International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India

Vegetarianism in the light of Theosophy

Dr. ANNIE BESANT
Extracted from a lecture published by the Theosophical Publ. Soc. London & "Theosophist" Madras in 1894

From the Theosophical standpoint there are arguments to be adduced other than those which deal with the nourishment of the body, with chemical or physiological questions, or even with its bearing on the drink traffic, .. The vegetarianism that I am going to argue about tonight is that which will be familiar to all of you as the abstinence from all those kinds of food which imply the slaying of the animal or cruelty inflicted upon the animal ... and I am going to try to show the reasons for such abstinence which may be drawn from the teachings of Theosophy, ... You will understand that in speaking I am not committing the Society. The views that I speak are drawn from the Philosophy which may or may not be held by any individual member of our union ....

Theosophy regards man's place in the world as a link in a mighty chain,.. .which has its first link in manifestation in the divine life itself ... Man ... is, at it were, the highest expression of this evolving life : he ought, therefore, also to be the most perfect expression of this continually growing manifestation of law ... Man has a double possibility, a greater responsibility, a higher or a more degraded destiny. He has this power of choice :...Man has the power of setting himself against law and holding his own ... for a while against it. In the long run the law will crush him. Always when he sets himself against it, the law justifies itself by the pain it inflicts: he cannot really break it. but he can cause disorder, he can cause disharmony, he can, by this will of his, refuse to follow out the highest and the best, and deliberately choose the lower and the worse road . Man, wherever he goes, should be the friend of all, the helper of all,. the lover of all, expressing his nature that is love in his daily life, and bringing to every lower creature not only the control that may be used to educate, but the love also that may be used to lift that lower creature in the scale of being.

Man, Vicegerent of God

Apply then that principle of man's place in the world, vicegerent in a very real sense, ruler and monarch of the world, but with the power of being either a bad monarch or a good, and responsible to the whole of the universe for the use that he makes of the power. Take then man in relation to the lower animals from this standpoint. Clearly, if we are to look at him in this position, slaying them for his own gratification is at once placed out of court. He is not to go amongst the happy creatures of the woods, and bring there the misery of fear, of terror, of horror by carrying destruction wherever he goes: he is not to arm himself with hook and with other weapons which he is able to make, remember, only by virtue of the mind which is developed within him. Prostituting those higher powers of mind to make himself the more deadly enemy of the other sentient creatures that share the world with him, he uses the mind, that should be there to help and to train the lower, to carry fresh forms of misery and destructive energy in every direction. When you see a man go amongst, the lower animals they fly from his face, when experience has taught them what it means to meet a man. If he goes into some secluded part of the earth where human foot has rarely trodden, there he will find the animals fearless and friendly, and he can go about amongst crowds of them and they shrink not from his touch. Take the accounts you will read of a traveller who has gone into some district where man has not hitherto penetrated, and you will read how he can walk among crowds of birds and other creatures as friends. And it is only when he begins to take advantage of their confidence to strike them down, only then, by experience of what the presence of man moans to them do they learn the lesson of distrust, of fear, of flying from his presence. So that in every civilized country, wherever there is a man, in field or in wood, all living things fly at the sound of his footstep, and he is not the friend of every creature but the one who brings terror and alarm, and they fly from his presence. And yet there have been some men from whom there has rayed out so strongly the spirit of love, that the living things of field and forest crowded around them wherever they went : men like St Francis of Assisi. of whom it was told that as he walked the woods the birds would fly to him and perch on his body, so strongly did they feel the sense of love that was around him as a halo wherever he trod. So in India you will find man after man in whom this same spirit of love and compassion is seen, and in the woods and the jungle, on the mountain and in the desert, these men may go wherever they will, and even the wild boasts will not touch them. I could tell you stories of Yogis there, harmless in every act of thought and life, who will go through jungles where tigers are crouching, and the tiger will sometimes come and lie at their feet and lick their feet, harmless as a kitten might be in the face of the spirit of love. And though, in truth, it would now take many a century to undo the evil of a bloodstained past, still the undoing is possible, the friendliness might be made, and each man, each woman, who in life is friendly to the lower creatures, is adding his quota to the love in the world, which ultimately will subdue all things to itself.

