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SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS
and VEGETARIANISM

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

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.

HINDUISM

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 cow."

JAINISM

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 world."

PAGANISM

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 on health.

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."

JUDAISM

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 vegetarian:

"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."

CHRISTIANITY

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

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.

BAHA'I

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
(303) 777-4828

Updated August 20, 2005

 

 
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