The word vegetarianism is mostly used to refer to the commonly accepted meaning: that is, a dietary practice that avoids the use of flesh foods. However, I must make a distinction between one whom I love to think of as a ‘true vegetarian’ and others whose vegetarianism stops with their diet.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarians tend to have lower LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, lower blood pressure, and lower incidence of type-2 diabetes as compared to meat eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower BMI (body mass index), lower rates of various cancers, lower risk of chronic disease and of death from ischemic heart disease.
So, while abstaining from meat is indeed good not just for your spirit but also for your health—as emerging science has established—to be a true vegetarian one must go beyond mere dietary abstinence.
The characteristics of a true vegetarian
What are the marks of a ‘true vegetarian’? The true vegetarian, as I think of him, is filled through and through with reverence for life. He reveres life as a gift of God which no man can bestow and, therefore, will not destroy. Such a one has the following marks:
1. Love and compassion
His heart is a flowing river of compassion and love. The basis of true compassion is a feeling of unity, of oneness with all creatures that breathe the breath of life. I, and that tiny winged creature that hovers around a lamp, are one. Men and animals and birds, fish and fowl, moths and mosquitoes – all, all are one in the One without whom there is no other. To the true vegetarian, therefore, each life-unit is as dear and precious as his own life. To him every dumb creature of God is his own self wearing another body. And so the true vegetarian will not be a party to any movement for slaughter. On his banner are inscribed the words in letters of fire: Stop all slaughter!
The true vegetarian is a person of self-discipline. There are many there are who do not eat flesh but, alas, yet they easily succumb to its lure. They cannot resist the temptations of the flesh. They are weak-minded: they have not put out the fire of passion. The true vegetarian is unswayed by passion, unruffled by anger, unmoved by greed and gold.
The true vegetarian is a man of humility. Deep in his heart he knows that he is not free from the sin of killing. For to breathe is to kill the germs that are in the air around us. To talk is to kill; to walk is to kill. Indeed, to live is to kill.
4. Prayer and worship
Living in such a world, the true vegetarian becomes a worshipper, a man of prayer. He sees cruelty all around him. How many hearts can he touch? How many lives can he save? And so he turns to Him who is the one saviour of all. The true vegetarian prays alike for the killer and the killed and he prays that he may become an instrument of God’s love in this world of anguish and pain.
The true vegetarian is a man of indomitable faith. He believes profoundly that life is entirely a gift of God. In periods of crisis, in times of famine and flood, his mind wavers not! He prefers starvation to eating impure food. To the Sufi dervish, Abu Ala Maeera, his physician said, “O man of God! Why will you not live longer and bless this earth? Drink this chicken soup I have brought for you and see how quickly health and strength returns to your feeble body.” The dervish laughed heartily and said, “Must you me the soup of a weak, defenseless creature who cannot strike back in return? Is it not worthy of you! Bring me the soup of a lion’s cub!”
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