Monday, October 22, 2012

Vegetarianism In Ancient India

Vegetarianism is the practice of having a meat-free diet. There are different types of vegetarianism, e.g. lacto-vegetarians will eat dairy products but not eggs, and vegans will eat no products derived from animals. The first evidence for any type of vegetarianism comes from ancient Greece and India. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) advocated vegetarianism and at around the same time in India, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was also advocating vegetarianism. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, the Buddha, a younger contemporary of Mahavira, was not a vegetarian and did not explicitly insist on its practice in any of his teachings.

Many arguments are used to support vegetarianism – the health argument (a meat diet causes various diseases), the biological argument (humans are not naturally carnivorous), the economic argument (animal husbandry is an inefficient form of food production), and the humane argument (eating meat requires killing animals which is cruel). Some of these arguments are rather weak, others less so. But from the point of view of Buddhist ethics the only one of these arguments that has to be considered is the last one. Does the Pali Tipitaka, the earliest record of the Buddha’s teachings, contain anything suggesting that Buddhists should be vegetarian? 

There is no place in either the Sutta, the Vinaya or the Abhidhamma Pitakas  where the Buddha says his disciples, monastic or lay, should avoid eating meat. Supporters of Buddhist vegetarianism like Philip Kapleau Roshi (To Cherish All Life, 1986) have claimed that the Buddha did teach vegetarianism but that all references to it were deleted from the sacred scriptures by meat-loving monks in later centuries. There is no evidence whatsoever of this having been done and this argument can be dismissed out of hand.

There are several places in the scriptures where the Buddha is described as having eaten meat. Anguttara Nikaya III,49 mentions that the Buddha was once served sukara mamsa with jujube fruit. This term can be translated with certainty as sukara = pig or boar, mamsa = meat or flesh. In another place it distinctly says that a man sent his servant to the market to buy meat so it could be prepared and served to the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya IV,187). Yet another text mentions in passing that a group of people “boiled porridge and rice, made soup and minced meat” (mamsani kottenti) while preparing a feast for the Buddha and his monks (Vinaya I, 239). Once some men slaughtered a cow, cooked it and then one of them gave “the best cuts of the cooked meat” (mamse pakke varamamsani) to a nun who subsequently offered it to the Buddha (Vinaya III,208). These and other references to the Buddha eating meat are incidental and only mentioned as an aside. 
One of the criticisms the Jains directed towards the Buddha was that he ate meat. “Many Jains went through the town, through the main roads and side streets, the alleys and the lanes, waving their arms and shouting, ‘General   Siha has this very day slaughtered a large creature to feed it to the monk Gotama and he is going to eat it knowing that it was slaughtered specifically for him.’ ” (Anguttara Nikaya IV,187). In this incident the Jains were trying to discredit or embarrass the Buddha for eating meat, which suggests that there was a feeling in India at the time that monks at least should be vegetarian. But this idea could have only been in its infancy because the Buddha became widely respected despite the Jain criticism of him on this issue. And he was not the only one. We read of a particular ascetic who was highly esteemed by the people of Vesali despite having taken a vow to consume only meat and alcohol (Digha Nikaya III,9).

One of several Jain objections to eating meat and the Brahmanical idea that it was acceptable to eat certain types of meat, was that it make one unclean, not just physically unclean but ritually or spiritually unclean too. Such ideas are very widespread even today and many religions teach that certain foods have an impurity apart from any actual dirt or bacteria they may contain. Since its very beginning Buddhism has rejected the idea of ritual impurity, maintaining that it is immoral thought, speech and actions that make one impure. The Amagandha Sutta says; “Being rough, devoid of kindness, back-biting, careless of friends, heartless, arrogant, mean, sharing with no one, this is impure food, not the eating of meat. To be immoral, refuse to repay one’s debts, betray others, cheat in business and create divisions amongst people, this is impure food, not the eating of meat. To kill living beings, steal, harm others, be immoral, cruel, hard and disrespectful, this is impure food, not the eating of meat.” (Sutta Nipata 244-6). 