A Terror-Laden Atmosphere

Pass from that duty of man, as monarch of the world to the next point which in Theosophical teachings forbids the slaughter of living things ... The physical world is interpenetrated and surrounded by a subtler world of matter that we speak of as "astral" ; that in that subtle matter.. forces especially have their home ;. . . The thought world, full of the thoughts of men, sends down these potent energies into the astral world: there they take image, which reacts upon the physical. It is this which is so often felt by the "sensitive." ... Think of astral matter for a moment from the standpoint of Theosophy as inter-penetrating and surrounding our world ; then carry your thoughts to a slaughter-house. Try and estimate, if you can, by imagination - if you have not been unfortunate enough to see it in reality - something of the passions and emotions which there are aroused, not for the moment in the man who is slaying - I will deal with him presently - but in the animals that are being slain! Notice the terror that strikes them as they come within scent of the blood! See the misery, and the fright, and the horror which they struggle to get away even from the turning, down which they are being driven! Follow them, if you have the courage to do it, right into the slaughter-house, and see them as they are being slain, and then let your imagination go a step further, or, if you have the subtle power of sensing astral vibrations, look, and remember what you see: images of terror, of fear, of horror, as the life is suddenly wrenched out of the body, and the animal soul with its terror, with its horror, goes out into the astral world to remain there for a considerable period before it breaks up and perishes. And remember that wherever this slaughtering of animals goes on the material world, that these react on the minds of men, and that anyone who is sensitive, coming into the neighbourhood of such a place sees and feels these terrible vibrations, suffers under them, and knows whence they are.

Now, suppose, that you went to Chicago - I take that illustration, because it is one where I myself particularly noticed this effect. Chicago, as you know, is preeminently a slaughtering city, it is the city where they have, I suppose, the most elaborate arrangements for the killing of animals which human ingenuity has yet devised, where it is done by machinery very largely, and where myriads upon myriads of creatures are slaughtered week by week. No one who is the least sensitive, far less anyone who by training has had some of these inner senses awakened, can pass not only within Chicago, but within miles of Chicago, without being conscious of a profound sense of depression that comes down upon him, a sense of shrinking, as it were, from pollution, a sense of horror which at first is not clearly recognised not is its source at once seen. Now, here I am speaking only of what I know. And as it happened, when I went to Chicago, I was reading, as I am in the habit of doing, in the train, and I did not even know that I was coming within a considerable distance of the town - for the place is so enormous that it stretches far farther than a stranger would imagine, and it takes far longer to reach the centre than one has any notion of - and I was conscious suddenly as I sat there in the train of this sense of oppression that came upon me; I did not recognize it at first, my thoughts were anywhere but in the city; but it made itself so strongly felt that I found very soon what the reason of it was, and then I remembered that I was coming into the great slaughter-house of the United States. It was as though one came within a physical pall of blackness and of misery - this psychic or astral result being, as it were; the covering that overspreads that mighty town. And I say to you that for those who know anything of the invisible world, this constant slaughtering of animals takes on a very serious aspect apart from all other questions which may be brought to elucidate it; for this continual throwing down of these magnetic influences of fear, of horror, and of anger, passion, and revenge, work on the people amongst whom they play, and tends to degrade, tends to pollute. It is not only the body that is soiled by the flesh of animals, it is the subtler forces of the man that also come within this area of population, and much, very much of the coarser side of city life, of the coarser side of the life of those who are concerned in the slaughtering, comes directly from this reflection from the astral world, and the whole of this terrible protest comes from the escaped lives of the slaughtered beasts.

