The basis of vegetarianism, for many vegetarians, is ethical—that
it cannot be right for us to kill animals for food, when it is so easy (and also
more healthful) to live on plant foods or foods obtained without killing (e. g.,
dairy products). There is in every major spiritual tradition those who follow
vegetarianism—and indeed, who interpret the highest calling of their tradition
as favoring, if not mandating, a vegetarian diet. This should give pause to
anyone considering the ancient traditions and the morality of killing for food.
Buddhism teaches that the path to liberation lies in
overcoming attachment and desire. The first precept of Buddhism is not to kill
any living being. As meat-eating involves killing animals, it would seem that
vegetarianism is a consequence of the first precept. "Let all creatures,
let all things that live, all beings of whatever kind, see nothing that will
bode them ill! May naught of evil come to them!" states the Buddha (quoted
in the Culla-Vagga). The Mahayana tradition is especially strong on
vegetarianism; it pictures the Buddha not only as himself a vegetarian, but as
one who taught others to be vegetarians. The Lankavatara sutra devotes an entire
chapter to the evils of eating meat, saying:
"Meat eating in any form, in any manner, and in any
place is unconditionally and once for all prohibited. . . . Meat eating I have
not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit."
Not all Buddhists practice what the tradition teaches, and
many Buddhists today will eat meat; but the tradition handed down about the
Buddha indicates that the Buddha intended the path to selflessness to include
abandoning the killing of animals in any form.
The Hindu tradition clearly advocates vegetarianism, and
Hindu teachers have advocated vegetarianism for many centuries. It is an
important facet of their beliefs in reincarnation and karma—that all souls,
upon death, are reborn in another body. There is no difference between an animal
soul and a human soul in this respect; thus, just as we would not kill a human
being, we should not kill animals either.
It is the devotees of Krishna, of which the modern Hare
Krishna movement is a spiritual descendant, who really gave vegetarianism its
big push within Hinduism. They originated the tradition of the cow as sacred in
India. Some Hindus have resisted this trend, but those who are true to the Hindu
traditions will not eat flesh in any form and are vegetarians.
Mahatma Gandhi, the great modern Hindu leader, was a
vegetarian and saw vegetarianism and the respect for the "sacred cow"
as part of nonviolence: "Protection of the cow means protection of the
whole dumb creation of God. . . . Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the
world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the
The Jain religion, another of the great traditions of India,
consists of followers of the prophet Mahavira. Like Buddhism and Hinduism, it
shares the ideas of reincarnation, karma, and nonviolence. The Jains are perhaps
unique in that vegetarianism is unequivocally demanded of all Jains. Ideally, in
fact, one should harm no being, not even plants; but while harming the less
developed creatures is relatively better than harming humans or animals, no Jain
may eat meat in any form, even if the animal died a natural death. The
Federation of Jain Associations in North America explains:
"As Jains, the primary reason for us being vegetarians
is our compassion for all living creatures, or AHIMSA. Health and ecology are
secondary reasons. But it is very helpful for us to know how vegetarianism is an
ecologically friendly practice. . . . Ahimsa—harmlessness and protection to
all living beings—is the very first vow for all the Jain householders and
monks. It is of great importance to be a vegetarian, but you still have to
contemplate not inflicting pain to the organisms that have shared our earth
beautifully for billions of years. It's up to us to respect all life in this
The "Pagan" religions include not only ancient
religions such as those of the mother-goddess and the classical paganism of
Greece and Rome, but also modern neo-Pagans and others in the New Age movement.
Classical paganism had many illustrious vegetarians who were outspoken on the
subject. Such figures as Ovid, Appolonius of Tyana, Plutarch, Plotinus, and
Porphyry were all vegetarians who also identified themselves with classical
paganism. Plutarch's essay On Eating of Flesh is still quoted by
vegetarians today. Porphyry, living several hundred years later, wrote the
earliest surviving book-length treatment of vegetarianism, On Abstinence from
Animal Food, where he forthrightly deals with the moral worth of animals,
the natural repugnance of humans to animal flesh, and the effects of meat-eating
Many modern neo-pagans are vegetarians as well, as is evident
from looking at modern neo-pagan literature. They quote the Pagan Federation
principles in support of their vegetarianism: "`Do what you will, but harm
none.' . . . Each person is responsible for discovering their own true nature
and developing it fully in harmony with the world around them."
