No matter how much I try and explain the benefits of a vegetarian diet, there are always people who, while nodding their heads in agreement with everything I say -- will conclude our dialogue by saying, "but...I love my meat."
I know how difficult it is to give up eating meat, as I ate it for over 20 years of my young adult life. It took me almost a whole year to wean myself off of it. It had become something like an addiction. I was vegetarian until the age of seven, while growing up in India, but soon after we moved to the U.S., it was burgers and fries and everything else I could get my hands on. For some reason, I can still remember very clearly the first time I ever bit into a burger, sitting at Wendy's. I was too young to think about it philosophically, but something about the experience is lodged into my head.
The main reason I became a vegetarian, about 14 years ago, was for the reason of compassion. I had started exploring the spiritual direction I wanted to take for my life and the teachings of the Gita and the meditation practice I had adopted inspired me to incorporate a more compassionate diet, where others wouldn't have to get brutalized simply for the satisfaction of my tongue.
I had never seen animals as sentient beings. Television advertisements do such a good job of making them look simply like a food product, like cereal or candy bars. Companies do such an amazing job of hiding how animals spend most of their lives in cages, unable to move or turn around, or living knee-deep in their own fecal matter.
Most of us would puke and might even get traumatized if we saw how animals actually get killed in a slaughterhouse. Here's a mild video from PETA giving us a glimpse of reality that we ignore. Don't worry, it's milder than a lot of the video games out there today.
I learned from the Hindu scriptures, and our teachers of the past and present, of the karmic implications for one who causes, directly or indirectly, physical, financial, or emotional harm and suffering to others. This not only refers to actions directed towards other humans, but also to animals and the environment.
The law of karma records everything we do. "Karma" literally means "activity," so a karmic reaction would be a result of one's activities. In this case, even if we don't directly hurt a human or animal, but if we partake of something that caused suffering, we will have to undergo some pain and suffering as a reaction to that activity. That reaction may come in this life or a future life. It's like making a credit card purchase and getting the bill 30 days later. The Manu Samhita and the Mahabharata, respectively, further expound on this point.
"He who permits the slaughter of an animal, he who cuts it up, he who kills it, he who buys or sells meat, he who cooks it, he who serves it up, and he who eats it, must all be considered as the slayers of the animal..." (Manu Samhita 5.51-52)
"The sins generated by violence curtail the life of the perpetrator. Therefore, even those who are anxious for their own welfare should abstain from meat-eating." (Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva 115.33)
People always ask the question, "What about killing plants? Doesn't that create bad karma?" Abstaining from killing is one of the foundational teachings of Hinduism. Yes, killing plants does involve some violence, but since plants lack a central nervous system and a brain to process pain, they don't experience pain the same way humans and animals do, and thus the violence is minimized. Moreover, a lot of fruits and vegetables will fall off the tree when ripe. A cow or pig will never just drop a part of its body and grow another.
A simple question I'd like to pose: If you had to show your child where his or her food came from, where are you more likely to take them, a farm where fruits and vegetables are harvested or a slaughterhouse?
Animals live and care for each other as much as humans do. They will do whatever they can to defend their family members. They suffer emotionally when their offspring are taken away from them. How is it that we can be so callous towards these creatures of God? The goal of Hinduism is to love God. However, in order to love God, we need to love all of God's creatures, which means the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged and the gilled.
In America alone, the largest meat consuming nation on the planet, over 10 billion animals are killed for food each year. This number doesn't include fish. We really need to ask ourselves if all this violence is really necessary? There is no shortage of food, especially in this country. And, according to the USDA, there is no shortage of protein in vegetarian foods.
There is also enough evidence that indicates that a vegetarian lifestyle will not only be better for our health, but also for the planet. Here's a great article from Mark Bittman called "Rethinking the Meat Guzzler" in which he describes in great detail the damage that's done to our planet as a result of raising and killing so many animals. So, with all these reasons, ranging from freeing ourselves of karmic debt, living a healthier life and preserving the planet, is it enough for us to just say "but...I love my meat?"