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Religion and Vegetarianism
Food of the Gods
from The Vegetarian March 1992


Hinduism -- Jainism -- Buddhism -- Judaism -- Islam -- Christianity

Some vegetarian dishes are quite literally a godsend. Many religions uphold vegetarianism as a spiritual ideal, although some cultures have chosen to make more of this particular moral code than others.

British vegetarians have a lot to be truly thankful for that cultures with much stronger vegetarian traditions than our own have introduced a wealth of vegetarian cuisine to our country. The Indian restaurant, with its wide and exotic choice of vegetable dishes for starters and main meals, has long been a veggie haven. And practically every meat dish has a vegetable counterpart such as vegetable curries - which is more than you can say for the typical British menu.

One of the reasons why the Indian menu offers such a great choice in vegetarian food is because many Eastern religions encourage vegetarianism. In fact the largest concentration of vegetarians in the world is to be found in India where 83 per cent of the country's 680 million people are Hindu, a religion that supports vegetarianism.

It is in the East that vegetarianism finds its strongest expression in religious thought. Forming the basis of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism (a Buddhist sect) is the belief that all life should be respected because the body is an outer shell for the spirit within.

Hinduism

Hinduism is the oldest of all Eastern religions and an early supporter of vegetarianism. It teaches that vegetarianism is on the path to being truly holy. The Vedas, India's ancient scriptures in which Hinduism has its roots, state, Only the animal killer cannot relish the message of the Absolute Truth. And of meat eaters the scriptures damningly state, Such sinful persons will be eaten by the same creatures they have killed in this world.

The scriptures set out the principle of non-violence, called Ahimsa, which forms a major part of most Eastern religions. Vegetarianism is the logical extension of this religious thought as the killing of any animal is seen as a violation of Ahimsa. In India the cow is sacred because it is considered to be an animal favoured by the Supreme Lord in the Vedas, Lord Krishna.

This non-violence theme is taken to such an extreme that not only those who kill animals are condemned but also those who sell, cook or serve meat. The Vedas state, You must not use your God-given body for killing God's creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever.

The Vedas set out the code of sarva-bhuta-hita, (devotion to the good of all creatures) which says that people should see the same life in all creatures regardless of their outer dress or bodies. In fact the Vedas go so far as to say that those who cannot understand the principle of life in lesser beings are missing the meaning of life altogether and risk losing their sense of humanity.

Jainism

The Jains, who are strict vegetarians, practise true Ahimsa to the extent that they literally will not harm a fly. Some Jains will sweep the path before them and wear gauze masks over their mouths so as not to harm small insects by inadvertently treading on them or breathing them in.

According to Jain scriptures, All living things love their life, desire pleasure and are averse to pain; they dislike any injury to themselves; everybody is desirous of life and to every being, his own life is very dear.

Buddhism

Love and compassion are the most important Buddhist beliefs, which explains why so many Buddhists are vegetarian. Buddha strongly discouraged eating meat, describing it as ignorant craving. He saw accepting flesh as supporting killing, which is against the principle of non-violence.

Buddhists believe the root of humans' aggression against one another is the result of the way we treat animals. So if we have no regard for animal life, the less respect we will have for human life. If we adopt a vegetarian diet where no killing is involved, it is easier to stay peaceful, happy and caring towards other people, they say.

The Buddhist view of animals is best illustrated in the Jakata stories (Buddhist lessons), in which Buddha is born as different animals in previous births. The stories equate killing animals with killing humans by saying that like Buddha everyone has been in animal form before.

Like the Vedas, the Buddhist law of Karma also says that those who cause violence and suffering to living things will experience the same pain at some time in their future.

Judaism

Another faith with a strong tradition of kindness and consideration towards animals is Judasim. Some Jewish prophets, such as Amos and Micah, spoke against ritual sacrifice, and many Jewish heroes were singled out by God because of their love for animals. The Talmud, the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, says that before a man sits down to his meal he has to feed his animals, because they cannot feed themselves.

If an animal is in pain, or its life in danger, Jews can break the vows of the Sabbath, their holiest day, to save it. In order to eat meat, Jewish people must first make it kosher (acceptable to God by draining the animal of its blood. This is in line with the Old Testament's instruction which states, But you should not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood. (Genesis 9:1). The soul of the animal is believed to be in the blood which is seen as sacred.

Critics say meat can never be kosher because although blood can be drained from the arteries of an animal it is impossible to remove it completely from the capillaries or smaller blood vessels.

Jews believe a Messiah will come to earth, by which time man will have reached an Edenic state. An Edenic state is where a person has the utmost regard for all animals - as first seen in Eden. Many Jews have adopted vegetarianism in preparation for this time.

