Meat Eating in Hinduism and Buddhism

Meat on Display

by Jayaram V

Those who are not familiar with Hinduism believe that Hindus generally do not eat meat, and meat eating is an exception rather than a rule. The meat eating habits of Hindus evolved overtime and were never the same. Their current beliefs and practices do not necessarily reflect the historical truths concerning the meat eating habits of the people who lived in the Indian subcontinent and practiced various forms of Hinduism.

In ancient times, India was the land of immigrants. Numerous people came and settled in India. Whenever there were invasions, soldiers who came with the invaders but did not want to return to their homelands settled in various parts of India. They married local women, adapted to the local customs, and became part of the local milieu. For example, the people who lived in southern India, were not only Dravidians, but also foreigners who came from Central Asia, Persia, and Greece, such as Sakas, the Kushanas, Pahlavas, and even Chinese, who settled in the south, married local women, and took up various caste duties according to their background. Some of them served the local kings and became feudal lords.

Thus, the subcontinent represented a heterogeneous society consisting of people from various backgrounds. India was also home to a number of materialists or atheists known as Carvakas and Lokayatas. Apart from the law books, which dictated the rules regarding the general conduct, each caste had its own rules, which the caste members were obliged to follow to be part of the community. Therefore, we should approach the subject of meat eating with caution, keeping the diversity of the people who lived in the past in the Indian subcontinent and worshipped various gods and goddesses.

A vast majority of Indians ate meat regularly and meat eating was never prohibited in ancient India. Certain sections of society and some ascetic traditions practiced vegetarianism both for religious and spiritual purposes, but it is not true that they constituted the majority.

Meat-eating is strictly prohibited in Jainism, whereas it is conditionally allowed in Hinduism and Buddhism. In all three religions, the rules regarding meat eating are established according to their beliefs regarding karma and virtue such as nonviolence and compassion.

Animal sacrifices (jantu-bali) were part of the rural traditions of ancient India which gradually found their way into Hinduism. We have indications that Vedic people practiced both animal and human sacrifices (naramedha-yajna). In ancient India, meat was sold in the markets and animals were offered for sale for both sacrificial and eating purposes. India also has a long tradition of fishing in rivers and seas, since the Indus times.

Horse meat from horse-sacrifices was used not only as an offering to nourish gods, but also shared by the participants as the remains of the sacrifice. The host of the sacrifice, who was usual the king, receive the royal share and it was apportioned among the king, the queens and the rest of his entourage according to a formula. Kings also performed human sacrifices occasionally to appease gods and secure their favors against natural calamities and enemy forces.

Hindu law books prescribe rules for meat eating for the four castes and specify which type of meat is allowed for human consumption and under what circumstances. Buddhist texts also lay down rules for meat eating by the monks. Hunting was a royal pastime, in which both men and women participated.

Kings in India went on hunting expeditions regularly to rid the forests of dangerous animals and make them safer against people who lived there and the travelers who journeyed through them. Some kings like Ashoka, however, prohibited hunting and killing of animals.

However, as time went by, meat-eating became a more restrictive practice in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Presently, vegetarianism is a fashion and a vanity among the elite and the middle class Hindus. They may not perform sacrifices, worship gods, or practice virtues such as honesty, compassion towards fellow human beings, charity, etc., but would make sure that everyone knows about their preference for vegetarian food because it is the current trend and gives them an aura of superiority in a community that has taken to the filmy practices of pseudo culture and hybrid lifestyles.

For more information on this subject pleaser refer to the following links.

The Significance of Vegetarian Food In Spiritual Life
Hinduism, Food and Fasting
Books on Vegetarian Cooking

Suggestions for Further Reading

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