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Vegetarianism and religion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


According to the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, the majority of the world's vegetarians follow the practice for religious reasons, with the majority of these following the Dharmic religions of the East. Many religions, including Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and especially Jainism, teach that ideally life should always be valued and not willfully destroyed for unnecessary human gratification.

Dharmic religions


A typical North Indian vegetarian Thali meal.
A typical North Indian vegetarian Thali meal.

Most major paths of Hinduism hold vegetarianism as the ideal, this is for a variety of reasons based on different beliefs. For many Hindus, it is a textually-advocated belief in ahimsa (nonviolence),[1] to avoid indulgences (as meat was considered an indulgence), and to reduce bad karmic influences. For others (especially within Vaishnavism and the bhakti movements), it is because their chosen deity does not accept offerings of non-vegetarian foods, which the follower then accepts as prasad. "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it." [1]

Generally there is the belief, based on scriptures such as Bhagavad Gita that one's food shapes the personality, mood and mind.[2] Meat is said to promote sloth and ignorance and a mental state known as tamas while a vegetarian diet is considered to promote satvic qualities, calm the mind, and be essential for spiritual progress. The Vedic and Puranic scriptures of Hinduism assert that animals have souls and the act of killing animals without due course has considerable karmic repercussions (i.e the killer will suffer the pain of the animal he has killed in this life or the next). Vedic texts state "Such sinful persons will be eaten by the same creatures they have killed in this world." [2]. The principle of Ahimsa (non-violence) compels one to refrain from injuring any living creature, physically, mentally or emotionally without good reason. Most of the secular motivations for vegetarianism such as ethical considerations and nutrition apply to Hindu motivations as well.

The Indian cuisine and diet is primarily vegetarian and most[citation needed] Hindus are at least semi-vegetarians, refraining from beef and eating other forms of meat rarely. Most non-vegetarian practising Hindus maintain a vegetarian diet on religious days.

Orthodox Hindus abstain from consuming anything gained at the expense of an animal's suffering, the reason why many abstain from eating eggs, and follow a Lacto vegetarian diet. The milk of cows, buffalo, and goats as well as dairy products (other than cheese containing rennet) are acceptable, as milk is traditionally given willingly. Leather from animals who have died of natural causes is acceptable for some Hindus. The diet of the orthodox Hindu excludes animal products (apart from milk products), alcohol, the rajasic foods - onions and garlic, as well as mushrooms, which are a form of fungus. Members of the Hare Krishnas, the Brahmakumaris and other such movements follow a strict lacto-vegetarian diet, abstaining from meat, fish & eggs. Both Brahmakumaris and Hare Krishna movements such as ISKCON eliminate onions and garlic as well from their diet.


Main article: Vegetarianism in Buddhism

The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. There are however differing points of view. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. In one of the Pali sutras belonging to the Theravada lineage of Buddhism, the Buddha says that vegetarianism is preferable, but as monks in ancient India were expected to receive all of their food by begging they had little or no control over their diet. However, since vegetarianism was a norm in ancient India, it would have been extremely rare that the monk be offered meat. The Buddha did not wish to lay an extra burden on his lay followers by demanding that the food should be vegetarian, and there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. At one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism, and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions. There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard or elephant. Monks are also prohibited from consuming meat if they witnessed the animal's death or know it was killed specifically for them.

On the other hand, the Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras strongly denounces the eating of meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.

A solution to this problem arose when monks from the Indian sphere of influence migrated to China, as of the year 65 CE. There they met followers who provided them with money instead of food. From those days onwards Chinese monastics, and others who came to inhabit northern countries, cultivated their own vegetable plots and bought everything else they needed in terms of food in the market.

In the modern Buddhist world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In China and Vietnam, monks typically eat no meat (and with other restrictions as well – see Buddhist cuisine). In Japan or Korea some schools do not eat meat, while most do. Theravadins in Sri Lanka and South-east Asia do not practice vegetarianism. All Buddhists however, including monks, are allowed to practice vegetarianism if they wish to do so.


