Question for Diwali: Why does Hinduism extol vegetarian diets?

Question for Diwali: Why does Hinduism extol vegetarian diets? November 3, 2023

vegetarian meal
Hinduism encourages vegetarianism minus mandates / Maarten van den Heuvel @


In the leadup to Diwali, the Festival of Light on November 12, an article by Richa Karmarkar, the Hinduism specialist with Religion News Service, brings the faith’s vegetarianism up to date.

First, it observes that Hindus can make good use of the increasing availability and variety of plant-based mock “meat” under such brand names as Beyond Meat and Impossible.

Second, the article reports on an interesting futuristic issue that faces Hindu authorities: Will meat be permissible if it’s artificially grown from cells in laboratories and therefore does not involve animal slaughter?

That brings up one main reason for Hinduism’s vegetarian tradition, the principle of ahimsa, that is, non-violence and avoidance of any harm to other beings. This teaching from the ancient Hindu scriptures is reinforced by deep cultural reverence for cows as sacred (on which see below), and the belief that a human may be born into animal species in future lives through the process of “transmigration of souls” a.k.a. “reincarnation.” In addition, violent acts accumulate negative karma that affects one’s status in the next life.

Vegan vs. Vegetarian

Note that Hindus are vegetarian, not vegan. Both groups avoid eating animal flesh, but a vegetarian diet may include animal products like dairy items and eggs that vegans totally shun. The same with the use of leather goods. In India, the faith’s homeland, believers especially delight in sweet dairy dishes and regularly use ghee (clarified butter) in cooking.

Anglo-Indian historian Nirad Chaudhuri said Hindu scriptures from ancient times depict meat-eating as widespread and celebrate warriors. According to another expert, K. M. Sen, the ahimsa concept, though established long ago, was originally imported from India’s separate religions of Buddhism and Jainism. Observant Jains have the strictest imaginable practice, seeking to protect even insects and microorganisms and avoiding agriculture where vegetables need to be uprooted, as with onions and potatoes.

Limits on “Ahimsa”

Regarding ahimsa otherwise, Hindus as a whole are not pacifists who totally oppose killing in warfare, even in cases of justifiable defense, although some do hold to that belief. As for the controversy over treatment of human fetuses, Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found that 68% of U.S. Hindus wanted abortion to be legal “in most cases,” and the same for 82% of U.S. Buddhists and 83% for those of Jewish identity. (All three groups were notably more supportive than U.S. Christians and Muslims.)

Although Hinduism extols vegetarianism it does not mandate the practice with diet left to individual decision. Hindus’ avoidance of meat is less widespread than, for instance, the aversion toward pork and pork products among observant Jews (following Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8) and Muslims (per Quran 2:173 and 6:145).

Incidentally, Jewish vegetarians contend that God’s original creation design in Eden provided a diet of fruits and vegetables, with meat-eating only allowed after the great Flood (see Genesis 9:3). Among Christian groups, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has this distinctive stance: “We encourage a balanced vegetarian diet, and to avoid unclean foods as listed in the Old Testament,” referring to Leviticus 11.

Though not religiously enforced, India has more vegetarians relative to population than any other nation. A comprehensive 2021 Pew Research survey of 30,000 adults in 29 territories in India found that 44% of Hindus are vegetarians, and 81% practice at least certain limits such as avoiding specific meats, especially beef, or abstaining on holy days.

Experts say vegetarianism historically has been nearly universal among those in the upper Brahmin caste with lesser prevalence in the lower classes. Pew reported that observance varies considerably by the various regions within India, highest in the North and lowest in the East, and that only 36% of Hindus will eat in restaurants that serve both non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes.

Hindu Web sites designed to explain the faith to outsiders offer other reasons why believers avoid meat-eating. Some advocate general harmony with nature and restraint to control natural cravings or teach that a simple diet enhances spiritual depth and mental awareness.

Central Scriptures

Scriptural teaching is central. The Rig Veda venerates all life forms and specifies, “do not kill the cows and the horses; do not deprive life from the swift two-footed [that is, humanity] nor from the one who gives many gifts,” a reference to birds. Other classic texts: “The sins generated by violence curtail the life of the perpetrator. Therefore, those who are anxious for their own welfare should abstain from meat-eating” (#115:33 in the Anushasana Parva or “Book of Instructions”). “How can he practice true compassion who eats the flesh of an animal”? (#251 in the Tirukaral compendium on everyday virtues).

Otherwise, Hindu vegetarians favor what’s regarded as a healthy and spiritually Sattvic (“pure”) diet, united with concern for animal rights and environmental protection that have popular secular support in the West. These arguments involve abuses in factory farming, water conservation, global warming from greenhouse gases, deforestation, biodiversity, and sustainability.

A bit more detail on the status and protections of cows, as explained in the invaluable Hindus generally see the cow as representing divine and non-violent generosity whose products provide sustenance. Also, the cow is associated with the gods Krishna, Shiva, Nandi and Indra, and dairy products are employed in certain religious rituals.

Foodies might have fun exploring recipes for s vegan diet at based on “vegetables, fruits, whole grains, tubers, nuts, and legumes” while excluding meats and “dairy products, eggs, refined sugar, oil, ghee and highly refined foods like bleached flour.”

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