By Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)
The writing is on the wall. As of January 2, 2004, it became clear that meat-eating is risky business. An MSNBC report -- picked up by the Associated Press, thus finding its way into newspapers and magazines around the world -- let us know in glaring terms that mad cow disease is here to stay and that meat is dangerous. Plain and simple.
The same message came through in a recent Time magazine article (January 12). The title: “How Now, Mad Cow?” The lead-in: “Big beef was doing fine until disease felled a heifer. Will consumer anxiety cripple the industry?” That week’s issue of Newsweek ran a similar article, entitled, “Mad Cow: What’s Safe Now?” The lead-in for that article: “They hoped it wouldn’t happen here, then it did. Now U.S. officials are rewriting rules and assuring consumers that beef won’t make them sick.”
We first heard of this little terror in the 1980s, when tons of Brits gave up meat during England’s first mad-cow outbreak. Soon after, in the U.S., former cattle rancher Howard Lyman appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, proclaiming the harsh realities of the disease and its imminent outbreak around the world. In his book Mad Cowboy (1998), Lyman predicted that the disease would migrate to the States, which it did in 2003. Naturally, he swore off meat and advised others to do the same.
Lyman points out that most cows, kept for milk and leather, are treated not like living beings but like machines, and that profit-driven cattle ranchers make these animals’ lives a living hell. The living conditions on factory farms have been the subject of numerous studies. One particular aspect of these deplorable conditions has led to mad cow disease: the practice of mixing rotting animal parts into animal feed.
As a reaction to factory farm horrors, many, including Lyman, recommend a simpler way of life. Lyman, no doubt, would applaud Srila Prabhupada’s proposals for a simplified, holistic way of life in which both humans and the animals that serve them live naturally and peacefully, and in good health.
With the recent outbreak in America, mad cow disease hits close to home for me. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than thirty years, but after the discovery of an infected cow in Washington state, I started to get calls from old friends and family members: “Maybe I shouldn’t be eating meat.” “You were right all along.”
If I’ve been “right all along,” it's because I see the value of ahimsa, harmlessness, and of avoiding unnecessary killing in any form. I also met the devotees of Krishna early on, who were also "right all along" because they heeded the words of Lord Krishna, who, as God, naturally has the inside scoop on what's real and what's not. Devotees of Krishna follow His instructions, and the Krishna tradition has supported vegetarianism from the time of the Bhagavad-gita onwards, without looking back.
The tradition has stood behind the principle of vegetarianism and animal rights as far back as the Mahabharata, and textual evidence for its value can be found in the Manu-samhita and in numerous other texts. These sacred writings say that man’s proper diet consists of fruits, nuts, grains, dairy, and vegetables, offered to God with love and devotion. Eating food offered to Krishna is called taking prasadam ("mercy"). Since Krishna Himself doesn’t recommend that we eat meat, reason the devotees, then something must be wrong with it, at least for human beings.
Prominent authorities on health and nutrition also say we should lay off. The American Dietetic Association officially recommends vegetarianism, and medical practitioners in the public eye such as Dean Ornish and John Robbins highly recommend the meatless way of life. So maybe we shouldn’t be eating the flesh of animals. The flesh of animals. That’s exactly what it really is—no matter how you dress it up, package it, or serve it. Don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s anything other than what it is—because that would just be a lot of bull.
What Is Mad Cow Disease?
Unfortunately, meat-eaters still outnumber vegetarians, especially in Western countries. And odds are good that sometime in their life meat-eaters will have a run in with strokes, cancer, salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, heart disease, or high blood pressure, and they’ll probably have a weight problem too. Vegetarians, it is true, are besieged by many of these same diseases, but not as frequently, as medical experts have amply shown. In addition, meat-eaters are now exposed to mad cow, mad chicken, mad fish, mad pig, and mad turkey disease. Any animal can have the disease—a spongy brain (spongiform encephalopathy) that tortures its host beyond imagination and then moves on to those who eat the animal. Scientists have already identified strains of the disease in sheep, mink, cows, elk, deer, cats, and humans.
