Vegetarianism and Veganism in Religions and Hinduism

Disclaimer: The idea of this post is not to hurt anyone’s sentiments. I have used excerpts from various religious scriptures to make my thoughts clearer. I apologize in advance if any quote from any religious scripture hurts your sentiments.

If you are wondering looking at the title that Religion already includes Hinduism then why did I mention it separately? It is because Sanatan Dharma (including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, etc.) is not a religion, but it is dharma (dharm), a Sanskrit word that we cannot translate as Religion. It is a non translatable, whose meaning is closer to duty/justice, we can discuss this later in a separate article. Actual name for these Indic “religions” is Sanatan Dharma, but for the sake of this article, I am going to use the term Hinduism.

One thing I have noticed is that most people are aware that Hindus avoid non vegetarian food. When I tell people that I am a Hindu (Sanatani), the next question I get is if I am a vegetarian, or if I eat beef. While most people are unaware of Hindu philosophy, including Hindus in India, it is true that Hindu concept of vegetarianism has propagated worldwide.

Hinduism and Vegetarianism/Veganism

Originally, Hindus were also non vegetarians and consumed meat. However, Hindus have continuously reformed themselves. As the consciousness and understanding of life and universe started growing among people, they gradually switched to vegetarian diet. Very soon Hindus began preaching vegetarianism as one of the keys to attain the highest knowledge a few millennia ago.

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Vedas on Eating Meat

Vedas, one of the oldest scriptures in the world and the foundation of Hinduism has discouraged Hindus from eating meat.

“Those noble souls who practice meditation and other yogic ways, who are ever careful about all beings, who protect all animals, are the ones who are actually serious about spiritual practices.”  — Atharva Veda 19.48.5

“You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever.” — Yajur Veda 12.32

The above teachings of Vedas contradicts the popular belief that the vegetarianism came to Hinduism from Buddhism and Jainism. There is indeed some truth in the role of Buddhism in spreading awareness on vegetarianism in the east and far east. However, the concept of vegetarianism is much older and has been part of Hinduism earlier by few millennia than Buddhism, which is also a part of Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) as Buddha never parted from Hinduism and did not create a new religion.

Mahabharata on Eating Meat

Besides Vedas, in Mahabharata also Bhishma Pitamah explains Yudhishthira merits of abstaining from killing other creatures and eating meat.

“Those high-souled persons who desire beauty, faultlessness of limbs, long life, understanding, mental and physical strength, and memory, should abstain from acts of injury.” – Anushasana Parva.

Bhishma Pitamah goes on to saying that discarding of honey and meat is equivalent to any animal sacrifices. Therefore, one should replace the practice of animal sacrificing simply by discarding animal products from our plate.

Going through Anushasana Parva of Mahabharata, we can understand more about what vegetarianism and Hinduism:

“It is exceedingly difficult to give up meat after one has become acquainted with its taste. Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult for such a person to observe the high vow of abstention from meat, a vow that assures every creature by dispelling all fear. That learned person who giveth to all living creatures the Dakshina of complete assurance comes to be regarded, without doubt, as the giver of life-breaths in this world. Even this is the high religion which men of wisdom applaud. The life-breaths of other creatures are as dear to them as those of one’s to one’s own self. Men endued with intelligence and cleansed souls should always behave towards other creatures after the manner of that behaviour which they like others to observe towards themselves.” Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva 115.33

Bhishma Pitamah also adds that giving up meat is the highest act of religion

“Discarding of meat is the highest refuge of religion, of heaven, and of happiness. Abstention from injury is the highest religion. It is, again, the highest penance. It is also the highest truths from which all duty proceeds.” Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva 115.33

Often people who consume animals refuse to see what torture and pain the animals go through. They believe, until and unless I am paying someone to slaughter an animal for me then everything is fine.

Bhishma Pitamah clarifies that even if you don’t kill an animal, but contribute to its killing then it is equivalent to killing an animal yourself.

“He who purchases flesh slays living creatures through his wealth.” Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva 115.33

Ahimsa Paramo Dharam: Non-Violence is the Highest Duty

Finally, I cannot explain the concept of Hinduism in just one article. However, if you have to describe Hinduism in one line, I would say Ahimsa paramo dharma, dharma hinsa tathaiva cha. Animals do not intend to hurt human beings and therefore Hindus should stick to their motto of non-violence. Hindus believe that non-violence should be practiced not just among human beings, but also towards animals, and any other being whether living or non-living as Brahm is equally inside everyone.

