by Vidagdha Bennett
In Sri Chinmoy’s teachings, a vegetarian lifestyle plays a most significant role in the life of a spiritual seeker. He believed that a vegetarian diet can greatly enhance the seeker’s purity and inner aspiration, and help that individual to make faster progress. He explained:
When we eat meat, fish and so forth, the aggressive, animal consciousness enters into us. Our nerves become agitated; we unconsciously become restless and aggressive. The mild qualities of vegetables, on the other hand, help us to establish in our inner life as well as in our outer life, the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity and purity.
Again, he insisted that merely becoming a vegetarian was no guarantee of spiritual progress:
Just by becoming a vegetarian one will not realise God. It is impossible! Many people have followed strict vegetarian diets, but there are not very many people on earth who have realised God. In India, all widows of respectable families are supposed to be vegetarians. But if you count all Indian widows, you will not find many God-realised souls among them. Unless these women pray and meditate most sincerely and devotedly, they will make very little spiritual progress.
If you stop eating fish and meat you will not realise God overnight. Far from it! You must not expect such great results from so small an effort. But your aspiration will be increased. Your mild qualities, soft qualities, aspiring qualities will come to the fore sooner. Everything depends on how fast you want to make progress. If you feel that each second counts, if you feel that there is no end to your goal, then the best thing is to achieve the things that are ahead of you as soon as possible.
In essence, he was a liberal vegetarian, encouraging eggs and dairy products. His only requirement was that his disciples do not consume meat, fish or fowl. He also advised his disciples to embark on this dietary path gradually, rather than renounce all meat overnight and perhaps cause the physical body to revolt as a result. In this and in many other respects, he was an eminently practical spiritual Guide.
The curious thing is, although Sri Chinmoy himself abstained from eating meat from the time he joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1944 until he passed away in 2007 at age 76, he did not actually dislike the taste of meat. In fact, he was brought up on it for the first twelve years of his life and he was wont to recall those days with some fondness. Since he knew I came from a strong meat background (my father was a tallow merchant and exporter of livestock), I was sometimes on the receiving end of these whimsical asides.
The following very interesting revelations were recorded over a dinner he attended with a number of disciples at a restaurant in Japan on January 9th, 1997. In this relaxed atmosphere, Sri Chinmoy mused:
When I lived in Chittagong, was there any day that I did not eat fish? Without fish and without rice, Bengalis do not exist. No Bengali can live without fish and rice. Since I started eating proper food from the age of two or three, every day I ate fish and meat three or four days a week. All kinds of fish we had, but one particular fish had salt in it. We used to call it ‘chilka’ or something like that. It was very tasty.
As far as meat goes, we had duck, turtle, goat, lamb and pigeon. Meat was more limited, that is why we only had four or five kinds, but we had at least twelve or fifteen varieties of fish. Fish was unlimited; meat limited.
Chicken and beef we could not eat. We only went up to goat. Lamb, of course, both the religions ate. Lamb meat was so good. Lamb meat is so mild, but it is so warm, hot. It is very energetic. I used to like lamb more than goat.
Again, turtle is very good. You have to be very, very clever when you catch a turtle, otherwise, the turtle will take away your fingers. If the turtle can catch your finger—finished! Some people lose their fingers to turtles. Always when you catch a turtle from the pond, you have to turn it over. Then it is helpless; it cannot do anything. That is also how you cut the meat. But if it is kept in the normal way, it will bite you; it will take away your fingers. While the turtle is going away, you have to remain behind it and then quickly turn it with your arms. You can do it on land or in the water.
In Chittagong, there is a pond where the turtles are four hundred or five hundred years old. Those turtles were once upon a time human beings. But one Muslim spiritual Master was so angry with his favourite disciples that he turned them into turtles. About twenty turtles are there. He got furious with them. And then, after turning them into turtles, he changed their names. Before, they had human names and then he started calling them Bajali, Majali and all kinds of names like that. These turtles are so huge! If you look at their eyes, immediately you will feel that they were human beings. There are some monkeys, if you look at them you can see that they are going to take human incarnation in the near future, but these turtles were formerly human beings. Alas, the Muslim spiritual Master was so disappointed and disgusted that he cursed them.
Sacred turtle in the pond at the shrine of Hazrat Bayazid Bastami near Chittagong.
The sacred turtles to which Sri Chinmoy refers are to be found at the dargah (shrine) of Hazrat Bayazid Bastami, a Persian Sufi Saint who is believed to have visited Chittagong in the ninth century. His shrine is located on the remote Nasirabad Hill, about five miles from Chittagong. In front of the shrine is a dighi (water tank), which is home to a number of huge, freshwater turtles. They happen to be black, soft-shelled, three-clawed turtles (Aspideretes nigricans)—a rare and critically endangered species. These turtles are highly unusual in appearance, having a relatively long neck and a snout elongated into a proboscis. And, in this protected environment, floating lazily by the edge of the pond, handfed tidbits by pilgrims and tourists on a daily basis, they have grown to an enormous size. If, as legend has it, they are doomed to spend many hundreds of years there for having incurred the wrath of the Saint, the gentle Chittagonians have certainly made their lives as comfortable as possible. Like many other cultures around the world, they believe the turtle is a holy creature, symbolising longevity. The Saint clearly intended his disciples to dwell on their faults at great length!
