After numerous unsuccessful attempts, refuted in the previous twelve essays, to defend exploitation of cows for “ahimsa milk” Sivarama Swami, a guru in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) delivered what he considers to be the bottom line, the final word:
For me, the bottom line for all of this debate is this: the world was created by design, and by a designer. And it’s the designer who determines what food is offenseless and what’s forbidden. And the designer determined what kind of labour, including animal labour, is acceptable, and what is not. That’s me, and my spiritual tradition. And that’s my conviction.
I want to take issue here with Sivarama’s characterization of God as a “designer,” including his employing the notion that this “designer” somehow dictates matters for humans, including the acceptability of animal exploitation, leaving no place for personal moral autonomy and decision-making.
ISKCON purports to be about teaching the “science of God realization.” Sivarama has previously proclaimed, in defending “ahimsa milk,” that “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.” So as I pointed out in Part 5 of this series, according to Sivarama, “God” says animal exploitation of cows for milk and oxen for labor is acceptable. Vegans are “bad” because they refuse to recognize this.
Given this emphasis on “God” in attempting to justify animal exploitation, when Sivarama refers to a “designer,” we may assume he’s making an appeal to the authority of God.
However, in speaking of a “designer,” Sivarama does not refer to God at all, as classically defined in the metaphysical and philosophical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, late antiquity forms of paganism, Mahayana Buddhist conceptions such as Buddha Nature or Suchness, or even to the early Buddhist conception of the Unconditioned, or to the Tao. Rather, he refers to a dogmatic, fundamentalist notion of a god or demiurge. This distinction is elaborated extremely well in the book, The Experience of God, by theologian and philosopher, David Bentley Hart. Here, Hart points out that both militant atheists, such as the New Atheists, and many religionists, particularly fundamentalist ones, make the mistake of confusing God with a god or demiurge. That is, both believers and unbelievers alike are often in ignorance as to what they mean when they talk about “God.” It’s all too common for debates about the existence of God to become sunk in stalemate and futility due to the fact that the debaters are not even remotely talking about the same thing. What is frequently taken to be God is in fact a “primitive” and “barbarously absurd” conception, according to Hart. It is just such a primitive and barbarously absurd idea that Sivarama invokes when he tries to shift human moral responsibility for animal exploitation to a divine “designer.”
In explaining the critical distinction between God and a god, or demiurge, Hart tells us that the “God of faith”, that is, of believers with some maturity and depth of understanding, and the “God of the philosophers” are closely aligned. This conception of God is typically described in the following sorts of terms: “God is Spirit, incorporeal, not an object located somewhere in space, not subject to the limitations of time, not a product of cosmic nature, not simply some craftsman who creates by manipulating materials external to himself, not composed of parts, but rather residing in all things while remaining perfectly one, present to us in the depths of our own beings . . . (and so forth).”
Hart contends that God is not a “being” or discrete object of any kind but is “eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.” God is the “inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things.” God is categorically not a “designer” or demiurge who fashions the world as something separate to and outside of himself/herself and rules over it as some sort of divine super-being, monarch or god. Hart distinguishes this demiurge, or “designer,” from God by saying: “He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is…finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part.”
Based on this understanding, Hart rejects the deist conception of God, as formulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Deism refers to “God as some very powerful spiritual individual who designed and fabricated the universe at the beginning of things, much as a watchmaker might design and fabricate a watch and then set it running.” Similarly, he rejects the recent Intelligent Design movement as having any connection with God and remarks that it “represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time.” By invoking a supposed “designer” as the final arbiter of what is and is not morally acceptable, Sivarama is basically making an appeal to Intelligent Design in the same way that fundamentalist Christians do. Like them, he is asserting some moral dimension to this design that supposedly justifies reactionary and bigoted moral positions and practices, including the idea that it’s not only acceptable, but mandated by God’s “design,” to exploit animals provided we do it “humanely” or “ahimsically.”
Intrinsic to the idea of God as a “designer,” as characterised by Sivarama, is the notion that certain immutable moral laws, injunctions and permissions are structured into the design, and that we ignore these at our peril. In Sivarama’s schema, these involve what ISKCON spuriously refers to as “Vedic” codes of behavior. That is, codes as formulated in the tendentious commentaries on certain Hindu scriptures by their founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, known as “Prabhupada.” These commentaries are considered to be infallible. Prabhupada fetishized dairy products, bovine agriculture and the speciesist ideology of “cow protection” as part and parcel of a right-wing, Hindu orthodoxy.
