International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India


The Hindu Attitude Towards Vegetarianism
N. Raghunathan

"How can the drunkard be truthful or the flesh-eater compassionate?" runs a Sanskrit verse which appears in the anthologies. It reveals a climate of opinion, continental in its provenance, which links up vegetarianism with a superior ethic. Its emergence can be traced back to the mediaeval ages, if not earlier. Fa-hsien (7th century A.D.) reported that "no respectable person ate meat, the consumption of which was confined to the lower classes." This ethical attitude was the result of a long evolution. And since Fa-hsien wrote, vegetarianism has made further strides among the various sections of the Hindu population, in spite of the fact that Islam and Christianity, the religions to which successive rulers owed allegiance in the past millennium, were not opposed to the taking of life for food. The impulse to abjure could not have been so strong if it had not been reinforced by the general ethical outlook of Hinduism and the metaphysical ideas from which that outlook derived.

Non-killing for food was but a special application of the doctrine of non-violence which is at least as old as the Upanishads. Na himsyaat sarva bhuutaani (Injure no living thing) is a Vedic injunction. The Chandogya Upanishad says that the man who has attained to correct knowledge causes no injury to any living thing (except in sacrifices) and escapes from the cycle of births and deaths. That the offering of animals or plants in sacrifice was not himsa is an ancient idea that goes back at least to the Maitrayani Samhita (III.9.3). Almost as old is the concomitant faith that is later given expression to by Manu (V-27 to 44) when he says that the plants and animals which are killed or used for performing sacrifices are by this very act furthered along the path of evolution. As the idea of Vedic sacrifices derives from the sacrifices of the primal Purusha (described in the Purusha Sukta) as the necessary preliminary to the act of Creation, it posits an intimate psychological connection between the sacrificer, the sacrificial victim, and the god to whom the sacrifice is offered, and thus negates the idea of violence of injury. Compare the Biblical story of the call on Abraham to sacrifice his eldest born.

But in the Rg Veda itself one finds a growing repugnance to killing animals even for the propitiation of the higher powers. There are hymns which declare that "the devout offering of praise or of a fuel-stick or of cooked food" is as efficacious as the more conventional sacrifice. The repugnance to ritual taking of life, rooted in the metaphysical idea to which I refer below, was later reinforced by the belief in Karma and Renunciation. The Satapatha Brahmana, though it declares that "meat is the best kind of food," also propounds the doctrine which is elaborated in great detail in later Puranic literature, that the eater of meat is eaten in the next birth by the animal killed. One of the most striking philosophical discourses in Srimad Bhagavata is addressed by Narada to King Prachina-Barhis, who has killed innumerable animals in thousands of sacrifices. The sage administers a salutary shock to him by conjuring up a vision of the multitude of rams with iron horns that were waiting to gore him when he should die and pass to Yama's world." You have developed a monstrous egotism by this endless slaughter (brhad-vadaad maance) and do not know what you have let yourself in for," he says. And having thus prepared his mind for the reception of the Vedantic teaching, he allegorizes the story of man in the grip of samsaara linking it with the allegory of the Two Birds of the Upanishads (dvaa suparnaa).

It is, however, the metaphysical idea of the basic identity of all life that is at the root of the Hindu repugnance to killing. As Mahamahopadhyaya P. V. Kane well summarizes it in his History of Dharmasastra to which the render may refer for a full discussions of the subject, the doctrine of ahimsa is founded in the conviction that "one supreme entity pervades the universe, and that even the meanest insect was a manifestation of the Divine Essence and that philosophical truths would not dawn upon the man who was not restrained, free from crude appetites and had not universal kindliness and sympathy." In the Krishna Yajur-Veda Samhita (Kanda II, Prasna V, Anuvaka 4) the yajamana of a particular sacrifice is enjoined to refrain from "telling lies, eating meat, having connection with women, or scenting his clothes." so long as he is engaged in the sacrificial ceremony. And the reason given is significant. " For it is well known that the Devas (gods) do not do these things." (Etad hi devaas sarvam na kurvanti.) Both the Yoga Sastra and the Vedanta insist that only those who renounce violence in thought, word, and deed can successfully undergo the respective disciplines. And, though not all men became Yogis or Vedantis, it was the adepts and the liberated souls that set the standards of ethical behaviour which it was the duty of the law-givers and the popular teachers to propagate among the masses.

