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...”.
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.