Co-authored by Hari Ravikumar
In 2007, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations conducted a survey of meat consumption per person in every country. India came last.
Food: Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian
Further, there are more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined (we can get a sense from this list). There is a widespread notion that such a high level of vegetarianism is due to Hinduism. While it is true that many Hindus are vegetarians, it is incorrect to say that Hinduism forbids meat-eating.
In the large body of the fundamental works of Hinduism, there are several rules and prescriptions (quite often contradictory in letter though not in spirit) with respect to food and drink. We can find quite a few of these rules in the four Vedas but most of them are found in the Smṛti texts (like Manusmṛti), the Dharmasūtras (like Āpastamba Dharmasūtra), and the Gṛhyasūtras (like Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra).We can glean several interesting details from our traditional works.
For example, we learn that food was eaten while being seated (Rigveda Saṃhitā 4.30.3), food was eaten only twice a day (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 1.4.9), and that talking was kept to a minimum while eating (Baudhayana Dharmasūtra 2.7.2). In times of emergencies, there were absolutely no restrictions on food (Brahma Sūtra 3.4.29-31). We are asked to greet our food, honour it, rejoice upon seeing it, and pray that we may always obtain it (Manusmṛti 2.54-55).
There are many references to meat-eating in our scriptures. In the oldest composition of them all, the Rigveda Saṃhitā, we see that our ancients cooked the flesh of oxen and offered it to the gods, especially Indra (see RVS 10.86.14 or 10.27.2, for example). Horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows, and rams were sacrificed for Agni (RVS 10.91.14). Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 22.214.171.124 says that sage Yājñavalkya would eat the meat of cows and oxen, provided it was tender. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.18 says that if a couple wants to beget a son who will grow up to be a great scholar, they have to eat rice cooked with beef, along with ghee. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 126.96.36.199 goes on to say that meat is the best kind of food!
But even in the early texts, we can see the compassion of our ancient people. In RVS 8.43.11, Agni is hailed as one whose food is the ox and the barren cow. Often in the Rigveda Saṃhitā (see 1.164.27, 1.164.40, 4.1.6, and 5.83.8, for example), the cow is called aghnyā, ‘one who doesn’t deserve to be killed.’ Therefore, it seems that only barren cows were killed. How else do we account for the lavish praise showered on cows (RVS 6.23.1-8 and 8.101.15-16)? One verse (RVS 8.101.16), which hails the cow as devī, ‘goddess.’
Although animal sacrifices were prevalent in the Vedic period, there were already some attempts to reduce this. They came up with the idea that instead of killing an animal, one could offer heartfelt praise to the gods or a fuel-stick or cooked food (see RVS 8.19.5 and 8.24.20 for example).
In later times, they even developed an ingenious theory that a person who eats meat will—in his next birth—become the meat eaten by that animal (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 188.8.131.52).
In the Mahābhārata (Droṇa Parva / Book 3, Chapter 199), sage Mārkāṇḍeya tells Yudhiṣṭhira the story of a hunter and a priest. When the priest accuses the hunter of violence, the latter narrates the story of King Rantideva: “In Rantideva’s kitchen, two thousand animals were killed every day as were two thousand cows. Rantideva became famous because he fed meat to all his people.”
Kālidāsa (5th century CE) says in Meghadūta 1.45 that River Charmanvati (modern-day Chambal) arose from the glory of King Rantideva who sacrificed thousands of cows. Mallinātha (13th century CE) says in his commentary on the Meghadūta that Charmanvati originated with the constant washing of cow hide and the flowing of the blood of cows.
But over the years, meat-eating reduced in India. This was due to a combination of socio-religious, geographical, and cultural factors. However, we observe that meat (including beef) was still consumed as part of rituals and special occasions. For example, during śrāddha, a ritual in memory of dead parents and other ancestors (Āpastamba Dharmasūtra 184.108.40.206); while preparing a meal for a distinguished guest as part of madhuparka (Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra 1.24.22-26, Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra 4.8); or in the śūlagava ritual in which a bull is killed (Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra 4.9.10).
