When I first went vegan, I remember experiencing a kind of shift in consciousness. I felt lighter, as though a weight I’d been carrying my whole life had been lifted off my shoulders. Though I’d never been much of an animal lover, I suddenly found myself full of compassion for other beings, including humans. It was as if my conscience was truly clear for the first time.
Several people I’ve spoken to have reported similar experiences, and many in the vegan community consider themselves to be spiritual. But why does the connection between veganism and spiritual development appear to be so strong?
Veganism and religion
As it turns out, this connection is nothing new. The virtue of ‘ahimsa’, roughly translated as ‘non-harming’, is very important in ancient Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Followers of these religions are encouraged or even required to practice vegetarianism.
The core tenets of virtually all religions support leaving animal products off our plates. All the major religions have a rule along the lines of ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated’ and ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Few of us would like to become someone else’s dinner! But most adherents of newer religions like Christianity vehemently deny that these rules apply to animals. They sometimes try to justify this by claiming that animals don’t have souls, or that they are less important than humans, or that God put them here for us to eat.
Ahimsa applies to all creatures, as they are all believed to have divine spiritual energy. Since we all share this energy, hurting others means hurting ourselves. In other words, everything is connected - the way we treat animals has serious repercussions for our society.
We are all connected
There are many examples of these repercussions. For example, slaughterhouse workers often develop PTSD and become violent towards members of their communities. Factory farms pollute our air and water, leading to the spread of infectious diseases and chronic illnesses such as asthma. Animal agriculture is the leading driver of climate change, which is causing droughts, floods, crop failure and extreme weather. The consumption of animal products is linked to chronic diseases like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and hypertension. And a billion people are going hungry, partly because we feed so many of the crops we grow to farmed animals.
This all makes intuitive sense when we consider that children who harm animals often go on to harm other people. It also goes some way towards explaining why violence and wars are still ubiquitous in today’s world. We can’t expect to put violence into the world and get peace in return.
We justify our domination of animals by reasoning that they aren’t like us. This is the same reasoning which for centuries has been used to justify the oppression of certain groups of people. That which drives us to oppress people based on gender, race or other factors is the same thing which drives us to oppress animals. Veganism is about inclusivity - recognising that animals too have the right to be free of exploitation and harm.
We are what we eat
Some suggest that when we eat animal products, we eat the negative vibrations of an animal which suffered, or died a terrifying and painful death. Others point out that in the case of meat, hormones such as adrenaline may still be present in the flesh of the tortured animal and so are taken into our bodies. Perhaps this explains the feeling of lightness experienced by many new vegans.
When we eat food, the nutrients are used to build new cells. The food becomes us, and so we literally are what we eat. We can choose what we want our bodies to be made of - nutritious plant foods, or the flesh and secretions of abused creatures. It’s a choice between life and death - not just for animals but for the planet, ourselves and other people.
The circle of life?
Some spiritual people see themselves as part of the ‘circle of life’. They reason that since other animals eat flesh, and humans have done so for thousands of years, it’s natural and acceptable. But primitive humans had no choice but to eat meat for survival, and neither do carnivorous animals. Buying factory-farmed meat from a supermarket is very far removed from this. It can never be ethical to harm others when we have the choice to do otherwise.
In our hearts, we all know that hurting other creatures is wrong and that all life should be respected. But some people act as though spirituality is an abstract thing, divorced from our everyday actions. This disconnect allows them to consider themselves spiritual whilst continuing to consume animal products.
When our beliefs and actions are not aligned, it can be distressing. Some people even try to change their beliefs - for example, by claiming not to care about animal suffering - to eliminate this distress without the inconvenience of changing their behaviour. Practicing veganism means rejecting this and truly aligning our actions with our beliefs.
We are blessed to live in a society where we can enjoy delicious and abundant food without harming or exploiting animals. A lifestyle which causes minimal harm to animals ultimately benefits everyone and everything else on the planet, because everything is connected. Whether your perspective is rational, spiritual or a bit of both, it simply makes sense to be vegan.