Sri Dharma Mittra has devoted much of his life to service and teaching. In 1967, he founded the Yoga Asana Center in New York City, which is known today as the Dharma Yoga Center, and he’s been teaching weekly classes and offering his wisdom there ever since. The Sacred Cow talked to Dharma this month about ahimsa and vegetarianism.
Sacred Cow: In the Yoga Sutras, the first yama, or restraint, is ahimsa, which is often translated as non-violence. What does ahimsa mean to you?
Sri Dharma Mittra: It means not causing pain and suffering in others. All religions have ethical rules, and most of them start with ‘Thou shalt not kill’. In yoga, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ means any living being.
SC: So, the most important aspect of ahimsa is vegetarianism?
SDM: Yes, because compassion is involved in that and self-realization is based upon compassion. Compassion is the ability for us to put ourselves in someone else’s place. Unfortunately, on this planet our compassion goes only up to our pets and friends. Beyond the pets, we see other animals as food. We have to realize the self is everywhere equally in all beings, not only humans but the animals and the plants, everywhere. Most people, even on this planet in which we are so civilized, are still not there yet. But anything that involves a little discomfort to others is not ahimsa. And without ahimsa, there will be no strong desire for spiritual things.
SC: Why do people struggle with vegetarianism?
SDM: Because they struggle with compassion. Most of us have natural compassion only for people who are close to us. The other part has to be developed through practice. In the beginning, we have to pretend. It starts with just kind words, and maybe not even from the heart. Then after many years, those words starts becoming reality. But to be truly compassionate, we have to stop eating meat. Then, automatically from there, a love starts flowing and the desire for self-realization increases.
SC: But there are many vegetarians who are not particularly kind or spiritual, right?
SDM: Sometimes people are vegetarian to get healthy or to succeed in the postures, but they don’t see the real meaning of ahimsa: love. Hitler was a vegetarian, but totally blind. Some people don’t do meditation for self-realization either, but just to develop mental ability, get healthy, or to succeed in their lives. Meditation practiced this way has no value. This is true also for people who only study the texts, but don’t live them. I know some people who memorize the entire Bhagavad Gita but they do not understand one verse of it. There are people in Times Square preaching the entire Bible but they don’t understand one verse of it. It’s better to know one verse and act upon it.
SC: Can asana help us to be more compassionate?
SDM: The poses are to get strong so that you can be able to stay in meditation, but spiritually speaking the poses don’t help much. The main thing is to have compassion for others. Meditate on compassion and do pranayama. Treat your pets well, treat your guests well, treat your friends well. Be generous. If you have two cars, give one to someone else.
SC: Do you ever notice that some people don’t have compassion for themselves? Why is that?
SDM: It’s lack of self-knowledge. They have to find out what the self is. This is the goal of life, to realize the self. Part of this is learning the laws of karma: If you hurt someone, you’re going to get hurt. When I learned about the laws of karma, I became very careful about not hurting anyone.
SC: Were you always a vegetarian?
SDM: My father was a farmer. I was born eating meat, everything cooked in lard. I had a slaughterhouse near my home. I went there and would see the animals. I started comparing them with my pets. I lost the desire to eat meat. My father had to beat me to eat meat. Then I learned in a yoga book that God is dwelling in the right side of all beings, even the animals.
SC: Is vegetarianism unhealthy for some people?
SDM: No, there is no excuse not to be a vegetarian. You will have no deficiency. I am always overweight, I have no deficiency, good blood pressure and cholesterol. These are no excuses. Besides, if you are really on the side of ahimsa, you are incapable to eat meat—you would see it like you were eating from your son or your mother.
SC: What do you say to yoga practitioners who choose to eat meat?
SDM: Your mind will never go deep. You may do your meditation, stop your mind, and control your breath, but you won’t find spiritual bliss because the psychic channels are blocked. It’s through the psychic channels that the love of God flows to our heart. The meat pollutes the subtle body, especially the Anandamaya Kosha, so the mind cannot realize reality.
SC: As a global society, do you think we are moving closer to ahimsa, or further away?
SDM: Some people cannot turn themselves to each other through love, but they can through pain. We are passing through a difficult time right now. The weather is getting crazy and it is going to be extremely hard next year. In a few more years, we will run out of fuel. Even the hardest person is going to become soft from pain and suffering.
SC: Have you seen any changes in your students in the last few years?
SDM: I see that it’s a little harder to find people who are really involved in self-realization. They are a little more distracted in the world. Most people are interested in psychic powers to succeed in meditation, but not in finding out who God is. But I think this will change in the next few years.
For more of Karen Macklin’s work, visit her website at www.karenmacklin.com.