In Sikhism, only vegetarian food is served during religious occasions, but Sikhs are not totally bound to be meat-free. The reason for serving vegetarian food during religious occaisions is that the Sikh communal kitchen (Langar) is open to all. Since, many faiths and people have varying taboo's on how meat should be prepared etc, the safest option thought by the Sikh Guru's was to adopt vegetarian food for Langar. [citation needed] Most Sikhs believe that they are only bound to avoid meat that is Halal or killed by a method similar to that used in preparing Halal meat.

Sikhism argues that the soul can possibly undergo 84 million incarnations as various forms of life before ultimately becoming human. These life forms could be a rock, vegetation or animal. Sikhism does not see a difference between mineral, vegetation and animal. The only distinction made is that between these (mineral, vegetation and animal), and human.

Sikh Guru Nanak said it was a pointless or fools argument to debate the merits of either not eating or eating meat in the context of religion[3].


Main article: Jain vegetarianism

Vegetarianism in Jainism is more strict than in Hinduism. All Jains are required by religion to be strict vegetarians. In addition to which Jains must take into account any suffering caused to plants and suksma jiva (Sanskrit: subtle life forms; refers to what would later be termed "microorganisms") by their dietary choices. They are forbidden from eating most root vegetables (such as potatoes) and deem many other vegetables acceptable only when harvested during certain times of the year.

Abrahamic religions

Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Abrahamic religions) are all left with the biblical ideal of the Garden of Eden diet, which from all appearances is fruitarianism (see Genesis 1:29, 9:2-4; Isaiah 11:6-9). However, only minorities within these populations actually practice and advocate such strict diets, since the same book of the Bible, Genesis, later gives permission to Noah (and presumably his descendants) to consume animal flesh. Curiously, this is not without great suffering simultaneously administered to all creatures: "The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea" (Gen. 9:2). Suffice to say, the Judeo-Christian God's permission for humankind to eat meat was not an unmixed or otherwise "unqualified" blessing. Commentators agree that meat-eating largely appears to be a divine concession to human weakness and sin, with penalties — likely including decreased life expectancy (see Gen. 6:3). (Noah's grandfather, Methuselah, is famously reported as having lived 969 years, but this was prior to God permitting meat-eating in the Bible.)

In the Bible, the Book of Genesis teaches that human beings were originally vegetarian, but that later, following the Deluge, God permitted people to eat meat as well. Many Judeo-Christian vegetarians interpret this to mean that God originally intended human beings to be vegetarians, and that people would do well to be vegetarians, even though meat-eating is permitted. Additionally, some Biblical prophecy suggests that in a new Messianic age, there will be universal vegetarianism, even among normally carnivorous animals (for example, Isaiah 11:7 says, "The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.").


Rabbinical Judaism discourages ascetic practices in general, and encourages one to enjoy the bounty of this world in a proper fashion. With respect to food, this teaching may be summarized by the Talmudic statement, "Man will have to account for everything he saw but did not eat." (This refers to permissible or kosher foods only, not to forbidden animal species such as pork.) On the other hand, the Talmud discourages indulgence and states that it is preferable that one's diet consist mostly of non-meat products. To Jewish vegetarians wishing to remain consistent with this teaching, vegetarianism is not a form of self-deprivation, because the vegetarian does not desire to eat meat and believes it is healthier not to eat meat.

Genesis 1:29 states "And God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit - to you it shall be for food." According to some classical Jewish Bible commentators this means that God's original plan was for mankind to be vegetarian, and that God only later gave permission for man to eat meat because of man's weak nature. Other commentators argue that people may eat animals because God gave Adam and Eve dominion over them.

Generally speaking, Judaism has not promoted vegetarianism. However, some prominent rabbis have been vegetarian, among them the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook and former Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Goren.

Rabbi Isaac ha-Levi Herzog said, "Jews will move increasingly to vegetarianism out of their own deepening knowledge of what their tradition commands... A whole galaxy of central rabbinic and spiritual leaders...has been affirming vegetarianism as the ultimate meaning of Jewish moral teaching."
"Man ideally should not eat meat, for to eat meat a life must be taken, an animal must be put to death." Rabbi Milgrom regards the commandment against blood as a law that permits man to "indulge in his lust for meat and not be brutalized in the process."

