Vegetarianism: Religious reasons, part 1

Author: Evan Keraminas

General religious and spiritual reasons

Most world religions have some form of the "golden rule," which is sometimes extended to include compassion for nonhuman animals. Even people who are not necessarily religious may believe in the spiritual benefits of a vegetarian or meat-restricted diet. To obtain meat, they often point out, a sentient being is forcibly killed, whereas a plant can be harvested with no bloodshed. They feel that animal flesh is "pain-poisoned," the embodiment of death, and from this they conclude that it cannot be a nourishing food. (The logic here is that there is more violence involved with taking of animal versus plant life; plus, when one considers the amount of grain and vegetable matter required to raise animals for meat, meat eaters actually "kill" far more plants than do vegetarians.)

Ahimsa is a term which frequently comes up in vegetarian and vegan circles; it is a Sanskrit word which literally translates as "nonviolence" but is often taken to mean "peace and reverence toward all sentient beings." Ahimsa is a basic tenet of Dharmic religions (see below) but is frequently a part of non-religious "vegetarian spirituality" as well.

Plant foods in general are "lighter" than animal products, and are therefore considered by some to be more conducive to meditation, spiritual enlightenment, and/or higher consciousness. Alternately, it may be proposed that there is more "life-force" (or qi or prana) in plant foods, particularly those closer to their natural state; this is also where the raw-food movement may find a quasi-spiritual basis. A macrobiotic diet (which may include fish but is usually primarily vegan) is based on the belief that a proper balance of yin and yang foods is essential not just for physical health, but also for mental and spiritual well-being. Some conservatives prescribe meatless diets as a means of asceticism, believing that a diet which excludes meat will help tame the "passions." As shown in the section on health, though, a healthy vegetarian lifestyle would more likely improve one's sex life.

Is ethical vegetarianism a religion?

In his seminal work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, sociologist Emile Durkheim defined religion as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things...which unite into one single moral community all those who adhere to them." Using this definition, and considering how flesh or other animal products are viewed as "forbidden" in vegetarian thought, it is not difficult to see why ethical vegetarianism (particularly veganism) is sometimes classified as a "religion" in a sociological sense. The website lists Veganism with a capital "V" as a religious denomination, noting among its reasons that while there is no dogmatic theology, "Veganism espouses a large number of restrictions, taboos, beliefs, and practices which distinguish it from mainstream society... Vegans accept these beliefs on faith and based on the authority of the Vegan leaders, philosophers and the broader Vegan community."

Joanne Stepaniak remarks in The Vegan Sourcebook (which some vegans do indeed refer to as their "Bible"), "Some people refer to veganism as their 'religion' because the tenets of vegan practice and belief create a compelling moral code on a par with any religious doctrine or theology." However, many other vegetarians and vegans cringe at their beliefs and habits being described as "religious" since the word can take on a negative connotation in some circles. In any case, a "conversion" to vegetarianism or veganism certainly does not necessitate acceptance of a rigid dogma handed down by a religious authority, nor does it require renouncing the tenets of any religious faith.

Dharmic traditions

The concepts of ahimsa (nonviolence) and karma (very succinctly, reaping what one sows) are at the root of the Dharmic belief systems: Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. A belief in reincarnation and that animals have souls may make one think twice about killing a fellow sentient being, particularly since one's karma in this life is thought to have a significant effect on one's future incarnations, and possibly even repercussions in this life.

Ahimsa is most universally practiced in Jainism, whose adherents were the original animal rights activists in India. Jainas take care not to hurt even the tiniest being; even root vegetables are avoided because their harvest might harm suksma jiva ("subtle life forms," what would be recognized later as microorganisms). A Jain diet, keeping with these rigid terms of ahimsa, mandates lacto-vegetarianism for the laity and strict veganism for monks.

Many Westerners are familiar with the Hindu concept of the "sacred cow," and several verses in the Vedas seem to condemn meat-eating outright. However, it must be noted that vegetarianism is not necessarily dogma for Hindus, except for those in the orthodox tradition. Still, the vast majority of Hindus are at least semi-vegetarian, in part because of the ahimsa tradition and also because they believe that vegetable foods are more sattwic, or purifying. Approximately 30% of Hindus do not eat meat or eggs; dairy foods, especially ghee (clarified butter) are considered wholesome and spiritually purifying, thus full-scale veganism is rare among Hindus.

The Sikh faith promotes simple foods, and while religious vegetarianism per se is frowned upon, it is allowed for reasons of health or out of concern for nonhuman animals; Guru Nanak, like most religious founders, was an advocate of such compassion. In most orders, only vegetarian foods are acceptable fare at Sikh religious feasts, and meat is prohibited in the langar (Sikh communal kitchen). Sikhs are strongly discouraged from eating meat procured by ritual slaughter (e.g. halal or kosher meat) and are prohibited from practicing animal sacrifice.

