Twice a week, as part of our outreach of Hindu culture from our monastery in the East Village, myself and a few other monks teach classes on the art of vegetarian cuisine at Columbia University and New York University. We also try to share some of the essential tenets of the vegetarian/vegan life from some of the great traditional sources of the Vedas, such as the Bhagavad-Gita. We mix in with this knowledge a wide breath of moral, economic, and environmental reasons to support the vegetarian/vegan ideal
We do this with an eye to perhaps convince our friends to try to experience the values and benefits of a vegetarian diet, and for those already on the path, to show them the depth of their commitment and the potential for real change that comes by not eating our fair animal comrades.
My own journey into vegetarianism began with a lot of doubt and a little help from my friends. I was once of those students receiving delicious Indian vegetarian fare from Hindu monks at the University of Michigan, but having come from a different culinary background, the food they offered simply bewildered me. Over time, my monk friends won me over to their heartfelt offerings as they explained more of the culture behind it, and I also just came to realize the food was really, really good.
As I began to explore a commitment to vegetarianism, I had the good fortune of being surrounded by friends who were already engaged as vegetarians and vegans. I was also in a progressive college community where there were plenty of restaurants and groceries which catered to the vegetarian lifestyle. As I moved on into the lifestyle of a Hindu monk, I started to learn how to cook, which helped me to further appreciate the colorful, savoury, and rich depth of the vegetarian cuisine of India and of the rest of the world.
So it is with an immense sense of gratitude from my own end that I now am able to return the favor to all those who guided me towards the vegetarian ideal, by teaching its art and depth of knowledge to some of Manhattan's brightest. At the foundation of our presentation is a unique understanding of the value of ahimsa, or non-violence, as presented in the Gita. Going beyond the foundation of not causing any physical, mental, or psychological harm to any living creature, the deeper understanding of ahimsa lies in the understanding of the progressive, enlightened transmigration of the soul through the process of reincarnation.
The Vedas describe a progressive evolution of the soul through different microbial, plant, and animal forms to the human form of life, which is considered an ideal body for spiritual realization. The soul naturally progresses, by instinct and divine guidance, through increasingly complex forms of life before coming to the human stage. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, in his translation of the Gita, explains what happens when that progression is stopped by acts of violence:
"Real ahiḿsā means not checking anyone's progressive life. The animals are also making progress in their evolutionary life by transmigrating from one category of animal life to another. If a particular animal is killed, then his progress is checked. If an animal is staying in a particular body for so many days or so many years and is untimely killed, then he has to come back again in that form of life to complete the remaining days in order to be promoted to another species of life. So their progress should not be checked simply to satisfy one's palate. This is called ahiḿsā."
By living a vegetarian lifestyle, we not only refrain from harming our animal friends physically, but also spiritually. Naturally the question arises about plant life, and the potential harm that might be caused to them for the needs of our own body. Of course, we know that some fruits and vegetables fall right from the plant or tree, causing no harm in and of itself. For the other forms of plant life who do give their life for our sustenance, the Hindu tradition tells us that we should prepare and cook these gifts as an offering to God in love and devotion. If done in this mood, God blesses the offering, insuring that the fruits, grains, and vegetables used in the offering continue their spiritual progression.
With our cooking classes, our hope is that our friends there can understand that our offering of vegetarian food has benefits that go beyond the taste buds. We know that the way to a person's heart is through their stomach, and hopefully we can also help them understand that the way to knowledge and respect of the soul also comes through the food that they eat.
Chris Fici is a writer/teacher/monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition. He has been practicing at the Bhaktivedanta Ashram at the Bhakti Center in New York City since 2009. After receiving a degree in film studies at the University of Michigan, Chris began his exploration and study of the bhakti tradition. He currently teaches classes on the culture and art of vegetarian cooking, as well as the living philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, at New York University and Columbia University.