Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ahimsa (non-injury) and Vegetarianism

             Please note: I plan to write about a few more Upanishads. But, I am also eager to share ideas on so many other topics. Therefore, let me break the routine and add this piece for you to think about.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word which stands for an attitude of not injuring any life. This was the essence of Buddha’s teaching. Gandhi emphasized this in his life. Both of them got it from the Vedic Dharma Shastra or from the Jains.
 Here is a passage from one of the Dharma Shastra as discussed by the sage of Kanchi. This is a Sanskrit poem which on translation reads as follows:   “Every house has Five items which promote injury to life forms. They are: knife, food-grinder, oven, water-pot and broom”. This is the ultimate of Ahimsa (non-injury)and just not practical. If we follow this poem to its logical conclusion no one can live.
What is important is to recognize that one cannot avoid harming life even with the utmost diligence. Our scriptures say so. A famous passage in Taittriya Upanishad (2:2:1) says: “annath bhuthaani jaayanthey; jaathan annena vardhanthey; adhyathey atthi cha bhuthaani; thasmath annam thath ucchyatha” . When translated it says: Creatures are born of food. Being born, they grow on food. Since it is eaten and it eats (ath) the creatures, it is called food (anna).
 The strict meaning of the Sanskrit word anna is not cooked rice, but anything that is eaten.  The root verb for the word anna is ath, to eat. 
Therefore, what we have to do is to be thankful to the various life-forms, plants, animals or fish that give their lives so that we may live. This is why prayer before eating is common in all traditions. This why the Native Americans give prayers to the spirit of the animal they killed before eating. That is why the Eskimos thank the ocean for their food. That observance of Thanksgiving in several traditions is for this purpose.
In his book on Carnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan suggests eating meat per se is fair, if you can hunt for it yourself. In other words “give the animal equal chance to run away or kill you”. The dilemma comes in when we raise animals for the sole purpose of killing them to eat.
But Thich Nath Hahn suggests a special prayer before meals to reflect on every natural phenomenon and every human being involved in getting that food to our mouths. He asks us to reflect on the fact that the food we are about to eat would not have been possible without the sun and the moon and the sand and the rain. We think of them and thank them. The food also has the toil of the farmer who did the sowing, watering and the harvesting. And without the person or persons who prepared the food we will not have this food. We thank all of them. Of course, we have to think of the food itself that will be nourishing us, whether it is vegetable or meat. In other words, he wants us to think of every item in this food - chain and thank. This is a more practical approach.
I am not saying that it is fine to eat meat. I am just saying that history does not suggest that vegetarianism is the only “proper” way to live. Reality suggests that life eats life. Besides, plants have life too. Also, our being a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian was not our choice when we started. We followed whatever our parents did. I grew up in a household of vegetarians. Someone who grew up in the Amazon basin probably will be very comfortable with eating fish. Children growing up in the Eskimo country cannot  even think of being a vegetarian. And so on.
Let us not be judgmental!