The Sanskrit word karma means “action”, or more specifically, any material action that brings a reaction that binds us to the material world. Although the idea of karma is generally associated with Eastern philosophy, many people in the West are also coming to understand that karma is a natural principle, like time or gravity, and no less inescapable. For every action there is a reaction. According to the law of karma, if we cause pain and suffering to other living beings, we must endure pain and suffering in return, both individually and collectively. We reap what we sow, in this life and the next, for nature has her own justice. No one can escape the law of karma, except those who understand how it works.

To understand how karma can cause war, for example, let’s take an illustration from the Vedas. Sometimes a fire starts in a bamboo forest when the trees rub together. The real cause of the fire, however, is not the trees but the wind that moves them. The trees are only the instruments. In the same way, the principle of karma tells us that the United States and the Soviet Union are not the real causes of the friction that exists between them, the friction that may well set off the forest fire of nuclear war. The real cause is the imperceptible wind of karma generated by the world’s supposedly innocent citizens.

According to the law of karma, the neighborhood supermarket or hamburger stand (the local abortion clinic too, but that could be the subject for another book) has more to do with the threat of nuclear war than the White House or the Kremlin. We recoil with horror at the prospects of nuclear war while we permit equally horrifying massacres every day inside the world’s automated slaughterhouses.

The person who eats an animal may say that he hasn’t killed anything, but when he buys his neatly packaged meat at the supermarket he is paying someone else to kill for him, and both of them bring upon themselves the reactions of karma. Can it be anything but hypocritical to march for peace and then go to McDonald’s for a hamburger or go home to grill a steak? This is the very duplicity that George Bernard Shaw condemned:

We pray on Sundays that we may have light

To guide our footsteps on the path we tread;

We are sick of war, we don’t want to fight,

And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.

As Srila Prabhupada says in his explanations of Bhagavad-Gita, “Those who kill animals and give them unnecessary pain as people do in slaughterhouses will be killed in a similar way in the next life and in many lives to come” In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, it is stated clearly “Thou shalt not kill.” Nonetheless, giving all kinds of excuses, even the heads of religion indulge in killing animals and, at the same time, try to pass as saintly persons. This mockery and hypocrisy in human society brings about unlimited calamities such as great wars, where masses of people go out onto the battlefields and kill each other. Presently they have discovered the nuclear bomb, which is simply waiting to be used for wholesale destruction.” Such are the effects of karma.

Those who understand the laws of karma, know that peace will not come from marches and petitions, but rather from a campaign to educate people about the consequences of murdering innocent animals (and unborn children). That will go a long way toward preventing any increase in the world’s enormous burden of karma. To solve the world’s problems we need people with purified consciousness to perceive that the real problem is a spiritual one. Sinful people will always exist, but they shouldn’t occupy positions of leadership.

One of the most common objections non-vegetarians raise against vegetarianism is that vegetarians still have to kill plants, and that this is also violence. In response it may be pointed out that vegetarian foods such as ripe fruits and many vegetables, nuts, grains, and milk do not require any killing. But even in those cases where a plant’s life is taken, because plants have a less evolved consciousness than animals, we can presume that the pain involved is much less than when an animal is slaughtered, what to speak ot the suffering a food-animal experiences throughout its life.

It’s true vegetarians have to kill some plants, and that is also violence, but we do have to eat something, and the Vedas say, jivo jivasya jivanam: one living entity is food for another in the struggle for existence. So the problem is not how to avoid killing altogether an impossible proposal but how to cause the least suffering to other creatures while meeting the nutritional needs of the body.

The taking of any life, even that of a plant, is certainly sinful, but Krishna, the supreme controller, frees us from sin by accepting what we offer. Eating food first offered to the Lord is something like a soldier’s killing during wartime. In a war, when the commander orders a man to attack, the obedient soldier who kills the enemy will get a medal. But if the same soldier kills someone on his own, he will be punished. Similarly, when we eat only prasada, we do not commit any sin. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-Gita (3.13) “The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, eat only sin.” This brings us to the central theme of this book: vegetarianism, although essential, is not an end in itself.