[*This interview was conducted by Rynn Berry for his book, Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World Religions (New York: Pythagorean Publishers, 1998)]
Berry: How long have you been a vegetarian?
Rosen: I became a vegetarian in 1971 after studying the roots of various religious traditions. It started when I began to look deeply into Western religion, especially Christianity, which only goes back about two thousand years. I then studied Judaism, which is somewhat older. Both of these religions emphasize the need for love and compassion, but rarely take it to the point of vegetarianism, at least not overtly. Wanting to delve deeper and go further back into the religious history of mankind, I began studying the various Eastern religions, which go back many thousands of years. In the course of my research, I found that common to most of the Asian religions was this sort of ahimsa sensibility—this notion of “harmlessness” and “nonviolence,” this mood of treating others as you would have them treat you. And that’s what led me to vegetarianism quite early on.
Then, taking the religious quest back to its roots, I became interested in yoga and ancient Hindu traditions that emphasized vegetarianism. This was well before I met the devotees of the International Society for Krishna consciousness [ISKCON]. I was already a practicing vegetarian when I became a practicing Vaishnava, although my commitment to the Krishna religion definitely enhanced my resolve to be kind to all creatures and to be a vegetarian.
But the point I want to make is this: I saw that there was a thread connecting all the religious traditions and, for me, this was best expressed in what is known as sanatan dharma, or “the eternal function of the soul”; that’s what the devotees of Krishna were purporting to follow. So that’s what I started to explore in the Krishna consciousness movement. Now, that particular sanatan dharma ideology, that particular point of view—wherever you find it, be it in Christianity or Hinduism or whatever—necessarily insists on kindness to all living creatures. Taken to its furthest and most logical end, it insists on vegetarianism.
Berry: Larry Shinn, President of Berea College, Kentucky, and an acknowledged expert on the Hare Krishna movement, observed that many vegetarians joined the Krishna movement because it gives them a rationale for their vegetarianism. Did you find this to be true in your case?
Rosen: Yes. I would say so. Here at last was a religious tradition that provided a clear connection between vegetarianism, kindness to all creatures, and the religious pursuit. As I said, I found this same principle in other traditions, but you had to look really hard for it—it was mainly to be found in the mystical traditions. Mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, certainly do not stress vegetarian teachings. If anything, they would reject it. But they do stress universal compassion and love, which ultimately leads to vegetarianism, at least if such love is truly universal. Therefore, the mystical traditions that grew up around these religions do support a vegetarian way of life; but their mainstream counterparts lost sight of this. Whereas in Krishna consciousness, whether mainstream or the more mystical side, it is right on the face of it, right there as a prominent teaching.
Berry: I understand that in 1975 you were initiated by Swami Prabhupada himself, the founder of the International Krishna Consciousness movement. Did you have a sense that he was a special person?
Rosen: When I first met Prabhupada in 1972, my immediate impression was that he was a genuine saint, and his saintliness inspired me to want to improve my lifestyle. So I followed his instructions, distributed his books and spread his teachings with a view to becoming his disciple.
Berry: What were the prerequisites for becoming a disciple of Swami Prabhupada?
Rosen: Disciples were required to follow four basic principles—no meat-eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling. One also had to chant sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna on beads. There are 108 beads on Vaishnava rosary. So one has to go around sixteen times chanting the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra: “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! Hare! Hare! Hare Rama! Hare Rama! Rama! Rama! Hare! Hare!” This was the minimum prerequisite for initiation.
Berry: Did you have to repeat this refrain throughout the day?
Rosen: Sixteen rounds on beads as a minimum—that was for quiet, reflective meditation—and then you would chant aloud in kirtan, a sort of joyous, overflowing spiritual exercise wherein you sing and dance with others. You must have seen the devotees singing like this on the streets. It’s quite traditional, and it’s a well-known practice all over India. There are many Vedic and post-Vedic prayers and chants like this, but this particular one is known as the Maha-mantra, which indicates that it is all-inclusive and all-encompassing. It’s said that all other mantras are contained in this one mantra. It’s that powerful. So it has a soteriological function, its meaning is very deep, and it is extremely purifying.
You see, most prayers or incantations ask for something in return. “Give us our daily bread,” or something of that nature. Or, in the latter-day Buddhist tradition, you have nam-myoho-renge-khyo—suppo
Berry: How would you translate it?
Rosen: “O Lord! O divine energy of the Lord! Please engage me in Your service!” It means, essentially, “Whatever You want, O Lord, that’s what I want! I'm going to put Your desires before my own.”
Berry: The great Indologist A. L. Basham said that Swami Prabhupada, in founding the International Hare Krishna movement, had established the first Asian religion in the West since the days of the Roman Empire. Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity and Chairman of the Department of Applied Theology at Harvard Divinity School, said of Prabhupada: “There aren’t many people you can think of who successfully implant a whole religious tradition in a completely alien culture. That’s a rare achievement in the history of religion. Eventually, he planted this movement deeply in the North American soil, throughout other parts of the Europe-dominated world and beyond. The fact that we now have in the West a vigorous, disciplined, and seemingly well-organized movement—not merely a philosophical movement or a yoga or meditation movement, but a genuinely religious movement—introducing the devotion to God that he taught, is a stunning accomplishment. So when I say ‘he was one in a million,’ I think that’s in some way an understatement. Perhaps he was one in a hundred million.”
Rosen: Yes, that’s a great quote.