There are several places in the Vinaya, the rules for Buddhist monks and nuns, where eating meat is mentioned or implied, for example where it says particular types of meat such as lion, snake and hyena, should not be consumed, implying that other types can be (Vinaya I,218-8). It also recommends meat broth as a medicine (Vinaya I,206). In the section on medicine in the Vinaya it says that monks are allowed to take the oil, fat and tallow of fish, crocodiles, pigs, bears and other animals for medicinal reasons (Vinaya I,200). Monks were even allowed to eat raw meat and drink blood (Vin.I,202-3), which apparently was believed to cure possession by   evil spirits. 
However, it would seem that the first evidence of a move by Buddhist towards vegetarianism also comes from the Vinaya. Most scholars agree that much of the Vinaya dates from some time after the Buddha so some of the things it says may not necessarily reflect what was believed or done during his time. In the Vinaya, Devadatta is said to have demanded that vegetarianism be made compulsory for monks and nuns. “For as long as life lasts, let them not eat fish or meat (maccha mamsam). Whoever does so would be stained by a fault.” (Vinaya II,197). The Buddha is depicted as refusing to make this a rule. Devadatta is always portrayed in Buddhist literature as a villain. This story suggests that within perhaps a century of the Buddha’s passing some monks were advocating   vegetarianism although the Sangha as a whole was against it being made compulsory.  The Vinaya also mentions what were called maghatadisva, certain days of the month when animals were not slaughtered and meat was not available in the markets (Vinaya I,217). The Jataka likewise mentions maghatadisva and adds that they would be announced by the beat of a drum (Jataka IV,115). Were these non-killing days a result of a general unease about killing animals, or due to the influence of Buddhism, or of Jainism? We don’t know.  

After this the next evidence of a Buddhist move towards vegetarianism comes from the edicts of the great Buddhist emperor Asoka Maurya. In an edict issued in 257 BCE he said; “Formerly, in the kitchen of the king, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer, are killed and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.” This edict seems to reflect well the early Buddhist attitude to vegetarianism – it is a good thing, so we cut down our consumption of meat and in time we’ll get around to phasing it out. Later, in 243 BCE, Asoka issued another edict banning the slaughter, branding and castrating of domestic animals on certain days of each month. In this same edict he also announced a ban on the hunting of certain wild animals and the setting up of forest reserves where no hunting was to be allowed. After this we get no evidence of Buddhist vegetarianism for several centuries.

A Jain work, the Suyagada (2nd century CE), has this interesting though spurious critique of  the Buddhist idea that only intentional actions (cetana) create kamma and therefore unintentionally eating meat, even human flesh, would be acceptable. “If a savage puts a man on a spit and roasts him, mistaking him for something else, he would not be guilty of murder. In fact, the meat would be fit for the Buddha to feast on.” (Suy.2,6,27). This critique implies that at this time Buddhists were eating meat.

It is commonly assumed that early Buddhism did not teach vegetarianism while Mahayana did. However, this is a perception that needs to be examined more closely. Of the hundreds of Mahayana sutras only a  handful discuss vegetarianism, the main ones being the Hastikaksya Sutra, Mahamega  Sutra, Angulimaliya Sutra, Nirvana Sutra, the Brahmajala Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra. It is not easy to date any of these sutras but all of them were probably composed after the 2nd century CE with parts being added in later centuries. Of these sutras the one that most strongly advocates vegetarianism is the Lankavatara Sutra. It offers a series of arguments in favor of vegetarianism, some of them sound, others rather puerile, for example, that you will emit a bad odor if you eat meat. However, the vehemence with which these arguments are presented suggests that many Buddhists at that time were not vegetarian.  It is only necessary to argue vigorously against something when there are those who disagree with or oppose it. It is also interesting to point out that while the Nirvana Sutra condemns meat eating it also says that one is justified in killing people in order to protect monastic property, a weird contradiction of the type still found in the thinking of some strong proponents of vegetarianism.

