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The Hindu Concept of Vegetarianism

A Philosophical Defense

Frank Morales - University of Wisconsin-Madison

The ancient Hindu diet of vegetarianism has recently been gaining a great deal of
popularity, both as a diet and as a way of life. Influenced by a number of different factors,
millions of people worldwide have been increasingly turning to this ancient vegetarian
lifestyle. In the United States alone, there are an estimated twenty-million people who
consider themselves vegetarians. Their reasons for turning to the vegetarian diet are
almost as diverse as are the individuals themselves. As medical data continually streams
in linking meat-eating with a number of illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, many
have chosen to renounce meat for health reasons. While others have decided to become
vegetarians for primarily ethical and moral concerns. As the animal rights movement
continues to gain momentum, many are beginning to recognize the natural link between
fighting to alleviate the suffering of animals in laboratories and hunting ranges and our
refusal to consume their tortured bodies in our kitchens.

Another concern of vegetarians is the adverse impact upon our environment due to the
wasteful policies of the meat industry. Consequently, a large number of environmental
organizations have adopted vegetarianism into their agendas. Despite the fact that
vegetarianism has gained a great deal of recent popularity, however, it still remains a little
understood phenomenon to some. What is even less known is the truly ancient and
spiritual roots of the vegetarian philosophy. In the following, we will explore the
philosophy of vegetarianism from the ancient Hindu perspective.

One of the central tenets of Hindu philosophy is the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence.
While many ethical systems espouse some form of non-violent ethic or another, what
makes the Hindu practice of ahimsa radically unique from other systems is the universal
scope of its concern. For most ethical schools of thought, the concept of ethical concern
extends no further than the human race. The criteria for whether or not a being is worthy
of being the object of compassion is determined by the species of the being involved. For
Hindus, on the other hand, all living creatures are worthy of respect, compassion and
ethical concern, irregardless of whether they are human or non-human.

The general Western consensus is that humans are completely justified in their treatment
of animals, both theologically and philosophically. From the Christian philosophical
perspective, it has been claimed that animals are of an inferior order of being in
comparison to humans. This being the apparent case, it is perfectly permissible for
humans to kill animals for consumption, or for any other purpose they deem appropriate.
Animals were, after all, created by a loving and compassionate God - so the Biblical
argument goes - for our own needs. Animals are seen as being mere means to an end.
That end is the gratification and satisfaction of human needs. Thus, all non-human living
beings have no inherent value as ends in themselves, but only acquire a minimum sense
of value as objects for our use. Indeed, God Himself seems to have confirmed this
functionalist relationship between human and non-human animal in the Bible: “God
blessed them saying: ‘be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion
over the fish of the sea, the birds in the air, and all the living creatures that move on the
earth.’” (Genesis 1:28) One representative of this distinctly anthropocentric outlook was
Thomas Aquinas, the great synthesizer of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian dogma.
He has written that, “...irrational creatures have no fellowship with human life, which is
regulated by reason. Hence friendship with irrational creatures is impossible...”. (Summa
Theologica) Thus stands the traditional Christian argument in favor of man’s continued
exploitation and killing of animals.

If one examines these opinions with a deeper philosophical scrutiny and from the
perspective of the Hindu concept of ahimsa, however, their many flaws are quickly
revealed. First of all, while it is apparent that God gave us a superior position over
animals in the hierarchy of being, this higher status does not automatically give us the
right to kill other life-forms simply for our selfish ends. Mere superiority over another
sentient being can never be interpreted as a license for abusing a less capable being, or a
class of such beings. The contemporary philosopher Bernard Rollin confirms this in his
Animal Rights and Human Morality, “Even if man has been placed by God at the peak of
the Great Chain of Being, or even in command of it, it does not follow that the creatures
beneath him many be treated in any way he sees fit.” If it were the case that superior
beings have the right to exploit supposedly inferior ones, then it would be morally
permissible for one human to enslave and victimize another. An intellectually or
physically more powerful man could justifiably kill another, weaker man. Physically
weaker women and children would be at the mercy of stronger, abusive men. Indeed, the
entire moral order - which is based on the premise that ethical means, and not merely
brute force, should be used to achieve ends - would collapse. Moreover, the Hindu
position is that if we are, indeed, superior to other life-forms, we should clearly exhibit
that superior nature precisely in our actions towards them. It is the very height of
irrationality, says Hinduism, to claim that our inherent intellectual and ethical superiority
over other beings gives us license to then act in unthinking and immoral ways towards
these less capable beings. Overall, then, the traditional Christian philosophical arguments
against compassion towards animals simply does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Two other, somewhat more sophisticated, arguments used to justify the unwarranted
killing of animals are as follows. First, animals are incapable of thinking rationally.
Therefore, they are not worthy of the same ethical consideration that humans are. Only a
being who is able to formulate (or at least understand) ethical principles via the process
of discursive reasoning is eligible to be considered a moral agent, and therefore a moral
object. The second argument is that only beings that are capable of communicating
through language are to be deemed worthy of moral consideration. Let us now explore
these anti-ahimsa arguments in more depth.
While seemingly valid arguments, from the Hindu perspective these two opinions are
revealed to be somewhat flawed. If we were to hypothetically accept these two criteria as
being valid, namely that only beings who exhibit the abilities to think rationally and to
communicate verbally were worthy of being treated morally, it would then follow that
several categories of human beings would also consequently lie outside the bounds of
moral consideration. Human infants, for example, would not pass this criteria for ethical
inclusion. Infants are incapable of either thinking rationally or of speaking. Does this fact,
then, give us the right to kill human infants at will? According to the standard of judging
who is worthy of moral treatment outlined above, the answer would have to be yes. The
argument for ahimsa can be further developed.