The Fatal Slaughter-House "Twist"

But I said that there was this apart from the men who slaughter, But can we rightly leave them out of consideration when were dealing with the question of flesh-eating ? It is clear that neither nor I can eat flesh unless we either slay it for ourselves or get somebody else to do it for us; therefore, we are directly responsible for any amount of deterioration in the moral character of the man on whom we throw that work of slaughtering, because we are too delicate and refined to perform it for ourselves. Now take the class of the slaughterer. I suppose no one will contend that it is in a form of business which he himself would very gladly take up, if he be either an educated or refined man or woman - for I do not know why women should be left out of this, as they figure largely amongst meat-eaters. I presume that very few men and very few women would be willing to go and catch hold either of sheep or of oxen and themselves slaughter the creature in order that they may eat. They admit that if it has on the person who does it a certain coarsening infulence. So much is that recognized by law that certainly in the United States - I don't know if the law is is the same here - no butcher is permitted to sit on a jury in a murder trial; he is not permitted to take part in such a trial, simply because his continual contact with slaughter is held to somewhat blunt his susceptibilities in in that connection, so that all through the States no man of the trade of butcher is permitted to take part as juryman in a trial for murder, .This is very clear and definite : that if yon go to a city like Chicago, and if you take the class of slaughtermen there, you will find that the number of crimes of violence in that class is greater than among any other class of the the community; that the use of the knife is far more common, and this, has been observed - I am speaking now of facts that I gathered at Chicago - it has been observed that this use of the knife is marked by one peculiar feature, namely, that the blow struck in anger by them these trained slaughtermen is almost invariably fatal, because instinctively they give it the peculiar twist of hand to which they are continually habituated in their daily killing of the lower animals. Now that in Chicago is recognized as fact, but it does not seem to imply in the minds of the people any moral responsibility for their share in the evolution of this very uncomfortable type of human being. And so with the whole question of slaughtering in this city and anywhere else. Has it ever struck you as a rule in ethics that you have no right to put upon another human being for your own advantage a duty that you are not prepared to discharge yourself? It is all very well for some fine and delicate and refined lady to be proud of her delicacy and refinement, to shrink from any notion, say, of going to tea with a butcher, to certainly strongly object to the notion of his coming into her drawing-room, to shrink altogether from the idea of consorting with such persons, "so coarse, you know, and so unpleasant." Quite go, but why? In order that she may eat meat, in order that she may gratify her appetite ; and she puts on another the coarsening and the brutalizing which she escapes from herself in her refinement, while she takes for the gratification of her own appetite the fruits of the brutalization of her fellow-man. Now I venture to submit that if people want to eat meat, they should kill the animals for themselves, that they have no right to degrade other people by work of that sort. Nor should they say that if they did not do it the slaughter would still go on. That is no sort of way of evading a moral responsibility. Every person who eats meat takes a share in that degradation of their fellow-men; on him and on her personally lies the share, in personally lies the responsibility. And if this world be a world of law, if it be true that law obtains not only in the physical, but also in the mental and the moral and the spiritual world, then every person who has share in the crime has a share also in the penalty that follows on the heels of the crime, and so in his own nature is brutalized by the brutality that he makes necessary by his share in the results that come therefrom.

We Rise and Fall Together

There is another point for which people are responsible in addition to their responsibility to the slaughtering class. They are responsible for all the pain that grows out of meat-eating, and which is necessitated by the use of sentient animals as food; not only the horrors of the slaughter-house, but also all the preliminary horrors of the railway traffic, of the steamboat and ship traffic; all the starvation and the thirst, and the prolonged misery of fear which these unhappy creatures have to pass through for the gratification of the appetite of man. If you want to know something of it, go down and see the creatures brought off some of the ships, and you will see the fear, you will see the pain which is marked on the faces of these our lower fellow-creatures. I say you have no right to inflict it, that you have no right to be party to it, that all that pain acts as a record against humanity and slackens and retards the whole of human growth; for you cannot separate yourself while you are trampling others down. Those that you trample on retard your own progress. The misery that you cause is as it were mire that clings round your feet when you would ascend; for we have to rise together or to fall together, and all the misery we inflict on sentient beings slackens our human evolution and makes the progress of humanity slower towards the ideal that it is seeking to realize.