When the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang (602–664) was in India he made careful and extensive notes on the beliefs and practices of Indian Buddhists but makes no mention of them being vegetarian. He noted that people ate meat and that the most important thing was not whether one was vegetarian or not but what kind of meat one ate. Those who ate beef or animals  considered impure (dogs, monkeys, pigs, donkeys) were  treated as outcasts. About a century after Hsuan Tsang another Chinese monk, I-Tsing, stayed in India for several decades and wrote a detailed account of Indian Buddhist monastic rules and regulations. He too made no mention of vegetarianism. The literature of Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, dating from the 7th century CE, often advocates a meat diet. Tantric practitioners even offered meat to the various deities they worshipped. Both Hindu and Buddhist tantras even taught what was called the Five Ms (pancamakara), rituals that could include consuming alcohol, eating meat, fish, parched grain and having sex.  

It is clear from all this that some Indian Buddhists were vegetarian while others, probably the majority, were not. During the 10th century Jains were still attacking Buddhists for eating meat.  In his Darsanasara, written around this time, Devasena launched  a  scathing attack on Buddhists monks  for considering anything placed in their begging bowls to be pure, even meat (Prakrit Sahitya Ka Itihas p.319). Two hundred years later another Jain writer, Hemacandra, denounced Buddhist monks as gluttons incapable of  genuine austerity because they made no distinction between lawful and unlawful food. By ‘unlawful food’ he meant meat. 
What about Indian society in general? The evidence shows that from its very beginning Jainism was strongly vegetarian and has been so ever since. There is no evidence that Brahmanism, the main religion during the Buddha’s time, taught vegetarianism. Vedic sacrifices in which animals were slaughtered were still being practiced and are frequently mentioned in the Tipitaka (e.g. Anguttara Nikaya I,66; II,42; IV,41; etc). It records one particular sacrifice conducted by a brahman named Uggatasarira during which “five hundred bulls, five hundred steers and numerous heifers, goats and rams were brought to the sacrificial post for slaughter” (A.IV,41). The meat of sacrificed animals was eaten by the officiating priests afterward.   

 The Arthasastra (3rd–2nd century BCE) says that that the government should appoint a superintendent of slaughterhouses, probably to make sure they were efficiently run (As.II,26-7). It also recommends that anyone killing a calf, bull or milch cow be fined 50 panas, not because this was considered cruel but because it was economically undesirable (As.II,26-11).  

The Manusmrti, the most authoritative Hindu law book (2nd century  BCE – 2nd  century CE), mentions that meat is a suitable offering for the ancestors, that the sacred scriptures should not be recited immediately after eating  meat, and that during times of  hardship it is even acceptable to eat dog meat, usually thought of as exceptionally impure. One whole section of the Manusmrti (5,27-57) lays down the rules concerning the procuring, preparing and consuming of fish and flesh. The justification for meat-eating is summed up in these words; “The eater is not defiled by eating living beings suitable for eating, even if he eats them day after day. For the Creator himself made both the eater and the living beings to eat.”(5,30).  

The Kama Sutra (3rd cent CE?) points out that alcohol and dog meat increase a man’s virility but then adds, somewhat halfheartedly, that a circumspect man would nonetheless take neither because they are impure. It also gives recipes for aphrodisiacs, many of them including animal flesh and organs. So once again we have an ambiguous attitude towards consuming meat.

Both  the two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata  often refer to eating meat as normal and uncontroversial, as indeed it was. In his detailed study of everyday life as depicted in the Ramayana Ananda Guruge writes; “The Aryans of ancient India were not altogether vegetarians. Their diet was a mixed one; they ate fish as was offered to Bharata and his party by Guha. Meat too was consumed quite widely. Not only did Rama say that animals are killed by men for their flesh but he also killed many animals – deer, wild boar, antelope, etc., - for food during his sojourn in the forest. Meat was eaten with relish and a verse which describes a meal of Rama and Sita states;  ‘He sat on a rock tempting Sita with meat (saying) this is pure, this is tasty and this is well cooked by fire.’ In Bharadvaja’s hermitage Bharata’s army was supplied with venison, mutton, pork and flesh of the peacock and the snipe.  Likewise, Kumbhakarna consumed large quantities of venison, beef and pork and drank blood. Although the Vanaras are generally depicted as vegetarians, the Brahmans were actually not. The concept that ‘a purely vegetarian diet is an indication of spiritual progress and an advanced culture’ is a later development in India. Even ascetic Brahmans were not strict vegetarians. Although their usual fare consisted of vegetables, they did not abstain from meat-eating as a principle of either religious or social significance. In fact, Agastya is represented as eating rams and he says, ‘I am able to eat comfortably even one whole ram at a Sraddha ceremony.’ There seems to have been no ban on meat-eating by Brahmans even at the time of Bhavabhuti for his Uttararamacarita depicts Vasistha as eating a tawny calf. Further, Valin’s statement specifically mentions the animals whose flesh could be eaten by Brahmans.” (The Society of the Ramayana, 1960, p.147-8).

