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Vegetarianism and I




Guru Gobind Singh's words were: 'na haraam, na halaal, na hukaah, na hajaamat'.

These form our concepts for the kurehats of the Sikh Rehat Maryada.

As far as the issue of meat goes, it appears Guru Gobind Singh didn't tell us "no meat", he said "no halal".

So if we take it at surface level, it's fair enough ... we can eat meat.

Now if we apply the same principle to the other kurehats, does it work?

No harem. So can we have extra-marital sex as long as we don't have a harem? What about pre-marital sex?

No hukah. So we can't have tobacco smoked in the muslim way. Does that mean we can chew tobacco? Can we take opium? Can we have other intoxicants? What about alcohol? Any Sikh would obviously say no, we are not supposed to drink alcohol and yet it was not mentioned by Guru Gobind Singh.

No hajaamat. Which means 'no shaving or cutting'. So, can we trim our hair if its still long?

It seems to me that we have to use some broader understanding of the kurehats. I think we have to understand what kinds of things the Guru was telling us not to do, because as we can see, the kurehats fall apart, if taken so literally.

Guru Gobind Singh's words are a little vague and open for interpretation, so the Sikh scholars and elders have formulated a more clear official rehat maryada [culled from the bani and hukamnamas] that says that we are not allowed to eat halal meat but we are allowed to eat jhatka meat.

So what's the difference? One is a Muslim animal killing ceremony and the other is a Sikh one? So, are we against Muslims? That doesn't make sense, given that Muslim saints contributed to the Guru Granth Sahib.

So why is jhatka better? The answer the scholars give is that it's because halal is gratuitous torture to the animal as it gets slowly bled out while still alive, while jhatka is relatively painless because it is a one strike kill. So what about meat that is not halal or jhatka? To me that would mean that we can only eat animals that were killed in a painless humane way rather than beeing bled out alive.

Well, that means the beef and pork industry is halal. So, if you follow the rehat maryada, then in my opinion you could eat meat as long as you killed the animal yourself or knew how it was killed. That would mean you can't eat store-bought meat.

Please don't  get me wrong. I'm not trying to convert my friends who eat meat into vegetarianism, but I'm trying to clarify what the rehat is. This is an exploration of "What is the Rehat?" and "What does it mean?"

Animal rights, health/ nutrition, ecology and economy are entirely different angles of vegetarianism that I intend not to get into.

What is jhatka?

Let me describe what I understand to be what the Nihangs do as part of their jhatka procedure: The bani "Chandi di Vaar" is recited over the blade to be used. The blade and the chosen male goat are washed with water before it starts. The goat is a male because they don't kill female goats because they can create life. The blade also symbolically represents 'bhagauti' - the Sikh metaophor for God. The goat is petted and calmed down as mock swings are made with the blade. When the goat stops flinching at the fake attacks and is calm, then the actual fatal blow is made, decapitating the goat in one unsuspecting strike. The blood poors out the bare neck and is collected in an iron bowl and passed around the congregation as parshad. Then the goat's body is cooked and served as "maha prashad". This ceremony is done to practice sword techniques and aquiant a soldier with the sensation of killing. This is tradition to many Nihangs who consider it part of their training in being battle ready.

[Editor: This is not a practice resorted to or condoned by any other Sikhs. 'Nihangs' are a fringe group numbering a few thousand, who live in their glorious past and re-live their 18th century life-style even today.]

Nihangs do this in preparation for battle and not casually or for any common person. Now, we may all have our opinions on whether this procedure fits into our understanding of Sikhism. And it is also important to note that the tradition of jhatka appears to come from the Rajput warriors and predates Sikhism. Also, even entire groups of Nihangs don't partake in jhatka. So is this the jhatka the official rehat is referring to? [Editor: No, it isn't.]

If so, then you have to go to a Nihang village to get "maha prashad" in order to eat meat as a practicing Sikh. Or maybe the official rehat is telling us that we can eat animals that are killed in one blow. Or maybe it's telling us that we can eat animals that are killed humanely. Who knows? It's all kind of up for interpretation. But in any case that pretty much rules out all store-bought meats. And this whole reasoning is based on the premise that you accept the wording of the Rehat Maryada, or if you follow a different set of rules because some 'jatha'  seems to have its own. And that's a whole "notha' can o' worms".

It's important to note the Guru Gobind Singh made no mention of jhatka, so we have to ask when, why and how did that provision get added to our maryada?

