1. Sivarama Swami can you tell us when and how you started your Spiritual Journey?
I was born in Hungary to holocaust survivors and when we emigrated to Canada I went to church and was confirmed a Christian. However, while I respected both religions, neither really meant much to me. And while my childhood and youth were touched by the occasional spiritual experience, my journey saw real direction when I received a copy of Baba Ramdasa’s “Be Here Now.” At that time I was studying Engineering at McGill in Montreal and was married to a very spiritually inclined girl. At the end of the book Ramdasa wrote that if the reader was interested in knowing more about spiritual life then he or she should get a copy of the Bhagavad-gītā, the universally accepted handbook on yoga, which would be available from the local Hare Kṛṣṇa temple.
Following that advice I went to the temple, which was in a renovated bowling alley near where we lived. Unfortunately they had run out of Gītās, but I was able to get one at the university bookstore. And while I didn’t get a Gītā at the temple, I did receive an invitation to return again, and that invitation felt to me like a call from home, a call to my inner self, a call that I couldn’t turn down. Those initial encounters with committed spiritual practitioners were in 1970, and they really put me on track. A few years later I decided that I wanted to be a full time monk, to be a swami, and so my wife and I parted ways and I moved into the temple. That was almost 50 years ago and I have not looked back since.
2. Do Hindus believe animals have souls?
I can see that you’re asking me a few questions on the belief of Hindus. Before I answer this important question, let me first explain my understanding of Hindus and Hinduism.
It’s said that people who occupied the lands west of the Indus River called the land east of the far shore, Sindh and its people Sindhus. In time Sindhus became Hindus, and the British added the suffix “ism” to denote the generic beliefs of the Hindus. Thus we have Hinduism. Otherwise, before this, there is no record of the word Hindu being mentioned in Indian literature or used in Indian culture. It’s very much a new nomenclature. So, since Hinduism is a collage of many religious traditions found in what is today the Indian sub-continent, it has no specific religious identity itself. But one unifying aspect of Hinduism is the acceptance of the authority of the Vedas, India’s spiritual texts. I follow the spiritual tradition that is based on the Vedas known as Vaiṣṇavism, wherein Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa are the objects of worship, and bhakti-yoga the means to them.
So in answer to your question, the Vedas reply “Yes,” animals have souls. Not only animals, but all living things such as insects, aquatics and plants. How do we know? The primary symptom of the soul is consciousness. Where there are signs of consciousness there is a soul. Therefore, as all living things are conscious, we must conclude that they are also all souls. It’s just that animals look different from humans. They have different bodies. However, spiritually all living things are the same in that they are all souls, albeit at different stages of spiritual evolution. It’s the specialty of the human body, that, unlike the bodies of animals, it facilitates self-realization. That is the primary factor that separates humans from other living things.
3. Can a Hindu eat meat?
Let me be more general. Humans in general shouldn’t eat meat. And so that also includes Hindus. Why? Because meat is a product of violence, and humans, what to speak of spiritually inclined humans, are meant to be sensitive to the suffering of others and so are meant to live by a creed of non-violence.
Now some people may chose to ignore the doctrine of non-violence. But that will be a misconduct for which they will be subject, in their next life, to the same violence which they cause in this life. That’s the law of karma as described in the Vedas, India’s comprehensive yoga texts. Having to suffer in the same way that we make innocent animals suffer is not a bright future. So, if for no other reason than that, Hindus shouldn’t eat meat.
Sometimes people cite statements in world scriptures that allow killing animals for food. However, if we objectively study these scriptures we will see that their advice is to abstain from animal killing and hence meat eating. But, for those people unwilling to follow that advice, then scriptures prescribe some regulated forms of meat eating as a concession. It’s the difference between what scriptures want and what they concede.
But whatever way you look at it, be it religious, ethical, health or other reasons, meat-eating is not right.
4. Please explain to us, is Hinduism a religion with many and diverse Gods, or one God with many manifestations?
As I mentioned before, because Hindusim is an umbrella for many faiths, Hindus will not have one answer to your question. There would be many. But from an impartial point of view we see that the wisdom of the Vedas teaches that there is one Supreme Being, Kṛṣṇa, and He manifests in many ways: sometimes with the full powers of God, like Viṣṇu or Rāma, and sometimes with part of his powers, like Śiva or Brahmā. The Supreme also has an impersonal feature of effulgence called Brahman. However, Kṛṣṇa is always unique and superior to all these manifestations.
