I talked in Part 5 of this series about the fact that no matter how old the tradition is to which Sivarama Swami belongs, and that however far back in time any tradition stretches, it cannot possibly morally justify animal exploitation. However, making an argument based on religious tradition would at least be understandable if that tradition mandated animal use. That is, if there is some genuine conflict for a religious adherent between abstaining from animal use and the requirements of their religion. This could be considered a non-trivial reason for the devoutly religious person to pause in order to deeply reflect before going vegan.
Some basic research on Hindu ethics concerning diet (e.g., see here), reveals nothing regarding milk consumption being compulsory. Dr. Nicholas Sutton of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies concurs. His response to my question, “Does Hindu dharma require consuming milk?” was, “It neither requires it nor forbids it. The precepts are ahimsa and daya bhuteshu, not harming and compassion for all beings. Each individual must then decide how these precepts can best be implemented in their own lives.”
Six senior Hare Krishna devotees who each have between 35 and 45 years duration in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) agreed to speak with me about the matter—two by phone, two via email and two via Facebook private message. I also spoke to someone who is an academic expert on, and long-time practitioner of Vaishnavism, not affiliated with ISKCON. (All wish to remain anonymous). They all confirmed that there is no obligation to consume any dairy products, including “ahimsa milk,” when available, on the part of ISKCON devotees or Vaishnavas generally. They said that there are definitely “strict” vegans among devotees, who refuse to consume milk of any kind, and this is entirely permissible; that these devotees are not violating any religious injunctions. It’s their free choice entirely to consume or not to consume milk, including “ahimsa milk.” They’re at liberty to eat whatever they want, as long as it does not contain any meat, fish, eggs, garlic or onions, since these are not suitable for offering to Krishna. The only obligation is to offer food—the right kind—to Krishna first before consuming it, in order to sanctify it.
Finally, I received a reply on behalf of Sivarama Swami, from his assistant, clarifying his position:
At present in our society many devotees who cannot get Ahimsa Milk still use store bought organic dairy produce. It is not a compulsory thing but down to individual choice and decision. Sivarama Swami has taken his stance and expects as much for his direct disciples especially those living in Hungary. However for the wider society of devotees it is not compulsory no. It is up to the individual to make his own mind up.
When he says he can’t reject milk means he loves milk and understands its benefit for health etc. and wants to continue to consume it as per normal human life and culture; but the problem being the industry in this modern age means he will choose only ahimsa.
Regarding working the cows and bulls still it does not mean that every individual has to take the dairy produce from that work. That is not compulsory at all. If an individual engaged as part of a community which works cows and oxen does not wish to take for whatever reason; it is not compulsory no.
If someone does not want to take milk products either ahimsa or non-ahimsa why would they be forced to?
It’s hardly surprising that there is no religious obligation to consume milk of any kind in ISKCON since I’m not aware of any religious tradition that requires the consumption of animal products.
Aside from the issue of personal consumption, dairy products have traditionally been ritually offered to Krishna because of his said “fondness” for these. However, it was also confirmed that this is not obligatory. The consensus was that, as long as the proscribed substances, as already mentioned, are not offered, whatever is offered with sincere love and devotion will be accepted. In a later response from Sivarama’s assistant, speaking on his own behalf, he said: “Ultimately devotion is the main criteria, not the details. If we want to love Krishna then we have to practise devotion. That is mandatory. Everything else is a detail.”
Indeed, this statement by Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita was quoted by most of the people with whom I spoke: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” No mention of milk here. On the contrary, this can be interpreted as an endorsement of veganism.
Stripping away the religious packaging, it turns out that Sivarama’s attempted justifications are no different from the same ones we regularly encounter from other non-vegans: palate pleasure, tradition and convenience, i.e. “normal human life and culture,” and unfounded claims about the health benefits of dairy—none of which are adequate moral justifications.
And just like many other non-vegans, Sivarama is trying to convince himself and others that there’s a right way to do the wrong thing. “Ahimsa milk” is just another chapter in the sordid story of the “happy” exploitation “movement,” (actually, business), which all of the large, animal welfarist charities promote. However much the culture of the Hare Krishnas may be viewed as exotic, alien, otherworldly or oppositional in relation to mainstream Western culture, in this they are quite conformist and banal. In no way does their paradigm for animal use offer any kind of progressive or enlightened alternative to the dominant, speciesist one that is responsible for a vast quantity of unnecessary animal suffering and death. Since all animal use is morally wrong, and all animal use involves treatment that would be considered torture if applied to humans, such an alternative paradigm is impossible. This fact should be noted by the many “happy” exploitation supporters, including numerous so-called “vegans,” who insist that the imagined traditional Indian dairy model, involving “cow protection,” is somehow heaven on earth for cows and something we should all emulate. That notion is nothing but a fantasy, and an insidious one. It’s deeply regrettable that Sivarama, and ISKCON as an organisation, are perpetuating this fantasy.