Some Orthodox authorities have ruled that it is forbidden for an individual to become a vegetarian if they do so because they believe in animal rights; however, they have ruled that vegetarianism is allowed for pragmatic reasons (if kosher meat is expensive or hard to come by in their area), health concerns, or for reasons of personal taste (if someone finds meat unpalatable). Some believe that halakha encourages the eating of meat at the Sabbath and Festival meals, thus some Orthodox Jews who are otherwise vegetarian will nevertheless consume meat at these meals.

There are several arguments from Judaism used by Jewish vegetarians. One is that, since Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat meat and that, according to some opinions, in the Messianic era, the whole world will be vegetarian, not eating meat is something that brings the world closer to that ideal. A second one is that the laws of shechita are meant to prevent the suffering of animals and today, with factory farming and high-speed, mechanized slaughterhouses, even kosher slaughterhouses are considered by some authorities not to fulfill enough of the requirements to render the meat kosher. A third one is that the Sages only mandated eating an olive's bulk of meat during festivals, but even then, this was because in Talmudic times, meat was considered essential for one's diet (whereas a vegetarian will probably be of the opinion that current science has shown otherwise).

Sacrifices were used as an excuse to eat meat, and later denounced.

  • Hosea 8:13
They offer sacrifices to me because they are those who eat the meat, but Hashem does not accept their sacrifices, for He is mindful of their sin and remembers their wickedness
  • Hosea 6:6
For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
  • Jeremiah 7:22-23
22 For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.
  • Isaiah 66:3
But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig's blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and their souls delight in their abominations;


Main article: Christian vegetarianism

According to Hegesippus, James the brother of Jesus "ate no flesh".

Early Christianity had a toned-down version of Vegetarianism for the Gentiles:

  • Acts 15:20, 29
20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
  • Acts 21:25 As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.

In Christianity, Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans that although he himself ate meat, the choice to eat meat or abstain from meat should be a matter of personal conviction: "The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him." (Romans 14:3). Several Christian monastic groups have encouraged vegetarianism, including the Desert Fathers, Trappists, Benedictines, and Carthusians. Some Christian groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists and Christian anarchists, take a literal interpretation of the Biblical prophecies of universal vegetarianism and encourage vegetarianism as a preferred, though not required, lifestyle. However, most evangelical groups are unaware of the existence of any such prophecies, and point instead to the explicit prophecies of temple sacrifices in the Messianic Kingdom, many of which are eaten—see Ezekiel 46:12 where peace offerings and freewill offerings will be offered, and Leviticus 7:15-20 where it states that such offerings are eaten. Some key Christian historical figures such as St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi became vegetarians for ascetic reasons, not necessarily because of a religious edict to that effect. In the 19th century, members of the Bible Christian sect established the first vegetarian groups in England and the United States.

However, it has been argued that the anthropocentric viewpoint of the Bible encourages human exploitation of animals and meat eating. 1Ti 4: 1-5 can be interpreted to condemn vegetarianism. The Bible says: "..And God said, Let us make man in our image, and after our likeness: and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepth upon the earth.", "And God blessed them, Be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

The attitude of dominion is then disputed with the translation of dominion as the authority to rule over animals and not consume them. Further reading in the Book of Genesis lends credibility to this belief by stating in Genesis 1:30: "And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so." Continuing into Genesis 1:31, the Bible says: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day."

The only time the phrase "very good" appears in the Bible as stated by God is in Genesis 1:30. This indicates that God's original plan was for vegetarianism. The introduction of sin later changed the plan to include blood sacrifices to atone for sin with death being the price for sin. Upon the sacrifice of the final lamb, Jesus Christ, animal sacrifices were no longer needed and vegetarianism became a part of Christianity as indicated by various references in the New Testament. (See Acts above.) The Book of Enoch was familiar to the early Christians, since it is quoted in Jude 14-15 amongst others, and in it we find the following:

  • 2 Enoch 45:3 When the Lord demands bread, or candles, or the flesh of beasts, or any other sacrifice, then that is nothing; but God demands pure hearts, and with all that only tests the heart of man.
  • 2 Enoch 59:5-6 5 But whoever kills beast without wounds, kills his own souls and defiles his own flesh. 6 And he who does any beast any injury whatsoever, in secret, it is evil practice, and he defiles his own soul.