Berry: He certainly was an improbable figure to have founded a religion on Western shores: he arrived in New York almost penniless in 1965. Clad in a flimsy dhoti and wearing rubber shoes, his only luggage was a battered portable typewriter and an umbrella. When he embarked on his long sea voyage to the United States, he was seventy years old (an age at which many people are checking into rest homes). On the outward voyage from Calcutta, he had several mild heart attacks. Yet he did the impossible: he established a branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in America, Europe and Asia—and it seems to have taken root.
Rosen: That’s true—it was a phenomenal accomplishment! But he was not really “an improbable figure,” as you say. In many ways, Swami Prabhupada was the most likely person to do it, chiefly because, as his biographers tell us, he spent a lifetime in preparation. He was born to devout Vaishnava parents of the Chaitanyaite school; he studied Vedic texts for most if not all of his life; he knew Sanskrit; he knew Bengali; in college, he majored in economics, philosophy and English; and he lived a pure life of loving God from the very beginning. So these things really prepared him for coming West, and for the monumental success that followed.
Berry: But he was an unlikely figure in another sense. Come to think of it, Mahatma Gandhi was an improbable figure as well. Dhoti-clad like Prabhupada, he weighed about 125 pounds soaking wet; yet he drove the British out of India and is considered, in some respects, the father of modern India. So that’s a consideration: very often even the most unlikely figure triumphs. The weak overcome the strong when they have truth on their side—that’s the whole idea of satyagraha.
Rosen: Ultimately, Prabhupada’s greatest strength lay in his dedication to and faith in his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur. There were so many people who had been given the instruction by Bhaktisiddhanta to come West and to deliver the esoteric teachings of Krishna consciousness; but they considered it to be totally impossible because they’d been given to understand that people in the West were meat-eaters, alcoholics and sex-mongers. So they backed off. On the other hand, Prabhupada rose to the challenge, saying, “They declared that it was impossible . . . but I was determined to try it anyway.” [laughter]
Berry: Do you think the Krishnaites [Vaishnavas] have been responsible for the spread of vegetarianism and the doctrine of ahimsa in America and Europe?
Rosen: Yes, very much so. In ISKCON vegetarianism is a requirement for practitioners, whereas, in other traditions, it is generally optional. Thus, it is an actively promoted philosophy. ISKCON has opened vegetarian restaurants in every major city of the world. They are immensely popular, opening people up to a broader conception of the vegetarian lifestyle. There are, of course, Jain and Buddhist denominations who have contributed to the popularity of vegetarianism, and certain Christian sects like the Seventh-Day Adventists have contributed as well. Perhaps I’m biased, but I would say, comparatively speaking, ISKCON has had a broader influence.
Berry: In fact, Bill Shurtleff told me that when he was training as a Zen monk in Japan and working on The Book of Tofu, that he met Swami Prabhupada, who had come to Tokyo in the late sixties to open a branch of ISKCON. So thanks to Prabhupada’s zeal it has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Rosen: Vaishnava restaurants, which are strictly vegetarian or, I should say, lacto-vegetarian, have been thriving all over Europe, Japan, Australia, China, India, and Hong Kong, and, of course, in America as well.
Berry: India? I should think that opening a Krishnaite restaurant in India would be like taking coals to Newcastle.
Rosen: ISKCON has its own particular style of cooking and preparing sacred food that’s offered to Krishna in sacrifice. In addition to the interest created by the mere fact of seeing Westerners preparing traditional dishes, devotees sometimes take traditional recipes from the culture and give them a distinctive Western flourish. Thus, the popularity is twofold.
Berry: What characterizes that style of cuisine?
Rosen: Bhakti. The love and devotion of the devotee—this is the main ingredient. You see, in Vaishnava devotional cooking, there are three concepts that one should be aware of: first, there is bhoga, or “mundane enjoyment,” and this refers to unoffered food. Then you have naivedya, or the food that is brought before the Deity. Finally, you have prasadam, literally, “the Lord’s mercy,” which refers to the food after it is offered. This food is spiritually purifying and is always sattvic, or vegetarian and health-giving.
Berry: Is Yamuna Devi’s cookbook Lord Krishna’s Cuisine representative of prasadam preparation?
Rosen: Yes, in the sense that her mood in this book is devotional, but, in addition, it is a masterpiece of Indian culinary art. For many years Yamuna was Prabhupada’s personal cook; he taught her his own cooking secrets, helped her collect recipes and specifically asked her to compile a cookbook. That was a great impetus for her; that’s why she did it and doubtless that’s why it turned out to be the award-winning cookbook that it is.
Berry: Prabhupada wanted her to do it for the West?
Rosen: For the world—even for India because, as I’ve said, ISKCON is unique in its presentation of Indian food. More, Prabhupada wanted her to perpetuate traditional Vaishnava cooking.
Berry: I understand that Prabhupada saw to it that his protégé Yamuna was given access to temple kitchens to which non-Westerners and non-Hindus had never been admitted. Have you, as a Vaishnava scholar, penetrated any of these temples?
Rosen: Yes, I've entered the sacred precincts of many temples that are off-limits to Westerners and non-Hindus. I’ve been to Tirupati, Guruvayur, Shri Rangam, and others. But, in actuality, they’re easing up on the restrictions for foreigners. I think this is also due to ISKCON’s presence.
Berry: In your book Om Shalom [a collection of dialogues with Rabbi Jacob Shimmel, who has studied and traveled extensively in India], you discussed a temple in South India, Pakshi Tirtha, where they have a time-honored custom of feeding two white eagles at precisely the same time every day. Can you tell me about that?
