Srila Prabhupada used to say that changing from one religion to another to make spiritual advancement is not necessary. All that's necessary is to actually follow the rules given in the revealed scripture of one's own religion. Srila Prabhupada emphasized that the fundamental principles for spiritual advancement are the same in every religion: truthfulness, austerity, cleanliness, and mercy. The Vedas say that these principles are maintained by avoiding four sinful activities: gambling, intoxication, illicit sex, and meat-eating.
Because all scriptures promote the same basic principles, we find in all religions prohibitions similar to these.
Still, sometimes people assert that their scripture permits them to kill and eat animals. Srila Prabhupada pointed out that such a belief is due to a mistaken interpretation of scripture. For example, he was concerned that many who call themselves Christians cripple their chances for spiritual advancement by eating meat, defying the Bible's commandment "Thou shall not kill."
Some people try to evade the meaning of this commandment by using the argument that the rule is meant to apply only to the killing of humans, not animals. But the Bible gives other statements opposing animal slaughter, some of which are quite explicit.
For example, the prophet Isaiah says, "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man." (Isaiah 66.3) Even someone outside the Christian tradition can appreciate that this statement is true in many ways and how devastating animal slaughter is to spiritual advancement.
Killing the loyal workmate
The most obvious point is that a cow or bull is an exceptionally evolved creature of God, capable of fear, of learning commands taught by humans, and of expressing loyalty and affection to humans. To kill an animal that can serve so ably, faithfully, and affectionately is just like killing a man. With the same mental deviousness by which a person represses his horror at the sinful act of animal killing, he also shuts his heart, dulling its ability to perceive the true message of God. To enjoy meat one must set aside mercy and moral honesty at the cost of spiritual awareness. Prabhupada writes, "Only the animal killer cannot relish the transcendental message of the Supreme Lord." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.24, purport)
Killing the poor and hungry
If I kill a bull and eat him, I and my wealthy friends may have a few meals, but if that animal had lived for ten or twenty years he could have produced enough grain to feed hundreds of people. Consider this example: When the bulls of South America are valued as raw material to export for hamburgers, the bulls become too costly for poor farmers who need them to produce grains for their families. If I want to enjoy eating a hamburger, I make it harder for poor farmers to come up with their daily sustenance.
Beef-eaters starve the poor in other ways too. Sometimes poor farmers are pushed off their land, and livestock are grazed directly on fields that used to feed peasants. More often the dynamics of growing feed grains for the meat industry causes the farmers' misery. As soon as you hear that it takes sixteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, you know someone has to suffer. Both mercy and austerity are destroyed with every bite of hamburger.
The global pattern of poor farmers being shut out by invasion of the meat industry is described by David Barkin, Rosemary Blatt, and Billie De Walt in Food Crops vs. Feed Crops: "Staple cereals, traditionally produced by small-scale farmers for themselves and for most of their neighbors to consume, are being displaced by grains produced commercially for animal feed, for sale in middle and upper income markets, and export."
So how do the poor survive once they have lost their food and homes to help expand the meat industry? Not very well according to Barkin and his colleagues:
Once traditional food production systems are destroyed and small producers displaced, it is extremely difficult to reverse the process. Displaced producers often leave rural areas altogether in search of other means of livelihood. This disruption and migration is wreaking havoc with existing organization of society in many countries, while no alternative productive activities are emerging for these displaced populations.
Killing the body
Doctors and scientists warn of the deadly toxins, pathogens, and cholesterol ingested by eating meat so much for the principle of cleanliness. In light of the injunction "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man," we can understand that when a man kills and eats a bull, in one way the man he is killing is himself. Worse yet, if he takes his kids to a hamburger stand for a treat, the man he kills may be his son, since children more than adults are at risk of dying of kidney failure by eating tainted meat.
Killing Mother Earth
The cow is the emblem of Mother Earth, and when we raise cows and bulls for slaughter we are killing Mother Earth. Crowding cows into a cattle ranch is a far cry from having a couple of oxen and cows for plowing and milk. Commercial beef production is one of the most ecologically ruinous businesses of the industrial age. Without encouragement from the meat-eater, the whole disastrous business would quickly end. Meat-eating is killing Mother Earth.
Killing the slaughterhouse worker
In 1988 the U.S. House Committee on Government Operations found conditions in the meat-packing industry to be more dangerous than in any other industry, including coal mining and construction, with nearly a third of slaughterhouse workers suffering job-related injuries or illnesses annually. As described by one union vice president, "Workers stand in a sea of blood … on treacherously slippery floors covered with animal fat buildup. … Nearly all the workers wield razor-sharp knives and power tools. … Because of breakneck chain speeds and close working conditions, workers frequently are accidentally stabbed by their neighbors."
Working conditions in the slaughterhouse are so hellish that annual turnover rates commonly run between sixty and a hundred percent. What does this kind of work do to a person's ability to act and feel as a normal human being? We don't want to think about it. Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy summarized the invisible plight of the butchers: "Flesh-eaters keep the workers as far out of sight as they do the idea of swallowing pieces of animal corpses out of mind." ("Those Who Eat Meat Share in the Guilt," 16 April 1988)
Do Unto Others …
As we see, there are many ways to "kill a man" simply by eating a hamburger. And every principle for spiritual advancement is destroyed when we kill an ox and eat his flesh.
Yet, ironically, when I once shared Isaiah's admonition with a self-proclaimed Christian, he maintained that Christians are exempt from the teachings of the Old Testament of the Bible and had only to follow Christ's instruction "Do to others what you would have them do to you." (Luke 6.31) What he failed to see was that Christ's instruction leads to the same conclusion.
Would he like to have his throat cut in a slaughterhouse surrounded by screaming, terrified animals? Would he like to have hear his children crying in starvation because he couldn't afford a bull to produce their food? Would he like to be a child with his body racked with fever and pain from eating poisoned meat? If he were Mother Earth, would he like to see his forests and fields destroyed by the cattle industry? Would he like to annihilate his human sensibilities by having to work in a slaughterhouse? Would he like to have any of these things done to him? No? Then how can meat-eating be considered compatible with his claim of being a Christian especially with the complex set of miseries meat-eating creates in the modern context?
To truly follow Christ's instruction would mean to be free from such sin by not taking part in the meat-eating culture at all. As Vaisnavas, we're not planning to follow all the details of the Christian's scripture, and we don't expect him to follow all the details of our scripture. We're only asking that he make his spiritual life successful by following the injunction given in his own scripture: "Thou shall not kill."
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.