Monday, December 31, 2007

Why I am a Vegetarian, On Taking Life and Abortion

Why I am a Vegetarian

People always ask me why I am a vegetarian, why I don’t eat meat, fish or eggs, don’t I kill the vegetables I eat, and so on. My answer is the following:

First, yes, I don’t eat meat, fish or eggs. For one thing, I don’t like them – I don’t even like the flavors, smells or taste of any of them. I have tried them both in India and in the US many times. Furthermore, I don’t like to eat meat or fish because I don’t like to kill animals.

I have no quarrel with those who eat meat. Still, I believe that most of those who do eat meat (or even fish) don’t quite realize what they are doing. Of course, a butcher kills animals or at least breaks them up into different parts as a routine to make his living. I don’t really know how many butchers like their jobs or do it as a habit or do it because they have no choice. Most of the rest of us eat meat by killing animals by proxy.

My argument, if you call it one, is not based on religion or morality. I think a person is justified in eating meat if he or she can kill an animal with his own bare hands, dress it, cook it, bring it to the table and eat it with relish repeatedly. As for myself, I can’t do any of them.

I will recount a couple of experiences in this context: One, when I lived in Berkeley, a Jewish girl from New York, her Norwegian boyfriend at that time and I went on a camping trip. When the young man caught an oyster in the water and crushed it in his palm, the girl fainted at the sight of blood in his hand. I won’t forget that scene.

The other is from my own past: once, in 1968, when I was in Waltair (Visakhapatnam), India, I lived in a cabin in the Santi Ashram. The cabin had a patio, a bedroom and a kitchen part of which is also used to take a bath. One night I woke up in the middle of the night to go to pee in the bathroom and I saw a rather long and very-slow-moving snake coming through the drainage hole in the wall. It was moving so slow either because it had eaten a heavy meal or it was hurt. I couldn’t tell which. I first used a broom and then an iron rod to move it forward with a view eventually to get it out of the cabin without harming it. But somehow it managed to get up on the door and hang right on top of the head of my bed. Tense and overcome by fear, I brought it down and beat it to death with the iron rod. Then ants collected around the snake and I called the caretaker of the ashram to come in to take the dead snake out. An elderly man, the caretaker asked me in a voiced mixed with respect, disapproval and pity for the snake, “You killed it, sir?”

The memory of that experience pricks my conscience (if I still have one!) to this day! Although I am not a believer in karma or rebirth, I wonder at times whether my long-standing cancer and other ailments I suffer from are not a result of my own misdeeds.

I can’t make any general rules out of my experience (or any one else’s). I don’t believe much in anything. Yet, I feel a person is justified in eating meat if he or she realizes what they are doing. And of course, in some areas on the globe you just have no choice.

Once a lady colleague who wanted me to give a talk on the subject in her department heard my argument and countered it saying, “You can’t always build a house from the scratch with your own hands in order to live in it.” I said the cases are not analogous (you don’t eat your house!). Of course, she promptly cancelled her invitation!

To be sure, I kill vegetables and fruit to eat them. Some ancient sages in India lived on fallen grain and fruit just for that reason. But I can’t. J. Krishnamurti addressing this question once said, “You have to draw a line somewhere.” Some people don’t draw a line at all, and I draw it at meat, fish and eggs. Why not eat eggs, you might ask. Actually, my family does. I for myself don’t like the flavor or smell or the after taste of eggs. Also, the fact that it is a potential animal. Rarely, I might eat something which has eggs in it when I don’t smell or know that there is an egg in it, and would learn about it later. If ate it inadvertently, I wouldn’t beat myself for doing it.

On Taking Life

Am I opposed to taking life? What would I do if I am attacked; my sister is attacked, etc. Am I a pacifist? How about abortion? How about preventing babies from birth defects to be born?

First, my attitude to killing: I am not a pacifist. Yet, when I became a citizen of this country, I told the Immigration Department that I can’t take an oath that I would defend this country and its constitution by arms if necessary. They asked me to write a statement of my religious faith. I told in it that I consider all men as my brothers and that I can’t bear arms for any country including the United States. They ended up by giving me a special oath which did not involve bearing arms. Thus I became a citizen of the US by being a conscientious objector.

They just can’t make me take a gun and shoot another human being. I would rather go to prison or something. What would I do if someone attacks me and gets ready to kill me? I don’t know. I will find out when I face such a situation. It’s hard to answer hypothetical questions like that.