Sometimes people mistakenly think that the Vedas teach that there are many gods, that we are all god and that liberation means to merge into the oneness of everything. However, these are mistaken ideas that come from either personal prejudice or a misunderstanding of Vedic conclusions. For the objective seeker the truth is very clear. For instance in the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa says mattaḥ parataraṁ nānyat kiñcid asti dhanañjaya / mayi sarvam idaṁ protaṁ sūtre maṇi-gaṇā iva, “O conqueror of wealth, there is no truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread.”
So the statements of the Vedas are clear: there is one God with many manifestations.
5. In your opinion, what would be the first thing we should do if you want to bring peace and more understanding to this planet?
I would suggest that everyone chant the names of god, just as the many millions who follow the path of bhakti-yoga do. That chanting can be in meditative japa or musically accompanied kirtana.
Why? Because it is the foundation upon which human beings can live in peace. You cannot have peace by force, legislation or establishing institutions like the UN. Human discord, whether national, sectarian, racial or familial, is due to a basic misunderstanding. That misunderstanding is that we are the body that we inhabit. And because our bodies are different, people disagree over bodily differences. But we are not this body. We are the soul within the body. And while there are countless bodily differences, there is singular unity among souls. Spiritually, we are equal. When we recognize this spiritual equality, then borders, religions and fences become unnecessary.
However, this understanding comes only by repeating the names of God, which are the essence of Vedic mantras. This chanting purifies the heart of ignorance and of the tendency to violence. I spend at least 2 hours a day chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra. It brings me peace. When you are at peace with yourself then you can be at peace with others.
6. What would you recommend parents to do to raise more compassionate human beings?
Parents should teach their children who their children actually are. That is the beginning of education. Parents shouldn’t be busy thinking of “what” their kids will be, but “who” their children should be. That education should begin by teaching children that they are not corporeal beings, but spiritual beings. They are the soul within the body, and as souls they are servants of the supreme soul.
Additionally, children should be taught to be humane. One is not automatically a human just because one is born with two legs and two arms. Humans must be educated in order to be humane. That means they must learn cleanliness, austerity, simplicity, control of the mind and senses, and so on. And ultimately parents need to show their children the path to liberation, which means that parents are on the path themselves.
The Vedas say pitā na sa syāj jananī na sā syāt, that one should not become a mother or a father if one cannot raise and educate their children to be humans interested in self-realization. This, in a nutshell, is what I would suggest to parents.
7. In your view, how one can lead a progressive life? Is there a code of living?
Let me clarify that I don’t have a view either on this question or any other. My subjective view would not be of any value. What I say is what I have heard from my guru, and he from his, and so on back in succession to Kṛṣṇa and the Vedas. So the views that I express are Kṛṣṇa’s view, the Vedic view.
Vedic wisdom teaches that a progressive life is a life of spiritual study and self-discipline that leads to self-realization. This includes regular mantra-meditation, the study of scared texts and associating with spiritually minded souls. That is a progressive life in which the benefits are immediate. By contrast a regressive life is a life of indulgence and excess, the kind of life into which our consumer oriented world is brainwashing people.
If we want a code of living, then Vedanta-sutra begins with one, it is the code of civilized life: athāto brahma jijñāsā, “Now that you are a human, inquire into the Absolute Truth.”
8. What happens to a human soul after death?
Our karma, which means our conduct in this life, will determine what kind of body we have in our next life. People plan for their future, but their vision of a future is limited to this life because they are not educated to understand that there is another life after this one. And that next life may be the life of a dog, a pig, or a tree.
If people make dogs their best friend, they may well end up becoming a dog. If they eat all kind of forbidden things, they may become a pig. And if they like to go around exposing themselves in skimpy clothes, they can take birth as trees and stand around with nothing on, summer and winter.
