Vegetarianism: Non-violence as Daily Practice

“Even at the risk of your own self, refrain from acts that cause the harmless, pain of their lives.” ~ The Tirukkural (327)

For many Hindus, vegetarianism is more than a way of life, it is a tradition. Vegetarianism can also be realized as a daily ‘sadhana,’ or spiritual practice, for a vegetarian lifestyle becomes a practice of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence in thought, speech and action.

Vegetarianism Not a Must for Hindus
Though vegetarianism is associated with Hinduism, it is not true that even a majority of Hindus are vegetarian, nor is it a condition of Hinduism to be a vegetarian.

In fact, it is stated in the “Manusmriti” (5:56), “There is no sin in eating meat… but abstention brings great rewards.” So, one cannot state, “I am a vegetarian because I am a Hindu.” Stating this may also imply that all Hindus are vegetarian, which is not true.

In this case, why are some Hindus vegetarian and some are not? It is believed that before India was invaded by outsiders (Vedic era) the majority of Indians were not meat eaters. Influences of outsiders (i.e., Aryans and Muslim invaders) came to change that. It was also common practice for the ‘Kshatriya’ caste (warriors) to eat meat as it gave more strength and set the mind up ‘more’ for fighting. This may seem odd, after all how can eating meat make one feel ‘more’ predisposed to violence (i.e., anger, aggression, fighting moods, etc.). This stems from the philosophy of ‘himsa’ or violence.

Is Meat-Eating Violence?
By partaking in eating meat, especially in the old days before prepackaged, supermarket foods, and fast food, one had to think of where to find the animal, how to kill it, how to prepare it for consumption, and then how to cook, eat and preserve it.

Hence, the whole process of eating animals was ‘himsa,’ because one had to think of all this, possibly speak of it (planning the killing, etc.) and act on it by killing, preparing and eating the animal. In Indian history, we have the seminal example King Ashoka (circa 273-232 BC), who - from being a ruthless warrior - not only became a Buddhist, but also promoted ahisma and vegetarianism in his later life.

When we eat the flesh of a dead animal, we not only partake in ‘himsa’ in our own spirit, but we can also become affected by the spirit of the dead animal. In order to have been eaten the animal had to die. In dying, it felt pain, it struggled, cried, tried to continue living as long as possible. Since it was slaughtered, it died in fright, pain, mental and emotional anguish and struggle. Then it has to be skinned, gutted, processed and packaged to end up on a plate, decorated and consumed in human pleasure. In human pleasure, one does not think of the pain of the once living animals on the plate. Hence partaking in eating meat, one is not just ingesting and digesting protein and nutrients, but the feelings of violence which erupted in the animal from its unnatural death.

The “Mahabharata” states: "The purchaser of flesh performs himsa 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,” 115:40)

Similarly, vegetarianism and ahimsa can be realized through the old adage “treat others as you would like to be treated.” Swami Dayananda, in his “The Value of Values” connects this to ahimsa and vegetarianism by stating that we should not think of ‘somebody’ being our dinner if we do not want to be ‘somebody’ else’s dinner.’

Further, the “Mahabharata” (18.113.8) says: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Yielding to desire and acting differently, one becomes guilty of adharma.”

Some of the spiritual reasons, we’ve discussed here may have stemmed from the practical reasons people refrained from eating meat initially. Modern meat-eating Hindus will usually not eat beef or pork (which is rapidly changing), but eat all other kinds of meat.

What Good is Meat for You?
Many know the reason that the cow is not eaten is because it is considered ‘holy’. But what about pork? Pork, coming from the pig, was considered unhygienic to eat because pigs are ‘dirty animals’.

It was thought that by eating pig flesh, people could contract the diseases of the pig. This may seem far-fetched, but if we look at modern society, many diseases are transmitted to humans from the dead animals they eat.

Some sicknesses come from under cooking the meat or not preparing it properly before cooking it. However, some sicknesses stem from the ways in which humans selfishly try to increase meat production by unnatural methods. Most common of these is the ‘mad cow’ disease, which resulted from people mixing cow fodder with pieces of dead animals to ‘fatten the cows’ quickly.

God created many vegetarian animals, one being the cow, and so this would naturally disturb the god-given balance of the cow and then also affect all members forthcoming in the food chain.

Humans, unlike other animals that work on instinct alone, have the god-given ability to make conscious choices about the food they enjoy, ingest and digest.

This food, in turn helps to fuel our bodies and keep us in good health emotionally, mentally and physically. Food that robs us of energy, such as heavy products that are hard on digestion, like meat, weigh us down emotionally, mentally and physically, even if we do not realize this immediately.

These are the major reasons, all related to ‘ahimsa,’ why Hindus naturally take to vegetarianism as a daily ‘sadhana’, and abstain from eating flesh.

Sources:
Swami Dayananda, “The Value of Values,” Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Saylorsburg, PA, 2993, pp. 31-34.
Swami Tejomayananda, “Hindu Culture: An Introduction,” Chinmaya Publications, Piercy, CA, 1994, pp. 100-103.
Gopi Nath Aggarwal, “Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian: Choose Yourself,” Books for All, Delhi, India, 1998, 27-33.
Shri J. Narayanaswamy, “Thirukkural in English”