If we are vegetarian because we don’t want to kill animals – they are the children of God – then why do we kill plants to eat?

It is true that all created beings, whether humans, animals, or plants, are the children of God and therefore the ideal situation would be to cause no violence. But since this is not a practical option for us, we settle for the option where there is minimum violence. When we pluck ripe fruits that would fall off anyway, there is little or no pain involved. Very austere sages in the forest may live not even on plucked fruits but only on fallen fruits and leaves so as to not cause any violence at all. The Vedic scriptures do talk about that as the highest standard to avoid causing any suffering to any living being and to minimize one’s karmic reactions. But for most people that standard is not possible.

Now, when we compare plants and animals, first of all even from a scientific point of view animals have a far more developed nervous system than plants. And depending on the development of the nervous system, the organism or living being feels more or less pain. Because we want to minimize the pain we cause to other living beings, we avoid eating animals since they feel far, far more pain than plants.

Certainly, plants also feel pain, but, for example, we usually (at least traditionally) harvest crops that are fully grown – when if they are not harvested will rot and get wasted. And if we compare the enlivening atmosphere at the time of harvest in the field with the gruesome atmosphere in the slaughterhouse when animals are slaughtered – with blood and flesh strewn and spewing all around and the animals screaming and writhing in pain – our own conscience and intelligence will indicate to us the huge gulf of difference between the two levels of violence.

Most animals are not killed when they are about to grow old and die. In fact, Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of ISKCON, recommended that if people had to eat meat they could wait until the animals die and then eat them, so that at least the karma of killing the animals would be minimized.

Ideally we harvest crops when they are at the right time for harvesting – that is, when nature indicates through the soothing atmosphere prevalent at the time of harvesting that it is the right thing to do. Of course, even when we harvest the crop there is pain; that is why vegetarianism itself is not enough. We have to go beyond vegetarianism – to offering food to God with an attitude of humble devotion. Then, Lord Krishna promises in the Bhagavad-gita (3.13), He will take away all the sins related to acquiring and eating the food.

yajna-shishtashinah santo
muchyante sarva-kilbishaih
bhunjate te tv agham papa
ye pachanty atma-karanat

He says that those who offer food to Him before partaking of it themselves are free from all sins whereas those who don’t offer the food suffer from sinful reactions for every morsel of food they eat, even if it is vegetarian food.

So the best situation would be that we take vegetarian food produced by the least violence possible and offered to the Lord with devotion, so that it is not only vegetarian and not only karma-free, but also pure and purifying.

In the Bhagavad-gita (9.26) Lord Krishna says,

patram pushpam phalam toyam
yo me bhaktya prayachchati
tad aham bhakty-upahritam
ashnami prayatatmanah

“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, I will accept it.” Krishna is talking about the glory of the principle of devotion, wherein if someone offers food to the Lord with devotion, then He is ready to joyfully accept even the simplest of foods. So the emphasis in this verse is on the principle of devotion. The verse is not a comprehensive list of all the foods that can or cannot be eaten. Still, the verse clearly makes no mention of meat. Patram pushpam phalam toyam (leaf, flower, fruit, water) indicates a vegetarian diet, which can be sanctified by being offered to God. Then it becomes karma-free, pure, and purifying.

Is the worship of deities a tool for less intelligent people that should be given up by the spiritually advanced?

No. The sacred scriptures like the Pancaratras and the Puranas explain that the Lord’s appearance as the arca-avatara (the incarnation as the deity) is a special kind of mercy for the spiritually under-evolved. As these people can’t perceive God’s all-pervasive presence, they can at least begin their God consciousness by respecting Him when He manifests to their sense perception as the deity.

But to properly understand the relationship of deity worship to spiritual advancement, it helps to first understand how Srimad-Bhagavatam (Eleventh Canto) classifies devotees based on their level of God consciousness.

  1. Kanishtha-adikhari (lowest level): Devotees at this level perceive God only in the deity and nowhere else. The spirituality of these devotees is limited to the temple or the home altar; they can’t perceive God’s relationship with other aspects of their life.
  2. Madhyama-adhikari (middle level): Devotees at this level understand that their God consciousness depends not only on how they see the deity, but also on how they relate to the things and people of the world. Accordingly, in addition to worshiping the deity, these devotees make friendship with other devotees, share their wisdom with the uninformed, and avoid the envious.
  3. Uttama-adhikari (highest level): Devotees at this level are so advanced that they can perceive God’s presence everywhere. This does not mean that they worship everything as if it were God or that they give up worshiping the deity as if He were not God, but that everything and everyone reminds them of God, just as everything in the house reminds a loving mother of her newborn baby.

So whereas the kanishtha devotees need the deity to remember God, the uttama devotees don’t. But this doesn’t mean that the uttama devotees neglect or reject the deity. Not at all. Rather, due to their great love for the Lord, they serve the deity with even greater devotion than the lower-level devotees.

Because the kanishtha devotees can perceive God’s presence as the deity, they are above those who can’t. The God consciousness of the iconoclasts or the iconophobes is so abysmally low that even the supremely merciful arca-avatara’s mercy is unable to reach them. Their reclamation is possible only when they open their minds to understand the profound philosophy underlying deity worship and develop the humility to admit that they need the deity to begin their God consciousness. Otherwise, though they may imagine themselves to be more intelligent, they will remain less intelligent.