In the chapter on food the Sushruta Samhita (1st–4th century CE) recommends all kinds of fish, bird and animal flesh  thereby showing that meat eating was  acceptable  during that period. This and a great deal of other evidence shows that like Buddhists, Hindus were primarily meat eaters, although there was always  some  in favor of  vegetarianism. After the Gupta period Hindu text like some of the Puranas and the literature of the Bhagavatas start teaching abstaining from meat. It was probably only after the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries that vegetarianism started to become widespread in India. The reasons for this may have been developments in theology and philosophy, changing economic conditions, or the desire of Indians to distinguish themselves from Muslims invaders. 


Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Interesting review of the Indian literature on the subject. Very useful for my own research into Buddhist vegetarianism.

What's interesting is how vegetarianism took off in China come the 5th century, which I discuss here:

The monks at the time had mixed feelings about the new vegetarian laws, though it set the standard: East Asian Buddhism became strongly associated with vegetarianism. A lot of Chinese Buddhists are completely unaware that much of the rest of the Buddhist world does and historically did eat meat.

MBenson said...

Thanks for this interesting post.

Through practice we increase compassion for other beings. Eventually that includes beings of all kinds. Eventually we realize that we act out of ignorance and at that point the desire to harm others in any way drops away naturally.

Meera Sundararajan said...

First time here. Very interesting and informative. I find that in India people associate vegetarianism with Brahmanism while it is actually not so. The fact that it is only the very poor who eat certain types of animals shows that it is also an issue of survival. With regard to Jainism, I have never understood their brand of food preparation where one can hardly eat anything. -too austere!1

Yashas said...

There is some truth in what Philip Kapleau says, it is difficult to prove it ofcourse, but buddhism has gone through phases of development, this we can be sure about. It is a socio-political issue, meat eaters had to be accepted into Buddhism, otherwise Dharma would not have spread very far at all.
I find that Buddha demanded a very harsh dicipline from his monks(and other dedicated followers), if you can be happy and contended by eating only once aday, or just two times aday, it is a very powerful thing, more powerful than eating vegetarian meals and snacks five, six or seven times per day.
Vegetarianism is part of buddhist identity, and important as such.

Yashas said...

Your quotation from Mahaparinirvana sutra is so inaccurate that it is false. I know the passage in the Charles D. Patton translation of the Great Parinirvana Scripture. What it says is similar to the standard Theravada political practice of protecting the nation and its the Sangha of monks. The Parinirvana Scripture just makes it plain and clear.
One would wish more respect for the mahayana sutras, that maybe asking for too much, You may have forgotten that they are regarded as the acual words and actual teachings of the Buddha by many people in the Mahayana.
We should not forget that the teaching in most, if not all indian spiritual traditions, were oral for a considerable length of time. This means that Buddhism was more like the oral traditions of Australia, Africa, and South and North Americas. There is a huge cultural barrier here.
We have to accept that Dharma was not an academic book culture, as the common false view takes it to be. This makes everything different, reality is different in an oral culture. We project the past from our present state of a technical culture, our view therefore contains fundamental errors.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yashas, I re-read my post several times and cannot find any reference to or translation from the Mahaparinivana Sutra. Please let me know what you are referring to and I will happily respond to your comments.

