Sustainable Consumption (SC) has received global attention during the Rio Summit 1992. And since then, environmental concerns motivated many consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviours. SC is the state of well-being of all beings on the Earth, from man to plants. Hence, yogic lifestyle and Hinduism as spiritual practices holds important links to SC in informing and achieving this harmony within and around us. In isolation, spirituality is popular for ethical and moral behaviour codes, but has not been explored as a strategy for encouraging SC choices. For the past decade, concepts like minimalism, mindfulness, empathy, compassion and worship for nature have been used by researchers to propose that they help in driving SC. On the contrary, unsustainable consumption in spiritual sense is informed by our dependence to Having more stuff rather than Being authentic to our true self. Thus, yoga and Hinduism can be attributed as not only a spiritual philosophy but also a scientific approach to achieve humanity’s highest potential.
So how yogic philosophy and principles can provide considerations to consume food sustainably?
Patanjali Yoga Sutra (yama-niyama) provides umbrella human practices that are mindful to oneself and the nature. These practices are linked to karma – consequences of one’s action as a good or bad result, and can be interpreted for food consumption as:
How Hinduism as a spiritual practice is encouraging animal welfare and sustainability in food production-consumption?
In Hindu cultures, food symbolizes communion and community, feasting and fasting along with many other religious traditions of the world. Hinduism classifies all foods according to the three gunas or traits wherein a diet should emphasize sattvic/pure balanced foods (lacto-vegetarian), minimize rajasic/high energy foods, and eliminate tamasic/low energyfoods. Dietary choices within Hindus are diverse, however vegetarianism is considered as the spiritually purer path to salvation. The exploitation and slaughter of animals are believed to generate bad karma for the individual, simultaneously leading to karmic consequences for the entire humanity, such as social unrest and war. Dairy products are extensively used in Hindu culture and in Ayurveda they are thought to balance the three dosasin the body: bile, air, and mucus (pitta, vata, and kapha). The concepts of atman/soul and karma/action inform Hindu ideologies around vegetarianism, cruelty-free animal husbandry and food production.
There are many Hindu and non-Hindu organisations campaigning about yoga and spirituality. ISKCON is one such global missionary society having strong agendas of animal protection, especially Krishna’s cows. It advocates against animal suffering and cruelty (ahimsa) in factory farms. ISKCON advocates for a compassionate lifestyle, as on an average a non-vegetarian consumes many animals in a lifetime. Animals are considered sentient beings rather than commodities which are used for food, clothing, entertainment or experimentation. Food for All and Food for Life is their largest free vegetarian and vegan food distribution program in the world where members operate food vans serving the poor, unemployed, and homeless within major cities around the world. They also respond swiftly to natural disasters.
There are ISKCON farms throughout the world where members live simply, aiming at self-sufficiency in food by practicing permaculture, cow-centric farming, natural farming and taking care of animals and cattle in goshalas. ISKCON -trained farmers sell vegetables, fruits, grains, and spices that are:
Two of the most famous ISKCON eco-farms are Krishna Valley Ecofarm in Somogyvámos, Hungary, and Bhaktivedanta Manor’s New Gokul farmin England. New Gokul farm’s milk has been commercially branded ahimsa milk – cruelty free milk. It is however the most expensive milk in the UK, costing thrice as much the price of a standard milk pint. Despite these reservations, ISKCON’s distribution of prasadam(sanctified food) at the eco-farms is the most effective strategy to spread the message that the vegetarian and vegan diet is the best diet to benefit the planet. Members have been developing business models of restaurants and eco-farms to minimize production costs, while educating and empowering people to make smart food choices.
But what about the ecological implications of dairy farming?
ISKCON, Hindus and certain ecologists assert that cow protection is good for the planet pointing to the benefits of cows as draft animals and as providers of milk. Human beings and cattle have a symbiotic relationship in India, but note that there are always benefits and costs. Scholars highlights:
- India’s vegetation can feed only about 60% of its cattle
- serious overgrazing and soil erosion are occurring
- problems of wandering cattle and the homes for aged cows
- the waste of beef
- inefficiencies in cattle breeding
- cows’ competition with humans for food
- and the contribution of religious beliefs to a surplus of cows
- wastage involved in the burning of dung and the removal of soil organic material
- the effects of large animal populations on soil compaction and water flow
- the role of cattle in desertification
- the disease vectors opened by overly close association of human and bovine populations
- animal husbandry as a major cause of agricultural greenhouse gases, directly responsible for 5% and 10% of global greenhouse gas production
Hence, scholars have argued that humans should adopt veganism i.e. consume less to no meat AND dairy products, thus protecting human health and reducing global warming.
Implication for Hindu sattvic lacto-vegetarian diet
With the growing culture on veganism and dairy-less diet, debates about dairy products are growing within Hindu communities. Features of organic sustainable farming are fully accepted, but there is some doubt whether the emphasis on dairy products is ethical in current times. Animal rights activists sometimes question whether it is ethical for Hindus who “worship” their cows to consume their by-products. Nonetheless, there are ethical dilemmas involving dairy farming in Hinduism. ISKCON’s eco-farms are also isolated centres of cow protection, and the ahimsa milk produced is insufficient (and too expensive) even for their own members. There have been problems with overbreeding creating issues of cow abuse. Under such circumstances critics advocate for veganism unless the source of commercial dairy products is known. The Happy Cow Project follows a vegan program if ISKCON members cannot get dairy products from their own or other protected cows.
I have been a practically thoughtful yoga practitioner for a decade. The practice of yama-niyamas made me reflect how my consumption impacts myself and the environment. However, the practice of focusing on specific yama-niyamas for a week or a month can be helpful in highlighting on specific aspects of consumption other than food also. E.g., observing Tapas such as fasting or refraining from buying things compulsively has made me mindful of my consumption. However, it is good to highlight that my choices are also influenced w.r.t where and how I live and work. E.g., I use modern conveniences (like air travel and packaged local food) that are not sustainable, while I’m living in the UK. I can highlight the conflict between my modern lifestyle and spiritual practices at greater length, but I believe without yoga and Hinduism as an ideal, my existing lifestyle choices would have been less mindful and sustainable.
Even though I don’t identify with any spiritual or Hindu organisation, I find myself appreciating efforts of various Yoga Vedanta schools in informing sustainable food choices that is not only beneficial for the environment but also to the self. Similarly, ISKCON’s strengths is that it not only advocates against the exploitation of animals worldwide, but also provides a model of inclusive friendship, care, gentleness, love, welfare, and protection toward animals. However, Hindu literature seems to suggest that God favours the welfare of cows more than that of any other animal. But, I believe that we can understand that the cow is used to symbolize all creatures to critique the cruelties of commercial farming and animal exploitation, while representing the Hindu worship for the divinity in all life. Hinduism of Vedic times in general follows on yogic principles and preaches sustainable food consumption and production choices.
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