Vegetarianism: Some Fundamental Misconceptions on its Traditional Indian Roots

Dmytro Danilov Vegetarianism

Many years ago, still being a student, I decided to try a vegetarian diet. I was curious how my body would respond to potential challenges of this shift in nutrition. During this interesting period I managed to change my food habits to a great extent: this commitment, as well as empirical observations of my state, helped me to find the most comfortable diet for myself. Later on, I also tried some other restrictive eating plans, namely: prolonged fasting (abstinence from food for 21 days), a series of different detoxing mono-diets, raw food etc. At a certain stage it became obvious that in order to proceed with individual nutrition scheme one needs to resort to laboratory tests, including the DNA-analyses that I actually did. This was followed by seeing experts in medicine, microbiology, genetics… Indeed, nutrition is a complex subject, so no wonder man has been elaborating on it since the dawn of humankind. As a result, a lot of knowledge has been accumulated in this field. Yet a number of misconceptions persist as well. This involves recent preoccupation with vegetarianism — or rather, not the vegetable diet per se, but the ideological basis that its agitators ground their views on.

During the last year’s celebration of the International Yoga Day I listened very carefully to all statements given by the promoters of vegetarianism. Here I should say that the confidence they have in their “ideology” is enviable, the more so because some of their arguments are groundless. And this has actually made the subject of the present article. I will further give a list of vegetarian advocates’ main points and show how far-fetched they are.

Thesis number one: “Vedic culture” tells us to avoid animal food. Notwithstanding the fact that this question has been thoroughly studied and this thesis has been refuted after juxtaposing it with the published translations of the Rigveda, the Atharvaveda and the Upanishads, this idea is still fostered.

The idea of “Vedic culture”, “Vedic values” and “Vedic authority” based on vegetarianism are ideas of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness that were coined in the 20th century and has very little to do with the authentic ancient Vedas. On the contrary: the ancient text (the Vedas date back to ca. 1700–1100 BC) shows many examples of Aryan meat-dietary preferences. Here are just some of them [1, 2]:

Fifteen in number, then, for me a score of bullocks they prepare, And I devour the fat thereof: they fill my belly full with food. Supreme is Indra over all [Rigveda X.86.14]

One downward to the water drives the crippled cow, another trims the flesh brought on the carving-board [Rigveda 1.161.10].

He who wishes that a son should be born to him who would be a reputed scholar, frequenting the assemblies and speaking delightful words, would study all the Vedas and attain a full term of life, should have rice cooked with the meat of a vigorous bull or one more advanced in years, and he and his wife should eat it with clarified butter. Then they would be able to produce such a son. [Brihadaranyaka Upanishad VI.4.18].

The afore-cited cases clearly attest the thesis of Aryans’ vegetarianism to be off the mark: Aryans did eat meat. Moreover, animal source foods were associated with key aspects of their culture such as childbearing, sacrificing etc.

The second thesis is linked to the first one. Its authors state that prior to occupation of the Indian subcontinent by the Aryans in the second millennium, its local inhabitants, the authentic Hindu tribes, did not eat meat. (We will consider this argument as well, though it makes me wonder why anyone would want to follow the habits of the ancient tribes who lived in India more than four thousand years ago).

Anyway, this is also a fictitious narrative. But here I will begin from afar, and refer to John Noble Wilford [4] who notes that 15000 year-old skeletons from Central India show excessive development of the right forearm bone associated with throwing spears and shepherd’s slings (loops for throwing stones).

As to archaeological research, it reveals that in the Paleolithic period — that is, long before the arrival of the Aryans — in the caves near the river valleys of Deccan, and in Gujarat and Kashmir, the submountain regions of Northern India, “hunting and fishing were the main activities of that time population”. “A large number of bone harpoons, stab awls and needles were found”. Cattle breeding was one of the key activities of the Harappan civilization. “Among domestic animals, there were sheep, goats, cows … and hens” (Bongard-Levin [5]). In Harappa they also ate buffalo meat, turtles, dogs, river and sea fish. (B.B. Lal [6], I. Chakravarty [7], S. Mukhopadhaya [8]). Dog meat and fowl are still popular among Munda, Santhal and Ho people (S. Mukhopadhaya). Thus we see that long before the arrival of the Aryans, the tribes of the Indian subcontinent were hunters and fishermen, that is, fed mainly on animal food.

Another idea exploited by vegetarian propagators is ahiṃsā (non-violence: the particle “a” stands for rejection — “not”, and the root “hims”— means to beat, wound, harm, kill). Indeed, this concept is inherent in the culture of India and can be found in the texts addressed to Brahmins, in Buddhist and Jaina writings. However, the concept itself means ‘non-infliction of violence’ and is not associated with possibility of meat consumption. The followers of the mentioned traditions did consume meat. As to Buddha Shakyamuni (the founder of Buddhism) and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), we know stories from their lives that illustrate these great men both ate meat as well.