Yashas said...

You write:"It is also interesting to point out that while the Nirvana sutra condems meat eating etc..." Found it now? According to Wikipedia Nirvana sutra is the same scripture as the MahaParinirvana Sutra, only a shorter name of it.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yashas, I do not have a copy of the Mahaparinivana Sutra with me. But you can find the issue under discussion in Paul Williams’ ‘Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations’. I don’t have a copy of it in my library either so I can’t give you the page number. I’m sure you can find it.

David said...


David said...


kushal shukla said...

Classical Hinduism or Vedidc Dharma in ancient India was totally against non-vegetarianism & by doing any forced translation of few Sanskrit literatures out of context does not prove that Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma did not introduce Ahimsa or non-Violence, Vegetarianism etc. Infact, Non-violence was introduced long ago by centuries before birth of Buddha in text of the Vedas.
But Irony is that Indian communist politicians, after colonialism period have forwarded translation of Vedas by illiterate & pseudo-sanskrit scholar like Max muller, Ralph T. Griffith who never even visited any Vedic Pathshala or Gurukul in their entire life.
Vedic thought is totally against non-vegetarianism'
Yajurveda' XL-6 says: “YASTU SARVAANI BHUUTAANYAATMANYEVAANUPASYATISARVE BHUUTESU CAATMAANAMTATO NA VICIKITSATI.” “He who sees all beings in the self and the self in all beings,feels no hatred against any creature in the world, for, he realises the similarity of all souls.” How could people who believed in the doctrines of indestructibility, transmigration and oneness (similarity) of souls as the followers of vedism dare to kill animals?
‘Yajurveda’ XXVI - 18 says: “MITRASYA MAA CKSUSAASARVAANIBHUUTAANI SAMII KSANTAAM.MITRASYA CAKSUSAA SARVAANIBHUUTAANI SAMII KSEMITRASYA CAKSUAA SAMIIKSAAMAHE” “May all living beings look upon me as their friend, and may I too treat them as my own friends. Oh God, do arrange things in such a way that all (living beings) behave with one another as true friends”.

Can you expect people, who not only believed in vedic ideal of friendliness for all living beings, can act in a manner so as to kill their fellow beings whom they looked upon as their own friends merely for the flimsy and transitory gratification of their hunger?The doctrine of universal friendliness (love) enunciated above has culminated in absolute non-killing of any other form of living life in those days.

kushal shukla said...

(i)‘Yajurveda’ XVI-3 enjoins strict 'ahimsa' of mankind. Itsays:
(ii)Likewise Yajurveda XIII-47 says:
(iii)Again 'Yajurveda' XII-32 bans animal killing when it says:
“Do not destroy the bodies of your people”.
(iv)In Yajurveda I-1, The cow is called AGHNYAA [animalwhich must not be killed]. ‘Yajurveda’ XIII-49 forbids killing of cows for they provide milk to human beings.
It says:
“Do not destroy the cow, giver of milk for mankind and innocent in nature”. According to Apte's dictionary ‘aditi’ means a cow.
v)Yajurveda XIII-48 says:
“Do not destroy the one hoofed animal, the horse”

(vi)In Rigveda VIII-56-17 cow slaughter has been declared a heinous crime equal to human murder. It says:
“One who kills a cow or murders a man should be awarded capital punishment.” (vii)Also Rg-veda X-87-16 calls those persons
(demonic persons) who eat raw meat of men or of animals and prays for their beheading. It says:
“Those demonic people who relish (eat) raw meat of manor of animals like horses, oh God, kill them by beheading” (viii) In 'Atharva veda’ VI - 70 - 1, meat eating has been put at par with vices like drinking and gambling. It is said there:
“Surely, human mind gets polluted when it is lust-ridden and when it is set on meat eating, drinking and playing dice”. Thus, there are such clear tenets directly decrying the consumption of meat for human beings and declaring it as a vice equal in intensity to that of other vices like gambling etc. Is it not a travesty of facts to say that ancient followers of vedism were non-vegetarians as has been espoused by many western thinkers?

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