So, what if you don't agree with the Sikh scholars? I've heard so many complaints. What if you forget about jhatka and stick with "no halal"? Well you would have to ask yourself if the meat you are eating is halal. Was the animal killed painfully? Was it bled out alive? I think of the Native Americans and Innuit and so many other traditions that eat meat, but do it in a spiritual way.

They hunt and have a personal relationship with their kill. It is face to face. And they pray for the animal who they consider their soul brother, and they thank that soul for giving itself so they can live. I think that's a conscious way to eat meat, because it seems to me the whole halal issue is about the conciousness of the killing, respect to the animal, and recognition of another life form.

People talk about how the Gurus hunted and ate meat. The fact is no one can prove that the Gurus ate meat. But we do know for sure that the Gurus hunted. Many times it was because there were man-eating animals that threatened villages, or the animals were killed as per a past karma that the Guru liberated that soul; there are several sakhis about that. I think it is still debatable if the Gurus hunted purely for sport, but an interesting question to ask.

Now I have to ask another question. Does eating meat fit with a meditative lifestyle? Guru Nanak said: "Eat light, sleep light". I'm not sure if you can wake up in the amrit velaa if you've eaten a steak the night before. How does meat affect your mind? I remember a story from a vegetarian friend of mine who accidentally eaten meat in some chilli and was shocked to notice how much more aggresive he felt. You are what you eat.These are things we should think about with regards to this issue.

Another angle is that we should be aware of the effect of what we are doing and how it impacts other people. For example, you can produce 16 loafs of bread for every pound of beef. So aside from animal rights, etc., eating industrial meat has a huge impact on humans. In the spirit of sarbat da bhalla, we should consider that before eating meat.

I feel that the rehat doesn't condone eating a pepperoni pizza or a tandoori chicken because they almost assuredly include animal suffering. It defintely has to follow a 'non-halal' and maybe even 'jhatka' kind of standard. And that is if you follow that interpretation. Where did that interpretation come from, again? It still seems historically ambivalent if 'Sikhs can eat meat'. I don't think the Gurus did, but some of the Sikhs may have, and definitely some of the Gurus' army did. People can go back and forth with quotes from gurbani condemning meat, or condeming snobs who won't eat meat and judge others. Those seem inconclusive to me. It seems that it actually is an ambivalent thing in Sikhi.

Some people will claim a very strict, light diet and disciplined lifestyle. Others will say that we don't need forced discipines. It is all under the canopy we call Sikhism. It's a beautiful inclusive spectrum, including the universal as well as the distinct. Hence why this is even a debate, and it will continue to be one.

The Guru is always pushing us towards awareness, kindness, interconnectedness, etc. So we should ask ourselves a lot of questions before eating meat and make sure if it is done, that it is done in a conscious way, like the Native Americans do. We shouldn't just use an intellectual justification so we can say "Sikhs can eat meat" and then go eat a burger out of convenience.

We should think about everything we consume including the fruits and vegetables and be aware of the life force we are taking in, and do it consciously. We should do the things that serve our devotion and our discipline. And don't be lazy in your decision about this, it is of great importance if you are breaking your rehat or not.  


March 4, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 04, 2010, 9:10 AM.

Thank you for giving a vegetarian a voice. [Editor: What do you mean? You - the most ardent vegetarian we know - have been writing for for years! Including on Vegetarianism!]

2: GurSimar Singh Khalsa (Birmingham, United Kingdom), March 04, 2010, 10:03 AM.

Gurujot ji: This is a passionate apologia for vegetarianism and thank you for it. Now I can see why you feel so strongly about it. Sadly, the foundations of your argument are littered with errors, and therefore the structure you have built simply cannot stand. Let me but cite a very few examples, starting from the beginning. 1) You have equated the ethical concept of "haraam" with the western romanticized and highly loaded term, "harem", as borrowed from the Arabian Nights. They have nothing in common, except by stretching either in a convoluted way. "Haraam" mean 'forbidden, unlawful, illegitimate', and, of course, includes 'adultery'. 2) A Hukah is not 'Muslim" - it is a general implement used to ingest tobacco and/or drugs, used by a variety of communities on the subcontinent since time immemorial. It was rejected not because it was Muslim, but because it was unhealthy and addictive. 3) "Hajaamat" involves everything a barber does to a man's beard and head-hair. 4) Halal was not rejected because it was Muslim, but because the Gurus felt it was unethical and immoral. 5) Sikhs are not anti-Muslim ... in fact, the beliefs of the two Faiths are closer to each other than any other two religions. And the Gurus acknowledged that through both word and action. 6) Your detailed description of what Nihangs do as an example of what is wrong with jhatka is ingenuous ... and outrageous. You know .. or should know ... that most Nihang practices are contrary to Sikhi and they are openly derided in modern times as being on the extreme fringe of Sikhi. Gurujot ji: I could give you a dozen more examples of how you have missed the bus in trying to correctly interpret things, but I think I've made my point by now. You simply can't build a house of cards, blow it down, and then argue that the process is supportive of your position. Finally, you claim you are not advocating or proselytizing, but merely exploring 'rehat', and then you proceed and do exactly what you promised you wouldn't. I haven't seen so many "we should ...", "You should ...", in an essay of this size for a long, long time. Finally, a reminder: you'll never find a meat-eater writing such propaganda in trying to convince others to eat meat. You, sadly, have fallen into the very same trap Guru Nanak warned us about!