Looking at the thing from this broad standpoint, we get away from all the smaller arguments on which discussion arises, away from all questions as to whether meat nourishes or not, whether it helps the human body or not; and we take our ground fundamentally on this solid position; that nothing that retards the growth and the progress of the world, nothing that adds to its suffering, nothing that increases its misery, nothing that prevents its evolution towards higher forms of life, can possibly be justified, even if it could be shown that the physical vigour of man's body were increased by passing along that road. So that we get a sound standpoint from which to argue. The you may go on, if you will, to argue that as a matter of fact the physical vigour does not need these articles of food; but I would rather rake my solid stand on a higher ground; that is, on the evolution of the higher nature everywhere, and the harmony which it is man's duty to increase. and finally to render perfect in the world.

Polluting the Life-Stream

You may notice on all these points I have been arguing outside as it were, the individual meat-eater; I am not, therefore, urging abstinence for the sake of personal development, for the sake of personal growth. I have been putting it on the higher basis of duty, of compassion, of altruism, on those essential qualities which mark the higher evolution of the world. But we have a right also to turn to the individual and see the bearing on himself, on his body, on his mind, on his spiritual growth, which this question of meat-eating or abstinence from meat may have. And it has a very real bearing. It is perfectly true, as regards the body, when you look upon it as an instrument of the mind, when you look on it as that which is to develop into an instrument of the Spirit, it is perfectly true that it is a matter of very great importance what particular kind of nourishment you contribute to the body that you have in charge. And here Theosophy comes in and says: This body that the Soul is inhabiting is an exceedingly fleeting thing; it is made up of minute particles, each one of which is a life, and these lives are continually changing, continually passing from body to body and affecting, as they fall on all these bodies, affecting them either for good or for evil. Science, remember, is also coming to recognize that as truth. Science studying disease has found that disease is constantly propagated by these minute organisms that it speaks of as microbes; it has not yet recognized that the whole body is made of minute living creatures that come and go with every hour of our life, that build our body today, the body of someone else tomorrow, passing away and coming continually, a constant interchange going on between these bodies of men, women, animals, children, and so on. Now, suppose for a moment you look on the body from that standpoint, fist again will come your responsibility to your fellows. These tiny lives that are building your body take on themselves the stamp that you put upon them while they are yours; you feed them and nourish them and that affects their characteristics; you give them either pure or foul food; you either poison them or you render them healthy; and as you feed them they pass away from you, and carry from you to the bodies of others these characteristics that they have gained while living in your charge; so that what a man eats, what a man drinks is not a matter for himself alone but for the whole community of which that man is a part and any man who in his drinking is not careful to be pure, restrained, and temperate, becomes a focus of physical evil in the place where he is, and tends to poison his brothers-men and to make their vitality less pure than it ought to be. Here both in flesh and in drink the great responsibility comes in. It is clear that the nature of the food very largely affects the physical organism, and gives, as it were, a physical apparatus for the throwing out of one quality or another. Now the qualities reside in the Soul, but they are manifested through the brain and the body; therefore the materials of which the brain and the body are made up is a matter of very considerable importance, for just as the light that shines through a coloured window comes through it coloured and no longer white, so do the qualities of the Soul working through the brain and the body take up something of the qualities of brain and body, and manifest their condition by the characteristics of that brain and that body alike.

