May 27, 2011

Vegetarianism & Yoga.

Food for Thought: Steven J. Rosen.

A veteran author of more than 20 books and dozens of articles on Eastern thought and tradition, Steven J. Rosen spoke to me about his most recent project, a collection of essays that discuss the relationship between vegetarianism and yoga practices. Drawing from his own research, as well as the informed opinion of prominent members of the animal rights and yoga communities, he produced the volume entitled Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions.

Esther: Thanks for speaking with me, Steve. Today I’d like to focus on your latest book project, which you partially wrote and edited for Praeger publishing. Judging by the amount of writing you have done on the subject, you are clearly passionate about vegetarianism. Can you tell us a little bit about your own turn to vegetarianism? Was your choice ethically motivated from the beginning?


Yes, from early childhood I had a sense that animals, too, have feelings and have a right to life. I think most children have a natural sense of that. But like most kids, I set it aside in due course, being influenced by my well-meaning if uninformed parents.

I must say, though, as I got older, it kept resurfacing, sort of inadvertently. I visited a friend’s farm and saw how animals were treated. I read books on nutrition, and saw how experts in natural biology endorsed a plant-based diet. And then my spiritual pursuit led me along the same path, too — I saw how the mystical traditions of all established religions seemed to endorse the importance of universal compassion and even a nonmeat diet, though many would argue that point.

In any case, my connection with the Krishna tradition sort of cemented the whole idea for me: Srila Prabhupada, my teacher, was adamant about vegetarianism, and even about making eating a full-on spiritual experience.

So, following Prabhupada’s lead, I started to look into it more deeply, and I found compelling nutritional reasons for vegetarianism, as well as more profound ethical and ecological reasons, too. Anyway, all of this research led to the writing of my first book, in the mid-1980s: Food for the Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions, which included a foreword by 1978 Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. The book has since been reprinted as Diet for Transcendence.

In this latest anthology of essays you have curated, you include both assenting and dissenting views on vegetarianism. Were you at all swayed by the view that vegetarianism is not integral to the practice of yoga?

Actually, if you look carefully, the dissenting voices are not so dissenting. [laughter] I wanted to start with a “devil’s advocate” sort of article, just to get readers thinking about the issues involved, and to reflect on the many possibilities in relation to Yoga and vegetarianism. It seemed appropriate to open the book with exceptions to the rule, and to show that while vegetarianism is important, it is clearly not everything. It is but one component of a progressive yogic lifestyle.

So I engaged the talents of my good friend Rick Jarow, who teaches at Vassar. What he does in his paper is interesting. He doesn’t deny that vegetarianism is integral to the Yoga tradition and, at least traditionally, embraced by most yogic adepts. Rather, he cites notable exceptions to the rule, and explains why those exceptions might exist. Also, he gives some background on the whole Vedic tradition, from which Yoga has emerged, and explains the history behind diet and Yoga, which is important. This sets the stage for the many essays that follow, which clearly endorse vegetarianism.

At the end of the day, Patanjali and the vast majority of Yoga masters throughout history place a special emphasis on ahimsa — nonviolence, or nonaggression — and they read it in the most extreme possible way. I’m anticipating those who say that ahimsa should not necessarily be taken to the point of vegetarianism. If you read Edwin Bryant’s paper in my volume, you’ll see that ahimsa most definitely is meant to be taken to the point of vegetarianism — and those who inform themselves of yogic tradition, its history and practice, know this for certain.

How did you go about determining the “major schools of yoga” you wished to represent and give voice to in this collection?

Ah, this is a really important question, and it’s actually the meat-and potatoes of the book — pun intended. [laughter]

Though there are without doubt exceptions, most Yoga lineages today can be traced to two particular luminaries in the tradition: Sri Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda. Krishnamacharya brought forth teachers such as K. Pattabhi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar, and B. K. S. Iyengar, whose practices manifest in the modern world as Ashtanga-Vinyasa, Viniyoga, and the Iyengar Method, respectively. Sivananda, for his part, is represented today by the Integral Yoga Institute, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Chinmayananda, and so on. Thus, most Yoga practitioners today use the methods formulated or inherited by these two men, either as they were originally espoused or in conjunction with other methods.

Now, here is the interesting part: Krishnamacharya descends from the Shri Vaishnava lineage, which staunchly upholds the vegetarian ideal. His followers write that he believed one could not properly practice Yoga without giving up meat. And Sivananda, too, was an outspoken vegetarian. For proof, one need look no further than his popular essay, “Swami Sivananda on Vegetarian Diet.” Given this meat-free background of the seminal stalwarts of Yoga, one might understandably utter the mantra: “What gives? Why do modern Yoga institutions and teachers lean toward meat eating?”

To be fair, my book does give credit to Yoga teachers today who have championed the vegetarian ideal, even if they are few and far between. The Integral Yoga people, beginning with Swami Satchidananda himself, and Jivamukti Yoga are outstanding in this regard. Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti, even published a short but consequential book on the subject, Yoga and Vegetarianism, in which she lays bare the philosophical underpinnings of a non-meat diet, both in general and in the Yoga tradition. In fact, her book is one of the reasons I finally sat down and put together my own volume. I just wanted to augment what she had already done.

Editing a collection from radically different writers can prove to be a challenge to the stylistic cohesiveness of a book. How did you select representative writers for each of these lineages?

Well, this is what an editor does, no? Some of the styles were similar, and the subjects were somewhat divergent, and then sometimes vice versa. Sometimes heavy editing was required; sometimes not. Often, it’s in the placement of the articles, or in introducing them, or in writing transition sentences. Even where the voices were disparate, I made it work for the overall volume. That’s the art of editing.

I have been editing an academic journal called The Journal of Vaishnava Studies for almost 20 years now. So through that forum I came to know experts in the field, in terms of Yoga and Indic traditions. Over the years, too, I’ve lectured at various Yoga centers and made numerous friends along the way. My many books on the subject made many friends for me as well, forging deep relationships over the years with people who are also writers and public speakers, people who know these subjects well.

In terms of vegetarianism and animal rights, I’m quite known in those circles, too, because of my two books on the subject — well, now, three. I mentioned Food for the Spirit, but I also published one called Holy Cow, in which I trace the history of vegetarianism and animal rights in the Hare Krishna movement and in terms of Indic spirituality in general. Rynn Berry also interviewed me in his book on vegetarianism and the world religions — and he’s considered one of the preeminent authorities on vegetarianism today. So this is my field, and since I’ve done a bit of work already both with the Indic materials and with nonmeat/animal rights materials, this book just seemed like a perfect fit. It brings together two subjects that I’m really passionate about.

Our readers here on Elephant Journal tend to be passionate about both these topics, too. Let’s see what they have to say about some of these provocative ideas and your new volume, which sounds fascinating. Thanks for speaking with me; looking forward to your next project.

Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, a biannual publication exploring Eastern thought. He is also associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine and the author of over twenty books on Indian philosophy. His recent titles include Essential Hinduism (Praeger, 2006), Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita (Greenwood, 2007), The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008)Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita (Praeger Publishing, 2010), and The Jedi in the Lotus: Star Wars and Hindu Traditions (Arktos, 2010). Find out more at www.sjrosen.com.

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