3: H.S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), March 04, 2010, 10:08 AM.

The author starts off with a spurious quote by Guru Gobind Singh without any source reference. His statement is not credible. Secondly, to associate extra-marital sex with eating meat is an inappropriate red-herring in trying to appeal to emotion. Eating meat is not a moral wrong. Hence the author's comparison is invalid. Not all societies are capable of feeding themselves on grains because of natural limitations; for example, ice-landic Siberia, the deserts of Africa, Australia, Iceland and many more - where humans have to rely on animal food. Would vegetarians serve animal food to the dying hungry or would they rather save animals? Vegetarians conveniently ignore the fact of ecological food chains in which we humans are omnivorous in biology. The purpose of vegetarianism is animal idealization, and ignores human suffering.

4: Jyot Kaur (Canberra, Australia), March 04, 2010, 10:54 AM.

I enjoy the game of Squash and play it regularly. It is good for me. I do yoga every morning for 15 min. It is good for me. I then follow it with 30 min. on the treadmill. It is good for me. I am a vegetarian, though not a very strict one. It is good for me. None of these activities, in themselves, make me a better Sikh. Those who do not delve in any or all of then ... No, they are NOT any less Sikh than me, because of their non-participation in MY choices. This is the point I think the vegetarians who are out to change the world do not seem to grasp. And yes, this note is not meant to convince you that you should play squash, or do yoga, or run on the treadmill, or eat vegetables. Those are my choices. YOU make yours ... whatever!

5: Gurujot Singh  (Espanola, New Mexico, U.S.A.), March 04, 2010, 11:45 AM.

GurSimar, the point is that we take the other kurehats with a broad definition, and the halal one literally. I would like to know where you got your broad definitions of hookah for example. It seems to me that hookah refers to a device which is used for smoking tobacco. Another interesting point would be to find out the Muslim perspective on halal. According to wikipedia, they slash the animal's main arteries which is supposed to kill the animal instantly and painlessly. That contradicts the concept of the slow painful torturous death thing which I've heard about. If the Muslims don't intend halal to cause pain to the animal, then that throws out the whole jhatka thing (which is probably irrelevant anyways) and means we have to totally rethink our views on that kurehat. Where I'm going with that is I think the kurehats are indicators and not letter of the law. It is telling us the kinds of things not to do, and it is logical to include things like it. That's why we always say "no intoxicants" instead of simply saying "we don't smoke hookah". I do admit that I have totally misquoted the harem thing thinking haraam was a derivative word with the same meaning. I looked it up, and haraam means "forbidden", and is meant to include a number of different actions. And as far as my kurehats quote, my apologies: I should have quoted that from Guru Gobind Singh. The one I quoted was loosely from a memory of what someone had told me and is incorrect (not misleading though). The correct quote is "hookah hajaamat halaalo haraam baarise hinaa karad roo siya pham". - The hookah, hajaamat, halal, harram. These are the four H's; dying beards and wearing mehndi are strictly forbidden."(Asphokat Svaiyye, Dasam Granth). Also, I would like to know what the Sikh Rehat Maryada means by jhatka if not the jhatka of the Nihangs. Also, which meats can modern consumers purchase that follow the standard of jhatka. I don't know many people who hunt and eat their own kill. Mostly people just eat meat from restaurants or grocery stores. I think those sources can be considered halal, if not worse. I think some people use the whole "Sikhs can eat meat" thing as an excuse, so they can eat whatever meat they want, which is obviously not what the Guru said nor is it the rehat. Is it not a good thing to do to clarify for people that the meats they are eating could be breaking their rehat? Is that considered proselytizing? Is it wrong to include my opinion that I think the Guru meant "no meat"? Is that proselytizing? I honestly don't care if someone follows the rehat or not because that is their personal thing. I'm responding to something which I think is misleading people: "Sikhs can eat meat" and am therefore trying to get to a truth that can be recognized and even agreed upon.

