The ancients must have early observed that life was distinct from physical material. Death often occurred even when the body appeared intact and whole. Life was thus seen as something that empowered the body, a spirit that animated and gave rise to motion and consciousness. If this was true of humans, why might it not also be true of the beasts?
That life is sacred stems from two complementary belief systems; one maintains that each living creature possesses a soul or spirit that continues to exist and reinhabit another life form upon the death of the original creature. It appears that this doctrine originated in the religious thought of Egypt. There, the priests developed the notion that there existed a transmigration of souls from terrestrial, to marine, to bird, and finally to human form.33 A vegetarian diet thus became the only one that would not result in the destruction of another ensouled being. This idea was further developed, particularly in eastern religious thought, to include a backward as well as a forward progression of a soul, depending on the quality of the current life. Premature death at the hands of a human would thus interrupt the process and possibly consign the soul to a lower life form than would have otherwise been the case.
The second reason for a vegetarian ideal from a sacred life perspective centers on the sentience of lower creatures. If the animal kingdom could experience emotion, particularly pain, suffering, fear, and deprivation, then causing such negative emotions would constitute a violation of that creature's life. This would be even more serious if death were to result.
This recognition of the pain experienced by lower-order animals causes the Greek philosopher Empedokles to cry out: "Alas that the pitiless day did not destroy me first, before I devised for my lips the cruel deed of eating flesh."34
While most Christian theologians have been reluctant to grant to the animal kingdom a soul similar to that held for humans, there has nevertheless been an increasing concern for the welfare of animals. While not necessarily believing in an in-dwelling animal soul, there is an increasing tendency to equate all life as being of equal value. Thus, vegetarian diets are necessary to avoid the taking of life. The earlier emphasis on a golden age where death does not occur easily gives rise to a fundamental belief in the sacredness of all life. This position holds that the destruction of one life to benefit another creates a hierarchy of values that is anathema to the creator's design where all life is of equal value.
Nowhere has the reverence for life been more profoundly stated or scrupulously practiced than by the Jains, followers of Mahavira, who was born in Kundapura near Vaishali about 599 BCE.
At the age of 30, Mahavira renounced all his wealth, property, wife, family, relatives, and pleasures. In a garden of the village Kundapura, at the foot of an Ashoka tree, no one else being present, after fasting 2 days without water, he took off all his clothes, tore out the hair of his head in five handfuls, and put a single cloth on his shoulder. He vowed to neglect his body and with equanimity to suffer all calamities arising from divine powers, people, or animals.
Mahavira's followers founded the Jainish religion, which today still maintains one of the strictest stands with regard to vegetarian principles.
Buddha's insistence on the sacredness of all life also lent itself to a vegetarian lifestyle, even though he himself did not practice scrupulous vegetarianism. The major reason for Buddha's advocacy of non-violence and non-killing was centered in the concept of "mercy" toward all living things. Buddha taught that it was wrong to be the recipient of food that was prepared expressly for that individual through the slaughter of an animal. Eating the flesh of another living creature was a barbaric act if that animal had lost its life solely to provide that individual with food. With this also goes a belief in karma that mandates that all must eventually suffer the consequences of evil actions.35 Buddha was pragmatic enough, however, to allow for eating meat if it had been already prepared for and by other non-believers who had no prior knowledge of the need and presence of himself or a follower.
Buddha's thought is probably best summarized in a poem said to be the only text actually written by Buddha himself.
Creatures without feet have my love. And likewise those who have two feet; And those too, who have many feet. Let creatures all, all things that live, All beings of whatever kind, See nothing that will bode them ill. May naught of evil come to them.36
The Hindu philosophy adopted much from Buddhism. "For India's ancient thinkers, life is seen as the very stuff of the Divine, an emanation of the Source and part of a cosmic continuum. They further held that each life form, even water and trees, possesses consciousness and energy. Nonviolence, ahimsa, the primary basis of vegetarianism, has long been central to the religious traditions of India."37 The reincarnation of the soul makes it a sacred duty to avoid the killing and eating of any animal.
Christians have been far less willing to see lower forms of life as anything more than mobile vegetables. There are, however, a few voices that call for a rethinking of that position. Dr. Andrew Linzey, professor of theology at Mansfield College, Oxford, U.K. and a passionate animal welfare activist, says, as well: "A God who remains passionless in the face of innocent suffering simply cannot be the Christian God. No theology which desensitizes us to suffering can be truly Christian theology."38
Even Christ himself commented that the Heavenly Father took note of, and was concerned with, the demise of even one sparrow.