Rosen: That’s a Shaivite temple [where Shiva is worshipped] near Mahabalipuram in southern India. An Amazing place. The temple sits atop an enormous hill. To reach the top, one has to climb a seemingly endless flight of steps that are carved into the mountainside. One has to time one’s journey so that one arrives before the feeding of the two eagles, which takes place at 12:30 P.M.—sharp—every day.
To climb these steps takes about an hour or an hour and a half. At this time of day, the sun is positively scorching. It beats down piteously on these stone steps—which one has to climb barefoot because one must remove one’s shoes upon entering a sacred place. So to climb these steps is quite an austerity.
As soon as one gets to the top, amidst throngs of pilgrims, the first thing that one sees is a pujari—a priest who worships the deity and presents prasadam (sacred food) to the deity as well. Around twenty-seven minutes after 12:00, the pujari takes out a pot of prasadam and places some in his hand. Soon after he does this, at exactly 12:30, one sees two black dots in the sky, moving in from quite a distance. It’s the two white eagles! This ritual has been going on for thousands of years. It’s even mentioned in the Puranas, where there’s a story that refers to two devotees of Shiva, two yogis, who were cursed to take birth as birds perpetually, birth after birth. It’s also briefly mentioned in the Chaitanya-charitamrita—the
Berry: Rabbi Shimmel, who is a keen but not uncritical student of Hinduism, was very impressed by the whole Pakshi Tirtha incident.
Rosen: That’s right. He witnessed it, and for centuries European travelers who visited this Pakshi Tirtha temple have left accounts of it. For instance, in 1908 the Archaeological Survey of India published interesting findings in the annual report of the Madras Epigraphist. It seems that ten Dutch army officers had inscribed their names in the Pakshi Tirtha area in the year 1664, attesting to the fact that they had witnessed the noontime meal.
So the two black dots appear in the sky just after noon, flying in from across the subcontinent. As they get closer, one can see that they are actually two white eagles. They swoop down, seize the prasadam from the pujari’s hands and eat it. Then they fly around the mountain and clean their beaks on the alternate mountainside. What’s more, since these birds (and, perhaps, their ancestors) have been cleaning their beaks after lunch for millennia, there are huge indentations in the mountain just where they clean their beaks. So this is the story of the two Shaivites who were cursed to take birth as eagles . . .
Berry: Cursed or blessed? It’s not such a bad existence, is it? Flapping about merrily while feeding on tasty vegetarian dishes prepared by a temple chef . . .
Rosen: One man’s curse is another man’s blessing. [laughter]
Berry: It’s also rather extraordinary that eagles, which are thought of as being exclusively carnivorous, should be so taken by this vegetarian food that they appear at 12:30 on the dot every day for at least two thousand years.
Rosen: India is filled with such inexplicable enchantments and paradoxes. You’ll find many truly sacred places with uncommon marvels that defy the imagination.
Berry: Can one interpret this metaphorically, I wonder? That these two white eagles should feed on the prasadam—isn’t that almost symbolic of the way that devotees of Shiva and Krishna sustain themselves on the gods’ prasadam?
Rosen: It’s a little different here because this is Shiva prasadam. Shiva is a demigod, and so feeding on his prasadam can only bring material benefits. Whereas devotees feeding on Krishna prasadam are feeding on food that is consecrated to the Supreme Personality of Godhead; the result of this kind of feasting is that it frees you of sin, brings intense happiness, and ultimately liberates you from material existence, situating you in love of God.
Berry: Do you yourself eat prasadam at home? Do you consecrate your food to Krishna before you eat it?
Rosen: Yes. I offer my food to Krishna, in my way. At the same time I try to remember that the energy I get from this food is to be used in Krishna’s service. This is another aspect of honoring prasadam.
Berry: Is it Krishna’s teaching that He will not accept animal flesh as prasadam? Does He only accept vegetarian food?
Rosen: Exactly. That’s based on various passages in the Vedic literature. Prabhupada was fond of quoting one particular verse from the Bhagavad-gita in which Krishna says, “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” Prabhupada points out that Krishna doesn’t ask for meat, fish, or eggs in this verse. Of course, this Gita verse is not in and of itself conclusive; but there are many other parts of the Vedic literature that also point in this direction, as well as those that state it overtly. For example, in the Vaishnava epic known as the Mahabharata [anu. 115.47], it is said, “He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take his birth.” Or, also in the Mahabharata [anu. 114.11], “The meat of animals is like the flesh of one’s own son, and the foolish person who eats meat must thus be considered the most vile of human beings.” So the Gita verse taken in tandem with these other texts, inescapably points to vegetarianism. Moreover, the Vaishnava tradition has been emphatically vegetarian since ancient times. In later literature, such as Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Chaitanya-charitamrita, vegetarianism is an implicit and recurring theme.
Actually, in that mammoth work, Krishnadas Kaviraj does something quite remarkable: In addition to delineating an incredibly complex theological system and systematically revealing Lord Chaitanya’s prevailing hagiography, he describes and gives recipes for the hundreds of dishes that Lord Chaitanya found most delectable. Many of them, incidentally, appear in Yamuna Devi’s cookbook.
Berry: Could you give some idea of Chaitanya’s favorite recipes according to Krishnadas Kaviraj?
Rosen: Well, various forms of shak are described, that is, green leafy vegetables with interesting combinations of ghee and spices. All kinds of exotic rice preparations are there as well; and delicious forms of dahl too; the list really goes on and on.
Berry: But they’re not vegan recipes . . .
