Vaishnava Hinduism, Vegetarianism, and the Primacy of Ahimsa*
Although not all Hindus are vegetarians, the Hindu world, in general, has a healthy reverence for all of God's creation, often extending to a non-meat diet. But some clearly do eat meat, and for them it is simply a non-issue. Why does such diversity exist in the practice of Hinduism? Why do some adamantly stand behind the importance of vegetarianism while others go so far as to endorse animal sacrifice?
The problem is multifaceted, but its resolution begins with the following simple truth: Contrary to popular belief, "Hinduism" is not a monolithic tradition. Rather, it is an umbrella term for a number of diverse religions, such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and others -- all with different scriptures, practices, and even conceptions of God. So while some of these religions sanction meat eating, others do not. In this chapter, we look at Vaishnava Hinduism, the numerically largest segment of the Hindu population,1 to see what role vegetarianism and ahimsa play in its philosophy and practice.
Interestingly, Vaishnavism is, for the most part, a vegetarian tradition, accounting for hundreds of millions of people.2 Vaishnavas have always advocated the equitable treatment of our four-footed, feathered, and scaly kin. All were considered brothers and sisters under God's divine fatherhood.
Ancient India's scriptural legacy, the Vedic literature, was originally emphatic in its support of monotheism and animal rights -- even if many of these verses have been lost over time.3 Still, according to the Vaishnava sages who pass down these texts in esoteric lineages -- and according to India's vast storehouse of supplemental Vedic literature, such as the epics and the puranas -- God is seen as the ultimate Father, much as He is in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and all living entities as His children. Apropos of this, a strong tradition of ahimsa arose in the Vaishnava tradition, teaching harmlessness and a love for all creatures, who are spiritually bonded in relationship to God. Indeed, the Mahabharata, chief among the Vaishnava epics and arguably the most important scripture in India, says, ‘ahimsa paro dharmo': "Nonviolence is the highest duty."4
Such nonviolence, it should be noted, is expressed in the most general terms. It is meant to be all-inclusive -- not the "qualified" nonviolence found in most Western traditions, to be applied only toward one's own kind. No. The Mahabharata extols the virtue of sarva-bhuta-hita, which means "kindness to all creatures," as opposed to the more limited vision of loka-hita, or "kindness to one's own species."5 The former includes the latter. In this way, the scripture asks practitioners to be kind to all.
Vaishnavism's Golden Rule
Just as the Bible teaches the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" -- the Mahabharata, predating the Bible, teaches a similar truth, and in almost the exact same wording.6 But Vaishnavas extend the teaching to its logical limits, showing kindness to all species of life -- and this, of course, means vegetarianism. It's hard to be kind to animals if you're eating them!
The "do unto others" ethic is reflected in the origins of the Sanskrit word for meat: mamsa, which means "me-he" -- or, by implication, "The fate of this animal will also be mine." This etymological derivation of the word can be traced to the Manu-samhita (5.55): "He will eat me in the next world, whose meat (mamsa) I eat in this world. This is why meat is called mam-sa, or ‘me-he'"7 The Golden Rule is clearly at work here. If what I "do unto you" is to eat you, then you have every right, in some future life, to "do the same unto me" -- to eat me. In other words, the karmic reaction for eating a living being is evident in the language itself -- "I will be eaten in the same way that I eat others -- even if they are animals."
Thus, devout Hindus oppose killing for many reasons. They know that every action holds within it an avoidable reaction (karma), and that the idea of reincarnation -- of taking birth commensurate with our deeds -- follows karma like the butcher does his meat. Thus, says the believing Vaishnava, that which we do to others will be done to us -- this is the universal law of cause and effect, echoing, once again, the Golden Rule. In other words, killing begets killing, and since there are many lives in which to reap what one sows, violence and killing eventually return to those who are violent and to those who kill, if not in this life then in the next one.
Of course, this action/reaction schema had little meaning for Vaishnavas, who didn't eat meat. Rather, it was a concern for early Vedic cults, Shaktas, and others who took part in animal sacrifices. Traditionally, worshippers of Kali, for example, were obliged to chant the Sanskrit word for meat while sacrificing an animal as part of an elaborate ritual -- just before slitting its throat. By chanting the "mamsa mantra," the priest's heart was supposed to be softened, and he was pardoned from the sin of killing.