Does Hinduism Encourage Consuming of Milk and Milk Products?

So is milk and ghee promoted in Hinduism? Ghee is indeed considered Satvic according to Hindu scriptures. However, by the concept of Ahimsa paramo dharam, if your milk (or ghee) comes to you by hurting cows, keeping them in cages, giving them hormones and slaughtering their calves, then milk should not be on your table. If you buy your milk from a grocery store then it is highly likely that the milk was extracted from the cows in a violent way.

Vegetarianism For Dietary Reasons

Hindus divide food in three categories: Satva, Rajas, Tamas. Satva food is what keeps your body light and promotes thinking. Hindus who perform Yoga and meditation seriously adhere to Satvic diet. Satvic diet consists of fruits and vegetables mostly – raw vegetables are preferred.

Rajas food stimulates emotional and sensual pleasure. Such a diet consists of different spices and salt. This kind of food is rich and full of flavour. If you have been to an Indian restaurant then it is highly likely you have had Rajas food. This kind of food has distracting properties and has strong odour. Therefore, it is avoided by the Yogis.

Tamas food makes you less active. This is heavy food such as meat and grains. Hindu scriptures advice to stay away from Tamasic food as they obstruct the flow during yoga and meditation. Such a diet creates hurdles on path to understanding oneself.

But Why Do Some Hindus Eat Meat?

There are lot of Hindus who eat meat. Eating of meat can vary by regions. For example, eating fish is common in some coastal states like West Bengal and Kerala. Meat eating has also become more popular recently due to western influence in the form of fast food restaurants. Recent liberal political movements have been also promoting eating of meat.

Interestingly, Left Liberals around the world promote vegetarianism and veganism, but in India Left Liberals promote eating of meat. In fact, recently they organized a campaign for eating beef. It was to protest the Government’s move to shut down illegal slaughter house.

Unlike other religions, there is no concept of blasphemy in Hinduism. Therefore, eating meat is considered personal choice even though it might make the path of enlightenment and liberation extremely difficult.

Vegetarianism/Veganism for Economical and Environmental reasons

I will not go into detail on how efficient is plant eating for the environment. You use less resources, less land and in less time you can produce a lot more produce for the entire world to feed.

Also, the closer you are to the sun in the food chain, the more efficient you are in processing the energy and nutrients. It is more efficient to eat a plant than to eating a goat which eats the plant. The latter causes considerable loss of energy and nutrients.

Vegetarianism and Veganism in Religions – Islam and Christianity

If eating meat is considered spiritually, economically and environmentally not good along with certain adverse effect on our health, then why is it so popular among the world?

One of the reason for certain countries eating meat is because they do not have proper conditions to grow fruits and vegetables. But in this industrialized and globalized world where mangoes are available on a cold night in Moscow, is it still the reason?

One theory is that middle eastern religions such as Islam and Christianity have contributed a lot in making meat eating popular and sometimes even necessary.

In Christianity

Genesis 9:3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

Corinthians 10:25 Eat whatever is sold in the [public] meat markets, without asking any questions [about it] for [your] conscience’ sake [i.e., do not inquire about the previous use of the food you buy, because you might discover something about it that would make you feel guilty of wrongdoing if you ate it].

I like the below quote the most. Because it teaches us to not to judge each other on their choice of eating. However, it goes on to say that those who do not eat meat are weak and their faith in god is weak.

Romans 14:1-23 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

In Islam

According to Quran, killing for food is allowed by the religion. However, killing animal for food is a criminal act for people who are not followers of Islam.

In the Qur’an, we only have the right to kill any living being for consumption because He, the Creator of them, has given us this privilege via religion – killing for food would otherwise be a criminal act!: (Source: http://www.quranicpath.com/finerpoints/halal_meat.html)

Islam also has a manual on how to slaughter an animal: The Correct Method of Slaughtering Animals in Islam | IslamicFinder

Festivals like Eid al-Adha encourages every household to slaughter goats and cows every year which is a very spiritual practice for followers of Islam.