PYS 2.35 ahiṃsā-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ tat-saṃnidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ
When one is established in non-violation (ahimsa), others will stop violating and harming you. – Austin Sanderson
Growing up with parents who fought on the front lines against racial segregation and racism in rural Alabama in the 1960s, I considered myself a progressive thinker. I was taught that “everyone” should be treated equally, but as I grew older I started to see that the “everyone” my parents saw as equal only referred to humans. My father was a hunter and fisherman and thought of shooting and killing small woodland creatures as a recreational hobby. Animals were never included in his vison of equality, and freedom for these animals or his violation of it was never correlated to violations against African Americans in the racially divided south. After many years of tireless effort as progressive activists, my parents could not understand why their actions had not brought about more harmony in rural Alabama. But the truth is that to end harm, violence, and violations, we must be completely established in ahimsa or non-violation ourselves.
Many people, even those on the path of yoga, cannot see the connection between human suffering and animal suffering. The food we eat and how that food gets to our table affects every being that we share this planet with. When a yogi has thoroughly understood the nature of violation, that yogi can make choices that are mutually beneficial for all beings. But first we must understand the connections.
RACIAL EQUALITY: The word “livestock” was first used in the United States between 1650 and 1660 as part of the slave trade. The term “livestock” referred to any living being held in stocks (bondage), be they animal or human. Africans were brought to market in stocks to dehumanize them. The effect of the animalization of those of African descent has been a form of ongoing psychological warfare since that time.
On plantations in the antebellum south, slaves were commonly housed near pig, cow, or other animal stables. Big animal agriculture still does this today: populations near factory farms tend to be low-income communities or communities of color. These farms pollute the surrounding areas so badly that residents suffer a host of illnesses from breathing in the many harmful gases these facilities emit. A study in 2005 found that in North Carolina, low-income areas had seven times more hog farms than affluent areas, and that communities of color had five times more hog farms than predominantly white communities.
In the documentary Soul Food Junkies, filmmaker Byron Hurt looks at food and its connection to the African American community. At one point in the film he sits at a barbecue restaurant with two young African American women, one who is vegan and the other who is eating a pork rib; when he asks her why she still eats pork, she responds, “This pig ain’t done nothing to me!” She is right – the pig is innocent, but the animal agriculture industry is not, and the only way to stop the industry’s racial injustice is to stop eating pork and supporting the pork industry.
WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: The meat and dairy industries, dominated by male owners and workers, not only exploit our environmental resources but also continually exploit female animals to breed new animals to use and kill for human consumption. Female animals have no control over their reproductive cycles, which would occur naturally without animal husbandry’s interference.
Female cows in the dairy industry are repeatedly and forcibly impregnated (on a “rape table”) to ensure a continuous supply of milk. Newborn calves are ripped from their mothers within hours; the newborn female cows are forced into the same generative cycle and the males are killed for veal.
When one starts to see the connection between the dairy industry and the battle for women to have control over their own reproductive systems, it is shocking. When we stop consuming dairy products and allow the cows to have a natural reproduction cycle, we will also recognize the abusive system of injustice that women endure as they fight for control over their human bodies.
IMMIGRANT and WORKER RIGHTS: According to a recent study by the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, “The industrial produce and animal production and processing systems in the U.S. would collapse without the immigrant and migratory workforce.”
Poultry processing is a dangerous job, with more than twenty-seven people a day suffering amputations or other injuries severe enough to require hospitalization. It’s simple: if the demand for chicken meat ended, the suffering of immigrant workers at the hands of big agriculture would also end. But as long as there is a demand for KFC across the country, immigrant and poor workers will continue to suffer.
LGBTQIA+ RIGHTS: LGBTQIA+ people are still four times more likely to experience violence in their life than their straight counterparts, and FBI data from 2019 illustrate a rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ hate crimes, including higher rates of police brutality. Also, there is a rise in the number of murders of trans and gender-nonconforming people (44 reported in 2020), the majority of whom were people of color. The risk of sexual violence is also increased for trans people; 50% of transgender people have been sexually assaulted at least once in their life. This violence comes from the devaluing of those categorized as “other.”
Every day, on meat and dairy industry factory farms, animals are violently sexually assaulted: castration, rape, or sexual sadist acts of abuse for the pleasure of an employee without empathy (film footage proves the abusive sexual sadism within animal agriculture). Yet it is hard to convince many in the LGBTQIA+ community that there is a parallel between sexual violence in the meat industry and violence against them. Violent perpetrators of crimes against animals and against the LGBTQIA+ community only see otherness. By stopping support of industries that have a culture of sexual violence, we can truly start to demand an end to it in our social interactions. But as long as we see any categories of “others” as less valuable to our society, we are bound to continue a cycle of violations and harm.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: The United States is the world's leader in incarceration. There are 2 million people in the nation's prisons and jails – a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. As of April 1, 2021, there were 2,504 death row inmates in the United States.
Approximately 70 billion farm animals are reared for food in the world each year, and in the United States about 99% are reared on a factory farm. Each day approximately 160 million farm animals throughout the world are transported to a slaughterhouse (a form of death row).
The same tools employed in the incarceration of humans are used for animals. Barbed wire, walls, electric fencing, surveillance cameras, chains, and even electric shock to kill are the same in both cases. As one system of incarceration develops more sophisticated tools of imprisonment, the other prison system makes use of those resources. If we stop the imprisonment of animals and stop sending them to the slaughterhouses, we will gain insight into the unjust systems of incarceration of humans.
Over the years many people have said to me, “Veganism will not cure the world”; my response to them is, “How do you know that? You won’t know until the majority of the world is vegan. We have tried everything else!” Always, as I remember my parents’ feeling that they had done everything they could to help end racial injustice in Alabama, I ask whether they really did. Their personal food choices never became part of their social activism.
Veganism is not only Ahimsa (non-violation, non-violent, non-harming) but also a way to better understand our personal actions in the world and a practice of healing the world; it is a spiritual political philosophy that insists on compassion for all beings. Yoga is about seeing the interconnection of everything. Social justice should be made available to all beings.
Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu Yoga