There are other linguistic connections between meat eating and the severe karmic reactions awaiting those who do. For example, the Sanskrit noun pashu-ghna ("he who kills the body") can apply to both a "meat eater" and to "one who commits suicide," thus reinforcing the notion that consuming flesh is tantamount to destroying one's own body. Narada Muni, the cosmic sage who travels the universe as he does through the pages of the Vedic literature, tells us something similar in his instructions to King Prachinabarhi, a prince from the Vedic era who was enamoured of opulent animal sacrifices: "O ruler of the citizens, my dear King, please see in the sky those animals that you have sacrificed, without compassion and without mercy, in the sacrificial arena. All these animals are awaiting your death so that they can avenge the injuries you have inflicted upon them. After you die, they will angrily pierce your body with iron horns and then eat your flesh."8 This, again, is consistent with the traditional understanding of the word mamsa. In fact, all Vedic texts in support of animal sacrifice also endorse this karmic idea that the perpetrator's future life hangs in the balance.9
That being said, animal sacrifices and the mantras necessary to perform them properly are ideally things of the past. They are actually considered "prohibited in the age of Kali" (kali-varjyas), even though numerous Hindu sects still make use of them.10 By the thirteenth century, great Vaishnava reformers, such as Madhvacharya, recommended "animal effigies," images of animals made of flour, for example, to accommodate the ancient scriptural mandate and to appease traditionalists who might still be attached to such outmoded sacrifices.11 The sacrifice for Kali is now sankirtan-yajna, or the congregational chanting of God's holy names. It is this, say the sages, that awakens God-realization in the current epoch of world history, just as animal sacrifices once served a purpose in days of old.12
Indeed, one may wonder why animal sacrifices were ever deemed necessary at all, even in the distant past. Though the scriptures are never quite clear on this point, the Skandha Purana offers an interesting history of how such sacrifices began, showing that while the rituals were, in fact, ordained by the saints and sages of the Vedic era, they were never encouraged and always frowned upon. As the story goes, a Brahmin once cursed the world with a devastating famine. The common people, unable to bear it, slaughtered animals to satisfy their hunger -- to stay alive. But the sages did not, even at the cost of their own lives. These sages would rather die, the Purana tells us, than feast on the remains of dead animals. Still, to accommodate the masses, they agreed to let them kill creatures -- but not merely to stay alive. Rather, the killing should be done, first and foremost, as a religious sacrifice, and then the people could eat the remains. This, then, became an established part of Vedic religion, even if the spiritually advanced, it is underlined, did not partake of the fleshy spoils. Gradually the calamity subsided, but the animal sacrifices were already in place, with ritualists continuing to employ them as an everyday occurrence.13
Vegetarianism: A Scriptural Basis
That vegetarianism has always been widespread in India is clear from even a cursory reading of her traditional religious literature. For example, the Manu-samhita (5.49), quoted earlier, says, "Having well considered the origin of flesh foods and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh." The same work tells us that "killing living beings is an impediment to heaven" and that "one should therefore abstain from meat." (5.48) The text thus abjures the use of flesh-foods in no uncertain terms. Though the Manu-samhita does include a provision for meat gathered from Vedic sacrifices, it shuns all other use of non-vegetarian fare. (5.42-44)
In the Mahabharata, the respected grandsire and general Bhishma has much to say about the harshness of eating animals. While instructing Yudhishthira, eldest of the Pandava princes, he says that the meat of animals is like the flesh of one's own son; eating meat is repugnant, he says, and it should be avoided. Bhishma goes on at some length:
Meat is not born of grass, wood or rock.
The Mahabharata further explains that meat eating is in the darker modes of existence, causing ignorance and disease. It makes clear that a healthful vegetarian diet is sattvic -- that is, in the mode of goodness -- able to increase purity of consciousness and longevity. There are many other Indian scriptural texts in India endorsing the vegetarian way of life as well.
Ahimsa and the Vaishnava Tradition
Ahimsa is often said to mean "nonviolence," but, more specifically, it refers to "non-aggression," and it is a high priority in the practice of Vaishnavism. The distinction between nonviolence and non-aggression should be clear. Violence is sometimes necessary, as, for example, when a loved one is attacked and protection is required, or when life is threatened and self-defence becomes natural or obligatory. In such cases, violence may be in order. But aggression never is, at least when it comes to harming others.
Qualities such as gentleness, humility, and compassion -- and all related characteristics -- are necessary components of ahimsa, without which one is not really practising the spiritual life proper; and so Vaishnavas put a premium on such behaviour. In their tradition, they see cows as symbolic of all finer qualities, and as representing the animal kingdom as a whole. For this reason, Vaishnavas particularly venerate cows as an emblem of ahimsa. The Vaishnava position is clear: As she is dear to Lord Krishna, the divine cowherd, so should she be dear to us all.
In India, to this day, cows are appreciated for their practical value as well, with the five magical products that come from their bodies -- urine, cow dung, milk, ghee, and yogurt -- used in numerous ways. Amazingly, these items, especially urine and dung, have been found effective (and cost efficient) as fertilizer, compost, medicines, pest repellents, cleansing products, and biogas fuel. The cow is also considered sacred as a natural mother for human society -- as one's biological mother weans her young on breast milk, so does the cow nurture us in the same way. Caring for mother cow is thus seen as an important component of ahimsa.