Rosen: No. There are some that involve the use of milk and ghee, as I’ve said. But many of the recipes are vegan-oriented—simple but tasty vegetarian fare that would appeal to all connoisseurs of good food. You can ask Yamuna about the specific recipes. Basically, there are two food groups: foods called kacha, which are grains, vegetables, and various foods that are boiled in water (wherein you will actually find thousands of vegan recipes). Then there are foods called pakka, which are prepared with cow products—again, there are thousands of recipes. These are the two basic categories.
Berry: So Chaitanya would dine on these vegetarian meals, dished up by temple chefs in the sixteenth century. How fascinating to have these culinary artifacts preserved so faithfully by his biographer!
Rosen: Well, there’s an esoteric reason for that. An interesting thing about Krishnadas Kaviraj, which would kind of explain why he peppers an intensely philosophical work like the Chaitanya-charitamrita with detailed recipes, has to do with his ontological form; it has to do with who he is in the spiritual realm. He is a maidservant named Kasturi Manjari. Appropriately enough, this maidservant assists Radharani in the kitchen when she prepares food for Krishna. Since this is his eternal activity in the Spiritual Sky, it is quite natural that in his bodily form as Krishnadas Kaviraj he has a preoccupation with recipes and has a predilection for listing foodstuffs and feasts in his Chaitanya-charitamrita.
Berry: Interesting. You are suggesting that Chaitanya’s biographer, Krishnadas Kaviraj, was the reincarnation of a sous-chef in the kitchen of Krishna Himself!
Rosen: In a manner of speaking, yes. In his original spiritual form, he is the assistant of Radharani in the kitchen. And so this affects the way in which he approaches his service as a writer of Chaitanya’s biography in this world. This is even brought out more clearly by the fact that Chaitanya’s other biographers—and he’s had several—don’t delve into the recipes or give a detailed listing of the preparations at all. But Krishnadas sure does! He’s meticulously describes all the different kinds of feasts that Lord Chaitanya attended; he tells how to prepare the various dishes, and he lingers lovingly over every detail of its preparation.
Berry: I should think that after having been Radharani’s kitchen assistant, Krishnadas would have achieved moksha, or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Wouldn’t being reincarnated as Chaitanya’s biographer have been a bit of a comedown?
Rosen: Not at all. Here’s the first thing that needs to be understood: As Radharani’s assistant, there is no higher goal—he was already beyond moksha and established in his natural constitutional position in the spiritual world. He’s one of the inner circle of Krishna’s associates and so he is considered eternally liberated. That’s the first thing. Closely linked to that is another, related idea: his incarnation as Chaitanya’s biographer can be seen as lila, or pastime, enacted merely for the Lord’s pleasure.
You see, people are born into this world for diverse reasons. Conditioned souls need to learn certain lessons and are forced to take birth as a reaction to their karma or materialistic activity. Through proper conduct and the Lord’s mercy, they ultimately achieve moksha, or liberation. However, liberated souls also take birth in our world, but their reason is different: they come to help others and to assist the Lord in His mission. So this is one way to answer your question.
From another perspective, it can be seen like this: Lord Chaitanya is considered the most confidential and powerful avatar of Krishna. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition proclaims that Chaitanya is Krishna, but in His most intimate feature. So, since Krishnadas was Chaitanya’s intimate devotee and biographer, he moved closer to the Godhead. Direct service to Lord Chaitanya is the ultimate form of moksha, even for souls who are already liberated. So this is seen as a very exalted thing. This ultimate form of liberation—seva, or service to God—is delineated in Bhagavad-gita…
Berry: I see. So his incarnation as Krishnadas is actually a blessing. That resolves the issue quite well. But I want to ask you something about the Gita, since you just mentioned it. In the Gita there are several passages which stress ahimsa as one of the eternal verities. Would you say that the Gita is a seminal work for the Vaishnavas?
Rosen: Yes. The Gita comprises chapters 25 through 42 of the Bhishma-parva section of the Mahabharata, and the Mahabharata is considered one of Vaishnavism’s main texts. In regard to ahimsa, the Mahabharata says ahimsa para dharmo: “nonviolence is the highest duty.” This emphasis on nonviolence can be found in all major religions as well.
Berry: You’ve become something of a scholar in the field of comparative religion, too, having written Food for the Spirit, Om Shalom, East West Dialogues, inter alia. As a spokesperson in the field of comparative religion, how would you account for the fact that the Indic religions of the East, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Hinduism tend to promote ahimsa and vegetarianism, whereas the Semitic revelatory religions of the West, such as Christianity and Judaism, condone, if not encourage, the taking of animal life and the eating of their flesh?
Rosen: I think it’s because in Western religion there tends to be an emphasis on loka-hita. This is Sanskrit terminology; it means “kindness to one’s own species.”
Berry: This would include Islam as well.
Rosen: Especially Islam. Western religions emphasize loka-hita more than Eastern religions. The newer religions emphasize loka-hita more than the ancient religions. Islam is only 1,300 years old. Since it’s a newer religion, it accentuates loka-hita, which is a fundamental, beginning spiritual ethic: “First you have to be kind to yourself and your own kind; then you can extend it to others.” Now, in the older religions, and especially in the East, they stress sarva-bhuta-hita, which means “kindness to all living things.” It’s a more inclusive ethic—it includes one’s own kind as well as all other living entities. This is the compassionate sensibility that is stressed in ancient India’s Vedic texts, and especially in the Puranas and the Gita. This is one of the things that attracted me to Vaishnavism: it promotes this more inclusive, embracing ethic. It encourages love for all creatures; vegetarianism is implicit.