The problem is that, as already pointed out, this “designer” that Sivarama calls upon has nothing whatsoever to do with God. So if Sivarama wants to resort to the excuse of a “designer” to try to justify animal exploitation, he has to admit that Krishna Consciousness as propounded by ISKCON is really not about God or God realization at all, which destroys the entire basis of the organization. Alternatively, he needs to acknowledge that it’s just another primitive, backward, fundamentalist sect based on prostrating oneself before a super-dictator or “designer” in the sky—the kind that is embodied by the cruel, capricious, arbitrary gods of myth. Clearly, such gods, being part of nature and not transcendent to it, are not concerned with universal justice and morality, but embody all the moral flaws, contradictions, passions, weaknesses and failings of ordinary humans, only on a cosmic scale. Consequently, it makes no sense to cite such a god as providing the “bottom line” in morality of any kind, including animal ethics. The only use such a god or demiurge could have is to supply a specious justification—that is, excuse—for the immorality in which one wishes to engage while gilding it with a veneer of piety. This is precisely what Sivarama is doing.
The important thing to be aware of in moral terms is that God, as properly understood, does not dictate anything, whether concerning animal use or anything else. We have the ability and the responsibility to choose. God is self-sufficient, full of bliss and does not need or desire anything from us. God most certainly does not demand that we exploit the vulnerable, based on a belief in a human “right” to exploit, that is, might equals right, as Sivarama has previously advocated. Since God is the ground of all being; the most fundamental, innermost foundation and primordial reality of our own existence as humans (and of all sentient beings), if we want to draw upon God to decide how to behave morally, this means being receptive to our own moral intuitions, which, like all things, arise from the infinite being of God. Our moral intuition is sharpened and deepened by awareness of, and sense of identity with, that pure, infinite being. It also means utilizing our own God-given discriminating faculties, ability to consider empirical facts and rational arguments, and moral decision-making power. Acting morally in response to these elements is commonly known as listening to one’s own conscience or inner voice. Our truest inner voice in moral matters—the voice that is not drowned out or distorted by base and selfish motives—is synonymous with the voice of God. It wont work to try to shift responsibility for our exploitation of animals onto a “designer,” in the name of obedience to a stunted conception of God. The responsibility is ours and ours alone to desist from inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on innocent sentient beings.
The more one is aware of the common ground of pure being or consciousness that pervades and unites all beings—that is, of what is meant by “God” in the deeper streams of the great religious traditions—the less one is inclined to harm others, since one is aware that this is tantamount to harming oneself. Indeed, the boundaries between oneself and others more or less dissolve, or at least soften. In other words, to the extent that genuine God-awareness prevails, the less one is able to “otherise” beings based on morally irrelevant criteria such as race, sex, gender, nationality, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or species. All of these social categories are seen as mere foam upon the ocean of satchidananda (being-consciousness-bliss) as the Hindus call it—that is, God.
I do not intend to argue here that people must believe in or have the experience of something they conceptualize as God, or any other similar, spiritual conception (such as ‘Buddha Nature,’ the ‘Tao’ or ‘the Force’) in order to be a moral person. Many atheists are highly moral people. Many theists, including panentheists, are not. I’m not suggesting that people need to have some kind of religious dimension in their lives to go vegan. What I’m arguing is that there is no contradiction between such an orientation and fully using one’s own faculties for moral decision-making in a responsible way. On the contrary, a religious or spiritual orientation, if it’s of the authentic and mature kind, and not of the “primitive” and “barbarously absurd” variety, such as that to which Sivarama subscribes in his anthropomorphic “designer” model, ought to enhance and give strength to those faculties. To jettison these as being irrelevant in the face of the edicts of a dictatorial, cruel and unjust “designer” who demands that we bully the vulnerable for our own pleasure and convenience, is a travesty of religion. That is not worshipping God; that is worshipping the petty, venal self in the guise of God.
Any truly authentic realization of God would lead one towards the Good, the True and the Beautiful. This includes a love of justice and compassion for all beings. Veganism is about fundamental justice. Any “religious” position or doctrine that exploits the idea of God in order to deprive animals of their fundamental right not to be used as a resource; to trample on justice for them, makes a mockery of God. Sivarama Swami, in his ultimate attempt to justify animal exploitation, makes a mockery of God.
Even if Sivarama wants to stick with a “designer” view of God, he could choose to believe that this designer designed him to incorporate a sense of justice, the ability to think rationally and to make sound moral decisions. He is simply projecting his own preferences, and that of the organisation he represents, to continue to exploit animals, onto the designer, based on their collective speciesism. He is designing the designer in his own image.
Whether an orientation to God has a place in your life or not, you should not be taken in by this shallow and phony use of religion to bolster immorality. Instead, use your own divinely inspired wisdom and moral intuition to do the right thing: go vegan.
By Linda McKenzie
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