On this Rama Navami day, let me recall a story told by Sita to Rama that is found in Aranya khanda of Valmiki Ramayana. Sita talks about a Dharma of shunning cruelty to people with whom there is no enmity. This idea is relevant in shunning meat food too, as meat is procured by killing the hapless animal which had not done any harm to the eater and to the one who kills it for selling as food. This particular episode in Aranya khanda is vital for understanding that Rama did not eat meat as per any verse of Valmiki Ramayana. A discussion on this was earlier done by me in my blog Does Sanathana Dharma support eating meat? (Part-1)
The setting is in Aranya Khanda after meeting the sage Suteekshna. He requests Rama to vanquish the demons of Dandaka forest as they were constantly giving trouble to the sages like him who are engaged in ascetic life in the forest. Rama agrees to do that. Sita hands over the bows and swords to Rama and Lakshmana. But she is distressed while doing that. She expresses that to Rama which can be read in 9th sarga in Aranya khanda.
She says that there are three definite products of self- gratification that arise from desire. One is speaking falsehood. The second is desire for another man’s wife. The third is cruelty without enmity. The first two are irrelevant in Rama’s case. But by agreeing to Suteekshna’s request Rama is at the verge of sticking to the third, namely cruelty without enmity.
Sita goes on to explain that Rama is set out to destroy the people whom he does not know and with whom he has no prior enmity. Rama has come to the forest to lead the life of a sage. His parents would be happy to only hear that of him. But by taking up the arms now, the faculty of the weapons would eventually come to stick to him.
To explain this Sita tells the story of a sage who lived in the forest amidst animals that adored him. He never intended to do any harm to any life. As if to challenge his nature, once Indra came to him and asked to him to take care of his sword until he returned. The sage agreed and started to guard that sword. To keep up his promise, he could not leave the sword when he went out to do his daily chores. So he started carrying that weapon all the time. But what happens is that the faculty of the weapon comes to stick to the carrier of that weapon. Anger, infuriation and ultimately the propensity to use the weapon driven by such faculties overpowered the sage. As a result the sage did things that led him to hell.
Sita says that all this happened owing to the reason of associating with a weapon constantly, and the sequel of constant association with weapon is as good as constant association with fire.
Rama being a kshatriya has already carried the weapons, but that was in Ayodhya. In the Dandaka forest where he has come to lead a life of a hermit he must not carry it as the association with it would cause him to injure people with whom he has no enmity, even though they happen to be demons. As a Kshatriya he can use weapons (cruelty) only as a means to protect the suffering people. Otherwise the constant contact with weapons would transfer the quality of weapons to him and make him act as directed by that quality.
Rama convinces her that by agreeing to the request of Suteekshna he is only agreeing to protect him and other sages. So it is perfectly justifiable to kill the demons unknown to him and with whom he has no direct enmity. After all it is only for the protection of the hapless ones, he is going to kill the people with whom he has no direct enmity.
The outward message of this episode is that Rama is always there for protection of suffering people. But the inner message of this episode that he will not do any harm to any life where there is no enmity with him and that wherever such cruelty is perceived to be done by him it was for the purpose of protecting some deserving people who has suffered on account of those people.
And this nature – not being cruel to beings that have in no way harmed you or not being an enemy with you – is the justification for shunning food got by killing animals. Sita tells this tendency – cruelty without enmity – as one of the three desires of man that are fundamental to self- gratification. Killing a life for the gratification of the stomach is therefore not desirable. Such a thing is permitted only in the case of saving life when one is dying of starvation (Apad Dharma).
Based on this one can say that Rama could have never eaten food that was procured by killing a life. The so-called verses in Valmiki Ramayana that are interpreted by non-vegetarian lovers as indicating that Rama ate meat are pure mis-interpretations.
That Sanatna Dharma had never supported food procured by killing can also be noted in the way one Satyavratha earned the name “Trishanku”. According to Harivamsam, tri-shanku means three blemishes. Satyavratha came to be called as Trishanku due to three blemishes or dosha he had.
One is pithru dosha - common form is the debt to one’s parents that is unpaid.
The second is Guru droha by having killed the milk cow (Kamadhenu – the wish-giver) of Vashishta - a common form of this is the harm done to environment and others while fulfilling one’s wishes.
The third is eating unsanctified food. This does not mean that meat got by killing an animal can be sanctified by means of mantras or prayers. As cruelty without enmity is the dictum, meat itself is unsanctified food. Eating that would create its own karma which cannot wiped out by prayers but by undergoing the same suffering that the animals underwent.
One must not interpret this dictum – cruelty without enmity – to mean that cruelty is justified if there is enmity. In the case of enmity when one is drawn into tit for tat like fights, whatever justification is there on the part of one to inflict injury on the other would to some extent modify the retributive karma that accrues out of that act. In the case of cruelty without enmity as in the case of killing life for food, there is absolutely no justification that can reduce the retributive / resultant karma that accrues to one for having been the cause for that cruelty to a hapless life.