Furthermore, the Eastern religions, especially the various forms of what has come to be called “Hinduism,” also stress the principle of aham brahmasmi—“I am not this body but, rather, I am spirit soul.” This very spiritual perspective includes a sense of bonding with all that lives, an interconnectedness with all life forms. They are spirit, and so are we. So we have much in common with all creatures in God’s creation. People who adhere to an Eastern religious tradition will tell you in all candor that “I am not this body—I am something beyond this body.” Of course, this notion can be found in the Western religious traditions as well; every spiritual path will include some sense of experiencing our identities as different from the body. But it’s a question of emphasis. In the East, it is a rigorously elaborated upon and highly valued sensibility. Especially among Brahmins, these spiritual ideals are markedly evolved.
Berry: By chance, as I was making my way here this afternoon, I was reading Norman Lewis’s book called A Goddess in the Stones—it’s about his travels in Eastern India. In it, he recounts an incident that vividly illustrates the point you are making. He describes the reaction of a little Hindu girl on learning that there are people in the world who actually eat fish. Let me read it to you: “Fish had been introduced and ingenious wicker traps were offered for hire in which several, not exceeding two inches in length, had been caught and transferred to tins full of water. These were being examined by a pretty and expensively-dressed little girl, who I was to learn, had never seen a live fish before. ‘And what will they do with them?’ she asked her father. ‘They will eat them.’ he told her. She seemed to turn pale with horror, and was on the verge of tears. The father explained smilingly, ‘She is very gentle by nature. You see, we are Brahmins. We do not eat living things.’”
Rosen: Yes. Instinctively, she realizes that the only difference between her and this poor fish, who is going to be eaten, is the body; spiritually she realizes that she and the fish are one, parts of God, and should not be exploited or abused in any way.
The interesting thing to me is that in the West this would be considered an esoteric teaching, whereas in the East this is a most exoteric teaching. As Prabhupada would often say, “The common street sweeper in India knows that he is not the body.” By contrast, in the West, people are generally not conscious of the distinction between body and soul in their everyday life.
Berry: This may be related to the Indic idea or belief in samsara or the transmigration of souls. The Western religions do not support such a belief. Is that a fair statement?
Rosen: No, this is not really an accurate assessment. In my book, The Reincarnation Controversy: Uncovering the Truth in the World Religions, I argue that just as with ahimsa, the principle of reincarnation is accepted by both Eastern and Western traditions. Although practitioners are generally unaware of it, Western religion for the most part accepts the doctrine of transmigration, even if it’s only religious mystics, or those who study the “esoteric teachings” of Western religions, who would admit this to be true. In the East, transmigration is common knowledge and is pretty much accepted across the board. But make no mistake, samsara is definitely there in Western religion.
You have the example of orthodox Judaism—generally those who adhere to this system of religious belief will deny the doctrine of reincarnation. However, those Jews who know their own mystical tradition, Kabbalah, will inevitably come up against texts that lend support to the idea of transmigration, and they will even become acquainted with a lengthy work known as Sefer-HaGilgulim, which is largely devoted to elucidating the truth of reincarnation. The Hassidim and other orthodox Jewish sects are aware of this, and they accept that a person can be reincarnated in the shape of a stone, an insect, a plant, an animal, and so on, until one perfects one’s life and learns one’s lessons. But the mass of Jewish people do not know that transmigration plays a role in Jewish teaching.
In Christianity, the idea of reincarnation was consciously suppressed. If one studies the twenty-five ecumenical councils one will find that at the Second Council at Constantinople, in 553 A.D., Emperor Justinian, with the approval of Pope Vigilius, ordered that all references to reincarnation be stricken from the Bible and from post-biblical Christian literature. So most Christians are unaware of Christian reincarnationist teaching.
Berry: Weren’t they trying to stamp out Origenism—the teachings of Origen of Alexandria? The emperor and the pope made common cause against Origen because his teachings on reincarnation threatened the establishment.
Rosen: That’s right. The pope was afraid that if Christians in general believed that they had many lifetimes in which to perfect themselves, they would not treat death as such a grave issue. (Forgive the pun.) If they had more than one life, they might not be serious about following Christian directives and scriptural injunctions. In a word, they couldn’t be threatened with hellfire and damnation after a single life. With this in mind, the powerful leaders of that period decided to tell the mass of people that they had only one life—and that after this they would go to heaven or hell. Finished. This, they hoped, would make serious Christians.
Berry: You were saying that ahimsa and samsara are esoteric doctrines in the West but are known to the man-in-the-street in the Orient. What about vegetarianism? It strikes me that this has also been an esoteric practice in the West, but commonplace in Asia.
Rosen: Until recently one had to go to an occult bookstore to find information about vegetarianism or reincarnation; they are considered counterculture subjects in the West, or at least they were up until the last twenty years or so. But in India these have long been topics with which the common man is conversant, and speaks about very easily.
Berry: This is a bit off the point, but I was wondering if you’ve read Jeremy Rifkin’s popular book, Beyond Beef.
Rosen: Yes. It’s an excellent work.
Berry: Do you agree with his view of Indian history?
Rosen: No, not exactly. For the most part, he seems to accept textbook Hinduism, the kind that was popularized by Indologists who were largely Christian missionaries—biased, with a secret agenda, to say the least. In chapter five of Rifkin’s work, he mentions that Hindu Brahmins were largely performers of animal sacrifices, and that it wasn’t until the rise of Buddhism that ahimsa principles were adopted by the Hindus. This is simply untrue. Rifkin’s main reference is Marvin Harris, an anthropologist who does not draw on primary sources. If one studies the original texts, in Sanskrit, one finds that ahimsa was promoted in the earliest portions of the Vedic literature. This can be found in the Rig Veda (10.87.16), for example: “One who partakes of human flesh, the flesh of a horse, or any other animal, and deprives others of milk by slaughtering cows, O King, if such a fiend does not desist by any other mans, then you should not hesitate to cut off his head.” Or consider the Yajur Veda (12.32), which says, “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether these creatures are human, animal, or what have you.” Or the Atharva Veda (17.1.4): “One should be considered dear, even by those in the animal kingdom.” So, contrary to popular belief, the ahimsa principle can be found in early Vedic sources, even if there was a parallel Vedic allowance for animal sacrifices.