In fact, to put to rest arguments of those days, a text no less than the Brahma Sūtra (3.1.25) says that the scriptures don’t have a problem with killing animals for a specified ritual. Even the Manusmṛti, a text that is rather partial to vegetarianism, says that meat-eating is fine under specific circumstances like during a calamity or as part of a ritual (MS 5.27, 5.32).
Madhuparka is the practice of offering honey to honour a distinguished guest. According to Yājñavalkyasmṛti 1.110, six kinds of people are offered madhuparka – a priest (ṛtvik), a teacher (ācārya), bridegroom, king, graduate (snātaka), and someone dear to the host.
The Baudhāyana Gṛhyasūtra 1.2.65 adds ‘guest’ (atithi) to this list. As part of madhuparka, honey, curds, ghee, water, and grains were offered while meat was optional (See Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra 1.22.5-26 for more details).
In the prelude to Act IV of Bhavabhūti’s play, Uttararāmacarita (8th century CE), there is a delightful dialogue between two ascetics, Saudhātaki and Daṇḍāyana. Saudhātaki is curious about the guest who is visiting their āśrama and learns that it is Vasiṣṭha. He tells Daṇḍāyana, “I thought it was a tiger or a wolf. My poor calf was terrified since his arrival.”
“When a great scholar visits us, we should offer the madhuparka with beef or mutton, as it is said in the dharmasūtras!”
Saudhātaki says, “You contradict yourself. A calf was sacrificed for Vasiṣṭha but when King Janaka came, he was offered just milk and curds. The calf was set free.”
“What the dharmasūtras say in this matter applies to those who have not given up meat. King Janaka is a vegetarian.
All these examples – of Kālidāsa, Bhavabhūti, and Mallinātha – serve to shed light on how meat-eating was perceived in the first millennium CE in India.
Jainism was the first (and perhaps only) religion whose adherents were strictly vegetarian. Buddhism did not forbid meat-eating per se but they were against animal sacrifice. People were weaned away from eating meat due to the influence of these two religions and also with the rise of the Vaiṣṇava faith, which used Bhāgavata Purāṇa 7.15.7-8 as their reference for wholly avoiding meat.
As for consuming alcohol, many texts prescribe abstinence while some others prohibit consumption for some groups of people. However, in the Vedas, we find many instances of the consumption of the juice from the soma creeper (possibly Cannabis sativa) as an immediate reward after conducting yajña and the consumption of surā (alcohol made from fermented barley or wild paddy) for pleasure (for example, see RVS 1.116.7, 8.2.12, or 10.131.4-5).
While the drinking of soma was commended, drinking surā was condemned. Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā 12.12 puts it eloquently when it says that one should keep away from alcohol in order that a person may avoid committing a sinful act, in speech or in deed.
There is a verse in the Rigveda Saṃhitā (10.5.6) that lists the seven rules of conduct for men; anyone who violates even one of these is a sinner. We know from Yāska’s Nirukta (6.27) that drinking alcohol is one of the seven transgressions.
Manusmṛti 11.55 lists the five terrible sins (pañcamahāpātaka) among which we find alcohol consumption. According to Manu, it is especially forbidden for a brāhmaṇa to drink alcohol and he even prescribes a harsh punishment for it (MS 11.91).
It is interesting to note that there are references for both Rāma and Kṛṣṇa partaking alcohol and/or meat. Rāma offers meat to Sītā and coaxes her to try it out since it is well-cooked (Ayodhyākāṇḍa / Book 2, 96.1-2). When Hanuman meets Sītā in the Aśoka-vātikā, he tells her that Rāma has been pining for her, and afflicted by sorrow, he has turned vegetarian and a teetotaller (Sundarakāṇḍa / Book 5, 36.41). Later, there is another section where Rāma feeds Sītā with wine, meat, and fruits (Uttarakāṇḍa / Book 7, 42.18-20).
Similarly, there is a segment where Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna get totally drunk in a party along with Draupadi and Satyabhāma (Udyoga Parva / Book 5, 58.5).
That said, there is no need for devout Hindus to get upset by this or for Hindu critics to get take their usual perverse delight. These incidents don’t affect the personalities of great heroes like Rāma and Kṛṣṇa; at any rate, one need not judge others by their personal habits.
The texts of Āyurveda tell us that in terms of health and wellness, a purely vegetarian diet is not superior to a healthy mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods. In fact, some kinds of meat have been recommended for staple use.