Moreover, according to the statement I received on his behalf, it appears that Sivarama Swami is in step, after all, with the generally agreed view of milk consumption, including “ahimsa milk,” being a matter for the individual Hindu or ISKCON member to decide. There’s no compulsion; no obligation. This means that his characterisation of vegans as “bad” because they refuse to recognise some supposedly divinely ordained “dharma” of cows to function as milk machines and bulls to act as work slaves for humans, is shown to be completely baseless, according to his own religious tradition. It renders his remarks regarding the “violence” of not engaging with bovine agriculture and, by logical extension, consuming the milk produced by it, contradictory and lacking any substance. Characterising the failure to engage in a particular behaviour as “violent” and “bad” clearly implies that one has an obligation to engage in that behaviour so as to avoid participating in violence.
Yet we find now that there really is no such obligation. Consequently, his reference to “tradition,” involving notions of what “God” or “the designer” decrees, has no significance. It has no relevance. It would warrant serious consideration only if the Krishna tradition imposed a religious obligation to consume milk and therefore precipitated a conflict, or crisis, for a devotee of Krishna who may want to go vegan. In that case, the devotee would have to decide whether she or he wants to continue worshipping a conception of God that necessitates obeying commandments to bully the most vulnerable; to enact an ethos of “might equals right” on behalf of a cruel and dictatorial God. But that is definitely not the case for those following Krishna consciousness.
This incoherence and evasion on the part of Sivarama is consistent with his previous remarks transparently being an ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction based on his inability to deal with the argument made by vegans that all animal use, including that on “ahimsa” farms, is violence; it’s always violent to use a moral person as a thing, regardless of how they are treated. It was an attempt on his part to invert reality by re-framing non-violence as violence and violence as non-violence. This amounts to gross perversion of the truth in defence of animal exploitation.
Sivarama is misleading people, contrary to his own statements, and those of other reliable spokespersons, about what is required for Krishna consciousness, quite apart from what is required for baseline morality concerning animals—that is, unequivocal veganism.
What we are left with is that whether or not to gratuitously exploit animals is an ethical decision for individual Hare Krishna devotees, as it is for all religious practitioners and all individuals of any persuasion, whether religious or not. Devotees of Krishna are as free to make this decision as are most of the rest of us, and it’s one for which they must bear personal responsibility. They are not constrained or compelled by any “tradition.” Choosing to behave ethically in relation to animals by going vegan won’t negate, obstruct or interfere in any way with their devotion to Krishna.
On the contrary, I would argue that refraining from inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on defenceless animals can only be of benefit spiritually, regardless of whatever path one follows. Veganism is essential for anyone who takes ahimsa seriously. We don’t practice ahimsa by mislabelling himsa (harm) as ahimsa. And it won’t work for Sivarama Swami, or anyone else, to try to hide behind “tradition” or “God” when choosing to unnecessarily exploit the vulnerable.
However much religious traditions, just like other speciesist institutions, may condone the consumption of animal products, none of the major religions mandate it as compulsory. This means that “religion” and “religious tradition” are hollow as reasons for exploiting animals. When used, they are really nothing more than a smokescreen and an evasion. In other words, they have the same lack of substance as any other excuse.
Having said that, of course abolitionist vegan advocates ought to be respectful towards those who proffer reasons of their religion or spiritual tradition for why they think they can’t go vegan, and, if the receptivity is there, should educate them using a logical, moral, abolitionist argument as to why their religion poses no barrier to going vegan.
In fact, the essential teachings of all sacred traditions urge that we cease violence and harmfulness and seek to promote the Good, the True and the Beautiful. This means going vegan as our minimum responsibility and first step in this direction where animals are concerned.
By Linda McKenzie
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This essay is based in the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights, as formulated by Professors Gary Francione and Anna Charlton.
For information on how to go vegan, see here.
To learn about the abolitionist approach to animal rights, see here.