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ahimsA and vegetarianism

From: Mani Varadarajan (
Date: Mon Jan 15 2001 - 13:27:55 PST

Dear Esteemed Bhaktas,

There was a question posed recently about the scriptural
authority for vegetarianism.  This core principle is 
derived from the Vedic injunction 'mA himsyAt sarva-bhUtAni'
-- do no harm to living creatures.  This recommendation is
repeated to the disciple in some of the Upanishads. We further 
see that all the great spiritual traditions of India, drawing
upon this root idea, dictate that the true spiritual aspirant
must abstain as much as possible from injury to any living
being.  The followers of the Vedanta, the Buddhists, and most
notably the Jains all keep ahimsA at the forefront of their 
spiritual sAdhana, and this is also reflected in many of 
the dharma-SAstras, including the famed manu-smRti.

The ahirbudhnya-samhitA, a pAncarAtra text of paramount
authority, states that since all creatures form the body
of the Omnipresent Lord, it should be obvious (niScaya)
that all one's actions should be performed with thoughts
of all other beings' welfare.

It is also said in the chAndogya upanishad, "If the food is pure, 
the mind becomes pure. If the mind is pure, meditation [on the paramAtman] 
becomes firm.  Upon the attainment of such meditation, one is
released from all knots of the heart (i.e., moksha is attained)."
  [ AhAra Suddhau sattva Suddhih; sattva Suddhau dhruva smRtiH; 
    smRtilambhe sarvagranthInAm vipramokshaH ]

The statement about food being pure is interpreted in the dharma-
SAstras as meaning that not only their source, but also their
*method of procurement* must be pure. Milk is no doubt pure;
but if procured through harm to the cow, or through dishonest
means, becomes tainted.  So, Sri Ramanuja writes, the first
thing to be practiced by a bhakti-yogi is 'viveka' -- being
discriminating about what one takes in, particularly food,
because it directly contributes to the purity or lack thereof
of the mind.

There is also the dialogue between Tuladhara and Jajali in 
the Mahabharata, which, remarkably, contains the seeds of
the doctrines of all modern animal-rights movements. Please

In the texts particular to our sampradAya, our acharyas have
repeatedly focussed on ahimsA and by extension vegetarianism
as a cardinal value.  Sri Vatsya Varadacharya, the parama-guru
of Sri Vedanta Desika, cites an ancient sloka which describes
ahimsA as the 'prathamam pushpam' or the first and foremost
flower that pleases Lord Vishnu. This sloka is repeated in 
many of the later Ahnika texts during the archana phase of
bhagavad-ArAdhanam.  Sri Varadacharya also interprets nearly 
every aspect of saranagati in terms of love and compassion for 
one's fellow creatures. The quote above from ahirbudhnya-samhitA 
may once again be considered in this context.

We see then a twofold reasoning at work. There is an absolute 
value of ahimsA that is at play, and in addition, this ahimsA 
helps the mumukshu in his or her spiritual progress by furthering 
the aspirant's sattva-guNa leading to purity of mind, further 
leading to the ability to realize the paramAtman.

However, at the same time, it was recognized that samsAric life 
inherently involved injury of some form or another.  The
quote, if I am not mistaken, is 'jIvo jIvena jIvati' -- life
lives by living off of another life.  Vegetarians too commit
harm, by killing plants, or using animals to plough the 
fields.  One may also inadvertently harm human beings in
the process of raising crops, or in the process of commerce.

The conclusion is that no one in reality can live a cruelty-free 
existence.  But we at the same time cannot abandon the core value of
ahimsA. So what we are left with is that *as much as possible*, 
we must minimize the harm we cause to other creatures.  Certainly,
eschewing meat is possible for nearly all of us.  (Clearly, eskimos
and others who have no other means of sustenance are largely exempt
from these dictums). And, in the process of eating our vegetarian diets, 
we should strive to atone for whatever himsA we cause in the process.

In the Vedic tradition, this atonement comes as part of the daily 
performance of the panca-mahA-yajnas, the five great 'sacrifices'. 
The word 'yajna' scares off many people, these are unfortunately 
thought of as complex rituals.  However, they are actually quite 
simple in spirit, and of the five yajnas, two were specifically 
designed with the idea of atoning for inevitable harm done in daily 
life, and take the form of positive acts of kindness and charity to 
one's fellow beings. These two are listed below, with recommendations 
from Sri Rangapriya Swami on how to fulfil them:

  (1) sacrifice to living creatures -- bhUta-yajna. Feed a fellow
      creature -- a cow, a dog, or bird, out of the kindness of
      your heart.
  (2) sacrifice to one's fellow humans -- manushya-yajna.
      Feed a guest or stranger to the extent possible, or
      do some charitable act of kindness for someone.

As Sri Rangapriya Swami rhetorically asked us, "Tell me, how hard is
this to perform every day? We make everything harder than it seems.
In reality the shastras do not dictate such difficulty." 

I hope this answers the question to some extent.  Any errors
or gaps are mine and truly, anything correct can be attributed
to Sri Rangapriya Swami.

aDiyEn rAmAnuja dAsan,

           - SrImate rAmAnujAya namaH -
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