Further, Āyurveda does not emphasise vegetarianism even in its code of ethics; it is not a prerequisite for high culture. This is in sharp contrast to its take on alcoholic drinks, which though regarded healthy in moderation, has been despised in the code.
To get an overall picture about food and drink, we need to look no further than the Bhagavad-Gītā, the greatest summary of Hindu thought. Krishna (BG 3.13) gives us an idea of how we should approach food and drink in general:
The wise ones eat the food that remains
after being offered to yajña;
thus, they are released from all evils.
The wicked ones prepare food for their own sake
and indeed live on sin alone.
In the act of obtaining food, we cause some harm to the natural environment. So we should eat our food with a sense of gratitude, which is what Krishna refers to as ‘offering to yajña.’ We should never feel entitled to our food; ‘living on sin’ refers to this.
Later, in Bhagavad-Gītā 17.7-10, Krishna speaks about the nature of people and the food that they enjoy but he never prescribes a particular type of food that one should eat.
It is impossible for us to survive without inflicting some degree of violence to the world around us. Manusmṛti (3.68-71) mentions the five places in a house (pañcasūnā) where living beings may be accidentally killed – the fire-place, grinding slab, pestle and mortar, places swept with a broom, and the water pot.
To absolve themselves of this sin, householders are expected to perform the five great worships (pañcamahāyajña) every day: prayers to the gods, homage to ancestors, respect to the wise and the pursuit of knowledge, service to fellow beings, and worship of forces of nature.
Attitude Towards Food and Drink
We cannot altogether be non-violent but to the extent possible we should avoid violence. It is noteworthy that Manu prohibits any form of killing for pleasure (MS 5.45) and declares that a person who does not injure any living being attains the highest bliss (MS 5.46-47).
Therefore, when it comes to food habits, being a vegetarian is preferred – with sustainability in view – but not imposed. Keeping this in mind, it will be better if meat-eaters respect their vegetarian (and vegan) brethren rather than look upon them with disdain. On the other hand, the vegetarians (and vegans) need not look at meat-eaters with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude because it is only natural for humans to eat meat.
A commonly used word for food in Sanskrit and other Indian languages is āhāra. The etymology of the word – āhriyate iti āhāraḥ, ‘āhāra is that which is taken in’ – suggests that it refers to anything that we consume, not just food.
If we truly want sustainability of the planet and all the living beings in it, then we have to look at our intake not just from the point of view of food.
Just as a start, think about how our food is produced, processed, and shipped. If we learn more about food procurement, then we can make more informed choices of what foods to avoid and how we can help sustainability in the large sense.
Whatever positive ecological effects one might have by being vegetarian might be cancelled out by a bad choice in what kind of foods we pick (heavily processed food, genetically modified food, etc.) Similarly, the negative effects of meat-eating can be tempered by making better choices in how the meat is procured.
Finally, there can be no universal dictum about the food that we can eat or should not eat. Let us try our best to behave in a way that is sustainable for the world. Let us develop the right attitude towards our food – that of gratitude and joy. And let us remember the wise words of Manu (MS 5.56) lest we beat ourselves about it:
Meat-eating, drinking, and sex –
can you call these faults?
It is but natural for people to engage in it,
however, it’s a great thing if one stays away from it!
(Additional input thanks: Dr. G. L. Krishna and Dr. Koti Sreekrishna)
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- Bhavabhūti’s Uttararāmacarita. Bombay: Nirṇayasāgara Press, 1949. pp. 103-5
- Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta. Bombay: Nirṇayasāgara Press, 1915. pp. 37
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- Mahabharata, Book 3, Chapter 199 < http://sacred-texts.com/hin/mbs/mbs03199.htm>
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- Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. The New Bhagavad-Gita. Mason: W.I.S.E. Words Inc., 2011. pp. 84, 243
- Śrīmadvālmīkirāmāyaṇam (Mūlamantram). Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1963
- Swamy, B. G. L. The Rg Vedic Soma Plant. Indian Journal of History of Science (1976)
Dr. Ganesh is a Shatavadhani, a multi-faceted scholar, linguist, and poet and polyglot and author of numerous books on philosophy, Hinduism, art, music, dance, and culture.