No discussion of cute baby animals would be complete without a few words about eating meat.
A good friend of mine recently became a vegetarian, so I asked her to tell me about her decision. She said she believed that a vegetable-based diet would make her healthier, and would have a much smaller impact on the environment, but that she made her decision mainly out of her concern for other living things. She said “I just think it’s cruel to eat animals.”
What do you think?
The Baha’i teachings contain some very interesting guidance on this question. Like much of the Baha’i revelation, that guidance leaves the ultimate decision up to the individual, but takes a balanced approach and then suggests the best and most conscientious way forward, as well.
During the early part of the 20th Century, a Baha’i and her sister wrote a letter to Abdu’l-Baha, astonished that some religious laws permitted “the hunting of innocent animals, creatures who are guilty of no wrong.” Abdu’l-Baha sent this fascinating reply:
Be thou not surprised at this. Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the inter-relationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever. In the physical realm of creation, all things are eaters and eaten: the plant drinketh in the mineral, the animal doth crop and swallow down the plant, man doth feed upon the animal, and the mineral devoureth the body of man. Physical bodies are transferred past one barrier after another, from one life to another, and all things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself — since it is constant and immutable, and upon it is founded the life of every species and kind, of every contingent reality throughout the whole of creation.
Whensoever thou dost examine, through a microscope, the water man drinketh, the air he doth breathe, thou wilt see that with every breath of air, man taketh in an abundance of animal life, and with every draught of water, he also swalloweth down a great variety of animals. How could it ever be possible to put a stop to this process? For all creatures are eaters and eaten, and the very fabric of life is reared upon this fact. Were it not so, the ties that interlace all created things within the universe would be unravelled.
And further, whensoever a thing is destroyed, and decayeth, and is cut off from life, it is promoted into a world that is greater than the world it knew before. It leaveth, for example, the life of the mineral and goeth forward into the life of the plant; then it departeth out of the vegetable life and ascendeth into that of the animal, following which it forsaketh the life of the animal and riseth into the realm of human life, and this is out of the grace of thy Lord, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
I beg of God that He will assist thee to comprehend the mysteries that lie at the heart of creation… – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 156.
After I showed her this passage, I told my friend that the Baha’i teachings don’t specify any particular required diet for human beings, and give everyone their own free choice in the matter–but also say that we can thrive without eating meat, and encourage us to eat more sustainably. She loved that approach, she said. But then she asked me “Do you think I should switch my dog to a vegetarian diet?”
Some animals, the Baha’i writings explain, have no choice in what they eat, and must kill other animals to survive:
Regarding the eating of animal flesh and abstinence therefrom, know thou of a certainty that, in the beginning of creation, God determined the food of every living being, and to eat contrary to that determination is not approved. For instance, beasts of prey, such as the wolf, lion and leopard, are endowed with ferocious, tearing instruments, such as hooked talons and claws. From this it is evident that the food of such beasts is meat. If they were to attempt to graze, their teeth would not cut the grass, neither could they chew the cud, for they do not have the molars. Likewise, God hath given to the four-footed grazing animals such teeth as reap the grass like sickle, and from this we understand that the food of these species of animal is vegetable. They cannot chase and hunt down other animals. The falcon hath a hooked beak and sharp talons; the hooked beak preventeth him from grazing, therefore his food also is meat.
But human beings, Abdu’l-Baha continued, can voluntarily decide to do without meat:
But now coming to man, we see he hath neither hooked teeth nor sharp nails or claws, nor teeth like iron sickles. From this it becometh evident and manifest that the food of man is cereals and fruit. Some of the teeth of man are like millstones to grind the grain, and some sharp to cut the fruit. Therefore he is not in need of meat, nor is he obliged to eat it. Even without eating meat he would live with the utmost vigour and energy. For example, the community of the Brahmins in India do not eat meat; notwithstanding this they are not inferior to other nations in strength, power, vigour, outward senses or intellectual virtues. Truly, the killing of animals and the eating of their meat is somewhat contrary to pity and compassion, and if one can content oneself with cereals, fruit, oil and nuts, such as pistachios, almonds and so on, it would undoubtedly be better and more pleasing. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.
People are omnivores, and can live on a wide variety of diets, but science is discovering that we do tend to live longer and healthier lives if we don’t consume large amounts of animal protein. If we consider our spiritual lives as well as our physical ones, most of us may eventually conclude that tenderness and loving-kindness toward all living creatures will gradually move humanity in that direction.