As We Eat So We Are

Now, suppose that you look for a moment at some of the lower animals in connection with their food, you find that according to their food so are the characteristics that they show. Nay, if you even take a dog, you find that you can make that dog either gentle or fierce according to the nature of the food with which you supply him. Now, while it is perfectly true that the animal is much more under the control of the physical body than the man ; while it is quite true that the animal is more plastic to these outer influences than the man with the stronger self determining will ; still it is also true that, inasmuch as the man has a body and can only work through that body in the material world, he makes his task either harder or easier as regards the qualities of the Soul according to the nature of the physical apparatus which that Soul is forced to use in its manifestations in the outer world. And if in feeding the body he feeds these tiny lives, which make it up, with food which brings into action with them the passions of the lower animals and their lower nature, then he is making a grosser and a more animal body, more apt to respond to animal impulses and less apt to respond to the higher impulses of the mind. For when he uses in the building of his own body these tiny lives from the body of the lower animals, he is there giving his Soul to work with a body that vibrates most easily under animal impulses. Is it not hard enough to grow pure in thought? Is it not hard enough to control the passions of the body? Is it not hard enough to be temperate in food, drink, and in all the appetites that belong to the physical frame? Has not the Soul already a difficult task enough, that we should make its task harder by polluting the instrument through which it has to work, and by giving it material that will not answer to its subtler impulses, but that answers readily to all the lower passions of the animal nature to which the Soul is bound? And then, when you remember that you pass it on, that as you eat meat and so strengthen these animal and lower passions you are printing on the molecules of your own body the power of thus responding, you ought surely to train and purify your body, and not continually help it, as it were, to remain so responsive to these vibrations belonging to the animal kingdom. And as you do you send them out abroad as your ambassadors to your fellow-men, you make their task harder as well as your own by training these tiny lives for evil and not for good; and so the task of every man who is struggling upwards is also rendered harder by this increase of the molecules that vibrate to the lower passions. And while that is true in the most terrible degree of the taking of alcohol - which acts as an active poison, going forth from everyone who takes it - it is also true of this animalizing of the human body, instead of ensouling and spiritualizing it, and we are keeping the plane of humanity lower by this constant degradation of the animal self.

The Evolution of the World Depends upon Us

When you come then to think of the evolution of the Soul in yourself, what is your object in life? Why are you here? For what are you living? There is only one thing which justifies the life of man, only one thing that answers to all that is noblest in him and gives him a, sense of satisfaction and of duty done; and that is when he makes his life a constant offering for the helping of the world, and when every part of his life is so regulated that the world may be the better for his presence in it and not the worse. In Soul, in thought, in body, a man is responsible for the use he makes of his life. We cannot tear ourselves apart from our brothers ; we ought not to wish to do it, even if we could, for this world is climbing upwards slowly towards a divine ideal, and every Soul that recognizes the fact should lend its own hand to the raising of the world. You and I are either helping the world upward or pulling the world downward ; with every day of our life we are either giving it a force for the upward climbing or we are clogs on that upward growth ; and every true Soul desires to be a help and not a hindrance, to be a blessing and not a curse, to be amongst the raisers of the world and not amongst those who degrade it. Every true Soul wishes it, whether or not it is strong enough always to carry the wish into act. And shall we not at least put before us as an ideal that sublime conception of helping, and blame ourselves whenever we fall below it, whether in the feeding of the body or in the training of the mind? For it seems to me, looking at man in the light of Theosophy, that all that makes his life worth having is this cooperation with the divine life in nature, which is gradually moulding the world into a nobler image, and making it grow ever nearer and nearer to a perfect ideal. If we could make men and women see it, if only we could make them respond to the thought of such power on their own side, if only they would recognize this divine strength that is in them to help in the making of a world, to share in the evolution of a universe, if they could understand that this world is theirs, placed as it mere in their hands and in their charge, the growth of the world depends upon them, that if they will not help, the divine life itself cannot find instrument whereby to work on this material plane. If they would realize that, then, with very many falls, their faces would be set upward ; with very many mistakes and blunders and weaknesses, still they would be turned in the right direction, and they would be gazing at the ideal that they long to realize. And so in mind and in body, in their work in the inner world of force as in the outer world of action, the one ruling idea would be: Will this act and thought of mine make the world better or worse, will it raise it or lower it, will it help my fellow-men or hinder them? Shall the power of my Soul be used to raise or to lower? If that thought were the central force of life, even though forgetting it or failing, the Soul would again take up the effort and refuse to yield because it had so often failed. If we could all do that and think that, and win others to do it too, then sorrow would pass away from earth, the cries and the anguish and the misery of sentient existence would lessen; then from man, become one with divine law, would love radiate through the world and bring it into nobler harmony. And each who turns his face in that direction, each who purifies his own body, his own life, is a fellow-worker with the inner life of the world, and the development of his own Spirit shall come as guerdon for the work he does for the helping of the world.