Many Jews are today vegetarians. They base their
vegetarianism on the fact that the first diet commanded by God in Genesis was a
vegetarian diet: "God also said, 'I give you all plants that bear seed
everywhere on earth, and every tree bearing fruit which yields seed: they shall
be yours for food.'" (Genesis 1:29). The ultimate desire of God is for a
world like that in the Garden of Eden, where humans and even animals are all
"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard
shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy in all
my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as
the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6, 9)
Compassion to animals is part of Jewish teaching. Animals, as
well as humans, are to be rested on the sabbath (Exodus 20:10), one has an
obligation to relieve the suffering of animals (Deuteronomy 22:4, Exodus 23:5),
and "a righteous man cares for his beast" (Proverbs 12:10). God
himself cares for animals, for "his tender care rests upon all his
creatures" (Psalms 145:9).
Finally, Proverbs 23:20 advises, "Be not among
winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat."
Most Christians today probably eat meat without giving it a
second thought; but many early Christians were vegetarian, including Clement of
Alexandria, Origen, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Basil the Great. According to
some early church writings, Matthew, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus were
vegetarians. Many of the Old Testament principles concerning compassion for
animals are accepted by Christians. God's compassion for animals is indicated at
several points in the New Testament as well: Luke 12:6 states,"Are not five
sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before
God." Matthew 12:7 states about animal sacrifice: "If you had known
what that text means, `I require mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have
condemned the innocent."
Christians have an obligation to feed the hungry (Matthew
25:35), and many world hunger analysts think that "A diet rich in animal
products creates dependence on imports for food and can widen the gap between
rich and poor" (Worldwatch Institute).
Modern day Christian vegetarians include many in the
Seventh-day Adventist church, which recommends vegetarianism to its members, and
the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who said:
"While so much ill-treatment of animals goes on, while
the moans of thirsty animals in railway trucks sound unheard, while so much
brutality prevails in our slaughterhouses . . . we all bear guilt. Everything
that lives has value as a living thing, as one of the manifestations of the
mystery that is life."
Islam neither recommends nor disapproves of vegetarianism.
However, there is respect for animals and even the practice of vegetarianism
among those who practice Islam.
The prophet Mohammed himself was kind to animals, something
even Western historians have recognized: "His humanity even extended itself
to the lower creation. He forbade the employment of living birds as targets for
marksmen, and remonstrated with those who ill-treated their camels. When some of
his followers had set fire to an anthill he compelled them to extinguish
it."—D. Margoliouth, Mohammed, p. 458. The Qu'ran 6:38
remarks: "There is not an animal in the earth, nor a creature flying on two
wings, but they are peoples like unto you."
Some followers of Islam have become vegetarians. This is
especially true of the Sufis, who represent the mystical dimension in Islam,
some of whose number both in ancient times and today are vegetarians. An old
story is told about Rabia al-Adawiyya (died 801), an early woman Sufi saint. She
was sitting in the midst of a number of animals, and was approached by Hasan of
Basra. The animals all run away, and Hasan asks why. Rabia replies, "You
have been eating meat. All I had to eat was dry bread." The animals
recognized that Rabia was a vegetarian and that Hasan was not.
The Baha'i writings do not specifically forbid meat or
require vegetarianism. However, it is safe to say that vegetarianism is strongly
encouraged. The Baha'i writings state:
"The food of the future will be fruit and grains. The
time will come when meat will no longer be eaten. . . . our natural food is that
which grows out of the ground. The people will gradually develop up to the
condition of this natural food."
"To blessed animals the utmost kindness must be shown,
the more the better. Tenderness and loving-kindness are basic principles of
God's heavenly Kingdom. Ye should most carefully bear this matter in mind."
"It is not only their fellow human beings that the
beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth
the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature. For in all physical
respects, and where the animal spirit is concerned, the selfsame feelings are
shared by animal and man. . . . The feelings are one and the same, whether ye
inflict pain on man or on beast."
"Train your children from their earliest days to be
infinitely tender and loving to animals."
-- Keith Akers
The Vegetarian Society of Colorado is a non-sectarian
educational organization with members from many different religions or no
religion. For more information about vegetarianism, call or write:
Vegetarian Society of Colorado
P. O. Box 6773
Denver, Colorado 80206
Updated August 20, 2005