*This post is part of a continuing series of short posts that will explore the historical and cultural implications of vegetarianism around the world.*
Those who are ignorant of real dharma and, though wicked and haughty, account themselves virtuous, kill animals without any feeling of remorse or fear of punishment. Further, in their next lives, such sinful persons will be eaten by the same creatures they have killed in this world.
– Srimad Bhagavatam
Vegetarianism may have been common in the Indian subcontinent as early as the 2nd millennium BC. Hinduism preaches that it is the ideal diet for spiritual progress, and is mentioned as being an essential part of spirituality in many holy texts. Vegetarianism was encouraged in the ancient verses of the Upanishads, the Mahabarata, and also mentioned in RigVeda – the most sacred of ancient Hindu texts. Pivotal to such religions were doctrines of non-violence and respect for all life forms.
Though many archaeologists and scholars now believe that the Aryans, an agricultural people, ate beef from their cowherds, Vedic culture has always shunned meat. The widespread influence of Buddhism and Jainism in the early 6th century made vegetarianism and the concept of “ahimsa,” the Sanskrit word for nonviolence towards all living entities, the norm across India.
In India, vegetarianism has long been synonymous with lacto-vegetarianism (consumption of dairy products, but not meat, fish, or eggs). The cow’s sacredness in India stems fromthe monsoons which are a fundamental part of Indian farming. This heavy rainfall made oxen labor essential to the budding civilization’s very survival, so it is natural that slaughtering the animal one depends on for their livelihood would be discouraged. The milk of cows – and everything that it goes on to make – was far more valuable than a quick fix of steak. Furthermore, cow feces was and still is used as fuel, and cow urine, which possesses antiseptic properties, was used as medicine.
In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a form of Hinduism propagated in India by Caitanya Mahaprabhu, a 15th century saint, encouraged not only a vegetarian diet, but a prasadarian diet. Vaishnavas offer all of their food to the Lord before eating it, making it prasadam, which means the Lord’s mercy.
If one offers me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it.
– Lord Sri Krsna to Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita 9.26