There are many verses of the Bible that have been misinterpreted through English translation or through changes in the meaning of English words. Such as in I Corinthians 8:8 the word broma was translated as meat, which at one time referred to all kinds of food (as does the Greek word) but in current English has the restricted meaning of animal flesh. In Early English, the word "meat" meant any solid food, such as bread; the proper word for a carnivorous food was "flesh". In the Book of Exodus however, Yahweh himself provides the Jews with manna and quail (Exodus 16:13).

However, some ancient versions of the Gospel of Matthew, known as the Gospel of the Ebionites, emphasise that Jesus advocated vegetarianism, abolished the Jewish meat sacrifice system, and never ate meat.


Main article: Islam and Vegetarianism

Islam explicitly permits the eating of some kinds of meat, but does not make it compulsory. There are several quotes attributed to Muhammad that support a vegetarian lifestyle and recommend kindness to animals rather than eating them. "Masih (the Messiah, Jesus) said, 'Flesh eating flesh? How offensive an act!'"

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith prefers a vegetarian diet, although it is not required. Furthermore, Bahá'ís believe "Fruits and grains" will be the foods of the future and the time will come when meat will no longer be eaten [3].

Other religions


In Chinese societies, "simple eating" (素食 Mandarin: sù shí) refers to a particular restricted diet associated with Taoist monks, and sometimes practiced by members of the general population during Taoist festivals. It is referred to by the English word "vegetarian"; however, though it rejects meat, eggs and milk, this diet does include oysters and oyster products.


Rastafarians generally follow a diet called "I-tal", which eschews the eating of food that has been artificially preserved, flavoured, or chemically altered in any way. Many Rastafarians consider it to also forbid the eating of meat.


One of the main precepts in Zoroastrianism is respect and kindness towards all living things, condemnation of cruelty against animals and the sacrifice of animals.


There is no set teaching on vegetarianism within the diverse neopagan communities, however many do follow a vegetarian diet often connected to ecological concerns as well as the welfare and rights of animals. Vegetarian practitioners of Wicca will often see their standpoint as a natural extension of the Wiccan Rede and Odinists of Odinism. Organisations like SERV refer to the historic figures of Porphyry, Pythagoras and Iamblichus as sources for the Pagan view of vegetarianism. [4] During the 1970's the publication Earth Religion News, focused on articles related to neopaganism and vegetarianism, it was edited by the author Herman Slater. [5]

See also

  • Asceticism
  • Environmental vegetarianism
  • Ethics of vegetarianism
  • Fasting
  • Religion
  • Vegetarianism
  • Vegetarian cuisine
  • Vegetarian nutrition

External links

  • Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians
  • Buddhist Resources on Vegetarianism and Animal Welfare
  • Rennets and religion The use of rennet in Abrahamic religions
  • Was Jesus a vegetarian?
  • Why Should Christians Be Vegetarians? affiliated with PETA
  • Christian Vegetarian Association
  • The Word of Wisdom: the Forgotten Verses A discussion of Latter-day Saint (LDS or Mormon) beliefs and vegetarian principles
  • Jewish Vegetarians of North America
  • What Gives Us the Right to Kill Animals? - A Jewish view on Vegetarianism
  • Islamic Concerns: Animals in Islam
  • Fools Who Wrangle Over Flesh for a technical Sikh perspective
  • Vegetarianism and Buddhism

Other reading

  • Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama (2001) edited by: Kerry Walters; Lisa Portmess
  • Steven J. Rosen, Diet for Transcendence (formerly published as Food for the Spirit): Vegetarianism and the World Religions, foreword by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Badger, California: Torchlight Books, 1997)
  • Steven J. Rosen, Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism and Animal Rights (New York: Lantern Books, 2004)
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