedanta (the latter part of the Vedas). The renaissance of Vaishnavism occurred in the early 1600s with the bhakti (devotional) movement started by Chaitanya, and ISKCON is continuous with that tradition. ISKCON’s tradition is—at most—approximately 1,000, not 5,000 years old.
Sivarama’s greatly exaggerated claim is based on a belief that Krishna lived on earth 5,000 years ago, and that the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main scriptures of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, was composed at that time. But this belief rests on a literalist, fundamentalist approach of accepting mythological stories in scripture as historical facts. Sivarama is free to believe whatever he likes but his belief in this mythology doesn’t support the claim of Gaudiya Vaishnavism having its roots in any religious tradition originating 5,000 years ago. Scholars accept dates from the fifth century to the second century BCE as the probable range for the composition of the Bhagavad Gita.
While everything espoused by the late founder of ISKCON, Bhaktivedanta Swami (known as “Prabhupada”), and current leaders such as Sivarama, most importantly the idea of Krishna as the “Supreme Personality of Godhead,” is presented as conforming to “the Vedas,” Krishna was definitely not a Vedic god and was not worshipped by early Vedic Aryans. Bryant and Ekstrand note that, inconveniently for ISKCON: “…promoting Krishna as the absolute godhead of the (rather problematically defined) ‘Vedic culture’ is no easy task when there is nary a mention of him in the entire corpus of Vedic literature…”
None of the scriptures that are central to ISKCON’s “Krishna tradition” are from the Vedas. But that doesn’t prevent contemporary ISKCON gurus repeatedly and spuriously claiming “the Vedas” and the “Vedic” tradition as the unquestionable, divine source of their authority on all things. This, along with the supposed infallibility of Gaudiya Vaishnava gurus as “pure devotees” and direct representatives of Krishna, to be worshipped on an equal level with Krishna, paves the way for dogmatism and abuse of authority. Promoting speciesism in the name of “God,” and animal exploitation as “ahimsic” is one such abuse.
This dubious but ubiquitous appeal by ISKCON gurus to the “infallible” authority of the Vedas and themselves has been utilized to legitimize authoritarianism, suppress critical thinking and promote blind obedience. Sivarama’s marshaling of a mythical “5,000 year old Krishna tradition” is intended to have the same effect. This is a way of trying to short-circuit and shut down debate on the immorality of animal exploitation.
Sivarama hopes to prevail by sheer weight of religious tradition in the absence of any coherent moral argument. He says, we “have to ultimately accept God, and God’s plans for things,” and that “you can only be good if you do it God’s way,” since God is the “the judge who makes the final decision,” and “the final judge of what’s acceptable.” He’s the one “who calls the shots, who says, you’re right, you’re wrong.” “God” says animal exploitation of cows for milk and oxen for labor is acceptable. Vegans are “bad” because they refuse to recognize this.
He tells us that it’s wrong to engage in moral reasoning or listen to our consciences. He uses “Hare Krishna-speak” to characterize this as “speculation.” By this, he means any conclusions that don’t align with what is said in “the Vedas,” or with whatever scriptures Prabhupada deemed important, and his interpretation of them. He says that, “trying to be good through speculation doesn’t work.” What does work is unthinking submission to authority—his authority—as he postures as a mouthpiece for “God.”
We are apparently supposed to believe that Sivarama and his particular sect that is one of a number of sects in one particular, minor religious tradition exclusively has knowledge of what “God” wants, and is therefore entitled to pontificate on behalf of God, while being immune from the need to respond rationally to arguments against animal exploitation. The fact that no other religious tradition apart from his own, of which I’m aware, teaches that “God” positively requires animal exploitation as part of his “plan” and in order to conform to correct “dharma” or morality is something that obviously does not trouble Sivarama or diminish his speciesist zealotry. On the contrary, those of us who can’t agree with his narrow, sectarian view are “bad,” and are engaging in “violence” by insisting on non-violence towards animals. What’s more, because it doesn’t obey the dictates of this bullying “God,” we’re told that veganism is a “materialist philosophy”!
Despite Sivarama’s supreme confidence concerning what “God” wants, I question the notion that devotion to Krishna requires the exploitation of animals. But I’ll come back to this in a subsequent essay.
It seems that Sivarama hopes that his viewers will be sufficiently over-awed by the idea of hoary tradition from an ancient Eastern spiritual culture, and his place of authority within it, that they’ll switch off their critical faculties, ask no further questions and fail to notice that he has nothing else of any substance to offer in defense of animal exploitation.
Calling upon “tradition” is a virtual admission of desperation in light of his preceding comments amounting to hackneyed excuses expressed in inane terms. Clearly, from the responses he received, these failed utterly in convincing the majority of the vegan audience he attempted to target as potential customers for “ahimsa milk.” His comments revealed that he does not appear to understand the meaning of the word, “vegan,” and has not familiarized himself with the ethical arguments undergirding it. He was therefore probably surprised by the vehemence of the rejection his advertisement engendered and now resorts to trying to rescue the situation by bringing out the big guns: “God” and “tradition” according to “infallible” scriptures as interpreted by “infallible” gurus such as himself—in other words, through authoritarian sentiments. This strategy may be convincing for those who look to Sivarama as a spiritual authority, but not for those of us who have adopted abolitionist veganism as a matter of ethical principle based on a rational moral argument.
In light of this, it’s not surprising that Sivarama Swami has so far declined to accept Professor Francione’s invitation to a podcast debate on the ethics of “ahimsa milk.” It appears that’s the last thing he wants. That would require advancing a considered, rational argument and not just autocratically decreeing by fiat according to “God” and “tradition” based on speciesist ISKCON dogma.
The intellectual fascism that demands blind, unquestioning obedience to gurus propounding literalist interpretations of whatever aspects of scripture serve their agenda, and purporting to speak unerringly on behalf of “God,” as a representative of “tradition,” has no place in any serious discussion of ethical matters, including animal ethics. This wielding of “God” and “tradition” as a cudgel to bludgeon listeners into an acceptance of animal exploitation as a supposedly divinely ordained, infallible “arrangement,” is not only irrelevant and foolish; it is offensive. It’s a domineering approach that mirrors the domination it seeks to impose on the most vulnerable. It’s emblematic of the intensely patriarchal, authoritarian society that ISKCON is. Oppression of women (and children) and oppression of animals invariably go hand in hand. Despite being brought into notoriety for the abuse of children in particular, ISKCON continues to promote abuse of animals while labeling it “ahimsic”—all animal use is abuse and “ahimsic” abuse is a pernicious lie.
The bottom line is that even if ISKCON really hailed from a “5,000 year old Krishna tradition,” which it does not, and even if ISKCON dogma was firmly based in some monolithic, consistent Vedic tradition, which it is not, none of this has the slightest validity as an argument for exploiting animals. When used to defend “ahimsa milk,” these kinds of appeals to tradition, whether based in fact or mythology, are just an attempt to evade our moral obligation to cease exploiting animals by going vegan.
We ought to reject all such resorts to “tradition,” regardless of whether they come from religious or secular sources, as an excuse to exploit the vulnerable. The fact that we’ve done the wrong thing for a long time is no reason to continue doing it. Resolve to do the right thing—go vegan and advocate only veganism as the moral baseline.
By Linda McKenzie
Thank you to my dear friend, Timothy Conway, for his valuable help with the historical aspects of this essay.
Learn more about abolitionist animal rights and ethical veganism here.