Eating Fish and the Hindu Ethical Code of Conduct

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Matsyavatar, Incarnation of Vishnu as a fish

by Jayaram V

Question: Some people believe that eating fish is not as offensive as eating animal flesh. They say that it is OK to eat fish even if you are a vegetarian, and it is the same as eating eggs. Is fish eating allowed in Hinduism?

It is true eating fish is considered more benign than eating animal fish by many Hindus. They will be surprised to know what Manu said about it in the Manusmriti.

In Hinduism we consider fish inhabitants of the water-world who often interact with humans and help them in their tasks. They live in the world of fish (matysa-loka) along with the inhabitants of underwater worlds where serpents (Nagas), water-nymphs (jala-kanyas) and water-spirits live. The Puranas describe how Lord Vishnu incarnated upon earth as a fish and rescued the Vedas when the world was inundated by a massive flood. Satyavati (Matsya Gandha), an important personality from the epic Mahabharata and grandmother of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, was the daughter of a fisherman. During their exile, the Pandavas spent a year in the land of fishermen (Matsya) ruled by King Virata, a descendent of Matsya, the twin brother of Satvyavati.

Thus, fishing has been one of the most ancient of human activities in all ancient cultures. From the earliest times fish meat served as a major source of animal protein for people all over the world. Medically and medicinally, it is considered healthy since it is nutrient-rich and low in saturated fats, carbohydrates and cholesterol.

Unfortunately, continuous and indiscriminate fishing on a large-scale with modern methods such as dredging or bottom-trawling (in which giant nets are run along the sea floor to capture indiscriminately all forms of marine life) have become major threats to marine ecosystems and global fish populations.

According to a recent report, large-scale commercial fishing which is worth about 400 billion dollars annually had eliminated 90 percent of the world’s large fish, including tuna, marlin, and other large fish species. Statistics show that in 2018 global fish production reached 179 million tons, with China and USA accounting for the highest per capita consumption. It is estimated to grow further in the next decade. At this rate, our oceans will be empty of many types of fish populations in a few decades. Fish farming, which requires large amounts of water and substantial investment, is not going to fill the gap.

In times such as these, it is appropriate to remember the advice given by Manu and the code of conduct he prescribed for the Vedic householders about eating fish. The Manusmriti (5.15 & 16), which prescribed the ethical code of conduct for Vedic people and served for centuries as a guidebook for them to regulate their lives, states thus.

He who eats the flesh of any (animal) is called the eater of the flesh of that, but he who eats fish is an eater of every (kind of) flesh. Let him therefore avoid fish.”

He also provided some exceptions.

(But the fish called) Pathina and (that called) Rohita may be eaten, if used for offerings to the gods or to the manes; (one may eat) likewise Ragivas, Simhatundas, and Sasalkas on all (occasions)1.

This may be news to many Hindus who consider eating fish is somehow morally less repugnant than eating animal meat. What did Manu mean? These verses rightly state that when people eat the flesh of an animal, they eat that animal only, because that animal depends upon plants or a few animals (of similar nature) for its food. However, it is not the same with fish.

When people eat fish, they eat all types of flesh because fishes consume all types of flesh from the decaying bodies of animals, worms, insects and even humans, which are found in the water. They keep their mouths open, and whatever foods flows into them they eat. They also eat several marine plants and other fish. Fishes also consume chemicals and industrial effluents when they are released into the water. According to a recent report, fishes may be consuming plastic from the waste found in the water since minute particles of it were found in their bodies.

Thus, although fish meat is nutrient rich, it may not be as healthy as many believe. Especially, in countries where quality controls are lax, one should not eat them at all. It is definitely not suitable for those who want to avoid animal meat as a part of their religious or spiritual practice. Further, from the environmental point of view, it is better to avoid eating fish since our oceans are under threat due to indiscriminate and destructive fishing practices. Life upon earth will not continue if we continue to take out millions of tons of fish each year from the oceans without replenishing them. Hunting of large fish such as whales, dolphins and sharks should be completely banned worldwide.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Manu provided the exception probably because these fish drew their nourishment from aquatic plants only. However, I am not sure what these fish are according to present day nomenclature.

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