A few years ago Pujya Swamiji and I were traveling from Lisbon, Portugal to Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) via Madrid. Tragically on that day a Span Air plane had crashed in the Madrid airport, killing nearly all on board. Approximately 150 people had died and the Madrid airport was closed for many hours. Our flight was, of course, cancelled and we reached Tenerife nearly 24 hours after the original scheduled time.
Upon arrival in Tenerife we found that there was a pervasive state of bereavement amongst all of the people due to the plane crash. Wherever we went, people would request Pujya Swamiji to say prayers for the departed souls, to have moments of silence before and after each program. Questions in the satsangs inevitably revolved around issues of karma, death, destiny and tragedy. The plane which had crashed was destined for Gran Canaria, the largest of the Canary Islands. No one we spoke with or who was present in any of the functions had actually known anyone on the flight; yet the state of anxiety, numbness and despair were textbook responses to great loss, even verging on PTSD in several circumstances. “I haven’t slept in 3 nights. I can’t eat. I can’t get pictures of the plane crash out of my mind.”
The crash was a tragedy. One hundred and fifty families lost a mother, father, child, spouse or sibling. Countless thousands lost a loved one. The mirage of safety and invincibility we feel upon a major airliner flying to a vacation destination had faded.
Yet, after two days of prayer upon prayer, puja upon puja, explanation upon explanation of death and karma and the afterlife, I found a small volcano of despair within myself begin to grow and threaten to rupture. My volcano of anguish, though, was not for the 150 who had died in the plane crash, although I certainly shed tears as I watched the news stories of the wreckage from the Lisbon airport lounge with interviews of those whose loved ones had died. No, my deep anguish, separate from the sadness at the loss of life in the crash, was due to a divide, a dichotomy, a chasm I could not bridge. Finally, unable to contain it any longer, on the third day I found myself at Pujya Swamiji’s feet exclaiming, “How is it possible that these people can cry day after day for the 150 people who died whom they didn’t know and whose deaths they couldn’t possibly have prevented, and still go out and eat meat, the practice of which causes the death of tens of thousands of children of starvation every day?” “Why is it,” I wailed, “that the death of 150 well-todo vacationers is worthy of silence, prayer, puja and tears, while the death of impoverished, starving children in third world countries is not?”
On a spiritual path that teaches non-judgment, I struggled rather unsuccessfully within myself with the judgment I felt for those who cried for the dead vacationers and then went out and caused the death of impoverished children without giving it a second thought. Clearly they are compassionate and loving people. Here they are mourning the death of people they didn’t even know. So, how could that compassion and love vanish the moment they held a menu or shopping cart in their hands? Was it merely ignorance? If they knew the devastation wrought upon our world by the meat industry, would they become vegetarian? I am not sure about them, as in the midst of the aftermath of the plane crash I did not raise this issue; however, as I have traveled the world and spoken to innumerable audiences on vegetarianism, I have found a great divide. It seems that those who are like us, who possibly could have been us or our loved ones, elicit our compassion and empathy. Those who are not like us, who couldn’t possibly be us or our loved ones, tend not to elicit such feelings. They may elicit sympathy – such as when we see news stories of famines in African nations or AIDS orphans. We may send a check to Save the Children or Oxfam or Amnesty International. But, derail our lives, consume our thoughts, render us insomniacs? It seems that only tragedies which hit at the core of the safety we personally feel have the power to effect such powerful responses. A fatal crash of a plane they took last week or were planning to take next week or take regularly, a bomb that rocks through our favorite coffee shop or hotel or our local airport – these are the events that shake us to ourcore despite statistics telling us we have a much greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a terrorist attack. The tens of thousands of children who died yesterday, and the day before, and who will die again today, and tomorrow and the day after – they don’t have a chance at all of seeing another lightning storm, let alone being struck by one.
And their deaths are preventable. Preventable by us, by our choices, by our decisions. Their deaths are, rather, caused by us, by our choices and decisions. As we mourn the deaths of those we could not prevent, we cause the deaths of others.