Now, it is true that the Buddha refuted the hypocritical Brahmins of his time who were engaged in needless animal sacrifices in the name of religion. But other Brahmins spoke out against these hypocrites as well. It’s not that ahimsa was peculiar to Buddhism; it was there in Hinduism all along. Even Vedic texts that recommended animal sacrifices did so with numerous caveats, and they were clear that these sacrifices were certainly not meant for our present age of Kali.
Only misled, bogus Brahmins bastardized the tradition and taught that it was appropriate to conduct animal sacrifices in Kali-yuga. But this was an aberration that was not condoned by Vedic texts.
You see, in India, there are eighteen Puranas, ancient scriptures—six for those in the mode of goodness, six for those in passion, and six for those in ignorance. The scriptures for people in the mode of goodness adamantly eschew the use of flesh foods—and animal sacrifices. Only the scriptures for those in passion and ignorance condone meat-eating and, rarely, animal sacrifices—and both in regulated fashion only. It is meant to wean practitioners off of these things. A similar phenomenon exists in the Bible, for example, where the koshering laws are described.
So while I feel that Rifkin’s book has a lot to offer, I think he didn’t really do his homework in regard to Eastern religion, and this is reflected in his fifth chapter, which is called “Holy Cow,” I believe.
It’s my opinion that Westerners in general don’t really understand the reason for Eastern vegetarianism, so Rifkin’s analysis is not surprising.
Berry: It would appear that Westerners become vegetarians largely for narcissistic or health reasons; whereas, in Asia, especially in India, people seem to be vegetarians for spiritual and ethical reasons. Is that a correct assumption?
Rosen: Not entirely. Practitioners in the East are also aware of the health benefits conferred by a vegetarian diet, and, conversely, Westerners often become vegetarian for spiritual reasons. But, to focus on the Eastern religions: If one studies ancient Ayurvedic texts, one will find it very clearly stated that it is better to be a vegetarian not only for religious, ethical, and moral reasons but also for medical and nutritional reasons. It is always better to do things in full knowledge than to do things without knowing the purpose. That’s acknowledged in all Indic traditions. But the central reason for Eastern vegetarianism, especially for Vaishnavas, is twofold: first, a Vaishnava cannot bear to see the suffering of others. They feel an intense love for all living beings, and cannot harm anyone—what to speak of eat them! Secondly, a Vaishnava can only eat foods that are offered to Krishna in sacrifice, and as we’ve mentioned earlier, Krishna will only eat vegetarian foods. These two reasons are deeply ingrained in Vaishnava culture, and have been an integral part of Vaishnava consciousness long before the rise of Buddhism. So, yes, the two main reasons are ethical and spiritual.
Berry: Would you say that the average Indian is a healthier specimen than his western counterpart?
Rosen: On average, yes. They tend to be lean and lithe, and they live to a ripe old age.
Berry: You were raised in a non-practicing Jewish family, and after converting to Vaishnavism, you’ve become an expert in the field of comparative religion. Has your interest in Judaism been rekindled by your study of other religions?
Rosen: Very much so.
Berry: Can one be a practicing Jew and a Krishnaite at the same time?
Rosen: The average Jewish theologian would say no. They would say that it’s not possible because Hinduism is idolatrous and polytheistic. But the conception of sanatan dharma that is set forth in the Vedic literature is quite monotheistic in that it sees Krishna as the supreme God—the same supreme God that is mentioned in biblical literature. And, as far as idol worship goes—there is a huge difference between worshiping a Deity of the supreme and worshiping an idol of some lesser god, fashioned by one’s own imagination. I’ve actually written quite extensively on this. You see, what Vaishnavism, or Krishnaite religion, emphasizes is this: getting at the essence, finding God, and this is the same basic idea that is there in Judaism and in all major world religions. So, I would say, yes, one can actually be a good practitioner of any faith and still be a Vaishnava. But one must dig deep, and must look into the essence of one’s religion. In fact, if one does so, one will find that the practice of Vaishnavism can enhance one’s faith in many ways, whatever one’s sectarian affiliation may be.
Berry: Actually, in Om Shalom, you and Rabbi Shimmel discuss a small colony of Jews living in India who can trace their lineage back over one thousand years.
Rosen: That’s a different issue because these people are actually practicing Jews; they’re not following Krishnaite religion.
Berry: Have they retained their Jewish customs and dietary habits? Or have they assimilated and become vegetarians?
Rosen: It really varies because Judaism teaches that it’s a mitzvah, or a “good thing,” to eat meat on the Sabbath. Or at least it teaches that one should rejoice and eat luxuriant foods on the Sabbath—and most Jewish authorities interpret this as a mandate to eat meat. But by and large I’d say that the Jews in India have assimilated and become vegetarians. Many of them speak Hindi or, rather, Tamil, and they wear saris and dhotis; so it is difficult to distinguish them from Hindus, and although their practices are distinctly Jewish they have imbibed many Indian customs. For many of them this would include the vegetarian diet.
