A man is not virtuous because he doesn’t eat meat, nor is he any less virtuous because he does.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living
I must reduce myself to zero. So long as man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.
Gandhi, Autobiography: My Experiments With Truth
Among his many notable political accomplishments, Gandhi was known for using fasting as a form of political protest. The idea of protest through fasting harkens back to the Jain tradition of santhara, a voluntary ritual of fasting until one’s death. The vow of santhara is distinguished from suicide in that fasting until one’s death is not an escape from distress but an open-ended end-of-life meditation and, in Jainism, a purging of negative karma.
With all due respect to both Gandhi and the venerable tradition of Jainism, I see a glaring inconsistency between fasting and the principles of ahimsa (non-violence). You are a living microcosm, a home to innumerable microscopic creatures—bacteria, fungi, parasites, and more, let alone your own cells. Indeed, each and every one of your cells has its own appetite, its own metabolism—and therefore its own existential agenda. All of this collective microbial and cellular existence depends on you. All of these innocent microscopic and cellular lives within your body will go down with you if you decide to cut off your own supply of nourishment. Thus, a decision to starve is a decision to kill.
Life, metabolically, is a zero-sum game. To eat is to kill (whether you are a vegan or an omnivore). And not to eat is to kill. Thus, we cannot avoid violence; we can only minimize it. The bottom line is that we actually cannot reduce ourselves to zeros, as Gandhi encourages us, even if we try. The very decision to reduce oneself to a metabolic zero (say, through starvation) instantly and unilaterally overrides the existential aspirations of legions of microscopic lives that depend on us for sustenance. Absolute nonviolence is a myth. Given that we are composite creatures, any decision to reduce oneself to zero—be it for spiritual, political, or psychological reasons—holds the rest of the bodily community hostage to one’s idealism.
Thus, there’s an inherent hypocrisy in justifying Gandhi-style self-reduction to zero on the grounds of ahimsa. Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis crystallize this well:
“If we were truly serious about saving all other organisms, we would follow Jainist principles and…surgically implant chloroplasts in our skin in order to photosynthesize ourselves and not uproot lettuce or carrot plants. We certainly would not cavalierly flush away our solid wastes that serve as a breeding ground for E. coli and other gut bacteria. This reductio ad absurdum shows the hypocritical element implicit in the rhetoric of ecological salvation” (1993, 358).
They’re right: uprooting a carrot for human consumption is a form of violence, as is mindlessly flushing a toilet and decimating the bacterial colonies that make their home in our fecal matter. In its essence, ahimsa isn’t really about avoiding all harm (which is technically impossible); it’s about harm reduction.
related: Homo Solaris: Metabolic Independence (Somov, Reinventing the Meal, 2012)
adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Somov, 2012)
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Last reviewed: 22 Apr 2013