That brings up one main reason for Hinduism’s vegetarian tradition, the principle of “ahimsa,” that is, non-violence and avoidance of any harm to other beings. This teaching from the ancient Hindu scriptures is reinforced by deep cultural reverence for cows as sacred (on which see below), and the belief that a human may be born into animal species in future lives through the process of “transmigration of souls” a.k.a. “reincarnation.” In addition, violent acts accumulate negative karma that affects one’s status in the next life.
Note that Hindus are vegetarian, not vegan.
Both groups avoid eating animal flesh, but a vegetarian diet may include animal products like dairy items and eggs that vegans totally shun. The same with the use of leather goods. In India, the faith’s homeland, believers especially delight in sweet dairy dishes and regularly use ghee (clarified butter) in cooking.
Anglo-Indian historian Nirad Chaudhuri said Hindu scriptures from ancient times depict meat-eating as widespread and celebrate warriors. According to another expert, K. M. Sen, the ahimsa concept, though established long ago, was originally imported from India’s separate religions of Buddhism and Jainism. Observant Jains have the strictest imaginable practice, seeking to protect even insects and microorganisms and avoiding agriculture where vegetables need to be uprooted, as with onions and potatoes.
Regarding ahimsa otherwise, Hindus as a whole are not pacifists who totally oppose killing in warfare, even in cases of justifiable defense, although some do hold to that belief. As for the controversy over treatment of human fetuses, Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found that 68% of U.S. Hindus wanted abortion to be legal “in most cases,” and the same for 82% of U.S. Buddhists and 83% for those of Jewish identity. (All three groups were notably more supportive than U.S. Christians and Muslims.)
Although Hinduism extols vegetarianism it does not mandate the practice with diet left to individual decision. Hindus’ avoidance of meat is less widespread than, for instance, the aversion toward pork and pork products among observant Jews (following Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8) and Muslims (per Quran 2:173 and 6:145).
Incidentally, Jewish vegetarians contend that God’s original creation design in Eden provided a diet of fruits and vegetables, with meat-eating only allowed after the great Flood (see Genesis 9:3). Among Christian groups, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has this distinctive stance: “We encourage a balanced vegetarian diet, and to avoid unclean foods as listed in the Old Testament,” referring to Leviticus 11.
Though not religiously enforced, India has more vegetarians relative to population than any other nation. A comprehensive 2021 Pew Research survey of 30,000 adults in 29 territories in India found that 44% of Hindus are vegetarians, and 81% practice at least certain limits such as avoiding specific meats, especially beef, or abstaining on holy days.
Experts say vegetarianism historically has been nearly universal among those in the upper Brahmin caste with lesser prevalence in the lower classes. Pew reported that observance varies considerably by the various regions within India, highest in the North and lowest in the East, and that only 36% of Hindus will eat in restaurants that serve both non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes.
Hindu Web sites designed to explain the faith to outsiders offer other reasons why believers avoid meat-eating. Some advocate general harmony with nature and restraint to control natural cravings or teach that a simple diet enhances spiritual depth and mental awareness.
Scriptural teaching is central.
CONTINUE READING: “Question for Diwali: Why does Hinduism extol vegetarian diets?” by Richard Ostling.
FIRST IMAGE: Part of a collection of uncredited feature photos with the feature “What is Diwali? Food and traditions of the festival of lights” at the Curious Cuisiniere website.