Islam

Like Judaism, Islam rules that blood is not fit for human consumption and as a result the slaughter process is complicated. It must be done by people who observe the Muslim rule of praying five times daily. During the slaughter they have to look into the eyes of the animal until its soul departs. If the animal makes so much as a noise it becomes Haraam (forbidden) and not Halal (permissable). These laws burden the meat eater and are designed to minimise the number of animals killed.

Some Muslim sects such as the Sufis and Bahai's [see below] have chosen vegetarianism because they see it as the highest spiritual ideal.

However, Islam is not considered to be a strong vegetarian faith, although it supports the idea that the same moral codes and considerations should apply to all forms of life because they are sacred and have the right to protection.

The prophet Mohammed stressed universal compassion, by condemning and stopping much cruelty-to animals in his day. He said, "He who takes pity (even) on a sparrow, and spares its life, Allah (God) will be merciful to him on the day of judgment." It is Islamic law that no animal be slaughtered in Mecca, Mohammed's birth place.

Early biographers of Mohammed say he preferred vegetarian foods such as milk diluted in water, yoghurt with butter, or nuts and cucumber with dates. He would live on honey, pomegranates, grapes and figs for weeks at a time. He instructed people who ate meat to wash out their mouths before going to prayer. However, he did not strictly instruct people to avoid meat for fear of discouraging them from following the faith. He encouraged intermediate stages towards a pure spiritual diet.

Some believe Mohammed's death from eating poisoned meat was a deliberate attempt by him to prove to people that eating meat was bad. He is said to have known from spiritual insight that the meat was poisoned. He ate it alone and advised others not to eat it.

Christianity

Christianity is another faith which is not strongly vegetarian although its teachings would seem to support the idea. There is much in the Bible to support vegetarianism as an ideal, non violent way of life in line with Jesus's teachings. Jesus taught people to be considerate of all creatures, not just men, and some theories say that Jesus himself was a vegetarian.

According to one translation of the original Gospels, The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, the angel told Mary, "Ye shall eat no flesh nor take strong drink, for the child shall be consecrated unto God from his mother's womb, and neither flesh nor strong drink shall he take." The text goes on to say that the community in which Joseph and Mary lived did not slaughter a lamb in celebrating the feast of the Passover.

The miracle of the loaves and fish is not found in these early manuscripts. Rather, it is described as a miracle of bread, fruit and a pitcher of water.

And where Jesus is reputed in the Bible to have eaten meat, the original Greek words translate more accurately as 'food' and not necessarily meat.

The early vegetarians such as the Nazarenes, Therapeuts, Ebionites, Gnostics and Essenes, such as John the Baptist, all closely followed the scriptures which instructed a strictly meatless way of life. In fact in literal translations of early Christian texts there is no instance of meat eating being encouraged or accepted and many of the later Christian reasons for eating meat are based on mistranslation or selective interpretation.

According to the Encyclopedia of Judaica the ancient Israelites were vegetarian, and a recurring expression in the Bible is "grain and wine and oil" - no reference to meat there! In the beginning it would seem that God intended both people and animals not to eat meat.

"And behold I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which yielding seed: to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to every-thing that creeps on the earth, every-thing that has breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." (Genesis 1:29)

Where the Bible and other religious books do permit meat eating it is usually in a crisis such as when Noah was stranded in the ark and all the vegetation was destroyed by the flood. God said, "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you." (Genesis 9:11)

Even so God prevented Noah eating animals with blood, so he was limited to cold-blooded creatures such as clams, and snails. Compassion towards all living things and the principle "Thou shalt not kill" runs through most religions although the gods, the rituals and practices of each may vary.

Conclusion

Whether people choose to follow a vegetarian life style is down to a variety of sociological, economic, and environmental factors as well as well as personal beliefs. For many, vegetarianism becomes almost a religion in itself - something they believe in and to which they strive to be faithful in their daily lives and exploited for its animal resources.

Many of the world religions have the same basic concept: that a superior force has created all we know, and that we should respect and worship this force, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Vegetarianism is a philosophy embracing all this, with benefits for human and animal welfare as well as for the planet this force created.

For The Record

(A letter to a later issue of The Vegetarian)

I enjoyed the "Food of the Gods" article in the March issue of The Vegetarian however I must correct the points made in reference to the Baha'i Faith.

Baha'is are not, as stated, an Islamic sect, but followers of Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) whom we regard as the most recent in a line of Great World Teachers which includes Mohammed, as well as Christ, Moses, Krishna, Buddha and others. Secondly, Baha'is are not necessarily vegetarians at the moment, although Baha'i writings state that, "The food of the future will be fruit and grains. The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten; our natural food is that which comes out of the ground. The people will gradually develop up to the condition of this natural food."

Love and respect for animals is highly important to Baha'is and we can even learn from their example in the treatment of illnesses.

Carrie Varjavandt, Secretary, Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Dundee.