In this long and chequered evolution of ideas aiming at the integration of individual self-perfection with the ethical progress of society as a whole, the Maanava Dharma-Sastra represents the great divide. Its injunctions (as well as those of the Yagnavalkya Smriti which closely follows it) regarding food restrictions and prohibitions, may seem to the superficial reader to be confused and contradictory. As already indicated, Manu allows the killing of animals "in sacrifices, for the feeding of honoured guests, and in rites for the manes" ; he would also seem to allow it "when one's life is in danger " ; and he suggests that a person may partake of the remnants of the flesh of an animal bought by him and reared by him or flesh given by another out of what is prepared for offering to the gods and manes. That would appear like throwing the gate pretty wide open. But later (V-46-55), Manu expresses himself plainly in favour of total abstention from killing animals even in sacrifices. He points out that, as no flesh can be had without killing living beings and as killing cannot lead to heaven, one should give up flesh. At the same time he is a realist, like the authors of the Dharma Sutras, who (as the Ujjwala commentary on the Apasthamba Dharma Sutra points out) had to take note of the practice and predisposition of men and to curb their undesirable instincts not by total prohibition but by imposing restrictions and limitations. Like the Gita Acharya Manu finds that human nature is intractable and human appetites are stubborn. Looking at the world around him he could not overlook the fact that large sections of people still ate fish and flesh, drank wine, and indulged in sex. So he declared that what the Sastras allowed to certain persons and on certain occasions could not be described as sinful, but abstention in these matters (even where they were allowed by the Sastras) would redound greatly to the merit of the abstainer. And the Mitakshari on Yagnyavalkya Smriti quietly effects a revolutionary extension of the sphere of moral obligation by declaring that the rules and taboos regarding food are equally applicable to all varnas. (See the Commentary Y. S. Achara Adhyaya Sloka 179).

This process of adapting the rules regarding food taboos to the requirements of a society which comprehended many elements in varying stages of spiritual evolution. while at the same time effecting a steady illumination of the higher path which, it was emphasized, could be followed by every one (irrespective of his social or caste status) who aspired to spiritual progress, was carried very much further in the Epic and Puranic literatures. Indeed it is the crowning glory of the latter that; they made explicit and reinforced with numerous examples the lofty ethical ideas which are implicit in the teaching of the Rishis of the Upanishads, In the scales of varna and ashrama, the higher the status the greater the responsibility for practising and setting an example to others of self-control which, with self-denial, was regarded as the sovereign virtue. In the Epics the Brahmachari, the Vanaprasha, and the Sanyaasin (belonging to the three higher castes) are depicted as being vowed to absolute ahimsa, which meant total abstention from flesh foods. Thus Kausalya, bewailing the hardships that her darling son would have to undergo in the forest life, says that he would have "to live like a muni abjuring flesh" (hitwan munivad aamisham). The householder could partake of flesh offered in sacrifices, but not merely for indulging his appetite. The Kshatriya was not required to abstain from meat-eating, and hunting was looked upon as the sport of kings, But the latter was not to be regarded as a form of self-indulgence - slaughter for slaughter's sake-but as a duty the king owed his subjects to protect their crop and cattle from the ravages of wild beasts. The Bhagavata goes so far as to deny immediate salvation to the king, because he inflicts injury, though as a matter of duty.

Asoka banned meat-dishes at his own table and reduced the number of sacrificial victims. Among Puranic figures Rantideva. the king whose numerous sacrifices caused a river of blood to flow (Charmanvati) no doubt did enjoy a high reputation for holiness. But it is the other Rantideva who figures in Srimad Bhagavata (Ninth Skanda) that became for the people at large the supreme symbol of compassion. During a prolonged famine, he gave away all that he possessed, including the last morsel of food and the last drink of water, and with his dying breath gave utterance to the immortal aspiration: "I want neither Heaven nor yogic powers nor prosperity, if only I can take upon myself all the sorrows and sufferings of all other living things by entering into their very being, and thus free them from misery." The story of Satya-Vrata in the Devi Bhagavafa (Third Skanda), who, having long been an unlettered invincible dunce, became a poet and a seer by the grace of the Devi, also reinforces the same lesson. Though a dunce who scorned himself and was scorned by others, he made a vow of truth-speaking. So he was in a great dilemma when a boar wounded by a hunter took refuge in a shelter behind his ashram and the hunter wanted to know where it had hid itself. The sight of the poor suffering animal had liberated the boundless springs of compassion in him , and that made him utter unwittingly the bijakshara (mystic syllables) pleasing to the Devi, which endowed him with the supreme poetic faculty and helped to save the animal by giving a reply which, while it maintained his reputation for truthfulness, confounded the hunter. The point of the story is that it was the compassion bred by the practice of vairagya and truthspeaking that attracted the grace of the Devi. The story of Saakala in the Vaaraaha Puranu and the better known story of Sibi in the Mahabharata pinpoint the duty of not only abstaining from taking life but also of preventing others from doing this even for food by all possible ways of peaceful dissuasion and substitute satisfaction.

