Is Meat a Spiritual Food?
How important is being vegan or vegetarian?
Spiritual Food – Is there such a thing?
Do you wonder if spirituality and diet are connected? “You are what you eat” is a maxim applied to health outcomes. And lately also in the environmental context. But diet has been associated with spirituality for ages, and among diets, a plant-based lifestyle seems to be the preferred choice. Some of the most famous ancient philosophers were keen vegetarians, including Socrates, Pythagoras, Seneca, and Cicero. Vegetarianism is still quite common in Indian culture and was a facet of Vedic civilization. Even Christian mystics (Roberts, 2004) and Sufis have often emphasized vegetarian-leaning diets. For instance, Imam Ali (the quintessential Sufi master) discouraged the daily consumption of meat since it heightens animalistic tendencies.¹ In this article, the popular trends of vegetarianism and veganism² will be examined in terms of their physical and spiritual outcomes.
A note on diet, health and the environment
In terms of health, there is little to doubt about the significance of a plant-based diet for overall health, and especially for the ubiquitous issues of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular ailments. The work of Dean Ornish, Joel Fuhrman, and Michael Gregor is seminal in this area. Anyone wishing to learn more will enjoy reading these authors and looking up the famous China Study (Campbell & Campbell, 2004) or the work of David Sinclair (2019). Forks Over Knives is an inspiring documentary on the importance of plant-based living. Equally salient is the impact plant-based diets have on the environment. Until recently, it was surmised and suggested that since plants and grains consume far fewer resources than animal-based agriculture, such farms would result in a much smaller carbon footprint. Recent studies quite conclusively establish this link, and the International Panel on Climate Change has adopted plant-based nutrition and less consumption of meat as “a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change ― and includes a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption.“³ Keeping these two outcomes in mind, there should be little hesitation for any of us in adopting such measures. Please read our article, ‘A Spiritual Key to the Environmental Crisis and Climate Change’ for unique perspectives on this issue.
What do Spiritual Teachers and Traditions tell us?
As for spiritual adepts and saintly mystics, there seems to be a consensus about the benefits of a plant-based diet. In her study of Christian mystics, Dr. Holly Roberts gives a virtual “whos who” of Saints from various Christian traditions who were thus inclined. In recent times, Sufi Sages like Hazrat Inayat Khan and Bawa Mohiyudeen both encouraged vegetarianism. In our own experience, we note that the Sufis of Bundi (see our Inspiration page) ate very little meat in their already meager diets (although they did not eschew it in recognition of the Prophetic tradition or Sunnah). Meat-eating is unlawful in Vaishnavism and Jainism. The Bhagavad Gita labels it Tamasic because it promotes inertia and dulls the heart.
In light of the above, is it then fair to consider vegetarian or vegan diets a necessity for spiritual progress? Our answer is no. While it is true that historically most spiritual giants tended to shy away from meat, this was a by-product of their elevated spiritual state, not an absolute rule that they imposed on others for spiritual enlightenment. Such people ate very little food in general (let alone meat), and some even subsisted on diets that mainly constitute fresh air and occasional consecrated sacraments! Examples of such “non-material” diet adherents include Therese Neumann and Giri Bala (of Autobiography of a Yogi fame). In spirituality, the saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but the light of God” (Matthew 4:4)takes on real meaning and is applicable within a larger context. And, for those who seek Heavenly sustenance, “All things are added.” (Matthew 6:33). In other words, the focus of the spiritual aspirant is spiritual realization. Everything else naturally flows from this apex need.
In conclusion, the focus of a seeker is more on the spiritual aspects of their journey, namely their practices and methods. That is not to say, however, that a good diet and optimal nutrition are insignificant. Of course, they are deeply relevant, and modern and ancient research supports plant-based nutrition for optimal health. But in general, if one prioritizes the spiritual, everything else tends to fall into place.
2 – Veganism trends
3 – www.nature.com
Campbell & Campbell (2004). The China Study. Benbella Books
Roberts, H. (2006). Vegetarian Christian Saints: Mystics, Ascetics, and Monks. Anjeli Press.
Sinclair, D. (2019). Why we age, and why we don’t have to. Atria Books.
Greger, M. (2019). How not to die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease. Flatiron Books.