6: Jaswant Singh (New Delhi, India), March 04, 2010, 12:59 PM.

Gurujot ji: You began your thesis with a serious misquote - by your own admission. You then had totally erroneous translations that you relied on - by your own admission. The main source of your research - by your admission - is wikipedia!! Sorry, but you've been wasting our time, Sir. Again, as you've already been told several times ... you've fallen right in the ditch Guru Nanak warned you about. I suggest you owe yourself some serious vichaar before you go public again with your opinions.

7: Lucy Pedehar (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), March 04, 2010, 1:25 PM.

Maybe I can be of some help. As I wade through all the misquotes and mistranslations, corrections and retractions, two things come out loud and clear, as being admitted by all, including the author: a) that Sikhs have no prohibition against eating any kind of meat, except halal; and b) that Sikhs are free, unlike members of other religions which expressly prohibit meat (Hindus, Jains, Buddhists), to chose between vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism. It also appears to me that what constitutes 'meat', and what constitutes 'halal', etc., is up to each individual to figure out and apply it to his/ her life. Such miniscule hair-splitting here appears to be nothing but red-herrings raised by someone who just doesn't want to admit that he has no leg to stand on vis-a-vis his advocacy.

8: Parveen Kaur  (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), March 04, 2010, 1:42 PM.

Let's all take a deep breathe and relax ... I have found this article useful. Simply because it does raise legitimate questions around eating flesh. My understanding has always been that if you can't bring something back to life, we also can't kill it or eat it.

9: J. kaur (Auckland, Australia), March 04, 2010, 2:54 PM.

Gurujot, you write: "...a friend of mine who accidentally eaten meat in some chilli and was shocked to notice how much more aggresive he felt. You are what you eat" I agree with you! My concern is exactly the opposite ... that Sikhs are being encouraged to be vegetarians by those who have an ulterior motive. If one is not aggressive, then one is submissive and passive ... easily controlled, over-powered and dominated! Isn't that the aim of those wanting to destroy the Sikhs and weaken their strength! Aggression, properly channeled, is a good thing ... it has helped us fight injustice and evil!

10: Jaspreet Singh (U.S.A.), March 04, 2010, 3:27 PM.

The topic of eating meat is discussed often at Sikh social events and after many years, I've observed the following: 1) No matter what your view point, I have yet to meet a Sikh who has changed their diet solely on the discussion. 2) Haraam =/= Harem. 3) It's not worth arguing about it. Just like the topic of the Dasam Granth. Find what you can live with and live your life.

11: Narayan Singh (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), March 04, 2010, 3:48 PM.

I have a different situation. I've tried for years to increase my vegetable intake. But every time I switch to a full vegetable diet, I suffer from headaches. At first I thought it had something to do with withdrawal, but I tried to do it slowly and not precipitously. Still, the same headaches. I'm not alone. I know at least two other people who encounter the same difficulty with a completely vegetarian diet. All it tells me is ... to each one his own!

12: M .Singh (Toronto), March 04, 2010, 5:57 PM.

Sorry but the anecdotal evidence suggesting that eating meat, even accidentally, makes the consumer ultra-aggressive is simply absurd and laughable. There is no academic evidence that supports this position. It's more likely that the feeling of aggression arose not from the meat itself, but rather as a natural manifestation of the frustration felt by a vegetarian somehow ending up consuming flesh. How would a Sikh feel if he/ she goes to someone's house, eats kebabs and gets told afterwords that 'oh, by the way, this is halal prepared freshly at home!'? Aggressive, maybe?

13: Gagan Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), March 04, 2010, 10:02 PM.

This topic has been discussed thousands of times and yet there has been no definitive conclusion. You can go the path I have taken and that is to trust respected 'sants'. If they don't eat meat, why should we ... if it's so controversial, shouldn't we just stop eating meat because nowhere does it say that we HAVE to eat meat. For example, if I died and go to dharam raaj and he tells me that I ate meat and the Gurus told us not to eat it, that's big time paap for me. But if I don't eat it and let's say dharam raaj tells me that I could've eaten it, then I get no paaps on the meat issue. It's just better to not eat it and have the comfort of not doing anything wrong. [Editor: We've checked with Ms. Dharam Raj - (strange, it turned out to be a 'she'!) - and she says, just use common sense and you'll be fine!]

