Vegetarianism is highly valued in Indian cul-ture. In general orthodox BRAHMINS will eat neither meat nor eggs. Castes who desire to gain respect and perhaps eventual advancement in the hierarchy will adopt vegetarianism as a way to “Sanskritize” or become more Brahminical. Hindus who are on any spiritual quest in India will remove meat and other things such as spices from their diet in order to ensure spiritual purity. Meat is considered to be tamasic (see GUNAS), or spiritually negative, and is believed to cause excessive desire for sexuality and a tendency toward violence.
   Most scholars agree that vegetarianism was not originally part of the Vedic or Brahmini-cal system, though this remains a controversial conclusion. The solid evidence of the Vedic texts themselves as well as authoritative DHARMA (right conduct) texts such as the DHARMASHASTRA of Manu, indicate quite clearly that meat, including beef, was eaten by all sectors of Indian society including Brahmins.
   The Jains (see Jainism) and Buddhists, how-ever, were extremely critical of the Brahminical animal sacrifices and of the habit of eating meat. The Jains were most radical in this regard; Jain monks (and to a lesser degree the laity) practiced AHIMSA (noninjury) from as early as 900 B.C.E., as did the BUDDHA from around 600 B.C.E.
   For the Jain monks, every motion of the body had to be calculated to minimize its effect on invisible microscopic beings that were believed to exist in air, water, fire, and earth. (This may have been the first human conception of micro-organisms.) All the more did they refrain from slaughtering and eating large animals. Strict vegetarianism was required for monks, and the laity followed their example. One could never be a Jain in India, then or now, and eat meat or eggs. Buddhists were vegetarian in their monasteries but were allowed to eat meat received as alms. They were less absolute, but they too discour-aged MEAT-EATING.
   The Brahminical tradition began to move in the direction of ahimsa toward the end of the last millennium before the Common Era. Law codes such as the Manu Smriti or the Dharmashastra of Manu allow Brahmins to eat the meat of sacrificial animals, but other meat eating is discouraged. The influence of ahimsa is clear in the argument that ritually sacrificing an animal is not himsa, or “killing” per se.
   As time went on, and Vedic ritual began to recede in importance in the culture, Brahmins took on strict vegetarianism as a sign of purity. They also followed the Jains and Buddhists in pre-venting any needless killing of any being. While Jainism and Buddhism remained localized or minority traditions, Brahmin conduct was always the model for the Hindu majority. Vegetarianism soon became the pan-Indian ideal.
   Further reading: D. N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow (London: Verso, 2002); Brian K. Smith, “Eaters, Food and Social Hierarchy in Ancient India,” Journal of the Academy of Religion 58, no. 2 (1990): 177–205; Francis Zimmerman, The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats (Berke-ley: University of California Press, 1987).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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