Vegetarianism is highly regarded by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains as the ultimate regard for the sanctity of life and a measure of “holiness.”
The most recognized symbol of a Hindu’s high regard for creation is the vehement protection of animal life, particularly the cow. Hindus recognize and value the tremendous service that this animal provides: milk as nourishment, beast of burden to till the earth, and laborer to transport people and haul the harvest. Hindus place great value in honoring life. Let’s look at the most rigorously unwavering adherents.
Scholars view the emergence of Jaina and Buddhist thought in the 6th Century B.C. as a rejection of ritualistic animal sacrifices popular during that era. Mahavira’s (Nataputta Vardhanana) practice of ahimsa (non-injury to life) is often showcased as an example of a radical love for creation. Naladiyar 14-15 records, “The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone; one should know only this, that non-injury is religion.”
Legends tell that as Mahavira traveled from village to village in the rainy season he would keep off the dirt paths to avoid accidentally crushing a crawling worm. Jain monks today continue to gently sweep their path as they walk to avoid stepping on crossing insects. Many munis wear thin nose and mouth coverings (mul-patti) to avoid breathing in small insects as they talk. Jains further extend their protection of life by abstaining from rooted vegetables (carrots, radish, ginger, potatoes, etc.) thereby, avoiding the disruption of insects and worms that may inhabit the vegetable or at least not remove a food source for those animals. Legend also relays that Mahavira died of self-imposed starvation and some devotees today view this as the noblest way to pass from life. Stories of Mahavira’s ascetic life are often retold to model the purest form of non-violence and preservation of life.
Yet, for most Janis (as is for Hindus & Buddhists) the rigors of extreme asceticism were (and is) unapproachable. Thus, those Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists who do attempt to follow a strict vegetarian diet are held in high regard and afforded an elevated stature of “holiness.” It is perceived that just as Mahavira earned moksha by practicing ahimsa, those abstaining from animal foods, animal byproducts, and avoiding animal cruelty are closer on the cosmic scale to “liberation” than those who find no offense in the above.
Beyond the theology that evolved to encourage vegetarianism, it is more popularly viewed as righteous living and virtuous in action. I remember childhood stories about causal relationships between right-conduct and right-thought. The herbivore elephant is viewed as a peaceful, gentle giant that enjoys a long life span. (I’ve even heard a contextualized version where the elephant is replaced by a brontosaurus.) This is contrasted with the carnivorous serpent that is constantly feeding, bloodthirsty, feared, and lives a relatively short life.
It is often said that Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Muslim, and Christian societies reflect the choices they have made towards right-conduct and right-thought. While the first three mainly vegetarian societies are regarded as peaceful and profoundly spiritual, the latter three primarily non-vegetarian societies are viewed as war-mongering and devoid of concern for life.
“The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone; one should know only this, that non-injury is religion [emphasis added].” Naladiyar 14-15
Thus, how should we view Yeshu (the teacher, the prophet, the Son of God, the Liberator, the Redeemer of all men) who ate meat (fish)? (Luke 24:42-43)
It seems that vegetarianism is espoused for several reasons. First, there is a sense that eating non-vegetarian foods is “unclean” and alters the character of our inner soul (jiva) thus, affecting our outward conduct (i.e., the elephant and serpent analogy). Second, some view denying oneself of certain foods is “holiness” and thereby an act of worship.
Please allow me to unpack some of the subtle theological underpinnings and consider the sublime implications they demand. I’ll also add a bit of background and history behind the stories that follow.
The Pharisees were religiously strict Jews that were known to follow God’s teaching to the minutest detail. It is said that the Pharisees followed every letter of the Law (religious teachings) in all aspects of living. They were known to abstain from “unclean” foods, not enter an “unclean” home, not associate with “unclean” peoples and “4When they come from the marketplace they [the Pharisees] do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.” (Mark 7:4, NIV) Similarly, our Indian aesthetic sadhus prefer to receive alms in their own bowls and cups so as to remain “clean.”
Consider Yeshu’s response to the Pharisees (and our Sadhus) in regards to “clean” and unclean.”
“1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Yeshu from Jerusalem and asked, 2’why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3Yeshu replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’…5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:1-6, NIV)
Yeshu gets right to the heart of the Pharisees objection. While the Pharisees were outwardly “clean” in observing the Law their true actions did not reflect the heart of God. For the sake of tradition, the Pharisees (and truthfully many of us) will view our outward works of worship (pilgrimages, dietary restrictions, fasting, etc.) as credit for those actions we leave undone.
Our outward actions seem “clean” and a fulfillment of God’s Law, but Yeshu clears our clouded vision of holiness saying, “7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8″ ‘these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'” (Matthew 15:7-9, NIV)
Yeshu’s measure of holiness is not external but a matter of our motivations and our heart. “18Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’” (Mark 7:18, NIV) “10Yeshu called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’…17Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’” (Matthew 15:10-11, 17-28) Yeshu continues, “21For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ” (Mark 7:21-23, NIV)
Paul, a disciple of Yeshu, writes, “8…food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” and “…the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 8:8, emphasis added, Romans 14:17, NIV)
If this is Yeshu’s teaching, then let’s reverse the initial question. What do we make of our Indian philosophers, sadhus, and leaders who were vegetarian? Were they not “holy?”
Perhaps a better grounding question is why are we drawn to their vegetarianism or their asceticism? If we measure holiness as one’s ability to maintain a sacrificial and disciplined lifestyle, I must confess that most sadhus, munis, rishis and gurus are “holy.” It is undeniable that a guru who walks barefoot village to village with nothing but a thin, saffron (or white) robe, an alms vessel and perhaps a walking stick is living a rigorously difficult and austere life. If the intensity of our self-denial is the measure, our gurus are indeed “holy.”
Since we ourselves cannot maintain such a lifestyle (many of us have trouble fasting even through one meal), we confer upon those who can an elevated stature. We feel that those who can sustain heroic acts of self-denial as possessing some inner strength. Therefore, if one has this self-will, then they must be closer to understanding spiritual things than we who cannot even deny ourselves a piece of chocolate! We say they are holy (or at the very least their actions are a part of their “holiness.”)
If asceticism, self-denial, intense meditation or shedding of material (and relational) attachments are examples of “holiness” from our Indian experiences, what does God of the Bible say in regards to this? God speaks in Leviticus 11:45 and says, “45…be holy, because I am holy” (emphasis added, NIV).
But isn’t this what we are all striving for? Isn’t this why we practice our traditions?
Grant me that we may reasonably assume that the Creator of the world understands “holiness.” Furthermore, to be in commune with God we should further pursue “holiness” as He defines it.
- Holiness means “to be set apart.” Thus, a Holy God is separate and set apart from his creation.
- Since a perfect God is set apart, the works of an imperfect and impure man cannot satisfy God. The prophet Isaiah writes in 64:6, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins [imperfection] sweep us away” (emphasis added, NIV).
- Thus if we, ourselves, cannot earn or attain holiness, then we are doomed! What hope do we have to be restored to a Holy God?
Here is our hope: “17Therefore, if anyone is in Yeshu, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled [restored] us to himself through Yeshu and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Yeshu, not counting men’s sins [karma or imperfection] against them.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19, emphasis added, NIV)
Dear friend, I used to object that Jesus was not vegetarian, but Yeshu has gone far beyond “non-injury” to external things. God has made a way for us to cease “non-injury” to our soul and to be fully restored to Him. He presents us with new life and the power to be holy as He is holy. Friend, I’ll conclude using the disciple Paul’s words as he cried out to his friends: “20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21, NIV)