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The Vegetarian World Forum

No. 1 Vol. 2 - THE VEGETARIAN - SPRING 1948 pp.14-16

Rie Von Krusenstierna-Vreeswyk

Some of the members of the Malayan, Vegetarian Society at Singapore. Mrs. R. von Krusenstierna is seated third from right. (click for a bigger picture)

THE organized protection of animals, be it Vegetarianism, Anti-vivisection or Anti-cruelty, is in every country coloured by the predominant religious concepts prevailing there.

In Christian countries we can safely attribute the callous attitude of the average person to the popular Christian misconception that "God created the animals for the use of man," and, having misquoted such an authority as the Bible and making God responsible, the average Christian can ease his conscience in the face of the horrors of vivisection and the slaughter-house. This utterly selfish attitude is typical of the West, where the only "love" for animals, is expressed in costly pet dogs, pedigree cats and racehorses.

But once the feelings and conscience of a Westerner are aroused, he will often turn into a most unselfish and zealous worker for the protection of the misused animal. No biblical quotations will affect him, no ridicule will dampen his enthusiasm; yes, often he will welcome martyrdom for the sake of his ideal, and often, too, he will go too far and become fanatical and unpractical.

IN the East, however, one finds an entirely different attitude. Here the principle of  "harmlessness" and non-killing, which includes the abstinence of flesh-food, is mainly a religious attitude and the chief duty of those who profess to be pious or have chosen a spiritual calling.

If one were to point out this religious precept of non-killing to an ordinary Hindu or Buddhist, he is likely to shrug his shoulders and say: "But I am a man of the world, I have to earn my living; you can't expect me to live as a holy man." If, then, you proudly point at your own example, being also a man of the world, he will admit that he greatly admires you, but, still.

Let us look at India. In reviewing the attitude of four hundred million people, subscribing to several religions, one must needs be very general in making statements, and it should be understood that there are exceptions to every generalisation.

 Leaving aside the Muslims, the Parsees, the Sikhs and the Indian Christians, there remain only the Hindus who have the duty of non-killing prescribed in their religion. Yet this precept was originally intended for the Brahmin caste, the so-called priest-caste, which keeps to a strict discipline of a vegetarian diet. Yet, even among the Brahmins, there are exceptions, for the Kashmir Brahmins eat meat and the Bengal Brahmins eat fish, so that there remains only a small minority of about –nine million vegetarians in India.

This minority has great influence though, and a butcher's shop is never seen in the large city of Madras, and the only place I know where one can buy meat publicly is at a carefully enclosed and separated market. One can enter any one of the hundreds of Hindu restaurants and coffee-shops and be sure to be served entirely vegetarian food, cooked by Brahmin cooks.

 It is, however, not compassion which compels the Brahmin to follow such a strictly harmless existence; it is, on the contrary, an almost entirely selfish attitude of "not being polluted by unclean things," and to escape the karma or the effects of killing. 1t also includes the abstinence of smoking; and alcohol, and even the use of certain vegetables which are considered to be coarse, such as onions.

This attitude of "caste-purity" will often lead to great unkindness and even cruelty towards such animals and even human beings who are considered to be unclean, so long as it does not result in actual killing. Animals are often left injured or starving by the roadside, but even mercy-killing would horrify every Hindu Indian, however lowly his caste. This was one of the chief difficulties which we experienced when my husband and I were running a small charitable Animal Hospital near Madras for the use of the village cattle. Not even the poorest coolie would consent to have his animal "put to sleep," however terrible its condition obviously was. There is no doubt that even though most Hindus do not always put their ideal of "non-killing" into practice when it comes to eating meat, there is a deep understanding and ready response towards such ideals.

YET in India, too, a considerable amount of animal welfare work is being done. The two main organizations are the S.P.C.A., in some provinces, and the Humanitarian League.

The S.P.C.A. is sponsored mainly by the Westerners and some of the higher Indian government officials. Its patron is usually the Governor of the province, and it deals entirely with obvious cruelties like ill-treatment in handling and transport, and though it naturally does very much good, yet it completely ignores such blatant cruelties as hunting, trapping, slaughter and animal-sacrifice. No wonder that the average Hindu rather scorns the S.P.C.A. It is indeed surprising to see in the last Report of the Madras S.P.C.A. a photo of its Patroness gloriously adorned with a magnificent fox. But, nevertheless, the S.P.C.A. deserves all praise, and they really have their hands full with the "obvious" cruelties.

The other organization is the Humanitarian League, which is run entirely by Hindus of the Gujarati community and mostly belonging to the Jain sect. The Gujaratis (from around Bombay) are cattle worshippers par excellence, and the Jain sect have as their religious slogan, "There is no religion higher than harmlessness." They are certainly the strictest vegetarians and non-killers in the world. A very religious Jain will not go out during the rainy season because then there are so many insects about and he might step on them. He must finish his meal before dark, lest insects be blinded and killed by the fire or light.

The object of the Humanitarian League is to propagate vegetarianism and to stop animal sacrifice, which is still very much practised in some Hindu temples.

I worked with both organizations, but mostly with the latter. Strange enough, I noticed among the members of the H.L. a blindness for the very cruelties which the S.P.C.A. is fighting against. More than often I had to point out to a party of propagandists on their way to a place of meeting that they were grossly over-loading the bullock-cart or pony-cart in which they were riding and that, moreover, they seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the driver was beating his animal relentlessly or that the animal was lame or tired or undernourished. Such things are so common in India that it escapes notice.

Yet they do wonderful work, and most courageous work, too, for it is no small matter to oppose a group of low-caste Indians who have worked themselves into a religious frenzy and are about to sacrifice bullocks or goats in the most cruel manner they can think of. On one occasion the population threw stones at us, yes, even though there were a number of young girls among us.

THE above-mentioned organizations are instances of the unselfish work for the protection of animals regardless of the personal religious aspect. But to return to the general attitude, we find that the orthodox Hindu is "harmless" only in the negative sense, while the unorthodox and Westernized Hindu, thinking that be is far more advanced and better educated than his orthodox brother, turns away from the path of harmlessness and imitates his Western brothers in their ways of meat-eating and hunting for sport. Especially those young people who go to Europe for study often succumb under the ridicule of the European and accept their standard of living.

Going farther East, we come among our Chinese-Buddhist brethren and find in general this same principle. Only here we do not have the advantage of a whole caste having the duty of abstinence of flesh-food and killing. Among the Buddhists it is indeed only the pious and professed religious men and women, those who have taken a vow to observe the "Five Precepts" in the strictest sense, that one finds people who live a strict vegetarian life (The unfortunate exceptions arc the Ceylonese monks, who are almost all meat-eaters. ) But this time the ruling principle is not so much the personal purity but a more unselfish attitude, namely the positive form of harmlessness as practising "loving kindness." But the connection with an ascetic religious life is always predominant. Here is an example: An elderly Chinese gentleman said to me, "You say you are a vegetarian, but you are married?" For a moment I was completely at a loss, but then it dawned on me that in his mind vegetarianism was exclusively connected with the celibacy of priesthood.

Most of the Chinese members of the Malayan Vegetarian Society in Singapore are lay-brothers or sisters, those who are connected with a temple and lead a very pious life, but the non-vegetarian Buddhists join as Associates in recognition of the good work, and are staunch supporters.

Western vegetarians coming to the East should, however, remember this: The Eastern vegetarian disapproves of taking life, he would not even approve, of humane killing, and will not even kill a mosquito. His vegetarianism does most decidedly not include eggs, and in the eyes of a Brahmin or pious Buddhist, a vegetarian who eats eggs just isn't a vegetarian at all!


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