Richard Dunkerly, an evangelical Christian, teacher, and writer states: "Of all people, Christians should not be the destroyers. We should be the healers and reconcilers. We must show NOW how it will be THEN in the Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah 11:6 where 'the wolf shall lie down with the lamb... and a little child shall lead them.' We can begin now within our homes and churches by teaching our children respect and love for all of God's creation...by teaching them."39
Jewish thinking has also, most often, seen the animal kingdom as little more than a source of food. But again, there are a few who challenge that view. Isaac Bashevis Singer, a noted contemporary Jewish vegetarian philosopher puts it bluntly, "When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting justice for his own hunger. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It's unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent."40
Even the Genesis account of permission to include animal flesh in the diet seems to contain a warning about misuse. "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it .. .."41 The passage seems to have God saying, "If you kill needlessly I will require an accounting."
Count Tolstoi, the eminent Russian novelist, wrote: "The consumption of animal food is plainly immoral because it demands an act which does violence to our moral sentiments."
Commenting on the animal suffering caused by meat eating, Henry David Thoreau said, "Every creature is better alive than dead — men, moose and pine trees — and he who understands it aright will rather preserve it live rather than destroying it."
There is a growing awareness of the suffering endured by animals in the process of meat production. Over two thirds of the vegetarians surveyed by Vegetarian Times gave animal cruelty as a reason for their vegetarianism. Seven million Americans are members or supporters of animal protection organizations.42
In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 47% of Americans said that they believed that animals are like humans in important ways in that they feel pain, act with altruism, communicate, and suffer fear.43
Death itself may not be the cruelest fate that animals raised for food suffer. Their short lives are often lived in discomfort and pain. Laying hens were the first to become "assembly line" components. Today over 95% of the eggs used in the U.S. come from these high tech factories where 250,000 to 5 million hens are raised indoors in crowded wire cages that are barely larger than their own bodies.44
The broiler business is little better. These birds have been so intensively bred for meat that they are now misshapen. Many cannot even walk or stand up. Genetic manipulation has also cut their growing time in half. These chickens now grow so rapidly that only 7 weeks elapse between hatching and their slaughter weight of 3 1/2 pounds.45
Probably the cruelest meat-raising practices are reserved for veal calves. Over a million of these animals are slaughtered each year.46 Those not killed immediately for "drop veal" spend their short 4-month lives chained in tiny stalls, unable to exercise or even turn around.47 This keeps their muscles underdeveloped so the meat is more tender.48 Their diet is designed to produce anemia so as to keep their flesh pale.49
Dairy cattle fare little better. About half of this country's 11 million dairy cows are reared in confinement. The same is true for about 80% of the 95 million pigs raised for human food.50
The outcry against the cruelty of slaughter for food has a long history. Pythagoras found this one of the more compelling reasons for his vegetarian beliefs, as did his followers throughout the ages. He equated the slaughter of animals with murder and theorized that brutality toward animals bred violence toward humans.51
Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-Day Adventist church first advocated a vegetarian diet in 1863.52 But, apparently, she found it difficult to maintain and periodically continued to indulge in meat until 1894. It was a plea from a woman in Australia that fi nally made the impression that was needed to make vegetarianism a permanent commitment. In a letter to friends in the U.S., she wrote: "When the selfishness of taking the lives of animals to gratify a perverted taste was presented to me by a Catholic woman, kneeling at my feet, I felt ashamed and distressed. I saw it in a new light and I said, I will no longer patronize the butchers. I will not have the flesh of corpses on my table."53
Upton Sinclair in his novel The Jungle managed to, as he said, "hit America in the stomach." The problems he depicted were not only the cruelty to the animals, but also the cruelty displayed to the workers in the trade. Apparently little has changed since Sinclair's book was published in 1907. Eleanor Kennelly of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union says, "A meat-packing plant is like nothing you've ever seen or could imagine. It's like a vision of hell."54 Federal statistics show that one in three of the 135,000 slaughterhouse employees in the U.S.
is injured each year, making it the country's second most dangerous occupation.55
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