Vegetarianism as a path to fulfilling one’s religious duty is fully paved in the Laws of Manu (Ch.5) for those wishing to avoid injury to any animal. Not only is animal slaying and butchering described as injurious, but also its fettering before death. Vegetarianism also fulfills a faith requirement for those without the means for an annual horse sacrifice. According to the Laws of Manu (5.53), “He who during a hundred years annually offers a horse-sacrifice, and he who entirely abstains from meat, obtain the same reward for their meritorious conduct.” However, vegetarianism without sacrifice is considered sinful, and the proper Mantras must be recited before consumption. Hindu sacred texts, such as the Laws of Manu, are careful to point out that in Vedic times sacrificial cakes were made from the meat of edible animals and that sacrifice absolves the human participant from slaughter. Although vegetarians are more likely to achieve “endless bliss” in the Hindu faith, they must follow dietary guidelines. Examples of foods that are prohibited: garlic, leeks, onions, mushrooms, and any tree fruit with red exudations (Laws of Manu Ch. 5:5). Some vegetarians, such as Mahatma Gandhi, a strict fruitarian, have created even stricter guidelines. Gandhi, with a diet consisting of mostly fruit and nuts, not only shunned root vegetables, but also legumes and certain grains. “Vegetarianism was then a new cult in England, and likewise for me, because, as we have seen, I had gone there a convinced meat-eater, and was intellectually converted to vegetarianism later (p. 58).” Is it possible that English scholars, such as Sir Edwin Arnold who translated the Bhagavad Gita, also translated Hindu values into the English-speaking conscience?
Over the past hundred years, vegetarianism has expanded worldwide branching out into philosophic, religious, health-related, and lifestyle categories. Although the term “vegetarian” has taken on additional connotations, its original sense is still its driving force: vegetarians unite in their aversion to a meat-based diet. For many vegetarians, vegetarianism is based on environmental stewardship and animal rights. Even with proper sacrifice, not all fruits and vegetables might be fit for consumption. Early critical analysis of pesticide use by scientists, such as Rachel Carson, warned of the dangers of interfering with the food chain, and the necessity of species of insects and fish to maintain biodiversity. As she writes in Silent Spring, “The goal of an insect-free world continued to recede (p. 279).” How many people today buy organic produce?If the drying up of the mighty Sarasvati River in ancient times is not enough of a reason to practice sustainable farming and water conservation, then Hindu sacred texts provide other reasons. In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira dreams that the deer in the Dwaitavana who have survived his hunting expeditions speak to him about their struggle to avoid extinction and their motivation to gain his favor in their propagation. Having made the choice in the dream, Yudhisthira assembles his brothers to express his compassion for the deer and gives his order to cease hunting deer in the Dwaitavana. Why does Yudhisthira make the compassionate choice in his dream? Later in the epic, Bhishma explains.
As the imagination of a person who is awake and engaged in acts is due only to the creative power of the mind, similarly, the impressions in a dream belong only to the mind. A person with desire and attachment receives those imaginations based upon the impressions of numberless pristine lives. Nothing that impresses the mind once is ever lost, and the Soul being cognizant of all those impressions makes them appear. Yudhisthira can make compassionate decisions in his dreams due to the compassionate impressions already made in his soul. The deer can speak in his dream, not as prophets, but as subjects who feel the fear of death, a fear already impressed on his soul. In pausing his immediate needs for sacrifice, he confirms the exigency of the deer’s cause. Similarly, after wounding Duryodhana with the Shakti arrow, Yudhisthira is cautioned by Bhima against slaughtering the mace-wielding Duryodhana who lies senseless on the ground. Even in the heat of battle, slaughter is not a preferred action, and the circle is completed.
Beyond this framework of animals rights and stewardship is the Hindu talking animal. In the Mahabharata, swans communicate love messages between two royal lovers. In the Ramayana, Sita communicates and understands the language of the animals in the asram near Godavari, “Sita quickly made friends with all the birds, rabbits, and deer for yojanas around. She would talk to them just as if they were human friends; and they seemed to know exactly what she said. After she whispered to them, the deer would run off to the river (p.174).” The interactions are based on a language imperceptible to the narrator but easily understood by someone who is the “embodiment of grace.” A few animals, such as Hanuman, even play a starring role in the action and are understood by everyone. Inter-species communication need not be exclusive. Any connection between Swan Lake, Disney’s Snow White, Planet of the Apes, and Hindu talking animals is indirect at best. However, the concept of animals in posession of a soul is a part of Hindu sacred texts and should be appreciated as originating from Vedic worship practices. If we can make the case that some of us are 1% Native American, then perhaps we can ask ourselves if Harry Potter is 5% Hindu.