Food for the Gods
Book Review by Charles Patterson
An extraordinary event takes place every day at exactly 12:30 PM outside a Hindu temple on a mountain near Mahabalipuram in southern India. About 27 minutes after noon as a Hindu priest carries outside a pot of sacred food called prasadam, which is offered to the god Shiva who is worshipped at the temple, two dots appear in the sky. As they get larger, one can see that they are two white eagles. When the priest puts some of the prasadam in his hand, the eagles swoop down and seize the food. The eagles have been doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time each day for as long as anybody can remember. After their meal the eagles fly around to the other side of the mountain and wipe their beaks on rocks, a ritual they have been practicing for centuries, as evidenced by the deep indentations in the rocks. The Puranas tell a story about two followers of Shiva whose fate is to be reincarnated lifetime after lifetime as eagles. "So," says Steve Rosen, the Jewish intellectual-turned-Hindu scholar who told Rynn Berry the story, "there is evidence that something has been going on here for a long, long time."
This story is one of the pleasures that await the reader of Berry's fascinating new book, Food for the Gods. Based on extensive reading, research, and travel, the book is a collection of the author's readable, erudite essays (he does his own translations of ancient Greek and Latin texts) and his interviews with leading vegetarian religious thinkers around the world (vegetarian recipes from the various religions are included in the back of the book). Places Berry visited for the book include a Krishna temple and vegetarian church in London, the Oxford home of theologian Andrew Linzey, the Swantinath Jain temple in Bombay, the Ching Chung Koon Taoist temple in Hong Kong, and a monastery on Lantau Island in China where he spent several nights as a guest of the monks of the Po Lin Temple.
In a less exotic locale closer to home--Queens--the author interviewed Dr. Robert Kole about Judaism. Since Kole, a Shakespearean scholar who teaches Renaissance literature at Queens College, is a raw foodist, pots and pans did not sit on top of his kitchen stove. "Books were neatly piled on gas burners," writes Berry, "and when I opened the oven, I beheld a veritable literary feast."
In Philadelphia Berry interviewed Dr. Rehana Hamid, daughter of a Jewish mother and Muslim father, who grew up in New York City and today is a devout vegetarian Sufi who worships in the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen mosque while operating a thriving chiropractic center and in her spare time reading the Torah in Hebrew.
The four eastern ahimsa-based "vegetarian" religions (Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) the author covers in the first half of the book have a commitment to the sanctity of all life that is very different from the attitude of western religions, whose prohibition against killing is nowhere near the top of the list of religious injunctions (it's the sixth of the Ten Commandments), and it only applies to human beings anyway. The second part of the book covers the "religions of the book"--Judaism, Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, not Eastern Orthodoxy), and Islam, religions in which vegetarianism has for the most part been marginalized or excluded. (In the recently published After Noah: Animals and the Liberation of Theology Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Andrew Linzey call on Judaism and Christianity to reject humanocentrism and reclaim lost traditions that respect and celebrate all of creation.)
The Jains are clearly the heroes of Berry's book, and well they should be. In India many Jains rescue animals from slaughterhouses, and Jain priests carry whisk brooms with which to sweep out of harm's way insects that might otherwise be stepped on. Jains also maintain special shelters called PINJARPOLS for injured and defenseless animals. "We take care of stray cows, pigs, goats, sheep, birds and insects," says Muni Nandibhushan Vijayji, the Jain monk whom Berry interviewed in Bombay. Nor do Jains eat root vegetables which grow underground, such as potatoes, carrots, and radishes, because of the tiny organisms attached to them. "It is a cardinal Jain precept that one should never kill any form of life," explains Vijayji. "Our stomach is not a burial ground for dead bodies."
The book sparkles with the author's supple, graceful prose. For example, after he opens his essay on Hinduism with a comment about the waves of conquerors who have invaded India through the centuries (Aryans, Scythians, Persians, Greeks, Huns, Mongols, Muslims, British), Berry writes: "These truculent, flesh-gorging tribes, with their patriarchal customs and their war-like gods, descended on India like a lion springing onto the back of an elephant. Sinking its pitiless teeth and claws into the pachyderm, the lion draws blood, but it isn't long before the elephant heaves its shoulders and sends the lion sprawling. Eventually, that's what India does to its conquerors: it is mauled by them, to be sure, but after a few generations it usually ends up absorbing them or shrugging them off."
The book concludes with The Order of the Cross, a little known church in London founded in 1904 by the Reverend John Todd Ferrier. The church, which maintains that Jesus ("the Master") was a vegetarian, has adopted several ethical features from the eastern religions, such as reincarnation, karma, and compassion for animals. Ferrier was one of the first modern clergymen to champion the rights of animals. In The Season of the Christ-mass he strongly criticized the way the modern world celebrates Christmas: "Whilst the Heavens are feasted on the bread and wine of great spiritual and Divine elements of which Eternal Life is constituted, and the real Shepherd on the plains listens to the joy and gladness expressed in the heavenly songs, the great cities, the towns, the villages, and even the outlaying lonely places are filled with the cries of creatures as these are slaughtered in order to provide piquant meals with which to satisfy the barbaric tastes of the still unredeemed humanity."
As the only Christian church in existence which requires its members to take a vegetarian vow, the Order of the Cross shines like a beacon in the vast darkness of carnivorous Christendom. The book ends with the hope that other churches will see the light and go and do likewise.