It would be appropriate to say that some Hindu sects follow vegetarianism, rather than say Hinduism forbids eating meat. We find that each Hindu sect likes to think of itself as the true synopsis of Hinduism or sanAtana dharma; the sectarian tilt is extended to sanAtana dharma as a whole! Modern interpreters of the Vedas altogether denounce animal sacrifice, which was a legitimate practice in olden times. The Vedic pashu-yagñas that were left untouched by many of the AchAryas (Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa, Vallabha, etc.) were subsequently eradicated by the moderns.

When one questions vegetarian Hindus about references to meat consumption in sanAtana dharma, they bend over backwards and come up with all sorts of apparently sensible explanations. We should understand the tilt towards vegetarianism is perhaps due to a combination of social, geographical, cultural and religious adjustment, rather than injunctions in our prasthAna thrayIs (Major Upanishads―Brahmasutra―Bhagavad-Gita). Jains were the first ‘vegetarian’ religious group and Buddhists were against animal sacrifice – and their influence on Brahmins of yore perhaps resulted in large-scale conversion to vegetarianism among Hindus.

Many religions lay restrictions on the kind of food that one is ‘allowed’ to eat. For example, it is forbidden for Jews to have the blood of any animal. Muslims are not allowed to eat pork. Further, Muslims can eat the meat only if the animal is sacrificed in a particular way. It is just the opposite for Sikhs – the meat of any animal that is sacrificed as part of a ritual is forbidden. For Jains, any kind of animal product is forbidden. Hindus generally avoid beef and many Hindus and Buddhists altogether avoid any meat. Hindus who are not bound by any sect are similar to Christians, in that no food is forbidden strictly on religious grounds.

The Bhagavad-Gita deals with food habits in a holistic manner. In the third chapter, Krishna talks about our overall attitude towards consumption:
“The wise ones eat the food that remains
after being offered to yagña;
thus, they are released from all evils.
The wicked ones prepare food for their own sake
and indeed live on sin alone.”

[Notes: In the process of procuring our food, to some extent,
we cause trouble to nature and also to other beings.
So we purify the food by offering it to the supreme
and then eating it with sense of gratitude.
Even if we eat a dry leaf that fell on its own accord,
we must not do so with a sense of entitlement.]

In the 17th chapter, Krishna talks about the nature of people and the food that they enjoy. There is no specific prescription on the kind of food one should be eating.

“Foods that promote longevity, vitality,
endurance, health, happiness, and contentment;
foods that are tasty, mild, nourishing, and
pleasant are dear to those of the nature of sattva.”

“Foods that cause pain, sorrow, and sickness;
foods that is bitter, sour, salty,
excessively hot, spicy, dry, and pungent
are dear to those of the nature of rajas.”

“Foods that is insipid, stale, rotten,
left-over, filthy, and unhygienic
are dear to those of the nature of tamas.”

[Notes: In 17:7-10, the ‘dear to those of the nature of…’ is perhaps just an indication of what they don’t mind eating. One who relishes stale food will also relish freshly made food, but not the other way round. A person of the nature of tamas will not go to a restaurant and order stale food. Just that such a person won’t mind eating stale food too; call it poor quality control!]

This message gently steers us away from the “holier than thou” attitude. When there is a talk on Hinduism in the West, ‘Holy cow’ is a common topic that comes up. Which animal is not holy according to sanAtana dharma! Most Hindus cannot think of eating cow, just as most Americans cannot think of eating dog (the Bible does not forbid eating dog); Christians of Nagaland (in India) and Russia eat dog meat.

In a way, all of us are ‘Tastarians’, with our religious beliefs impacting on what we would not eat. But there can be no universal ruling on the food that an individual should or can eat. The only universality one can have is the attitude towards food – that of gratitude and humility for having got a meal. Ultimately, we should eat the food that we find appropriate in terms of taste, nutrition and health, giving due respect to the environment (social, religious, cultural, and ecological). The earth has enough to satisfy our hunger – not our gluttony.


  1. Sriram1/11/2013

    In present times, the trouble caused towards nature in Vegetarianism seems lesser as compared to Non-vegetarianism (at least I think it is). How can a NV eating devotee be grateful in offering the food to the lord when he knows there is an alternative which causes lesser trouble?

  2. Hi Sriram,
    Indeed in the present day and age, vegetarianism is less harmful to nature as opposed to non-vegetarianism. Even in the traditional works of Hinduism, it is mentioned that vegetarianism is the preferred way of living though not compulsory.
    That said, there are many things we do in daily life (drive cars, own multiple clothes, buy things we don't need, avoid taking medicines, etc.) that have better alternatives, but do we necessarily take those alternatives? For various reasons we can't. The least we can do is be grateful for what we have.
    Warm regards,

  3. Sorry, I meant "taking too many medicines" and not "avoid taking medicine" :)

  4. Sriram1/15/2013

    Thanks a lot for the prompt response. I did not expect it to be this fast!

