Food in Hinduism
In Hinduism, food is so vitally important it is considered to be part of God or Brahman, as it nourishes the entire physical, mental, and emotional aspects of a human being. It is considered a gift from God and should be treated respectfully. Here is a brief description of the nuances of Hindu food.
Food is considered an actual part of Brahman, rather than simply a Brahman symbol.
Beef is strictly forbidden; cow is considered Mother in Hinduism.
Pork is a strictly forbidden food in Hinduism.
Food contains energy-like sound waves that can be absorbed by the person eating them.
According to the Hindu religion, violence or pain inflicted on another living thing rebounds on you (karma).
To avoid causing pain to another living thing, vegetarianism is advocated, but not compulsory.
Prohibited animal products may be different from one area to another; for example, duck or crab may be forbidden in one location and not in another.
Alcohol, onions, garlic, and red-colored foods such as red lentils and tomatoes are prohibited.
Meat is not always forbidden in the Laws of Manu.
Fasting depends on a person's caste and the occasion. Serving food to the poor and the needy or a beggar is good karma. Food is associated with religious activity and is still offered to God during some of the religious ceremonies. On specific days, food is offered to departed souls. Many Hindu temples distribute foods to visiting devotees.
Several rituals are associated with food in Hindu tradition. A child's first solid food is celebrated as a samskara, or rite, known as annaprasana.The funeral rites involve serving food and offering food to the departed soul for his journey to the ancestral world. According to Manu, “Food that is always worshipped, gives strength and manly vigor; but eaten irreverently, it destroys them both.”
Hindus practice some rituals before eating. They include:
Cleaning the place where the food will be eaten
Sprinkling of water around the food, accompanied by some mantras or prayers
Making an offering of the food, then offering five vital breaths (pranas), namely prana, apana, vyana, udana, and samanaya and then to Brahman seated in the heart
People define a vegetarian diet, in general, as a diet that excludes the meat of animals but does permit eggs. Vegetarian foods include grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products.
Indian vegetarians are basically lacto-vegetarians, meaning they do consume dairy products. Amazingly, Hindus make up 70 percent of all vegetarians worldwide, and account for 20–42 percent of all Indians. In the United States, vegetarians form about 1–2.8 percent of the total population.
Some definitions are needed for clearer understanding of the topic. The Sanskrit word for vegetarianism is shakahara, and for vegetarian, shakahari.Similarly, the Sanskrit word for meat eating is mansahara, and for meat eater, mansahari. What do we mean by vegetarian or vegetarianism?
Some people associate vegetarianism with India's pre-eminent leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi was surely a vegetarian by a conscious ethical choice, and not just out of a desire to adhere to Indian culture. He was an apostle of nonviolence, or ahimsa, and his adherence to this philosophy entails vegetarianism because one should refrain from being harmful to any person or any living thing, even to animals.
Ahimsa, the primary basis for vegetarianism, has been central to the Indian religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Religions in India have consistently upheld the sanctity of life, whether human; animal; or, in the case of Jains, elemental. Satyagraha (truth force) was a means of resisting the British rule of India. But the essence of truth-force is the repudiation of violence and the use of ahimsa; ahimsa and truth are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them. Moreover, satyagraha, ahimsa, and vegetarianism are all intrinsically linked to each other.
Gandhi wanted to take up the cause of vegetarianism as a mission, but he had time only for satyagraha, and the Indian masses followed his examples anyway. People practiced vegetarianism for many reasons.
Vegetarianism and Religion
The practice of vegetarianism is not essentially a religious issue. In fact, it is a myth to think so. Of course, the proponents of vegetarianism will cite scriptures:
“You must not use your God-given body for killing
God's creatures, whether they are human, animal or
Whatever.” (Yajur Veda 12.32)
“By not killing any living being, one becomes fit for
Salvations.” (Manusmriti 6.60)
“Ahimsa is the highest Dharma, ahimsa is the best Tapas,
Ahimsa is the highest self-control, ahimsa is the highest sacrifice.
Ahimsa is the highest power, ahimsa is the highest friend.
Ahimsa is the highest truth, ahimsa is the highest teaching.”
The opponents will also quote scriptures to strengthen their side. At the time of the Vedas, the people's lives were centered on sacrificial offerings to deities. The offerings were vegetables and meats; often, the offerings were given to the priests and others who paid for those sacrifices. In other words, the Brahmins were meat eaters, and the others, from the lower castes, were vegetarians! In the course of hundreds of years, the trend was reversed; Brahmins became vegetarians, and the others, some of them, became meat eaters.
Reasons for Vegetarianism
At present, the practice of a vegetarian diet for Hindus is based on the following categories:
Medical grounds: Medical studies prove that a vegetarian diet is easier to digest, provides a wider range of nutrients, and introduces fewer burdens and impurities into the body. Vegetarianism significantly lowers risk of cancer, heart disease, and other fatal diseases. In general, vegetarian diets can aid in keeping body weight under control. This diet is typically high in carotenoids, but relatively low in long-chain n-3 fatty acids.
Ecological grounds: Earth is suffering. In large measure, the escalating loss of species, destruction of ancient rain forests to create pasturelands for livestock, loss of topsoils, and the consequent increase of water impurities and air pollution have all been traced to the single fact of meat in the human diet.
Ethical grounds: Many of those who have adopted a vegetarian diet have done so on the grounds of ethical reasoning. Either they have read about or personally experienced what goes on daily at any one of the thousands of slaughterhouses around the world, where animals suffer forced confinement and violent death.
Religious grounds: Major paths of Hinduism hold up vegetarianism as an ethical and religious ideal. There are three reasons for adopting this view: the principle of nonviolence, or ahimsa, is applied to animals; the intention to offer only “pure” vegetarian food to a deity and then to receive it back as Prasad; and nonvegetarian food is detrimental to the mind and spiritual development. People in Tibet and Nepal, Hindu countries, are meat eaters. Cold weather warrants such a diet choice.
Economical grounds: An economic vegetarian is someone who practices vegetarianism from either the philosophical viewpoint, concerning issues such as public health and curbing world starvation, or the belief that the consumption of meat is economically unsound. This may be part of a conscious simple-living strategy or just out of necessity.
Cultural grounds: This involves the caste prerogatives. People from some of these castes eat meat, excluding beef, but lower-caste people (Dalits or Untouchables) will eat beef. Even Brahmins living in the states of Orissa, Maharashtra, Bengal, and Kashmir eat meat, while Brahmins from Tamil Nadu will not eat meat. In all other states, Brahmins are mostly vegetarians. All these pronouncements are to be qualified, because many Brahmins start eating meat clandestinely, outside their home, in friends' homes or at restaurants. Vegetarianism is a cultural trait; it is different from caste to caste and from state to state.
Vegetarianism was never an essential requisite for Hinduism. Ahimsa was important especially after the influence of Buddha, and some cults were more stringent than others about being a vegetarian, but it was never a universal philosophy. Gandhi was a lacto-vegetarian, as are most of the Indian vegetarians.