The Mahabharata and the Purnas emphasize that sila (character and conduct) and aachaara (ceremonial observance) enjoined by the Sastras are equally important for spiritual progress. On the question of killing animals for food, this attitude of Puranic Hinduism was far more effective than the teaching of either Buddhism or Jainism. While Buddhism laid all the emphasis on character (the Eightfold Path) its treatment of ritual and ceremonial observance as of little importance resulted in the taboos regarding non-killing being gradually relegated to the background: and flesh-eating is the general rule among Buddhists. The Jains have rigorously observed the prohibition against killing for food and meat-eating; but apart from remaining a small community their interpretation of the doctrine of ahimsa has tended to be barren, because of their inability to see that himsa may take many forms besides killing or physical injury. The central teaching of Hinduism has, on the other hand, in the words of Dhritkarnshtra (Ch. 140 of the Rajadharma Sub-Parva of the Santi Parva) that "sila (conduct) consists of 'androha' (non-injury) to all things in thought, word, and deed, anugraha (active benevolence), and dana (giving according to one's capacity)" (Italics mine). "A man must be ashamed of any act of his that results in harm or suffering to another," said the old king. And in the Dharma Vyaadha Upaakyaana (Aranya Parva Adhyayas 306 to 314) which is the locus classicus on the subject, the topic of ahimsa is canvassed with a subtlety as well as a comprehensive wisdom which hodis good for all time.

A Brahmin ascetic become cross with a good lady who delays giving him alms, because she has to attend on her husband's urgeut needs. But, unperturbed, she tells him: "Don't think you can burn me by your angry looks as you did the crane which soiled you with its droppings." Humbled by this remarkable power of second sight in a simple woman, he asks her to initiate him in the secrets of the Self. She directs him to a butcher in the city of King Janaka as the best teacher he could have. He goes to the "righteous hunter" unquestioningly and waits on his convenience. The butcher accosts him, ascertains his purpose, and deferentially takes him to his own home where he explains that his spiritual sadhana consists in loving service to his old parents. When the Brahman expresses surprise that one so advanced in spirituality should follow so brutal and disgusting an occupation, the butcher points out that absolute abstention from taking life, knowingly or unwittingly, is impossible, as all life lives upon other life. Even ascetics who make a vow of ahimsa cannot completely eschew himsa, all that they can do is to limit it to the barest limits possible." In this inescapable human predicament sishta aachara (conduct and observance of the wise) can alone be our guide.

"I was a Brahman in a former birth," said the Dharma Vyadha. "By cultivating friendship with a king, I was lured into the practice of archery and indulgence in hunting and unwittingly killed a Rishi who cursed me that I should be born a hunter, but with the redeeming grace that I should remember my former birth and repent. I follow this occupation because it is the hereditary calling of the family I was born in, and one must follow swadharma. I don't kill the animals whose flesh I sell, and I don't eat flesh myself. So long as there are men who eat flesh, so long will somebody have to do the work I do." That, it may be explained in parenthesis, is the reason why, while Manu holds that everybody connected with the slaughter of animals commits sin, Yama maintains that the man who eats their flesh is the worst sinner. "Ahimsa," the Dharma Vyadha went on, "is the supreme Dharma, for it is established in Satya. By obeying the injunctions of the wise (Sishta) who are actuated by compassion for all beings (Sarva bhuuta dayaavantah) we shall be true to the Self. It is they who enjoin us the duty of sticking to our own dharma. And he who follows their precept and practice ascends to the upper floor of discriminating knowledge and is free from the supreme fear, the fear of bondage to Samsaara. Only so can a man escape the consequences of past deeds which are responsible for what he is and what he does in this life. The key to the dharmic life is in renunciation.

And on that note we may conclude. Abstention from flesh and fish may not be the whole of renunciation or even a big part of it; but it undoubtedly does help to keep one's conscience sensitive and control the appetites that are the marks of unregenerate man. It was this conviction that that led millions of people in this country to make a vow of vegetarianism. And even in recent times whole communities who were flesh-eaters gave up the practice on grounds of compassion as well as of ceremonial purity. And even those who ate meat recognized the superior virtue of abstention by refraining from meat on sacred occasions. It was the strong religious and humanitarian impulse generated by the teaching of the Puranas and by such movements as Vaishnavism in Bengal and Saivism in the South that counteracted the evil effects of broadcasting among all and sundry the teachings of special cults like those of the Tantric Vaamaachaarins which may have been intended for the heroic few.

As the Dharma Vyadha taught, it is far easier for a man to slip from the life of self-control and self-denial to which he has been bred by family or caste tradition than for one who has been bred in a laxer family or caste tradition to lift himself up by his own efforts. The new waves of atheism and materialism in the land as well as the craze for following outlandish fashions and the superstition that eating fish and flesh is conducive to superior physical efficiency, are luring away many of the younger generation of Brahmins and other higher classes from their traditional moorings. Every effort must be made to prevent this backsliding, and to prevent also their checking the progressive advance of the Ahimsa ideal. This, it seems to me, can best be done by following the Puranic methodology. That, did not represent vegetarianism as just 'kitchen morality', matter of unintelligent taboos and prejudices. It pointed out that the practice of the higher virtues without which there can be no spiritual advancement for the individual and no vital culture for society, is contingent on growth in self-control, consideration for others, and compassion for all living beings. The man who understands the full force of these truths cannot but realize that, while non-killing and non-indulgence in flesh foods may not be the last word in ethical progress, they are indispensable for the good life lived in all its fullness and grace.