One pound of grain can be turned into one pound of bread, or one pound of pasta, or one pound of rice or corn. However, in order to produce one pound of meat, sixteen pounds of grain are required. The reason is that the grain is fed daily to the animals that live, several miserable years, until they are slaughtered to become hamburgers or hotdogs. By the time the animal is killed and the flesh is turned into packaged meals, 16 pounds of grain have gone into the production of each pound of meat. That means, every time we eat a meal of meat, we are eating the grain of fifteen other people. We are eating for sixteen. If my one pound of meat requires 16 pounds of grain, rather than my pound of pasta requiring only a pound of grain, then every time I choose meat I am consuming the grain of fifteen others. The food supply on planet Earth is tragically limited. Food shortages and famines are prevalent and pervasive across the world. Can we really afford to make choices that take the food out of the mouths of starving children with nearly every meal? The United States alone produces enough grain every day to give each and every person on Earth two loaves of bread a day. No one would go hungry, let alone starve, on two loaves of bread. The problem is they are not getting the bread, for the grain is not being used for humans. Rather, the grain is used as feed for the cows, pigs and chickens that become our breakfast sausage, our lunchtime turkey sandwich or hamburger, and our evening roast chicken or steak. So we get fatter, our cholesterol rises, and they die.
The production of a pound of meat takes approximately 2600 gallons (approximately 10,000 liters) of water. This is due to the exorbitant amount of water used to grow food for the livestock, the water they drink and are bathed in, and then the water used to try to wash the blood, urine and feces out of the flesh to be sold in grocery stores. Tens of thousands of farmers across the “developing” world are collapsing on their desiccated fields. There is no water for their parched mouths or withered crops. Many commit suicide, unable to face the prospect of a tomorrow with no means to feed themselves and their families. Many others are taken, unwillingly, by sickness and death. Others abandon the fields of their ancestors and flood the already overpopulated cities to eke out a meager existence in a slum on the muddy outskirts of a third-world metropolis. And a typical family consumes the equivalent of 2600 gallons of water during one meal of hamburgers.
The world of the 21st century cannot live in a vacuum. We don’t have to be quantum physicists to understand the way that our personal choices and actions directly impact the rest of the planet. What I purchase, use and eat today in Rishikesh or Delhi or London or Paris or Los Angeles is having a direct effect on the lives of my brothers and sisters in other countries. Every pound of meat that I don’t eat, frees up sixteen pounds of grain and 2500 gallons of water for other purposes.
If a loved one needed an expensive operation, we all, immediately and instinctively, would make whatever financial sacrifices were required to ensure that he/she could get that treatment. We would easily and effortlessly forsake regular pleasures, whether movies or massages or bottles of fine wine. These sacrifices would not even feel like sacrifices and we certainly wouldn’t pat ourselves on the back as martyrs. We would simply be making choices based on our priorities and values – keeping the loved one alive is obviously of more value than a massage or a movie or a bottle of expensive wine.
Every religion of the world exhorts us to view the world as our family. Can we? Can we do more than shake our heads in disbelief as we watch the news? Can we realize that the “sacrifice” of giving up meat so that our starving brothers and sisters may be fed, so that farmers’ lands may be irrigated, so that trees may continue to grow in the Amazon, so that the rate of global warming and environmental devastation may be checked, so that Mother Earth may continue to have fertile land for growing crops, may we realize that this is a natural choice to be made and not an excruciating sacrifice? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those who are not “us” as we do for those living under our own roofs or within our circle of friends? Can the deaths of the tens of thousands of children who are not like us, each day affect us even a tiny bit, as much as the deaths of those with whom we can more easily identify?
The world today requires not just that we connect on Facebook and Twitter, not just that we count our global presence in the number of “friends” or “followers” we have, but that we truly and deeply take the world into our heart. It is not easy. The suffering is vast and seemingly infinite. We naturally feel helpless and overwhelmed; hence the reaction is to shut ourselves down, to once again narrow that circle so that we may not be face to face with such pain. However, we can’t do that anymore. Politically, environmentally, socially – the world of today requires us to be present and aware even with that which seems out of our control and beyond our reach. We will find that so much more than we thought is within our power to change. Perhaps we can’t change entire industries or entire government systems. But every choice we make of where to shop, what to wear, what to purchase and what to eat has an absolutely direct and powerful impact upon life situations for children dying of starvation, pre-pubescent girls and boys working 18- or 20-hour days in toxic sweatshops, cotton pickers suffering from pesticide-induced cancers, suicidal farmers, and upon the health and balance of Mother Earth.
Some tragedies are unpreventable – an act of terror for which, of course, hindsight is 20/20 but foresight was minimal. Some tragedies are preventable or mitigate-able on various levels (death by lifestyle diseases, for example). And then some tragedies are 100 percent preventable – caused, created and perpetuated simply by the conscious, deliberate choices of those who have the freedom to make choices. These tragedies are happening minute by minute, moment by moment; if we fail to prevent it today, we can work harder tomorrow. If we fail tomorrow, we have the day after. We cannot turn back the clock and undo horrific acts of unspeakable violence and terror which have already been perpetrated. All we can do is honor their memories with love and respect, and refuse to be part of the violence in the present and future.