It should be noted, however, that while ahimsa is considered important in Vaishnava practice, it always remains subservient to love of God, which is the core of the tradition. Buddhism and Jainism, on the other hand, have elevated ahimsa to a central teaching, taking it beyond its usual manifestation in traditional Hinduism.
For all traditions that embrace ahimsa, it is supposed to be practised not only on the physical level, but also on mental and emotional levels. It asks that practitioners avoid abusiveness, whether overtly or in more subtle ways.
Two thousand years ago, South India's Tamil saint, Tiruvalluvar, claimed, "All suffering recoils on the wrongdoer himself. Thus, those desiring not to suffer should refrain from causing pain to others" (Tirukural 320). The Tirukural, literally "Holy Couplets," is a revered text among Hindus worldwide, and it is often quoted for its wisdom, specifically in regard to ethics and animal rights. Satguru Shivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927--2001), the founder of Hinduism Today, considered it among his favorite scriptures and often used it to explain Hindu vegetarianism in general:
Hindus teach vegetarianism as a way to live with a minimum of hurt to other beings, for to consume meat, fish, fowl or eggs is to participate indirectly in acts of cruelty and violence against the animal kingdom. The abhorrence of injury and killing of any kind leads quite naturally to a vegetarian diet, sakahara [which is the Sanskrit word for vegetarianism]. The meat-eater's desire for meat drives another to kill and provide that meat. The act of the butcher begins with the desire of the consumer. Meat eating contributes to a mentality of violence, for with the chemically complex meat ingested, one absorbs the slaughtered creature's fear, pain and terror. These qualities are nourished within the meat-eater, perpetuating the cycle of cruelty and confusion. When the individual's consciousness lifts and expands, he will abhor violence and not be able to even digest the meat, fish, fowl and eggs he was formerly consuming. India's greatest saints have confirmed that one cannot eat meat and live a peaceful, harmonious life. Man's appetite for meat inflicts devastating harm on th earth itself, stripping its precious forests to make way for pastures. The Tirukural candidly states, "How can he practise true compassion who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own flesh? Greater than a thousand ghee offerings consumed in sacrificial fires is not to sacrifice and consume any living creature."15
These ideas blend the teachings of compassion and spirituality into one tightly knit tapestry, one that is hung in the home of all believing Hindus.
Vaishnavas, especially, seek to develop qualities like compassion and kindness because such characteristics are virtuous in their own right. It is not that Hindus are simply interested in avoiding a backlash -- a future birth -- for violent or thoughtless activity. To understand the pervasive practice of nonviolence in Hinduism, one must understand how Hindus view the life-force itself. Why is life sacred? For India's ancient thinkers, life is part of God, an emanation of the Divine that must be respected and honoured. Love for God cannot be attained if one does not develop love for God's children, for the sparks of divinity that flow from His (or Her) essence. Accordingly, Hindus have a natural reverence for life, which is part and parcel of their reverence for God.
Conclusion: Spiritual Vegetarianism
The Vaishnava scriptures do not limit their discussion of food to the avoidance of killing and the virtues of a vegetarian diet. According to traditional texts, one should offer all food 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," Lord Krishna says, "should be done as an offering unto Me." (Bhagavad-gita 9.27)
One should not therefore conclude, however, that everything is offerable. The Gita specifies exactly what should be offered: "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it." (9.26) Other references in this literature confirm that fruits, vegetables, grain, nuts, and dairy products are fit for human consumption. Followers of the Gita thus refrain from meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, since these are not sanctioned by either the scriptures or the sages. In the modern age, veganism, too, has become a viable option for many devotees.16
The Bhagavad-gita further declares that one who lovingly offers 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 sins because they eat food which is first offered in sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin." (3.13) The remnants of such devotional offerings are called prasadam (literally "the Lord's mercy").
Most temples in India freely distribute such sanctified vegetarian food (prasadam) for the benefit of the multitudes that approach the holy shrines daily. This food has mystic potency, say Vaishnava stalwarts, purifying all who prepare it, serve it out, sell it, or eat it. One of the most celebrated Vedic sages, Narada Muni, was inspired to embark on the spiritual path merely by tasting food offered to the Lord.
In conclusion, just as Vaishnavas generally promote vegetarianism within the context of prasadam, they also acknowledge the benefits of a vegetarian diet as a stepping-stone to spiritual perfection. In the Bhagavad-gita (Chapter Seventeen), Lord Krishna Himself acknowledges that food can be divided into three categories, that of goodness, passion, and ignorance. Clearly, the effects of eating food in passion and ignorance, which includes the eating of meat, has adverse affects on the human condition. This is supported by Grandsire Bhishma in the above verses. Conversely, say Vaishnava texts, eating food in goodness -- fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, milk, and so on -- sets the stage for transcendence, wherein one has the opportunity to become more appreciative of spirituality in general.