    I was thinking that, in fact, veganism is probably a more ethical alternative to vegetarianism in current times. I do not know the extent to which the bovine folks are made to feel the heat so as to reach the productivity targets.
    When I have made choices which are not great in terms of ethics, how can I feel grateful for that? I can feel guilt and a sense of shame. And, Grateful towards whom?

    "The Vedic pashu-yagñas that were left untouched by many of the AchAryas" - Did they ignore it? Are the yagnas vestigal in the sense irrelevant? Or are they even more - just plain wrong (in the sense ineffective/unscientific/incorrect..)?

    "rather than injunctions in our prasthAna thrayIs " Are the prasthana trayis supposed to contain every relevant truth? I think (correct me if I am wrong) in the Bhagavatam it is said Kali verily lives in the places where there is animal slaughter. (http://vedabase.net/sb/1/17/38/en) Thus, could it not be possible that a shift to vegetarianism happened from the beginning of Kali Yuga?

    - a confused soul :-)

  5. Anonymous1/15/2013

    All our confusions vanish if we simply ignore Bhagavad-Gita and stay with Manusmrithi, Puranas,our Acharya kalakshepams and especially Garuda Purana.... Koti Sreekrishna

  6. Again, all our confusions will vanish if we simply ignore everything else (Manusmriti, Puranas, Kalakshepams, etc.) and stay with Bhagavad-Gita!

  7. Sriram1/19/2013

    I get the point that sticking to one literature would give clarity. Having fun at my expense, eh? :-)

    When Veda Vyasar compiled them all - how can I selectively discard some? The acharyas reconciled apparent disconnect between various literatures (I am told so. What do I know - I am Tamil, Sanskrit, Manipravala illiterate)

    Would want to know your thoughts on some of my earlier questions:

    1. About Pashu Yagnas - I feel even if the yagnas are scientifically correct, I dont think it will work now. But are the scientifically correct? If not, how can we follow BG when Vyasar compiled this one too.

    2. About Prastana Trayis - Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and SBG. What is their position vis a vis other scriptural texts?

  8. @Sriram: Basic principle to follow is this: when you read a text, you try to understand it in practice. If it doesn't make sense, keep it aside and come back to it later. The ultimate test is that of personal experience and insight.

    Coming to your questions:
    1. Pashu yajnas were rituals that were carried out at that point of time. There is nothing scientific or unscientific about it. It's a ritual.
    2. Prasthana trayi have got the highest place in our scriptural canon. They are considered more important than all other texts.

    In case of material matters, I have found that if we apply basic common sense, we pretty much arrive at the same conclusion of all the great masters have arrived.


  9. Sriram1/20/2013

    Thanks Hari.

  10. Anonymous1/29/2013

    Sriram, sorry to say our Acharyas just promoted their dogma!In my view they did more or less 5 blunders to Bhagavad-Gita. They misunderstood verNa (1), svadharma(2), presented it as exclusively advaita, dvaita or anything in-between (those terms are not found in Gita!)(3)[It is all of them, but none of them exclusively,like light is both a wave and a particle], treated Gita as exclusively moksha shastra (4)[thus karma in Gita meant Vedic rites or kainkaryam in perumal sannidhi], and did sharanagathi to Arjuna of chapter 1 as well [thus insisted on shraddhama and tarpanam as duty; they (with the exception of Valalbacharya)insisted that to an extent that it became the litmus test for our religiosity](5). As a result we have the clumsiest religion ever! You can't do anything right and live only in guilt or hang around some mathams, pleading your inability to follow properly! When we have Gita, liberated of 5 blunders, kim anyaih shaastra vistharaih (what other shaastra we need)?.... Koti Sreekrishna

  11. Dear Anonymous, that is the beauty of Hinduism isnt it, you can follow any path, even atheism charavakam is a school in hinduism. What matters is you follow any path, sit in meditation and find out for yourself, all schools help in walking the path towards self, one may take longer one maybe shorter and you choose the one that is suitable to your intellect but all schools unanimously declare you have to practice sathya dharma shanthi prema ahimsa. What you have mentioned is very good but all this knowledge you have should be helping in reducing the questions in the mind rather than increasing isnt it the success of reaching higher spiritual goals.

  12. @Bharad Swami
    Indeed, you can follow any path and over time you refine the path as you find out what suits you the best. Agreed that we have to follow satya-dharma-shanti-prema-ahimsa but what if we are faced with a dharma vs. ahimsa situation, which is precisely what the Gita is about. Then we are forced to choose one (dharma) over the other (ahimsa). Also, reaching higher spiritual goals doesn't always mean getting rid of questions. If we can raise the right questions and answer them then that can lead us to greater heights. This is what I feel.

    That said, I agree largely with what you have said.

    Best regards,

  13. Anonymous4/03/2017

    Excellent article sir. I wish our politicians would stop playing this game of food politics and causing Hinsa.