Berry: Can you draw any parallels between Judaism and Vaishnavism?
Rosen: That’s the subject of a whole book, and your readers can turn to Om Shalom. But, as an example, the word judaism comes from judah, which means “to exalt the Lord” or “to glorify God.” So if one could, for a moment, divorce Judaism from its ethnological dimension, the essence of Judaism is to glorify God. The connection to Vaishnavism, then, is obvious, for the goal of Vaishnavism, too, is to glorify God. In this way, if one looks at the essence, one can find great harmony in these traditions.
Berry: Although many Jews observe the koshering laws, only a small minority are vegetarians. If a Jew wanted to become a vegetarian, what passages could he cite from the Bible to justify his conversion?
Rosen: Well, this is more Robert Kole’s subject, but I would say that one could begin with the first book of the Bible, in Genesis 1.29, where a non-flesh diet is forthrightly recommended; in this text, God actually describes the vegetarian diet as “very good,” whereas later diets containing meat are given as an emergency measure, and are usually clearly described as such. The meat-oriented diets mentioned in the Bible are generally referred to as “a concession to human weakness.” If one studies the Bible closely, one can see a distinction between God’s preferred will and His permissive will.
Berry: Why did God make these concessions and why did He permit Noah and his descendants to eat animal flesh?
Rosen: The crucial thing here is to try to understand exactly what was taking place at the time of Noah. Actually, man had become so depraved that he would eat a limb freshly torn from the body of a living animal. The situation had become so degraded that God decided to create a great flood—incidentally, the flood that is depicted in the Bible would doubtless have wiped out all vegetation, leaving scant alternatives to animal foods.
In any case, God did give a concession at that time for the eating of animal flesh. This occurs in the ninth chapter of Genesis, where God gives permission for man to eat anything that moves. Soon after this verse, God says that man should not eat the blood of animals (it is for this reason that the Jewish koshering laws came into play). And not long after that, I believe it’s in Genesis 9.5, God reveals the karma that awaits those who slaughter animals: “By their own hands shall ye be slain.” This is translated variously in different versions, but this is basically what it means.
Berry: What about this matter of God’s having given man dominion over the animals?
Rosen: Dominion was never taken to mean “one who enslaves” or “one who exploits”—at least not according to traditional biblical usage. Rather, the original Hebrew for the word “dominion” is yirdu, and it connotes a sort of stewardship or guardianship. In other words, we are given the command to care for our more humbly endowed brothers and sisters—the animals—not to eat them. A king may have dominion over his subjects, but he doesn't slaughter them and feast on their remains. Not generally.
It should be added, too, that Genesis 1.26, the verse that gives us dominion over the animals, is followed, only three verses later, by the verse that clearly recommends a vegetarian diet. In other words, God gives us dominion over the animals and only three verses later prohibits their use for food. Implicitly, the dominion He gives us does not include using animals for our taste buds.
Berry: You’ve touched on the Jewish tradition with respect to vegetarianism. Could you briefly outline the Christian tradition vis-a-vis vegetarianism and animal rights?
Rosen: Well, many of the arguments given for the Jewish side of vegetarianism would apply equally to the Christian tradition—they’re both based on the Bible. But Christians claim to adhere to a new covenant, set in place by Jesus and his unique spirituality. Basically, over the centuries, there have arisen two distinct schools of Christian thought: the Aristotelian-Thomistic and the Augustinian-Franciscan school.
Berry: How do they differ in their view of animal rights?
Rosen: The Aristotelian-Thomistic view has, as its basis, the premise that animals are here for our pleasure—their purpose in this world is only to serve us; that’s what animals are for. Period. We can eat them, torture them in laboratories, and do anything to them we please. This is almost Cartesian in scope. Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity seems to take its cue from the Aristotelian-Thomistic school.
The Augustinian-Franciscan view, on the other hand, teaches that we are all brothers and sisters under God’s fatherhood. Based largely on the world-view of St. Francis, and being essentially Platonic in nature, this school emphasizes love and compassion and, consequently, lends support to the vegetarian perspective. There is clearly a spirit of the law that is missed when one neglects the Augustinian-Franciscan view. Modern Christians would benefit greatly by exploring the philosophical teachings of St. Augustine and St. Francis.
In summation, I think you’ll find that in all religious traditions some form of these two antithetical strains exist—the Cartesian rationalist view versus the compassionate empathetic view. It is the judgment of the mystics, and I quite concur, that those who are more spiritually evolved tend to be attracted to the latter strain, though lest one lapse into total sentimentalism one must have a healthy regard for the rationalist approach as well. Perhaps it’s the Libra in me, but I feel that there must be a balance of these two approaches if the practitioner is to be successful in his spiritual quest.
Berry: This brings to mind religious schisms in general, a problem which is reflected in attitudes toward vegetarianism, among other things. For example, Muslims and Hindus in India have such divergent views on vegetarianism, don’t they?
Rosen: Sure. And you can even see such differences of opinion in the various Hindu sects, too. You have Shaivites and worshipers of Kali, for example, who often sacrifice animals and eat flesh—they call this animal sacrifice bali—and then you have the Vaishnavas, who are scrupulous vegetarians and who are kind to animals.
Sometimes worshipers of Kali offer a goat to the goddess in sacrifice, for she is said to be propitiated only by red blood. Vaishnavas who enter Kali temples often bring an offering of red flowers to appease the goddess by the similarity in color. To this day, there is an unscrupulous class of Kali priests who run a lucrative slaughterhouse business in the name of religion. Not so for the Vaishnavas…
Berry: Would you say that a goodly number of Hindus indulge in meat eating as a result of this form of Kali worship?