The first precept in Buddhism prohibits killing, but similar to the various interpretations of "thou shalt not kill" in the Abrahamic traditions, not all Buddhists necessarily extend this rule to nonhuman animals. The Theravada schools tend to believe that avoiding flesh is merely preferable, not required, and that salvation was derived primarily by one's conduct (e.g. not killing the animal yourself), not simply by what one eats. On the other hand, Mahayana texts depict a vegetarian Buddha; the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, for example, quotes him stating that "the eating of meat extinguishes the great seed of compassion." Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists, the majority of whom follow the Mahayana tradition, almost invariably eschew flesh foods. (It should be noted that at least in Chinese Buddhism, mussels and oysters are still permitted; this is why one may see items such as broccoli with oyster sauce on the "vegetarian" menu at Chinese restaurants.) Tradition says that the Buddha himself died either by eating either tainted pig's flesh or a type of mushroom known as "pig's delight," depending on the translation. Some vegetarian Buddhists argue that even if it were the former, this was the Buddha's way of showing his followers that eating meat was hazardous.

Other Eastern traditions

Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON or "Hare Krishna") prescribed vegetarianism as one of the bases of spiritual life. ISKCON devotees often believe that vegetarianism is a way to reduce violent acts in the world. The Zoroastrian religion frowns upon animal abuse and sacrifice, and promotes respect toward all living creatures as well as respect for nature itself. Many, though not all, practicing Zoroastrians follow vegetarian diets for these reasons. In Cao Dai, a modern syncretic religion practiced mostly in Vietnam, adherents are expected to follow a vegetarian diet at least ten days out of every month.

Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, does not have any doctrinal prohibitions against meat, but, similar to Sikhism, it is customary to serve only vegetarian foods at certain religious feasts. A significant number of Taoists either limit or eschew meat as part of healthful, simple eating and to promote longevity and cultivation of qi, although, like Buddhists, this diet traditionally still permits oyster and oyster products. Shinto and Taoism also revere the "natural" order; again, an ideal to which the modern meat industry runs very much contrary.

Traditional and Earth-based belief systems

The religions of traditional and tribal peoples may contain certain dietary taboos (e.g. prohibiting the eating of a totem animal), but few if any prohibit the eating of meat per se. Peoples who live in extreme environments with little vegetation (Inuit, Chukchi, and Sami of the circumpolar regions, Australian Aborigines, Tuareg and other desert-dwelling nomads, et cetera) simply would be unable to survive without pastoralism, hunting and/or fishing. However, members of these traditional societies are extremely respectful of the nonhuman animals which they use for food and other resources, and their traditional methods of hunting, fishing, and animal husbandry reflect this almost spiritual mindfulness. There is no man/nature dichotomy in these traditions; mankind is considered part of nature, and there is often little distinction drawn between the natural and the supernatural. Similarly, humans and animals are considered to be "of the same plane," and there is no man-versus-beast distinction, either. A few traditional cultures believe human beings to be stewards of the Earth, but even in this mindset, the idea of humanity having "dominion" over the earth is absurd, and the confinement and torture of nonhuman animals is considered unthinkable and horrendous.

Many followers of Wicca, Asatru, Druidism, and other "Neo-Pagan" religions are vegetarian or vegan, believing strongly in the precept of "Harm Ye None" or the Threefold Law, and they may particularly oppose the exploitation of nonhuman animals. The "Deep Ecology" movement (both a philosophical and spiritual movement) criticizes anthropocentric (human-centered) views, and many of its proponents believe that by eating lower on the food chain, one is fulfilling a moral and perhaps even a spiritual duty to protect the Earth and all its inhabitants. The organized Church of Deep Ecology asks its adherents to "investigate the impact that your food chances have on the natural world."

Bibliography and suggested further reading:

Adams, Carol J. -- The Inner Art of Vegetarianism
Berry, Rynn -- Food of the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World's Religions
Carmody, Denise Larder -- Native American Religions: An Introduction
Chapple, Christopher Key -- Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions
Durkheim, Emile -- The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Jensen, Derrick -- A Language Older Than Words
Kapleau, Roshi Philip -- To Cherish All Life: The Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian
Murti, Vasu -- They Shall Not Hurt or Destroy: Moral and Theological Objections to the Human Exploitation of Nonhuman Animals
Quinn, Daniel -- The Story of B
Rosen, Steven -- Diet For Transcendence: Vegetarianism and the World Religions
Spencer, Colin -- The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism
Stepaniak, Joanne -- The Vegan Sourcebook
Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portness -- Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama


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