And yet, in another story about the Bastami, Sri Chinmoy talks of the Saint’s compassion and indicates that he fully intended to give his recalcitrant disciples a reprieve at some future date:
The shrine of Persian Sufi Saint Hazrat Bayazid Bastami near Chittagong.
In India there was once a Muslim mendicant who had a certain amount of occult power. His name was Bajit Bastami. In Chittagong there is a special place where many Muslims worship him. Even the Hindus have tremendous love for him.
In a pond near his tomb there are fifteen or twenty very large turtles that were actually human beings once upon a time. Bajit Bastami got angry at these people because they were unkind to him, so he turned them into turtles. He gave them all names: Rajali, Majali, Pulali and so on. He said that when the time came, he would turn them into human beings once again—not ordinary human beings, but great human beings. Because they were going through such severe punishment, he said that some time in the future his compassion would help them become great human beings.
Returning to the subject of Sri Chinmoy’s childhood meat-eating days, he made mention of that period in his life in 1986 when he went to visit a British friend by the name of Jim Smith, who was at one time the Registrar of Records for the British Amateur Weight Lifters’ Association:
[Jim Smith] lives about an hour and a half from London on a farm. There he has a flock of sheep and some cows. One of the rams was very bad-tempered, so he had to grab it by the horns . . . He also has six or seven ducks, which he wanted to show me. I said, “Oh, this reminds me of my Chittagong days. Every week there I used to eat duck and duck eggs.”
He couldn’t believe it. He never eats duck, but he eats chicken and chicken eggs, which I never ate. He said he also eats fish. I said, “I used to eat fish every day. And until the age of eleven or twelve, I used to eat turtle and duck.”
Another rare insight is the following from 1992:
Before I accepted the spiritual life, I used to eat fish and meat to my heart’s content. The Western world eats mainly chicken and beef, but we ate duck, goat, lamb, turtle and pigeon.
My sisters used to cook. A Brahmin servant and one ordinary servant also cooked. God alone knows what my mother cooked! Her cooking was sitting in the temple for hours and hours praying and meditating. I don’t think she ever cooked.
Normally, we would all eat together, but on Saturdays and Sundays, when my father was home from town, my mother wouldn’t eat with me or my brothers because of her respect for my father. She would eat all by herself or with my sisters while the father and sons were eating together.
In many ways, this protein-rich diet proved to be an excellent foundation for the young boy and was perhaps integral to his later athletic prowess, for once he joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram no meat, fish or fowl were allowed to be consumed and his diet became markedly deficient in protein as a result.
Curiously, as an addendum to this section on Madal’s diet, he also underwent a most unusual ritual of eating a live fish. This was in accordance with an old Bengali village superstition. Even though he was only three years old at the time of this ordeal, the memory of that day remained with him vividly:
When I was three years old, my horoscope was drawn up for the second time by the village astrologer. There he predicted that as an infant I would die in water. Everybody in the family was so shocked and upset. My cousin Pushpita, who is almost the same age as my brother Chitta, was the one to do something about it. That same day she took me to our nearest pond.
In Chittagong villages, we have a superstition that if you eat a live fish you will be able to learn to swim very easily. So, first of all, she gave me a tiny fish to swallow. I put it in my mouth and, with great difficulty, I managed to swallow it. I suffered a lot, but I really wanted to learn to swim, so I gladly obeyed her.
Then my cousin put me on her back and she began swimming around in the pond. I was holding onto her and moving my legs. In a few minutes I learnt how to do frog kick. After we had practiced for some time, we came out of the water. My cousin lifted me onto her shoulder and carried me home to my mother. She was so happy and delighted with my progress.
My poor mother had been very frightened by my horoscope prediction, but my cousin was able to convince her that I would not die if I was thrown into the water because I knew how to swim. In spite of my cousin’s sincere attempt to cancel my fate, my horoscope prediction was almost infallible.1
Many children put things in their mouths as a matter of course, but the experience of swallowing a live, cold and presumably wriggling fish was clearly one that could not be forgotten, even across the span of many decades. As the writer M.M. Kaye observes about one of her central characters, “Like most children the world over, he was resigned to the curious behaviour of grown-ups and accepted it as part of the scheme of things.”
One final point to make is that Sri Chinmoy did not cast judgement on those spiritual figures of the past who chose to eat meat and fish. Nor did he call into question their lofty experiences and sublime realisations. In this connection, he used to make special mention of Lord Buddha, the Christ, Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda—who were all, at various stages of their lives, non-vegetarians.