About Buddha. In ca. 486 BC Gautama Buddha died at the age of 80 in Kushinagar having eaten the meat served to him by Cunda, a blacksmith (E.J. Thomas [9]). The said meat was pork — the sūkara-maddava, according to Maha-Parinibbana Sutta. This fact of Buddha’s life shows that both he and his followers accepted meat as alms. And not only this. In the story of Mahāvagga [10] General Siha offered meat to Gautama. The latter ate it. Having taken the food Buddha said he allowed monks to eat fish and meat provided that was not killed specifically for this purpose (udissakataṃ).

About Mahavira. Mahavira also observed the similar principle of eating meat. When suffering from serious illness, Mahavira sent his follower to Revai, a lay woman, refusing the two pigeons she had prepared for him, but asking her to give him the remnants of the poultry killed by a cat. Having eaten this meat, Mahavira soon recovered (Viyāhapannati, b.15; Alsdorf [11]).

Thus, we see that the said founders of religious traditions used to be meat-eaters. Another issue is that both preached the principle of ahimsa which in their case allowed eating the remnants of the meat killed by predators or the third parties that was not meant for them. This principle was similarly described in the Laws of Manu, the Brahmins section, telling that sacrificing animal for gods was essential [12].

Another statement usually adduced as an argument for vegetarianism is as follows (I quote the thesis heard): “Ayurveda teaches we must not eat meat”. This is obviously the wrong track. I will cite below a few illustrations from the Ayurvedic treatises that tell the opposite. Here are excerpts from Charaka Samhita [13]:

1.2.23 The gruel prepared with beef juice and soured with pomegranates alleviates intermittent fevers. The one prepared from barley in ghee and oil with pippali and amalaka is useful for throat.

1.6.11–13 So during hemanta, one should use the unctuous, sour and salted juice of the meat of dominantly fatty aquatic and marshy animals and also meat of burrow-dwelling and prasaha (who eat by snatching) types of animals. After this the person should drink wine, vinegar and honey. One does not lose lifespan if he takes regularly milk products, cane sugar products, fats, oil, new rice and hot water during hemanta.

1.6.25 During spring, one should eat meat of sarabha (wapiti), sasa (hare), ena (antelope), lava (common quail) and kapinjala (grey partridge) and drink harmless vinegars and wines.

1.6.28 The person taking regular cold and sweet mantha (unctuous drink), meat of wild animals and birds, ghee and milk along with rice does not suffer during summer

1.6.38 The person, cautiously protecting his agni (digestion), should eat old barley, wheat and rice along with wild meats and prepared soups.

1.6.43 During autumn one should take regularly the meats of lava (common quail), kapihjala (grey partridge), ena (antelope), urabhra (sheep), sarabha (wapiti) and sasa (rabbit), rice, barley and wheat.

Another text, Sushruta-samhita (Ch. 46), states that even beef that the Hindu reverence as sacred is “a good remedy for asthma, coughing, colds, chronic fever, fatigue and fast digestion; it purges (pavitra) and eases the “wind” (Alsdorf). Thus we see that in the key Ayurvedic texts they recommended meat for specific preventive and healing purposes.

And on a final note, here is a thesis that has nothing to do with pro-vegetarianism arguments but can be still sometimes found between the lines: India is a vegetarian country.

Yet it is not. The 2007 statistics tells that only 30% of Indians are vegetarians, and the remaining 70% eat animal food (IBN-State of the Nation Survey [11]).

The attempts to “promote” vegetarianism in terms of the present reality acquire new forms of religiosity, as they become surrounded by pseudo-scientific myths and legends about its roots. In this article, I have looked at only some of these most common myths. Nevertheless, the above given arguments make it clear that the beliefs of modern vegetarian popularizers are ill-founded. Eating meat has been an essential historical, cultural and health-improving aspect in India, from the most ancient times till this day.



[4] J. N. Wilford. The Tales Bones Tell, 1988

[5] G. M. Bongard-Levin. India in Ancient times, 1973

[6] B. B. Lal. The Harappan Fall-out, 1985

[7] I. Chakravarty. Saga of Indian Food, 1972

[8] S. Mukhopadhaya. The Austrics of India, 1975

[9] E. J. Thomas. Buddha`s Last Meal, Indian Culture, 1979, vol. 15, p1.


[11] L. Alsdorf. Beitrage zur Geschichte von Vegetarismus und Rinderverehrung in Indien, 1962

[12] The Laws of Manu. Chapter V.

[13] Caraka Saṃhitā (Text with English Translation. Editor-Translator — Prof. Priyavrat Sharma, 2014)

[14] The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey