There are some religions that face stereotypical assumptions about their members. A lot of those misconceptions and rumors normally revolve around food. This also comes into play when people do not understand the difference between certain religions and clump individuals who live in a certain area of the world together. These assumptions can be on the right track sometimes, but most of the time they are just plain wrong. Hinduism is one of those religions that people have a lot of confusion about.
Do Hindus Eat Meat? Studies show that 71% of all Hindus eat some form of meat. However, Hindus who do eat mean distinguish all other meat from beef, which they avoid. The biggest misconception is that all Hindus are Vegetarians, which is not the case.
Why No Beef?
In Hindu families, cows are treated as a motherly, giving animal and many times considered to be another member of the family. Contrary to popular belief, Hindus do not consider cows to be gods and they do not worship them. However, they do consider the cow to be a sacred symbol of life that should be protected and revered. In the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, the cow is associated with Aditi, the mother of all gods.
In Hindu images, cows are often pictured as white with garland and flowers as a sign of the faith’s special reverence. There is a holiday that is particular to sacred nature of the cow call Gopastami when all cows, even those who wander the streets and villages, are washed and dressed with the flowers. To harm or kill a cow- especially for food- is considered taboo by a majority of Hindus.
Hindus are said to see the cow as a particularly generous and docile creature that gives much more to humans than she takes. Cows produce milk, cheese, butter, ghee, urine and dung. The first three are eaten and used in the worship of the Hindu gods, while the last two can be used in religious devotion, in penance, or burned for fuel. The cow is the most revered animal in the Hindu culture.
In ancient India, cattle and oxen were sacrificed to the gods and the meat was eaten. However, even during those times, cows that produced milk were not allowed to be used. This is because milk was such a precious commodity to the people. With the rise of other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, however, Hindus had to stop eating the meat. Many became vegetarians due to the newfound philosophies.
Cows became associated with the highest caste system, or the Brahmans, by the first century AD. At that time, to kill a cow was the same as killing a Brahman, and punishable by death. During these times, Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu- one of the three main Hindu gods- was often depicted as cavorting with cows either in literature or in art.
For centuries it has been know that the ancient Indians ate beef. Even after the rise of vegetarianism in India, many continued. Like most cattle-breeding cultures, this included eating castrated steers- but they would eat a cow during times of rituals or when welcoming guests or those with higher status. Ancient texts dating back to 900 BC stated that a bull or cow should be killed and eaten when a guest arrives. These texts stated that the cow is food and did not include the beef-free restrictions.
However, between 300 BC and 300 AD, a Sansckrit epic, the Mahabharata, explained the transition to NOT eating cows in a famous myth:
“Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”
The myth shows a transition from hunting wild cattle to preserving their lives, domesticating them and breeding them for their milk. This transition being to agriculture and a pastoral life. It shows the cow as the paradigmatic animal that is able to yield food without being killed for it. This also allowed the Hindus to see cows in a more holy light, holding them in higher regard than their predecessors.
Some Hindus who did eat meat made a special exception and did not eat the meat of a cow. Some have equated this to an exception based on status. That means the higher the caste, the greater the food restrictions. Various religious sanctions were used to impose the restriction on eating beef, but only among the upper castes.
The arguments against eating cows specifically became a combination of a symbolic argument about purity and docility of women and a religious argument about the sanctity of the Brahmins. This was also a way for castes to rise in social ranking. The lower castes gave up beef when they wanted to move up the caste system through a process known as “Sanskritization.”
By the 19th Century, the cow-protection movement had risen with one object of the movements being the oppression of Muslims in particular. Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, and especially the requirement not to eat beef, a central tenet of Hinduism. His attitude to cows was tied to his idea of nonviolence.
Gandhi used the image of the Earth cow the King Prithu milked as a symbol for Mother Earth and his imagined Indian Nation. His insistence on protecting the cow was a major factor in his failure to garner larger support from the Muslim community. Yet, he never called for the banning of slaughtering cows in India. He stated the following:
“How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”
So, though there was pressure to ban the slaughter, Gandhi took into consideration the needs and lifestyles of all who lived in India, and not only the Hindus. Though some Hindus felt that the ban should take place- it never went forth.
Hindu Diets Today
Diets in Hinduism vary based on tradition, location, socio economic status, and individual lifestyles. Some think that all of India are Vegetarians, while others assume all Hindus are. And, of course, there are some that assume all those in India ARE Hindus. These are all misconceptions that lead to confusion and misinformation.
Ancient Hindu texts strongly prohibit eating meat, as they strongly recommend ahimsa- non-violence against all life forms. This includes animals because they believe that it minimizes animal deaths.
Because of this, many Hindus today prefer a vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian lifestyle and methods of food production that are in sync with nature, compassion, and respect of all life forms within nature.
(Vegetarians- a vegetarian is someone who does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of animal slaughter. Their diets contain various levels of fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. The inclusion of dairy and eggs depends on the type of diet you follow. Lacto vegetarians are Vegetarians who avoid animal flesh and eggs but do consume dairy products.)
Diets of many Hindus include eggs, fish or meat. When slaughtering animals or birds for consumption, Hindus use the jhatka, or quick death, method since Hindus believe that this minimizes trauma and suffering to the animal. Hindu mendicants (sannyasin) even avoid preparing their own food, relying either on begging for leftovers or harvesting seeds and fruits from forests, as this minimizes the likely harm to other creatures.
Hindus have always had a reputation as vegetarians. This is such a widespread thought that many people know little, if anything, about Hinduism as an actual religion- being convinced that they do not eat meat because they worship cows. This incorrect information leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions tied to the regions throughout India.
