The Roots of Vegetarianism
Modern yogis who struggle with the question of whether to eat meat can look to ancient wisdom for the answer.
By Jennifer Barrett
Ask any number of yogis to describe their diets and you’ll likely get responses as varied as the styles they practice. Many traditionalists see yoga as being inextricably linked with the meatless path, citing numerous ancient Indian texts to prove their conviction. Others put less stock in centuries-old warnings like “the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven” (from the Dharma Sutras) than in what their bodies have to say. If eating flesh begets health and energy, they argue, it must be the right choice for them–and their yoga.
Today’s range of dietary habits might seem like a recent development, but delve back into the historical record and you’ll find a long tradition of ethical wrangling with respect to animals. Indeed, the different stances yogis now take on vegetarianism reflect just the latest turn in a debate that started thousands of years ago.
The Past-Life Argument
The history of vegetarianism in India began in the Vedic period, an era that dawned sometime between 4000 and 1500 b.c.e., depending on whom you ask. Four sacred texts known as the Vedas were the bedrock of early Hindu spiritual thought. Among those texts’ hymns and songs that described with reverence the wondrous power of the natural world, we find a nascent idea that sets the stage for vegetarianism in later centuries. “The concept of the transmigration of souls… first dimly appears in the Rig Veda,” explains Colin Spencer in Vegetarianism: A History (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2002). “In the totemistic culture of the pre-Indus civilization, there was already a sense of oneness with creation.” A fervent belief in this idea, he contends, would give rise to vegetarianism later on.
In subsequent ancient texts, including the Upanishads, the idea of rebirth emerged as a central point. In these writings, according to Kerry Walters and Lisa Portmess, editors of Religious Vegetarianism (State University of New York Press, 2001), “gods take animal form, human beings have had past animal lives, [and] animals have had past human lives.” All creatures harbored the Divine, so that rather than being fixed in time, life was fluid. (A cow alone, notes Spencer, held 330 million gods and goddesses. To kill one set you back 86 transmigrations of the soul.) Again, the idea that the meat on a dinner plate once lived in a different–and possibly human–form made it all the less palatable.
Dietary guidelines became explicit centuries later in the Laws of Manu, written between 200 b.c.e. and 100 c.e., say Walters and Portmess. In this text, we discover that the sage Manu doesn’t find fault just with those who eat meat. “He who permits the slaughter of an animal,” he wrote, “he who cuts it up, he who kills it, he who buys or sells meat, he who cooks it, he who serves it up, and he who eats it, must all be considered as the slayers of the animal.”
The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the most influential text of the Hindu tradition (written sometime between the fourth and first centuries b.c.e.), added to the vegetarian argument with its practical dietary guidelines. It specifies that sattvic foods (milk, butter, fruit, vegetables, and grains) “promote vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life.” Bitter, salty, and sour rajasic foods (including meat, fish, and alcohol) “cause pain, disease, and discomfort.” At the bottom rung lies the tamasic category: “stale, overcooked, contaminated” and otherwise rotten or impure foods. These explanations have endured, becoming the guidelines by which many modern yogis eat.
The case for vegetarianism mounted as centuries passed, while another practice–animal sacrifice–persisted alongside it. The same Vedas that extolled the virtues of the natural world also emphasized the need for animal sacrifice to the gods. The uneasy coexistence between India’s emerging inclination toward vegetarianism and its history of animal sacrifice continued over hundreds of years, says Edwin Bryant, professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University. Oftentimes the conflict played out in the pages of the same text.
The sage Manu, for instance, condemned recreational meat eating, stating, “There is no greater sinner than that man who…seeks to increase the bulk of his own flesh by the flesh of other beings.” But orthodox followers of Vedic culture–including Manu–were “forced to allow the performance of animal sacrifice,” Bryant notes. Ultimately, the discomfort that many in ancient India felt about animal sacrifice helped fuel the demise of the practice.
Some orthodox traditionalists, for instance, felt uncomfortable challenging the ancient texts on the issue out of respect for what they believed were the writings’ divine origins. However, they did condemn everyday meat eating, adding a number of conditions to animal sacrifice so that “the practice accrued ghastly karmic results that far outweighed any benefits gained,” explains Professor Bryant in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion and Ethics, edited by Kimberly Patton and Paul Waldau (to be published in 2004).
Others simply deemed the ancient texts outdated, and went on to form groups such as the Jainas and the Buddhists. No longer bound by Vedic authority, Bryant says, they “could scorn the whole sacrificial culture and preach an unencumbered ahimsa,” or doctrine of nonviolence. This concept of ahimsa, championed by Mahavira in the sixth century, has emerged at the core of the vegetarian argument in modern times.
Some later Indian sages strengthened the case for vegetarianism. Swami Vivekananda, writing a hundred years ago, pointed out the communality we have with other animals: “The amoeba and I are the same. The difference is only one of degree; and from the standpoint of the highest life, all differences vanish.” Swami Prabhupada, scholar and founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, offered a more stark pronouncement: “If you want to eat animals, then [God] will give you… the body of a tiger in your next life so that you can eat flesh very freely.”
In most cultures today, the rights of animals have at least prevailed over the ritual of sacrifice, if not meat eating. Scores of yogis live and eat with the understanding, as expressed by B.K.S. Iyengar, that a vegetarian diet is “a necessity” to the practice of yoga. But other, equally dedicated yogis find flesh a necessary fuel, without which their practice suffers. Those yoga enthusiasts still on the fence when it comes to the meat question should take heart, however. It seems that a thoughtful, deliberate, and at times even challenging consideration of vegetarianism is very much in the spirit of the Indian spiritual tradition.
Contributing Editor Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly. She lives in Connecticut.
This article can be found online at http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/999_1.cfm