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Hinduism and Vegetarianism
By Paul Turner
IVU News - March 2000

Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh. - Manusmriti 5.49

While most major world religions are traceable to one particular founder, Hinduism has its beginnings in such remote antiquity that it cannot be traced to any one individual. Its roots, however, are firmly planted in the ancient Vedic texts.

Interestingly enough, the word "Hindu" is not actually found anywhere in Vedic scriptures. The term "Hindu" is vague, and even a misnomer. The term was introduced by Muslims from neighboring countries who referred to people living across the River Sindhu, a people who actually held a vast array of religious beliefs. There is no one "Hindu religion."

The original Vedic system is actually quite different from contemporary Hinduism. Both the old and the new, however, converge harmoniously in regard to vegetarianism. Here are some quotes from the Vedas:

"You must not use your God-given body for killing God's creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever." (Yajur Veda, 12.32)

"By not killing any living being, one becomes fit for salvation." (Manusmriti, 6.60)

"The purchaser of flesh performs himsa (violence) by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does himsa by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing. He who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts of the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells, or cooks flesh and eats it-all of these are to be considered meat-eaters." (Mahabharata, Anu. 115:40)

Cow Protection

According to India's traditional scriptural histories, the original cow Mother Surabhi, was one of the treasures churned from the cosmic ocean, and "the five products of the cow" (pancha-gavya)-milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung-were considered purifying. The cow is respected in her own right as one of the seven mothers because she offers her milk as does one's natural mother. The cow plays a central role in the Vedic ideal for humanity: "simple living and high thinking," a life close to nature and God. Until recently in India's history, most people lived on tracts of land suitable for complete self-sufficiency.

The cow thus has always played an important role in India's economy. For example, cow dung serves as an inexpensive fertilizer. Stored in underground tanks, it also generates methane gas that is used for heating and cooking. Cow dung is also an effective disinfectant and is used both as a poultice and a cleansing agent.

The very name for the cows is aghnaya which means "not to be killed."

Vegetarianism and Nonviolence

In the Manusmriti, it is stated that one should refrain from eating all kinds of meat, for such eating involves killing and leads to karmic bondage (bandha).

Elsewhere in the Vedas, the last of the great Vedic Kings, Maharaja Pariksit, is quoted as saying that "only the animal killer cannot relish the message of the Absolute Truth." Therefore, the Vedas inform us to obtain spiritual knowledge, one must begin with being vegetarian.

The Lord's Mercy

According to the Vedic scriptures, one should offer all foods as a sacrifice to God: "all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me." (Bhagavad-gita 9.27)

The Gita also clarifies exactly what should be offered: "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it." (Bhagavad-gita. 9.26)

The Bhagavad-gita further declares that one who lovingly offers his food to God, according to scriptural guidelines, is freed from all sinful reactions and consequent rebirth in the material world: "The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sin because they eat food which is offered first in sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin. (Bhagavad-gita 3.13)

Remnants of such devotional offerings are called prasadam (literally, "The Lord's Mercy"). In India, the largest temples, such as Shri Rangam in south India and Jagannath Mandir, the main temple in Puri, all freely distribute sanctified vegetarian foods (prasadam) daily.

Animals and Spirituality

Long before Saint Francis was declared the patron saint of the animals, the sages of ancient India had already recognized spirituality in all living species. Vedic texts even describe incarnations of God in various animal forms.

Some of the more popular are the boar, the tortoise, the fish, and the horse-there is even a half man/half lion incarnation! ( Vedic literature does not promote polytheism, rather, the Vedas affirm that it is the same one God who appears in various forms).

The Vedic viewpoint even acknowledges the ability of ordinary animals to achieve exalted states of spirituality! This is so because of the viewpoint that spirituality is not limited to the human form and that ultimately the external body is a temporary housing for the eternal spiritual soul.

The Vedas say that the living soul transmigrates, from body to body, from species to species, until it finally reaches the human form, equipped with reason and the ability to inquire into the Absolute Truth. Exercising that human prerogative, one can end the cycle of repeated birth and death and attain the kingdom of God.

Here, then, is a religious tradition that emphasizes not only vegetarianism but also the spiritual equality of all living beings.

Sources: Diet for Transcendence by Stephen Rosen. Paul Turner is the global director of Food for Life and a member of the IVU Council

Contributions to IVU News are welcomed. Material published does not necessarily reflect the views of the editor or the policy of the International Vegetarian Union.