Rosen: Well, animal sacrifice, or bali, is now on the wane. Thankfully. There’s evidence that Calcutta’s most famous Kali temple, known as Kalighat, now sacrifices fewer goats per year than ever before. This is setting a standard in the less popular temples, too. All Kali temples that are associated with the Ramakrishna Mission have prohibited animal sacrifice, and it is prohibited by law in the temporary shrines erected throughout Calcutta during Kali Puja. So there is something of a “vegetarianizing” of the Goddess going on. Rachel Fell McDermott, a Harvard scholar now teaching at Columbia University, has been doing a good deal of research on this subject.
Berry: But in the Vedic texts—is there ever an allowance for meat eating?
Rosen: Well, certain medicines include animal products, so, yes, for medicinal purposes—but a true Vaishnava, and especially a Brahmin, will never take these things. Also, in Vedic culture, there was some allowance for a kshatriya, a member of the warrior class, to eat meat, but this was only in very special conditions—when he was living in the forest, preparing for battle. And even then, he would do so only under certain regulations, and then he would have to kill the animal himself, uttering the mamsa mantra in the animal’s ear. This mantra basically says, “As I eat you now, in a future life, you may eat me.” This was to inculcate in the meat-eating kshatriya a sensibility of karmic or causal truth. There is a severe reaction for killing animals, or eating meat, and this was widely known in ancient India. Actually, in India, it is still widely known, and meat eating is frowned upon by most believing Hindus.
Berry: What about the ashvamedha, or the horse sacrifice, that one reads about in histories of ancient India?
Rosen: The ashvamedha was one of many royal sacrifices. Three were most prominent: the rajasuya, the vajapeya, and the ashvamedha. Again, this was for kshatriyas, and they were very complicated sacrifices that would ensure entrance into heavenly planets, although not necessarily into the kingdom of God. The ashvamedha involved a complex series of events that lasted over one year. Essentially, it called for over one hundred horses, but only one was chosen as the main object of sacrifice. What is not generally mentioned in relation to this sacrifice, however, is that the horse was not only killed but was immediately brought back to life—immediately rejuvenated by the power of the mantras that were chanted by the priests. If the priests could not produce a young horse out of the fire sacrifice, then they were forbidden to perform the sacrifice at all or to kill the older horse in the first place. Incidentally, the whole ceremony is off-limits in this age, since there are no qualified priests who can properly chant the mantras.
Berry: Wasn’t there some sort of sexual ritual between the horse and the queen?
Rosen: [laughter] Well, modern scholars have assumed as much. The ceremony called for the queen to lay down behind a drawn curtain with the horse that was to be sacrificed. This was to soothe the horse, to calm the poor animal. Sexual innuendoes are not really there in the texts, and there is no evidence that any perverse activity was actually part of the ritual. Anyway, I must reiterate that these sacrifices are not recommended for this age. There are schisms, however, and some sects say that it can still be done. It should be pointed out, though, that the vast majority of practitioners and Vedic scholars insist that the ashvamedha and similar sacrifices were for a previous age, and that the modern sacrifice is the chanting of the holy name. This is the recommended process for our current age.
Berry: Speaking of schisms, what about the rift between Advaita philosophy and non-Advaita philosophy? According to Indologist A. L. Basham, when he visited Benares, which is the sacred city associated with Shiva worship and Advaita religious philosophy, the Advaita Brahmins who pride themselves on having gone far on the path of Raja yoga and Shankarite meditation tend to be very arrogant and self important because they feel that they have successfully merged their atman, their soul, with Paramatman, the supreme soul, or God. Basham notes that they strut about the streets of Benares like dhoti-clad gods. Far from exhibiting a fading away of self, they display a refined egotism that reminds him of the self-absorption of the Theravada Buddhists.
On the other hand, Basham says that when he visited Vrindaban, which, as you know, is that city in northwestern India that is associated with Krishna worship and non-Advaita or theistic Hinduism, he found the Vaishnavas to be friendly, unassuming, and forthcoming. Basham ascribes their friendliness and lack of holier-than-thou attitude to their being dualists who worship a personal God, holding themselves separate from God (unlike the Advaitavadis of Benares, who see themselves as one with God). Identifying with God, however one rationalizes it, seems to run counter to humility.
So we have these two cities—impersonalist Advaita Benares and personalist non-Advaita Vrindaban—representing the polarity that exists in Indian religious philosophy. Do you agree with Basham’s critique?
Rosen: Yes, to a certain degree. I think it’s very well stated, too. Advaita philosophy is very much akin to Theravada Buddhism. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu preferred the non-Advaita or dualist system because under the Advaita system there is no opportunity for rendering service to God. He prefers being distinct from God and thus being able to pay his adoration to a personal deity.
Berry: What about reincarnation and liberation? Do these various systems perceive the ultimate goal in different ways?
Rosen: There are various nuances of difference in these things, depending on which Advaita group you are talking about and which Vaishnava group you are talking about. Generally, in the Advaita system you continually reincarnate until you achieve moksha, “release,” which, for them, means becoming “one with God,” a position from which one generally falls. For Buddhists, the goal is nirvana, or enlightenment, but this, again, is not really an ultimate goal: what do you do in your enlightened state? The Vaishnavas say that the ultimate liberation is developing love for Krishna and, after death, attaining His supreme abode. This is the perfection of moksha and nirvana. You experience release from material bondage and are situated in your eternal constitutional position. What’s more, you exist in eternity, knowledge, and bliss, so you have enlightened activity in Krishna’s service and relish it for all time.