For the defender of Western anthropocentric ethics may then attempt to rebut that while a
human infant may be presently incapable of rational thought and speech, he/she is still
categorically - and solely - worthy of our ethical treatment because there lies within this
human infant at least the potential for these two faculties. Given time, the infant will
eventually (and hopefully) think rationally and be capable of human speech. The new,
broadened, standard for a being having inclusion within the scope of ethical concern
would then be the possession of at least the potential for rational thought and language.

This anti-ahimsa argument, however, presents yet another problem. For there are several
categories of human beings who do not possess even this minimalist potential. For
example, what of a mute person who is simultaneously suffering from severe mental
retardation and who will, consequently, never truly have even this potential? What of
someone’s mute mom or dad who may be suffering from irreversible Alzheimer’s
disease, and who has thus lost this potential? Again, following the logical chain of
thought contained in the anti-ahimsa argument, these individuals would fall completely
outside the scope of moral concern. The contemporary philosopher and bioethicist Peter
Singer goes so far as to say that, “Whatever the test we propose as a means of separating
human from non-human animals, it is plain that if all non-human animals are going to fail
it, some humans will fail as well.” (In Defense of Animals) In order to be consistent with
his arguments, someone who opposes the concept of ahimsa would be forced to treat
these people in the same terrible manner in which he treats animals: he would have a
right to kill them at will.

The problem with these anti-ahimsa arguments is that they are using the right criteria for
the wrong argument. The abilities to think rationally and speak are, indeed, correct
standards for judging whether or not a being can be a moral agent, that is, whether or not
a being is capable of comprehending and being accountable for its actions. Most human
beings fall under this category. However, being a) a moral agent and being b) an object of
moral concern are two completely different things. Agreeing with this criteria, Bernard
Rollin writes, “It is easy to see, of course, why rationality would be important for a being
to be considered a moral agent, that is, a being whose actions and intentions can be
assessed as right and wrong, good or bad...but it is, of course, not obvious that one must
be capable of being a moral agent before one can be considered an object of moral
concern.” This point having been firmly established, then, exactly what would be the
proper criterion for deciding which living beings will or will not be included within the
range of moral concern?

For Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), to be a proper object of moral concern, all that is
required is that a being is sentient, that is, that it be a living being capable of experiencing
feeling, and thus pain. All living beings, irregardless of their physical form, are atman, or
individual units of consciousness, in their innermost essence. The attributes of atman are
sat, chit and ananda, or being, knowledge and bliss. The atman is the ultimate
experiencer of all that occurs to the body, either good or bad. That being the case, causing
any suffering to any living being is considered to be the greatest offense. If any being is
capable of experiencing pain, regardless of what species that being is a member of, it is
immoral to needlessly inflict pain on that being.

That a being is unable to express itself rationally only tells us that we will not be able to
engage in a philosophical dialectic with it or have a conversation with it about the latest
fashion trends. But, by registering such a clearly and universally recognizable verbal sign
of suffering as a scream when we abuse it, torture it or try to kill it, a conscious being is
pleading with us to cease its suffering. The entire realm of living beings thus falls within
the scope of moral concern. It is in keeping with this ethic of valuing all life that
thoughtful Hindus follow a strict vegetarian diet, a diet which seeks to reduce suffering to
its minimal level.