Aparigraha and Veganism

by Sharon Gannon |
November, 2012
Aparigraha and Veganism
aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathamta-sambodhah

When one becomes selfless and ceases to take more than one needs, one obtains knowledge of why one was born.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras II.39

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives us five recommendations, called yamas, for how we should treat others if we want to attain liberation. The fifth yama is aparigraha, which means “greedlessness.” When we desire happiness for ourselves at the expense of others, it is called “greed.” Patanjali recommends that yogis seeking enlightenment should try to live a simple life based in moderation rather than excessive consumption. In other words, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Real needs are not wrong; wants, on the other hand, can become problematic. We have become habituated to look outside of ourselves for happiness and, in the process, have created powerful addictions that drive our choices. Many of us have become so out of touch with our innermost selves that we do not know where need ends and want begins. We identify with what we have, need, and want. Due to avidya (ignorance), which gives rise to asmita (excessive identification with ego), we think we are our personalities, and with that thinking we lose touch with the true Self.

Our culture has conditioned us over thousands of years to hoard, stockpile, accumulate and save for a rainy day. The amount of things we own gives us a sense of security and creates a legacy of self-importance that we pass on to our children in the hopes of being remembered or immortalized. No other animal besides us would destroy a whole forest or cause the extinction of an entire species while imagining that that has no negative effect upon them or the lives of their children. Unlike us, animals do not approach their food with bags, shovel the food in, fill the bags and then carry them away, leaving nothing for others.

According to the U.N., over 52 billion animals are killed for food worldwide every year. In the U.S. alone, approximately 10 billion land animals and billions of sea creatures are slaughtered for food annually. It is hard to know how many sea creatures are killed, because they are not counted as individuals, but by tonnage. These are staggering numbers, especially if you consider that the human population of the U.S. is around 304 million and that there are only 6.7 billion human beings on the entire planet. These billions of suffering and terrified animals create a planetary atmosphere of fear, terror and violence which we all live and breathe in everyday. One could easily call this amount of animal slaughter excessive.

We are on the brink of an apocalypse that some have prophesied that in the year 2012 will result in a radical shift in how we relate to time. The Greek word apocalypse means “to reveal; to uncover; to stand naked, exposed without artifice, clothing, or possessions.” One implication of this apocalypse may be that when we let go of holding on to things, become less greedy, our hands will be open to receive everything.

We have created a relationship with time in which we believe that life is made up of a linear series of events. Civilized humans have lost their connection with the cycles of nature. We have become time-bound, enslaved to the clock and wristwatch. When we exist fully in the present moment, there is less fear of not having enough in the future and less inclination to greedily stockpile a surplus. All fears come down to the fear of losing: losing fame, youth, money, hair, health, love…and ultimately the body. The result of letting go of the desire to possess (even your own body) is to be liberated from the fear of death. If you think of yourself as mortal, your whole life will be haunted by the fear of death. Through the practice of aparigraha, the yogi becomes conscious of his or her true existence as having never been born and with that realization is able to defeat death; for it is only those who insist they were born who will die. Through adopting a compassionate, vegan lifestyle, we take the first big step toward becoming established in aparigraha, and with that, we step into a bright, enlightened future for ourselves, for the animals and for this planet.

Teaching Tips

On the mat—

  1. Chanting the sutra in a call and response way, initially letting go of explaining what the words mean, and through many repetitions of the Sanskrit enabling the students to come to a deeper internalized understanding. Afterward, you can break the sutra down and give a word for word translation.
  2. Exercises that emphasize exhalation: kapalabhati, uddiyana bandha, agni sara, nauli, any pranayama that involves exhale retention, practicing asana in center floor without the help of walls or other support, focusing on balancing postures (even with the eyes closed, which enables you to let go of the habitual habit of focusing on an external point), etc.
  3. Guide students in an exercise of letting go of their identification with their human bodies and imaging they are a crow, a dog, a cow, a fish, etc.
  4. Also, a longer time spent in the Jivamukti meditation practice (which uses the LET-GO mantra).
  5. You could introduce visualizations suggesting to students that they let go of what they did on the way to class or in the morning or what they will be doing later in the day– pulling awareness to the present moment by letting go of past and future.
  6. You could focus on the chanting of OM as, in the words of Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, the “big eraser,” wiping your mind clear of memories of the past and speculations of the future.

Off the mat–

  1. No shopping day. Challenge students to go a day without buying anything, not even a subway token.
  2. Vegan vow. Challenge students to commit to being vegan for the month, or a week, or even one day (or one day a week).