But there was a time when a student actually assaulted me in my office for calling him stupid (the word just slipped out of my mouth!) in an argument. I complained to the campus police and told them that I just wanted him to get him off my back and that I didn’t want to make any other trouble. His papers were later graded by my colleague. Each situation is resolved in its own fashion. I can’t generalize and make up policies or rules of behavior for myself or for others on the basis of one or more experiences.

* * *

For similar reasons, I also don’t sit on a jury bench. Of course, I am called once every couple of years (because of my driver’s license) to jury duty. So far, I have managed to avoid it. A couple of times I was selected to be on the jury. The first time, I was a bit disturbed and talked to a lawyer (a freebee from my credit union! I don’t see lawyers otherwise.) He said, after consulting another lawyer, that I had to appear before the judge and if called to be on the jury, I could explain to the judge why I wouldn’t want to be on the jury. Something like that happened and when I sat on the jury bench, the judge asked if anyone had objections to serving on the jury. I raised my hand. He asked, “What!” I answered, “My conscience does not permit me to sit in judgment on my fellow human beings.” He said, “You are excused!” I left the courtroom in great relief.

The second time, when I was selected again, they asked me along with others to answer a questionnaire in answering which I had an opportunity to express my objection again. And that evening I was excused again.

The lawyer I consulted the first time asked me why I was opposed to being on the jury. I gave him my answer. He is a reputed lawyer who represented Cesar Chavez and others. I could see Mother Teresa’s picture hanging in his office. He said, “There are a lot of evil guys out there.” I answered him, “I can’t deny that. But, as a philosopher, I can’t be part of a system which only punishes people for their acts without considering their side of the picture and seeing what could be done to help or prevent it.”

* * *


This is one of the knotty issues that troubles people all over the world. Of course, an embryo is not a full-fledged life. But the issue of abortion is not so simple. Read on:

Many years ago, my then girl-friend became pregnant. I told her that she wasn’t in a position to raise a child and maybe she should get an abortion. She was adamant and wanted the baby. I said, “As a woman, you have every right to have a baby. If you insist on carrying the pregnancy to full-term and have the baby, I will be with you (at that time, there was some question of my being with her) and help you raise the baby until you are ready to take care of it yourself.”

And she did give birth to a child and she asked me as soon as she was born, “Now that she is born, what do I do with it?” I said, “Raise it!”

I did stay with her for another three and-a-half years. My girl-friend, whom I later married, was now ready to leave me and leave the child with me. I had to get the help of a past student to live with me and take care of the child. Later, my current wife came into the picture and took care of her.

But the real reason for the above story is that when the child was about four and-a-half or five (or may be a bit older than that, I can’t remember the exact time), came into the bathroom where I was on the toilet and asked me, “Daddy, you wanted to get rid of me when I was in my mom’s belly, did you?” By now I knew that she heard (it doesn’t matter from whom) the news of what had happened. I had to collect my wits quickly and come up with a satisfactory answer or I would be my daughter’s enemy for life. I said, “I didn’t know it was you, if I did, why would I want to get rid of you?” Lucky for me, the answer pacified her and she never raised the question again. In fact, I recalled that story to her when she was grown up and she listened to it with amusement.

My ex-wife did go through an abortion (of a baby from someone else) and I know the depression, guilt, anxiety and nightmares she had had from that abortion. I know several other women who had the same response. In many cases, it doesn’t hit until after the abortion. For men, it’s more a matter of convenience, economics, etc. I remember, in the case of both my children, it’s the sight of them and my holding them physically that bonded me to them. But the issue is a lot deeper for women. They know the baby that was aborted, even though it was mere flesh, came from their womb and they are deeply affected by the experience.

Now would I say I am opposed to abortion; of course not. Am I then in favor of it. That’s where what I said above should come into play. How do you feel about it? Can you live with that decision? I can sermonize all I want, but if you feel so burdened by the baby and don’t event want the stigma or the travail of carrying the pregnancy to completion, and you feel your life would be ruined by it, who can blame you for aborting? But do consider how you would feel if you did abort and see if you can live with that decision. Talk to people who have had an abortion.

I see part of the problem that is generated in the controversy between the advocates of abortion (or right to decide about your own body) and pro-life people has to do with receiving government support. There indeed are poor people who probably can’t afford the funds to carry on an abortion. And the pro-life proponents don’t want the tax-payer’s money spent on causes they don’t approve. The question then becomes political and I have no answer to that.

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