In December 2003, the U.S. government announced that a dairy cow in Washington state was infected with mad cow disease, technically known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). All government reports issued immediately after the finding boasted a plan to contain the disease, but it appears that the plans were more public relations hype than anything else; a practical resolution for protecting public health seems far away indeed. Newspapers report that the meat from that Washington cow, killed December 9, traveled through three processing plants before the problem was discovered thirteen days later.
Put simply, spongiform encephalopathy is caused by malformed proteins called prions. The bovine version of the disease has been traced to the cost-cutting practice of mixing neural tissue from dead sheep into the feed of cows, which naturally eat only plants. Cows that eat BSE-infected brains or brains of sheep suffering from a disease called scrapie can develop mad cow disease. When people eat infected animals, thus far mainly cows, they can develop the human version of the disease. Millions of cattle suspected of being infected with BSE in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, and other countries have been brutally killed. Though various safeguards against BSE have been instituted, few have been adopted in the U.S.
While Japan performs BSE tests on every cow that goes to slaughter, and the European Union tests 70% of its cattle, the U.S. tested only 20,000 cows out of the 35 million killed for meat in 2002. This is only .06%, which is unconscionable when one considers the possible ramifications of this neglect. As of right now, there is little improvement. In time, perhaps with a human outbreak in the States, the message will be heard in unmistakable tones. And Time tells us that there is a trend toward vegetarianism, perhaps because of fear of mad cow. Telling, isn’t it, that it takes the fear of God, so to speak, to get us to stop eating meat. Threatened by the prospect of some torturous, inconceivable disease, we begin to reconsider our palate. We never hear the cries of the creatures, never consider plights other than our own.
The Vaishnava Alternative
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have a sensible solution: “Since spongy brains have been found in cats, dogs, sheep, mink, deer, and elk, as well as in cows and people, you may not be protecting yourself by avoiding beef alone. When there are so many delicious vegetarian alternatives available at virtually every restaurant and grocery store, why gamble?” In other words, vegetarianism is a no-brainer.
But vegetarianism doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It simply gives us a method for avoiding the disease ourselves. If we analyze the cause of mad cow disease, we see farmers and businessmen looking for shortcuts—feeding all kinds of inedible waste, including diseased brains, to their dependent and vulnerable animals. In short, creating monsters. Unless we address the underlying mentality—the diseased brains behind the diseased brains—similar problems will continue to arise. What is called for, then, is a change in consciousness as well as diet.
The Vaishnava scriptures state clearly that the preferred diet for man includes only vegetarian foods—in endless delectable combinations, both raw and cooked—and that, before eating, these edibles should be offered to Krishna with love and devotion, as mentioned above. By association with God through this process, the food becomes purifying, gradually changing the consciousness of those who cook it, eat it, and serve it. Thus, prasadam addresses both concerns: diet and consciousness.
Moreover, devotees of Krishna feel for the suffering of others. We don’t abstain from eating animal flesh just to avoid a terrible disease. We want to live peacefully with all of God’s creatures, and not merely because it serves our purposes. By taking prasadam, we move a long way from mad cow, and into the realm of happy cow.
The Kuru Disease
Coincidentally, one member of the spongiform encephalopathy family of diseases is known as kuru. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas are the heroes, the protectors of the righteous, and their cousins, the Kurus, are their evil adversaries. The Pandavas defeat their pernicious cousins not merely by their own strength but by siding with Krishna. Similarly, the evil disease kuru can be defeated not merely by vegetarianism but by a change of consciousness.
Symbolically, this truth can be detected in the word vegetarianism itself, a word that in common parlance has come to mean “eater of vegetables.” Originally, however, it comes from the Latin vegetus, meaning “whole, sound, fresh, and lively.” Similarly, the Pandavas had to see beyond ordinary piety and righteousness, beyond ordinary definitions of duty. They had to adopt a more holistic conception of life, wherein the dualities of good and evil fall away like so many diseased animals. They surrendered to Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and in so doing conquered the dreaded Kurus once and for all.
For more from Steven Rosen, including how to buy his latest works such as The Yoga Of Kirtan, click here.