Brahmacharya and Veganism

by Sharon Gannon |
November, 2011
Brahmacharya and Veganism
brahmacharya-pratishthayam virya-labhah

When one does not misuse sexual energy, one obtains enduring vitality resulting in good health.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras II.38

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us five recommendations, called yamas, for how we should treat others if we want to attain liberation. The fourth yama is brahmacharya, which means “to respect the creative power of sex and not abuse it by manipulating others sexually.” Brahmacharya is a way to get to God-a way to arrive at the creative essence of the universe. It has sometimes been translated as “continence” or “chastity,” which has led to a lot of misunderstanding in regard to how to practice this yama. To practice brahmacharya is to understand the potential of sexual energy, which is the essence of all physical and psychological forces.

When sexual energy is directed wisely, it becomes a means to transcend separation, or otherness. When sexual energy is used to exploit, manipulate or humiliate another, however, it propels us into deeper separation and ignorance (avidya). Human beings routinely do this to the other species we confine on farms. The sexual abuse of animals is ingrained in our culture, and it expresses itself in the practice of breeding, genetic manipulation, castration, artificial insemination, forced pregnancy of female animals and abuse of their children, all of which fall under the category of “animal husbandry.”

Animals on factory farms are not allowed to develop normal sexual relationships with others of their own species. Most confined animals never even see a member of the opposite sex of their own kind. All of the animals born in factory farms come from mothers who were artificially inseminated. These mothers are forced to become pregnant over and over again until their fertility wanes, at which point they are slaughtered and eaten. Male animals chosen to be sperm donors are sexually abused repeatedly, live in constant frustration, and in the end are slaughtered as well. Such practices are violent, crass and degrading to animals, as well as dehumanizing for the farm workers paid to do this work. The way these animals are routinely sexually abused reveals just how disconnected we have become from the natural world and the beauty and miracle of life.

Meat eating can be seen as a feminist issue, for if we believe in women’s rights, we cannot condone and support the way female animals are exploited for milk, eggs and babies. If we feel that women should be treated fairly, then we must extend our desire for women’s liberation to all women regardless of race, religion, or species. Yoga teaches us that what we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves. If we do not respect the rights of females of other species, how can we expect to successfully liberate human females?

The consumption of meat and dairy products is a symptom of the disease of low self-esteem. Both activities result from the misguided notion that in order to feel sexier, younger, healthier or stronger, one must exploit and consume the gifts of nature in any form that man can dominate. In fact, the opposite is true. Long-term consumption of meat and dairy products can create any number of health problems, including heart disease, impotence, stroke and cancer. Patanjali tells us clearly that health and vitality will come to one who is established in brahmacharya-to one who treats sexuality with reverence.

To embrace the practice of brahmacharya is to challenge our culture’s foundation, which is dependent upon the domestication of animals. When we talk about veganism and brahmacharya, we are definitely talking about a radical sexual revolution.

-Sharon Gannon, adapted from Yoga and Vegetarianism

Teaching Tips

To focus the asana practice on issues relating to our treatment of others sexually and the hurt we have caused others through our diets (and otherwise), we could create a sequence that emphasizes asanas associated with the swadhishthana and manipura chakras–forward bends, hip openers and twists. We could amplify the effectiveness of the asanas by using a mantra focused on the animals we have eaten or otherwise exploited– on the inhale, silently saying “Please forgive me for my selfishness and the pain I have caused you…..,” and on the exhale silently saying, “…. due to my own ignorance of who I really am and who you really are.” Or we can use other variants of that mantra

We could present the idea to our students that the root cause of any frustrations or problems that they may be presently experiencing in their own lives in regards to sexual or creative fulfillment might be found by examining how they are treating others in this respect. Perhaps it is true that most of us can easily embrace the idea that if we abuse others sexually it may impact upon our own ability to enjoy a satisfying sexual life and/or be healthy, but how many of us have thought to extend that consideration to other animals? The FOM essay focuses on our sexual abuse of animals in agribusiness.

As teachers, please be considerate of your students when you bring up these issues. Try to understand that most people will have no problem in accepting that we should be kind and compassionate towards other human beings but to extend that to include animals is a very new idea to most people. Nonetheless this is critical to our message as Jivamukti Yoga teachers and we must help the students who come to us seeking knowledge to make the connection. I think being clear and direct will be doing a great service to the students. Tell them that their own health depends on the health of other animals. Everything we do comes back to us, eventually but inevitably. To be a vegan is to contribute to a more healthy, happy and creative world for all beings. Some may criticize us and say things like, “how can you focus so much on animal abuse when there is so much human suffering in the world? You could answer, “Because I am trying to get at the root cause of suffering.”

In that light you could make many correlations between the increase in rape, child abuse, divorce and disease (among human beings) and the rape, child abuse, family breakups and rampant disease among all the animals who are raised for food.

We cannot hope to enjoy happiness for ourselves at the expense of the happiness of others.