Review: Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions

Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions, edited by Steven J. Rosen, Praeger Publishing, 2011.

Reviewed by Charles S. J. White, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion, American University, Washington, D.C.

This is a book that needed to be written. Period. Today, yoga is often thought of as a catch-phrase for exercises of a particular kind, and few know—or care—about its hoary roots in Hindu tradition. Those who do know are divided about whether or not one needs to be a vegetarian. But as Rosen and other well-chosen contributors prove in this edited volume—there really should be no question about a yogi’s diet. Yoga means higher consciousness, and higher consciousness means love and compassion. Indeed, Patanjali and other early authorities on the yoga tradition assert that ahimsa, nonaggression, is as integral to yoga as meditation is, and Rosen’s contributors cite all the right sources, making this clear and obvious—and also that this nonaggression extends to the point of vegetarianism.

And speaking of the contributors, Rosen, for this book, brilliantly gathered together representatives of all the modern yoga schools, from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to Swami Satchidananda, from Jivamukti to Jain yoga traditions. The net result is that the reader becomes privy to all the voices necessary to understand yoga and its authentic connection to a harmless diet. Each major yoga school is represented, both by practitioners and by scholars, so that readers become aware of all the arguments involved, and, in the end, see the reality of the subject at hand: that one needs to adhere to a non-meat diet if one hopes to practice yoga in the proper way.

Rosen’s introductory article particularly intrigued me. He shows that, though there are clearly exceptions, most yoga lineages today can be traced to two accomplished yogis in the tradition: Sri Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda. Krishnamacharya is the fount of teachers such as K. Pattabhi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar, and B. K. S. Iyengar, whose techniques consist of Ashtanga-Vinyasa, Viniyoga, and the Iyengar Method, respectively. Sivananda’s tradition, on the other hand, gave rise to the Integral Yoga Institute, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Chinmayananda, and others. Rosen’s point is as follows: most yoga practitioners today use the methods formulated by these two men, either as they were originally espoused or in conjunction with other methods. And both these men promoted vegetarianism! Clearly, then, all groups and lineages that sprouted from these sources should promote the same teachings they did, including vegetarianism.

Then after making his point, Rosen engages many voices of authorities on yoga to speak for themselves, as already stated, so that by the end of the book, there is no question of an alternative point of view, at least not if one is practicing authentic yoga.

As an addendum, albeit an important one, Rosen offers two final essays, one by Joshua Greene and another authored by Rosen himself, on the subject of bhakti-yoga, which, according to the Bhagavad-gita (6.47), is the culminating yoga system in the practice of yoga. Here, again, we see that vegetarianism is unequivocally mandated. In this way, it becomes clear that there is simply no arguing the point—from the most basic forms of yoga to the most advanced, vegetarianism is unavoidable if one wants to reach perfection in practice.

For those who are meat-eating yogis, wanting an easy way out, this book is to be avoided at all costs. If, however, you are either a vegetarian or someone who is sitting on the fence—a sincere meat eater who is ready to give up eating meat for his or her practice of yoga—this book will offer much direction, knowledge, and food for thought.

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4 Responses to Review: Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions

  1. I’m so pleased to see this article. I just completed a yoga teacher training, and this view was sadly absent in their
    discussion of ahimsa.

  2. In Bhagavad-gita 18.54, Krishna says that “Once a person has realized Brahman, he becomes self-satisfied and no longer laments or hankers. Equally disposed to all beings, he attains devotion to Me.”

    When we have a million dollars, all of our $10 problems are solved. In other words, if the goal is bhakti, love of God, love of Krishna, then we want to understand what will facilitate that goal. And Krishna says that when one is equally disposed to all beings, he attains devotion.

    So that is the beauty of the bhakti path. Simply because the bhakta wnats to cultivate love for Krishna, he will not participate in slaughterhouse culture. But for those who are not aspiring to develope love for Krishna, it becomes a difficult job to convince them to be kind-hearted towards all beings.

    So this kind of indirect preaching, like Rosen is doing is an uphill battle. Therefore the real acharyas go right to the point and simply try to help people to understand directly, that what we are indeed searching for, to fulfill the underlying desire in our hearts, can only be had by cultivating our love for Krishna. Then automatically people will stop eating animals.

    So we can try to teach people to become good, or clean, or sattvic, or non-violent, and on and on, so that one day they will come to Krishna Consciousness. Or one can directly explain that Krishna Consciousness, only, can fulfill us, and all those other things will be accomplished. “First seek ye the kindom of God and all else will be added to you.” But that kind of conviction is a matter of faith. The real acaryas stick with the essential message.

    I think it was John Donne, or one of those poets we studied in first year university, who wrote this poem entitled, “To His Coy Mistress.” There the hankering rascal say to the lady he is persuing, “I could talk to you for a hundred years about your beautiful forehead, another hundred years describing your eyes,..” and on and on, “but life my dear, is very short, so let us jump in bed and do the wild thing!” I’m paraphrasing. So we can talk about being good. We can talk about being vegetarian. But life is short. So we have to cut through all this stuff and get to the point which is devotion to God, devotion to Krishna.

    Green and Rosen are my godbrothers, but they prefer to present themselves as Green and Rosen, and introduce Krishna Consciousness in a round about way, so as not to frighten their intended audience. And so there is always the chance that the audience will say, “Very nice, very nice.”, and not receive the essential message.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

    • Ishan das has a fondamentalist point of view which have proven by the years that the approch he advises is not convincing. People in général cannot appréciate Srila Prabhupada’s books without “this kind of indirect preaching”. Steven J. Rosen is doing a great work and it is sad to read such comment nowadays. In fact, we need so many more exemple of writters such as the auteur Food for the Spirit.

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