At first I thought it was my imagination: Walking New York City streets, I heard more than a few people talking about newfound flesh delicacies, from brains to brisket. "Maybe it's a coincidence," I thought. "Perhaps I just happened to hear the ramblings of some highly experimental meat eaters." Looking in several restaurant windows, spying their fancy menus, I saw other suspicious looking food items: clod, flatiron, tongue, shank, bone marrow, and even heart, parts of a cow I'd rather see only where nature intended them -- instead of on my plate. And this was pervasive, not just in one or two food establishments.
Of course, I'd heard about the strange food choices of carnivores around the world for years -- such as the demand for sauteed iguana meat in Central and South America; fried grasshoppers in Africa; lamb and calf brains in Middle Eastern countries; chicken heads, live shrimp, and dog meat in Korea and China; and chocolate-dipped ants in Japan, to name a few. But here in my home town?
Recent articles in the New York Times and the Post clinched it: "We're having a meat wave" was the catchy title of one report. "It adds up to the offal truth," read another. Apparently, according to reporter Carla Spartos, "macho meat eaters are entrail-oriented," looking for previously untasted body parts -- the stranger, the better. She writes about Scott Gold's new book, The Shameless Carnivore, among others, where we learn that high-class food connoisseurs are now demanding things like duck hearts, pork cheeks, and -- dare I say it -- cock's combs.
Gold is a card-carrying member of "the New Carnivores," as he puts it -- adventurous meat-eating New Yorkers who find "as much pleasure in plucking duck hearts off of a skewer as they do swilling martinis at Sparks." He writes that the phenomenon has been gaining ground in other sophisticated cities around the world, where, as mentioned, outlandish meat products have traditionally been consumed with some regularity -- but now it's considered trendy. And New York is quickly becoming the epicenter, especially in terms of odd flesh choices as a statement of hipness.
Clearly, this is an instance of Kali-yuga run amok. The age is progressing (or regressing) at a rapid rate. The simple meat-and-potatoes carnivorous diet of yesteryear is now being replaced by unseemly body cuisine that would make Lucifer cringe. Let's be clear, though: It's not that eating brains or guts or other unusual body parts is somehow worse than eating epidermis; it's just that it offends our sensibilities more -- we're not used to it, and it signals a moving forward of the age of degradation and horror: Vaishnava texts tell us that at the end of Kali-yuga, many thousands of years from now, humankind will reach the point of raising children simply to eat their flesh!
But even this new stage of carnivorous behavior, as it presently stands, shows a certain horrific thoughtlessness, both in terms of healthy eating and in the inevitable results -- karmic reactions -- of a meat-centered diet. "I've eaten 'headcheese'* before," says Justin Glazer, a 26-year-old member of Steak Society, a meat-eating club founded by grads of Baruch College's MBA program. "I didn't really like it," he says, "but I eat first, think second." No argument here.
Numerous physicians and medical experts, however, are arguing, calling this new trend "devastating" and "a portent of evil things to come." Neal Bernard, M.D., Michael Klaper, M.D., John A. McDougall, M.D., and many others are speaking out, trying to stop this experimental meat eating before it's too late. Their arguments are not only health oriented, as one might expect, but also draw on the language of decency. It's simply not right, they say, and a reaction awaits all who indulge.
Yoga texts have been saying these things for years. Just as the Bible teaches the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” -- the Mahabharata (5.39.57), predating the Bible, teaches a similar truth, and in almost the exact same wording. Yogis and spiritual adepts in India extend the teaching to its logical limits, showing kindness to all species of life – and this, of course, means vegetarianism. It’s hard to be kind to animals if you’re eating them!
In other words, if you don't want someone eating your entrails, don't eat the entrails of others. Simple enough, no?
The “do unto others” ethic is reflected in the origins of the Sanskrit word for meat, mamsa, which means “me-he” – or, by implication, “The fate of this animal will also be mine.” This etymological derivation of the word can be traced to the Manu-samhita (5.55): “He will eat me in the next world, whose meat (mamsa) I eat in this world. This is why meat is called mam-sa, or ‘me-he’.” The Golden Rule is clearly at work here. If what I “do unto you” is to eat you, then you have every right, in some future life, to “do the same unto me” – to eat me. In other words, the karmic reaction for eating a living being is evident in the language itself – “I will be eaten in the same way that I eat others – even if they are animals.”
Thus, true yogis oppose killing for many reasons. They know that every action holds within it an avoidable reaction (karma), and that the idea of reincarnation – of taking birth commensurate with our deeds -- follows karma like the butcher does his meat. Thus, that which we do to others will be done to us -- this is the universal law of cause and effect, echoing, once again, the Golden Rule. In other words, killing begets killing, and since there are many lives in which to reap what one sows, violence and killing eventually return to those who are violent and to those who kill, if not in this life then in the next one.
