I got this question from a teacher trainee this week, and it does tend to come up a lot, so I thought I’d share my answer with you (that is, how I’d answer this question this week)
To Practice Ahimsa Do You Have to Be Vegetarian?
To the question about vegetarianism and Ahimsa (non-harming), my answer is that I can’t really answer that for you, nor can anyone else. There is no black/white, right/wrong with any of the Yamas and Niyamas. Ahimsa is an ongoing practice, and there is a wide spectrum in how we might apply this Yama to our eating habits and lifestyles.
The truth is that, while we may wish to do less harm to animals by choosing plant-based foods, no matter what we eat, something is being harmed. Many animals, reptiles, birds, and insects are killed in the production of plant foods, we just don’t see it as readily as we do with eating animals. Plant foods require land, lots of water, and people performing hard manual labour, often with poor working conditions. The production of plant foods has an environmental and human cost. It may be less of a cost (or different) than eating animals, but it’s a cost nonetheless.
It’s often assumed that people who study spiritual practices like yoga or Buddhism, but at all times in history there are been individuals making individual choices, as well as different groups or communities within these traditions who make different choices. Also, it’s worth considering the historical/political reasons why vegetarianism was encouraged through philosophical/spiritual/moral rules in certain regions.
My feeling on this, not that I’m in any way an arbiter of what each unique person should be eating, is that this is your choice, for your body, and you have to make decisions based on your health, family, logistics, where you live, your culture, and your philosophical, religious, or spiritual beliefs. We will also all be making different choices around reducing our impact on the environment. There is just not one ‘right’ way to live our Ahimsa practice.
For me, I can choose to be vegetarian because I can afford it, I live in a place where vegetarian foods are easy to access, I don’t have to cook for others, so I don’t have to negotiate with other peoples’ food needs, and a majority of my family members are also vegetarian so I have social support for my choice. This is not true for everyone.
Knowing that we do harm no matter what we eat both helps and makes it more complicated, I know. But one thing that I’ve found helpful is remembering that we humans are also part of nature, and living, eating, dying, and returning to the earth in some material form are all part of the natural cycle of things.
So, not an ‘answer’ per se, I’m afraid, but I hope this gives you a chance to think about Ahimsa being about making conscious choices rather than rules that need to be applied to everyone.