This is the reality, like gravity or other laws of nature. Believe in it or not, conduct determines the future. Therefore, we should conduct ourselves in this life so that we do not become degraded to these lower species, but rather become elevated, preferably liberated.
The Vedas teach humans how to conduct themselves. Additionally, the behavior of perfected souls is also the conduct that humans should emulate to elevate themselves.
9. What happens with the soul of Non-Human sentient beings — do they have an after death destination?
As I said, all living things have souls. However, only humans have free will, which means that they can change both their behaviour and their destiny. By contrast, non-humans are obliged to follow the laws of nature, systematically passing from lower to higher species of life. This is the evolution of the soul through a series of set bodies, 8,400,000 different biological forms to be exact. And because non-humans have no willpower or rather, free will, they have no karma, and so they spontaneously progress to the human form.
At this point let me make two comments.
Firstly, in light of the Vedic version of the soul’s evolution, Darwin’s theory, or post-Darwinian evolutionary theories – which state that simple organisms transform to more complex ones and that unstable species mutate to become more stable ones – are erroneous. All species were created and co-exist, it is the soul that evolves from lower to higher forms of life.
Secondly, one outstanding reasons why killing and eating animals is so offensive is because it obstructs the transmigration of that soul from body to body, thus interfering with its spiritual evolution.
In answer to your question, all species have an after-death destination. The further question is what that destination is. For non-humans it’s pre-destined and for humans the combination of their karma and will determine it.
10. Why do you say that Sustainable Development is not an answer for our Planet?
Because it’s not! The very concept of sustainable development is consumerist opportunism underpinned by ignorance, greed and exploitation.
I say that it’s about ignorance, because our world is a closed eco-system with limited resources that replenish themselves at a limited pace. There is no way that you can just keep using more limited resources for an increased standard of living. It just doesn’t work. And it wont.
And it’s also about greed, because what I say above is understood by those who propose sustainable development. They know it’s a fairytale. Still they want us to gobble up whatever resources currently exist, at whatever cost to the environment. Why? For profit today! They don’t care about tomorrow, about the future because they reason that they won’t be around to see it.
And finally it’s about exploitation, because the cost of this “sustainable development” is to so handicap the environment that successive generations will have less and less resources, and so will suffer a contracting standard of living. But do we care? Do we care that our children and grandchildren will never know the world as we know it today?
So if you want a sustainable life, it has to be without development. It has to be about living by our needs and not our wants. And what we need is a fraction of our wants. Living by what we need is sustainable, living by our wants is not.
11. I have seen some of your videos and speeches, can you tell us why you say that ‘Yoga has lost its way’?
Let me begin by saying that I am really encouraged by the current upsurge of interest in yoga and spirituality. It has really helped change how the world views what had been taught in India for thousands of years. When I took up yoga fifty years ago it wasn’t as fashionable as it is today. But my greatest good fortune was to have met an exemplary guru, from an authentic spiritual lineage, who taught me the science of bhakti-yoga in an uncompromising and yet contemporary way. He opened my eyes to the goal of yoga and the means to attain that goal.
From my teacher I learned that yoga means to connect with the Supreme who is both within and without. So while it’s encouraging that millions are turning to yoga, my experience is that it’s rare to find yoga schools, yoga teachers or yoga systems that know little beyond a few asanas, yoga apparel, yoga mats and detox chai. And that goes for inside India as well as outside it. Therefore while efforts at yoga may be good for staying healthy or controlling the mind, generally, the most essential aspect of yoga, the spiritual awakening of the soul, remains lost.
Instead of hearing about and glorifying the supreme person, yoga has more-or-less become an industry, a part of the consumer apparatus that in many cases misleads innocent seekers from the real goal of life, self-realisation, as taught for example in the Bhagavad-Gita.
Let me conclude on this question and on this interview by citing the Gītā. After explaining karma-yoga, haṭha yoga, bhakti-yoga and jñāna yoga, Kṛṣṇa says mām ekaṁ śarṇnaṁ vraja, “Just surrender to me.” The meaning is that all forms of yoga must conclude in surrender to the Supreme. Where that essential wisdom is taught, yoga will find its soul, where it is discarded, yoga will certainly lose its way.