Ahimsa is often said to mean “nonviolence,” but, more specifically, it refers to “non-aggression,” and it is a high priority in the practice of yoga and Eastern spirituality. The distinction between nonviolence and non-aggression should be clear. Violence is sometimes necessary, as, for example, when a loved one is attacked and protection is required, or when life is threatened and self-defense becomes natural or obligatory. In such cases, violence may be in order. But aggression never is, at least when it comes to harming others.
Qualities such as gentleness, humility, and compassion -- and all related characteristics -- are necessary components of ahimsa, without which, one is not really practicing spiritual life proper, and so devotees put a premium on such behavior. In all yogic traditions, we see cows as symbolic of all finer qualities, and as representing the animal kingdom as a whole. For this reason, dedicated yogis particularly venerate cows as an emblem of ahimsa. The yogic position is clear: As she is dear to Lord Krishna, the divine cowherd, so should she be dear to us all.
In India, to this day, cows are appreciated for their practical value as well, with the five health-giving products that come from their bodies – urine, cow dung, milk, ghee, and yogurt – used in numerous ways. Amazingly, these items, especially urine and dung, have been found effective (and cost efficient) as fertilizer, compost, medicines, pest repellents, cleansing products, and biogas fuel. The cow is also considered sacred as a natural mother for human society – as one’s biological mother weans her young on breast milk, so does the cow nurture us in the same way. Caring for mother cow is thus seen as an important component of ahimsa. For this reason, cows shouldn't be eaten at all -- what to speak of the gory insides and obscure offal that are now part of the New Carnivores' repertoire.
It should be noted, however, that while ahimsa is considered important in yoga practice, it always remains subservient to love of God, or union with the Supreme, which is the core of the tradition. The Vaishnava scriptures do not limit their discussion of food to the avoidance of killing and the virtues of a vegetarian diet. According to traditional texts, one should offer all food as a sacrifice to God: “All that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform,” Lord Krishna says, “should be done as an offering unto Me.” (Bhagavad-gita 9.27) Krishna does not eat meat, and He would look aghast at the new menus in New York.
The Gita specifies exactly what should be offered: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it.” (9.26) Other references in the Vaishnava literature confirm that fruits, vegetables, grain, nuts, and dairy products are fit for human consumption. Followers of the Gita thus refrain from meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, since these are not sanctioned by either the scriptures or the sages. A vegan diet also fits nicely with Vaishnava dietary prerequisites.
The Bhagavad-gita further declares that one who lovingly offers food to God according to scriptural guidelines is freed from all sinful reactions and consequent rebirth in the material world: “The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is first offered in sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (3.13) The remnants of such devotional offerings are called prasadam (literally “the Lord’s mercy”).
Sin is a heavy word, and it comes with a lot of baggage. But who wouldn't think of sin when confronted with the new wave of meat eating emerging in the Big Apple? It's all part of a trend toward decadent forms of pleasure, a no-holds-barred attempt to titillate the senses. "You can't overestimate the pleasure the contemporary carnivore takes in saying they're going to eat a cock's comb. It's like the modern equivalent of eating a 5-pound lobster," says Josh Ozersky, who documents the City's more primal meat eating haunts as editor of the blog Grub Street and as author of "Meat Me in Manhattan." His latest book, "The Hamburger," just hit bookstores nationwide. And he is getting rave reviews.
But not by Krishna. Yogic texts have warned us about sense pleasure left uncontrolled, and medical journals are full of statistics about the virtues of a non-meat diet. If we weren't meant to eat meat, it's reasonable that meat eating would wreak havoc on our bodies. And it does.
In conclusion, just as yogis generally promote vegetarianism within the context of prasadam, they also acknowledge the benefits of a vegetarian diet as a stepping-stone to spiritual perfection. In the Bhagavad-gita (Chapter Seventeen), Lord Krishna Himself acknowledges that food can be divided into three categories, that of goodness, passion, and ignorance. Clearly, the effects of eating food in passion and ignorance, which includes the eating of meat, has adverse affects on the human condition. Conversely, say these same yogic texts, eating food in goodness -- fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, milk, and so on -- sets the stage for transcendence, wherein one has the opportunity to become more appreciative of spirituality in general.
True, until a devoted soul comes along and offers the food to Krishna, or God in any of His/Her manifestations, making it prasadam, one is likely to have a set stage with no actors and no performance. That is, vegetarianism may position us for higher material aspirations and predispose us to God consciousness, but without the touch of God, through the agency of His devotees, we are not likely to get all that can be gotten from a vegetarian diet. Why not, suggests the Bhagavad-gita, get the most out of our vegetarianism by offering our food to God?
The official fetish animal of the modern carnivore movement, says Ozersky, is the pig. I think Krishna would find a certain poetic justice in that, since it takes a piggish mentality to feast on gross body parts. But more, those who enjoy at an animal's expense will likely end up on their best friend's plate, if they just wait a few years.
* Headcheese: Sausage or jellied loaf made from the meaty bits of the head, usually of a pig.
Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).