Once, when one overzealous disciple asked Sri Chinmoy—“When a person knows that he is on the path of God, won’t meat automatically become repulsive to him from within?”—Sri Chinmoy answered, pointedly:
You are judging others from your own point of view. Swami Vivekananda and other spiritual persons ate meat even to the last day of their lives. We cannot say that Swami Vivekananda was inferior to us spiritually or in any other way. There are some spiritual figures who do continue to eat meat and fish both before and after their realisation. You had the experience of finding meat repulsive when you went deep within and reached a certain stage, but this is not an inevitable experience.
I am reminded of a personal experience in this regard. When a group of us were visiting Kagoshima, Japan, with Sri Chinmoy in January 1997, I happened to experience severe tooth pain. Late one night, unable to sleep, I went down into the small hotel lobby to sit. Quite unexpectedly, around 3:30 am, the elevator doors opened and Sri Chinmoy stepped out for his early morning walk. He was surprised to see me and when he discovered the reason for my lonely lobby vigil, he tut-tutted sympathetically before disappearing into the darkened streets outside. Some thirty minutes later, he returned, carrying a plastic bag, which he handed to me in silence. After he had entered the elevator, I looked inside and discovered a container of hot soup. Turning it round, I noticed the English label and read with a smile: “Hearty Beef Broth.”
On another much earlier occasion, also in Japan, Sri Chinmoy and a number of us were guests at a formal Japanese lunch. We all sat on the floor on tatami mats and were served bento boxes full of unfamiliar, exotic-looking food. Most of us had no idea what we were consuming. We were all tentatively plying our chopsticks when one of Sri Chinmoy’s Japanese students came running up to him and announced, in a flustered voice, “Guru, don’t eat the pink things. They are fish cakes!”
It is no exaggeration to say that we all looked up aghast. Most of us had already eaten our ‘pink things’ with the delicate, scalloped edges. What now? Then came Sri Chinmoy’s calm and measured voice, “Eat it, eat it. Just take it as cake.”
I am sure it is as much a mistake to take the exception for the rule as it is the reverse. Sri Chinmoy was definitely not in favour of his disciples eating meat or fish, yet we can see that he was willing to adjust this principal under special circumstances. It only goes to show that the outer actions of a spiritual Master are often beyond our understanding.
On January 20th, 2003, in Cairns, Australia, Sri Chinmoy elaborated on this theme:
Who can understand a spiritual Master’s ways? With the ordinary human mind, we can never, never know the Master’s ways. They are inscrutable.
Sri Ramakrishna would tell one person, “Go and eat meat. Nothing will happen.” To another person, he would say, “All restlessness will enter you if you eat meat. You must never eat meat!”
If the first person would eat meat, his consciousness would not be disturbed in the slightest. If the second person would eat meat, the restlessness of the animals would enter into him instantly and take him into the abysmal abyss of his consciousness.
After he realised God, Swami Vivekananda used to eat meat and fish. His fellow brothers and other critics used to say, “O my God, he is eating meat! He has definitely fallen.”
Swami Vivekananda would answer, “When I was poverty-stricken, you did not give me even one cent! Such kind-hearted people you were! Now I am in a position to eat meat and you are criticising me mercilessly. Is eating meat taking away my spirituality? Am I descending? You are such well-wishers! Where was your sympathy when I was without any money for weeks on end?”
Sri Aurobindo is another one. He used to eat a whole chicken regularly for a year, even when he was in his high, higher, highest consciousness. Nothing affected him. Then, while he was writing his magnum opus ‘The Life Divine’, his servant used to come to him with a very large Burmese cigar. He would smoke to get inspiration. This is all written in official books on Sri Aurobindo’s life.
Sri Ramakrishna, a great Master of the highest heights, quite often used to smoke a hookah before he entered into his highest meditation. In most cases, when people smoke, they cannot raise their consciousness even an iota. Even if someone smokes next to someone who does not smoke, it is all finished for the non-smoker. That unfortunate person will not be able to go higher at all!
In Lord Buddha’s case, a man gave him poisonous meat and then the Buddha died. As he lay dying, when someone asked him about the man who had poisoned him, Lord Buddha said, “Forgive him! Forgive him! He has not done this intentionally.”
In our spiritual life, we all have to know how much capacity we have.
On February 19th, 2004, at his house in New York, he returned to the same theme, emphatically:
It is very, very difficult to understand spiritual figures. Never try to understand them. Your self-doubts will only destroy you. Never, never try to understand any spiritual Master. They are far, far beyond our understanding. We make the most deplorable mistake when we want to understand them. Never try to understand them. If you want to understand, you will only cause serious problems for yourself.
Then, with reference to God, he concluded:
I never try to understand Him. He loves me far beyond my imagination.
– End –
1 Sri Chinmoy is referring to the fact that when he was five years old, he was returning from town with his brother Chitta when they were caught in a wild storm and the ferry in which they were travelling sprang a leak. Soon it began to sink. Alas, assistance was not forthcoming. At that very moment, Sri Chinmoy writes, “a boat sprang up, empty, from the depths of the waters . . . In no time the boatman caught hold of me and threw me into the empty boat.” (Awakening) Thus, the young child and all the other passengers were saved by help from above and Madal’s horoscope prediction was not fulfilled.