Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

'God Is a Vegetarian': The Food, Health and Bio-Spirituality of Hare Krishna, Buddhist and Seventh-Day Adventist Devotees

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

'God Is a Vegetarian': The Food, Health and Bio-Spirituality of Hare Krishna, Buddhist and Seventh-Day Adventist Devotees

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Sociological investigations of religion have rarely included exploration of the health logic and food practices of religious groups, especially the minority groups that recommend a vegetarian nutritional career. The dominant themes of the contemporary sociology of religion are resacralisation, fundamentalism and revivalism within mainstream religions, and the research emanating from these areas supports established theoretical ideas about the nature of religiosity and spirituality in modernity (Eisenstadt 2000; Taylor 2007; Volpi and Turner 2007). The current popular emphasis on 'de-institutionalised' or 'post-institutional' movements in the West are defined as increasingly privatised and associated with themes of therapy, peace, wealth and selfhelp (Turner 2009:196). With the exception of recent explanations of the growth in complimentary and alternative medicine (Coulter and Willis 2007) the role of food and health logic within these themes is often obscure, if mentioned at all, as are any references to more alternative and marginal approaches to food, health and spirituality. The three largest Australian religious organisations or groups that have historical ties to vegetarianism are the Hindu-based Hare Krishna, the Christian Seventh-Day Adventist Church and various Buddhist denominations. Whilst secularism continues to grow in Australia and mainstream Christianity declines, some minority groups have increased their membership. The fastest growing religions during the Australian Bureau of Statistics intercensal period (2001- 2006) were: Hinduism by 55.1%, non- religion by 27.5%, Islam by 20.9%, Buddhist affiliation by 17% and Judaism by 6%. Christianity was the only religion to show negative growth, with the number of followers falling by 0.6% (ABS 2006).

Bio-spirituality is any form of worship or system of belief involving the veneration of a person, or object considered to be divine or sacred, through rites, prayers, meditation or benevolent acts, that is contingent on the consumption of foods which are classified according to values concerning life and living organisms. These values are underpinned by philosophical, religious or even scientifically derived ideas about both plant and animal-based food sources. This means that any doctrines or practices representative of human attachment to a higher level of existence are grounded through the physical act of eating certain foods and abstaining from others. The nutritional choices of devotees thus become a literal manifestation of faith. The concept of biospirituality will be used throughout this paper to interpret and clarify the relationship between the food, health and worship of vegetarian religious minorities, but it may also be applicable across other cultures where food and faith are highly interdependent.

There are two defining and shared elements of bio-spirituality within Krishna, Buddhist and Adventist faiths that makes them distinct and worthy of sociological exploration. Firstly, both the theoretical and applied philosophical foundations of these groups represent a break with the conventional Cartesian mind/body/spirit disjunction. The Hare Krishna, and Buddhists, in particular, do not adhere to orthodox religious ideas about 'man' and his alleged dominion over 'nature'. Neither do they adhere to the mainstream Cartesian view which, as it assumed the status of God in modern societies, gave an increasingly popular scientific legitimacy to existing Christian discourses on the superiority of 'man' and the subordinate status of animals (Newman 2001; Thomas 1983).

Secondly, and most importantly in the context of health sociology, the kind of spirituality practised by these groups is critically shaped by food. The ritual significance and symbolic history of food in mainstream religions is well established (Comstock 1992:126; Gendin 1989:25; Schwartz 1999:50-51; Tardiff 1998; Veenker 1999:14). However, new knowledge about the biological character and content of certain foods, and the complex attempts to use it to control human behaviour, optimise health and facilitate worship are new territory for social science. …

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