14: Satvir Kaur (Boston, MA, U.S.A.), March 05, 2010, 9:46 AM.

The author states he is not trying to convert anyone to vegetarianism, but that's the feeling I was getting while I was reading this article.

15: Simon (London, England), March 05, 2010, 10:45 AM.

Lucy Pedehar: Well said! I would just like to add that if the Gurus intended us to conform to rules, regulations, traditions and rituals, they would have been listed clearly in the Guru Granth and not in some esoteric manner, as some have suggested. The Guru Granth is intended for the whole of humanity, people from any walk of life, faith or denomination should be free to study without such restrictions to start their spiritual journey. Thus, Guru Gobind Singh, the final compiler and editor of the Guru Granth, did not include any of his own compositions or impose any codes of conduct as they were reserved for the Khalsa, the final temporal stage of the Sikh. As we all know, due to the nature of the times, strict discipline of body and mind had to be implemented. Spirituality is a journey to realize the Truth. Once a person embarks on such an endeavour, decisions of morality will be made on a personal level as understanding and common sense start to prevail. And those who have yet to embark on the journey will continue to argue foolishly as Guru Nanak has warned us so clearly. P.S. Jaswant Singh's comments just cracked me up ...

16: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 05, 2010, 11:20 AM.

Guru Nanak said 'Do not take that food which effects health, causes pain or suffering to the body, or produces evil thoughts in the mind' [GGS:16]. Guru ji did not like the taboo on meat when more important things like control over desire or passion were ignored. It is far more important to kill the evil that pollutes the mind rather than abstain from meat. Impurities of the mind should be removed first, before labeling some food as pure and others impure. It is also true that purity of food leads to purity of mind. Flesh, fermented stuff, decomposed and frozen foods are kind of tamas, fried and spicy foods considered as rajas, while fresh and natural foods are satav foods. Make your own choice ... and enjoy.

17: Sonny Singh (Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A.), March 05, 2010, 1:17 PM.

To me, being a Sikh is about making ethical choices that push forward liberation and social justice. While I don't necessarily think there is something inherently immoral about eating an animal, as a person of conscience and a Sikh, I do need to consider the implications of my choices in the world we live in today. I'd rather our discussion and debate be about the state of corporate meat industry today (not to mention food justice issues in general). Believe it or not, meat production today actually contributes MORE to global warming that automobiles! I would recommend that folks check out the recent film "Food, Inc" to learn more about what our food choices mean for the world: for workers, animals, and the earth.

18: P. Singh (Canada), March 06, 2010, 7:18 PM.

While there were a number of serious inaccuracies in Gurujot Singh's article, he has put forward some points worth considering, particularly concerning store-bought meat. It is difficult to characterize store-bought meat, or restaurant-meat, as jhatka. Such meat very possibly may be the product of subjecting animals to inhumane treatment and painful slaughter. Such meat may even be halal. Unless Sikhs are caring for, and raising the animals themselves, and then killing the animals themselves, they generally do not have a clue how the animals were slaughtered. How then is eating store-bought meat justified, given that such meat may very possibly come from animals that were not treated well, and who suffered when they were slaughtered?

19: P. Singh (Canada), March 06, 2010, 7:45 PM.

LOL. Mr. Vachoa, I take the point made in your post, and agree that there are areas of the world where vegetarianism is not possible. However, when I see fat, out-of-shape people waddle into restaurants and grocery stores - it becomes hard to label their abundant choice of foods as "human suffering".

20: Simran (Oceanside, U.S.A.), March 11, 2010, 7:39 PM.

Gurujot Singh, Thank you for your thoughts! I appreciate your thoughts and courage for taking it on the chin while your heart is full of compassion for all of us. Gurujot Veerjee, Guru ji is guiding you from within and will never let you down. Please continue to share your experience the way you did at Camp Miri Piri. Our Gurus led by example and taught us not to be addicted to any foods, material substances, futile discussions, etc., while guiding us time and again towards experiencing the Divine; sharing the love via seva, simran and sadh sangat.

21: Manpreet Singh (New York, City, U.S.A.), November 11, 2011, 9:50 AM.

Gurujot, your article is very weak and I think you are over-looking a number of things. Everything you mentioned is missing a historical context. Please read Bhai Vir Singh and you will know how meat was served in langar. Guru Rakha!

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