True, until a devotee comes along and offers the food to Krishna, making it prasadam, one is likely to have a set stage with no actors and no performance. That is, vegetarianism may position us for higher material aspirations and predispose us to God consciousness; but without the touch of God, through the agency of His devotees, we are not likely to get all that can be gotten from a vegetarian diet. Why not, suggests the Bhagavad-gita, get the most out of our vegetarianism by offering our food to God?
In Hinduism, this might be called "Complete Vegetarianism," for it takes Bhishma's words into account and yet it augments the Grandsire's teaching with offering food as sacrifice. Which Hindu would deny that it is important to do so? Such a Hindu need merely ask himself, given a choice between vegetarian foods and vegetarian foods offered to Krishna, which would Grandfather Bhishma prefer?
1. That Vaishnavas constitute the Hindu majority was brought to light in three consequential books: (1) Agehananda Bharati, Hindu Views and Ways and the Hindu-Muslim Interface (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1981); (2) Klaus Klostermaier, "The Response of Modern Vaishnavism" in Harold G. Coward, ed., Modern Indian Responses to Religious Pluralism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. 129; and (3) Gerald Larson, India's Agony Over Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 20. The same fact was stated in the 1996 Britannica Book of the Year.
2. Thus, of the almost 850,000,000 Hindus today, seventy-five percent are Vaishnavas, accounting for almost 640,000,000 people. Not all practise strictly, nor are all vegetarian. There are Vaishnavas in the state of Orissa, for example, who live off the sea. Their "sea vegetables" often include fish. Those of lower castes might also eat meat, out of necessity, and warrior-caste families have a tradition of eating flesh-foods, too, especially in the forest as they prepare for battle. But there are few other exceptions in the Vaishnava tradition, with the vast majority adhering to a strict lacto-vegetarian diet.
3. The Vedas as they exist today are said to be but a portion of the original scripture. Regarding monotheism, Vaishnavas aver that the many gods of the Vedas are just aspects of Brahman, the overarching Spirit of the universe. This Spirit, in turn, is merely an impersonal manifestation of Vishnu, the Supreme Godhead. Regarding animal rights, there were, it is true, animal sacrifices in days of old, and these were supported in Vedic texts. But like the biblical prophets, whose esoteric traditions tell us that God "preferred mercy and not sacrifice," Vaishnava sages taught that animal sacrifices were an inferior gift to God, and that He preferred bhakti, or devotion. Accordingly, the sacrifice for the current age is the chanting of the holy name, and animal sacrifices are strictly forbidden.
4. Mahabharata 1.11.12 and 3.198.69.
5. The virtue of sarva-bhuta-hita is even referred to in the Bhagavad-gita 5.25.
6. The Golden Rule, in almost biblical phrasing, can be found in the critical edition of the Mahabharata (5.39.57), as part of Vidura's famous sermon: "Do not do to another that which you would find disagreeable if done to you -- this is the summary of all duty." A similar verse appears again much later in the same epic (13.113.8). See the Ganguli translation on the web:
7. Also see Brahmanda Purana 2.63.24 and Vishnu-smriti 51.78.
8. See Srimad Bhagavatam, 4.25.7-8.
9. See Kaushitaki Brahmana 11.3; Shatapatha Brahmana 11.6.1; and Jaimaniya Brahmana 1.42-44.
10. See Lance Nelson, "Cows, Elephants, Dogs, and Other Lesser Embodiments of Atman: Reflections on Hindu Attitudes Toward Nonhuman Animals" in Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton, eds., A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 184.
12. See Bhagavata Purana 12.3.51. Vishnu Purana 6.2.17. Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda 72.25.
13. Skandha Purana 2.9.9. For context, see Edwin Bryant, "Strategies of Vedic Subversion: The Emergence of Vegetarianism in Post-Vedic India" in Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton, eds., A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, op. cit., p. 200.
14. For context, see Christopher Key Chapple, "Ahimsa in the Mahabharata," in Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Volume 4, Number 3 (Summer 1996), pp. 109-125.
15. See Satguru Shivaya Subramuniyaswami, Dancing With Siva: Hinduism's Contemporary Catechism (Concord, California: Himalayan Academy, 1993), p. 201.
16. For more on veganism in Vaishnava Hinduism, see Vraja Kishor Das, The Vegan and the Vedas: A Detailed Examination of Veganism and Krishna Consciousness (Towaco, New Jersey: Krishnafest North America, 1994).
Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008); the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008); and Krishna's Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita (Praeger-Greenwood, 2010).