Hindu Scriptures tied to not eating meat
The Hindu scriptures support the spiritual belief in a vegetarian diet. Though this has never been an absolute for all people, most Hindus feel that eating a vegetarian diet is highly meritorious. There are a number of passages that discuss the benefits, with this being three of the more well-known:
- “The sins generated by violence curtail the life of the perpetrator. Therefore, even those who are anxious for their own welfare should abstain from meat-eating.” — Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva 115.33
- “How can he practice true compassion, who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own flesh?” — Tirukural 251
- “Those noble souls who practice meditation and other yogic ways, who are ever careful about all beings, who protect all animals, are the ones who are actually serious about spiritual practices.” — Atharva Veda 19.48.5
Even though the Hindu scriptures support a vegetarian diet, studies show that most Hindus are NOT vegetarians. In a recent survey, 71% of the nation reported eating meat. Of that number, 80% of the nation are identified as Hindus. Though there are differences in diets based on regions, this shows that Hindus are still eating meat. Some are even eating beef.
Along the border of Pakistan, the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Punjab all have higher number of vegetarians that the other areas. Around ¾ of people in those areas do not eat meat- which represents individuals of various religious sects and not just Hindus. All of these groups, however, have strong traditions of being vegetarians. Alternatively, in the south and east of India, vegetarians make up a small minority of people.
Though there are regional variations in the distribution of Muslims and Christians, which are the two largest minority faiths there, neither have histories tied to vegetarianism. This survey stands to show that diet is more of a regional tradition than economics or faith. Even in areas where there are strictly vegetarian communities, there are also pockets of those who consume meat.
That being said, India does have the highest percentage of Vegetarians in the World. Nearly 30% of the population of India is vegetarian. The next closest nations only have less than a half the percentage of non-meat eaters. Those include Switzerland, Taiwan and Israel. (at 13-14%). In Europe, North and South America and East Asia- the percentage is under 10% and many nations are in the low single digits.
Given this, it is easy to see why those without intimate knowledge of the demographics of the country assume that the area is made up entirely of Vegetarians. Compared to the United States and Europe, Vegetarians are infinitely more plentiful in India. Though the studies say that religion does not play a large part in this, it is easy to see that the history of this culture is tied deeply to the religious beliefs of the forefathers and even if the population is not fully vegetarian, the intent is still present.
It is important to also note that even though the number of vegetarians in India is much lower than once perceived, the number of those choosing vegetarian diets for ethical reasons seems to be increasing. This increase seems to be worldwide with a larger movement towards those plant centered diets. In the United States, 6% of the country is now Vegan (no meat, dairy or eggs) with 30% of the population choosing to eat less meat in their diets- especially beef (red meat). The smaller numbers may be somewhat confusing, but just a short few years ago there was only a 0.5% Vegan population in the US.
These numbers seem to show that the perception that meat is the cornerstone of a healthy diet is shifting. In the US, studies show that almost half of teenagers believe that a diet with less meat is healthy. This goes hand in hand with the finds that the percentages of vegetarians by age group show that only 1% are Baby Boomers, 4% generation X while 12% are Millennials. With this number trend, the next generation could have percentages that match those of India.
However, when considering the diets of those in India- the majority of the Vegetarians there are not recent converts- they have not chosen the lack of meat for the purpose of ingesting less cholesterol or for some form of colon cleanse. Their purpose is historically religious based.
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions with complex roots that involve a vast array of practices and a host of deities. Its forms and beliefs reflect the tremendous diversity of India, where most of its one billion followers live.
It is important to point out that Hinduism is more than a religion. Hinduism is a culture, a way of life and has a very strict code of behavior. The term Indians use to describe the Hindu religion is Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal faith, or the eternal way things are. The belief system and practices of the Hindus are very diverse and vary over time and individuals. As we have seen in the above information, it also varies throughout communities and regions of India.
Unlike other religions in the area such as Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism- Hinduism has no founder. The authority behind the religion rests upon a large body of sacred texts that provide Hindus with rules governing their rituals, worship, pilgrimage and daily activities. The oldest of these texts date back four thousand years, with the earliest surviving images and temples being created some two thousand years later. We have seen that some of these texts included information on dietary restrictions however some within the community choose not to follow those texts to the letter- choosing to eat meat and even beef on occasion.
Beliefs common to the Hindu religion include:
- a belief in many gods, which are seen as manifestations of a single unity. These deities are linked to universal and natural processes.
- a preference for one deity while not excluding or disbelieving others
- a belief in the universal law of cause and effect (karma) and reincarnation
- a belief in the possibility of liberation and release (moksha) by which the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) can be resolved
Religion pervades many aspects of Hindu life, and religious observance is not limited to one location, time of day, or use of a particular text. It assumes many forms: in the home, at the temple, on a pilgrimage, through yogic practices, dance or music, at the roadside, by the river, through the observation of one’s social duties and so on. For some Hindus, this includes the dietary restrictions previously discussed, however for others- practicing the other aspects of the religion serve to solidify their belief systems without restricting their dietary intake.
With Hinduism being the third largest religion in the world, as well as the world’s oldest religion- dating back to 10,000 BC- it is hard to understand why more is not understood about the religion or the culture of the Hindus. It is important to remember that not all Hindus are vegetarians, and of those that are not, most do not eat beef. However, with over 1 billion followers living throughout various parts of India- it would be impossible to have the entire Hindu population all following the same restrictions to the letter.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.