LORD KRISHNA’S INSTRUCTIONS ON WHAT TO EAT IN BHAGAVAD-GITA
Many people question what Lord Krishna says, or if He says anything at all, about whether to be vegetarian or not. Actually, He provides some important insights. Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita: “The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Bg.3.13)
So, food should be first offered in sacrifice, or ritual, but what ritual is this? He explains quite clearly that all food, as well as anything else, should first be offered to Him. “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it. O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me. In this way you will be freed from all reactions to good and evil deeds, and by this principle of renunciation you will be liberated and come to Me.” (Bg.9.26-28)
Herein it is clear that food should be first prepared for offering the Lord, but with love. You can often see this in temples wherein the food is cooked with the intention of preparing it with love and then offering it before the Deities of Krishna with love. Thereafter, the devotees take the remnants and distribute amongst them as offered food. This becomes prasadam, or the spiritually surcharged food that is the mercy of the Lord, and which purifies our consciousness by honoring it through the process of respectfully eating it.
Furthermore, what is meant to be offered to the Lord is outlined as a leaf (most vegetables consist of leafy substances), flowers or fruits (which consist of grains, nuts, and fruits and juices), and water. Thus, no meat is mentioned. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that food that is acquired through cruelty is in the mode of tamas, or darkness and ignorance, or in the mode of rajas, passion, which causes pain and distress to both the eater and the eaten. This is completely counterproductive to our own well-being, both in the present and in our future, and certainly causes pain and suffering to others. So, how can this be beneficial to anyone’s spiritual, mental, emotional, and subtle development? As Lord Krishna explains:
“Even food of which all partake is of three kinds, according to the three modes of material nature. The same is true of sacrifices, austerities and charity. Listen, and I shall tell you of the distinctions of these. Foods in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such nourishing foods are sweet, juicy, fattening and palatable. Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, pungent, dry, and hot, are liked by people in the mode of passion. Such foods cause pain, distress, and disease. Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed and unclean, is food liked by people in the mode of ignorance.” (Bg.17.7-10)
Herein, it is clear that pure and wholesome vegetarian foods are what is needed for our own refinement, health, strength, and happiness, while other kinds of food cause pain, suffering and disease. It does not take much comparative study to recognize this.
Furthermore, we can see that the process of preparing and eating food is also a part of the Vedic system for making spiritual advancement. As the Vedic literature explains, what we eat is an important factor in the process of purifying ourselves and remaining free from accumulating bad karma. It actually is not so difficult to be vegetarian, and it gives one a much higher taste in eating and in one’s spiritual realizations. The level of our consciousness is also determined not only by what we think and do, but also by the vibrational level of what we put into our bodies as food. The more natural and peaceful the food, the more healthy and peaceful will be our consciousness. If it is further blessed and offered to the Lord, then it becomes especially powerful and spiritualized. This vibration goes into our own bodies and is assimilated by our consciousness to assist us in our spiritual upliftment. However, if we eat foods that are the remnants of animals that were petrified with fear before being slaughtered, or were tortured during the slaughter process, that fear, aggression and suffering will also become a part of our own consciousness, which is reflected back on our own life and the people with whom we come in contact. And people wonder why there is not more peace in the world.
Another reason why no meat is mentioned as being acceptable to Lord Krishna is that the soul, which is a part and parcel of the Lord Himself, is equally present in not only humans, but all species of life.
“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [or outcaste].” (Bg.5.18) Thus, a wise person recognizes the value of life, the soul, within all species of living beings. Because he recognizes the soul in all bodies, he does not cause any cruelty to them. Cruelty or suffering inflicted on any living being will certainly cause harm to ourselves and regression in our own development, spiritual or otherwise. Compassion and kindness to all beings is how we make spiritual progress. Is there anything that is really more important that this? As Lord Krishna explains:
“One who is not envious but who is a kind friend to all living entities, who does not think himself a proprietor, who is free from false ego and equal both in happiness and distress, who is always satisfied and engaged in devotional service with determination and whose mind and intelligence are in agreement with Me—he is very dear to Me.” (Bg.12.13-14)
Thus, how can we be kind to all living entities if we are looking at them as if they would be our next meal? This is not compassion, concern for others, or kindness. It is no different than the way animals look at each other with the intent to eat another being, or with fear to keep from being eaten. As human beings, we should be better than that, certainly more developed than carrying a mere animal mentality within ourselves. Meat cannot be acquired without violence to others, and unwarranted violence toward others offers nothing elevating to anyone. It is hardly God’s philosophy to be a friend to humans but an enemy to animals by wanting to slaughter and eat them. What can be more thoughtless and evil than that? Thus, this sort of nonviolence that is exhibited toward others, as when one abstains from eating meat, is a godly quality, as Lord Krishna further explains in Bhagavad-gita (16.2-3): ahimsa or nonviolence is one of the transcendental qualities that belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.
VEDIC REFERENCES AGAINST MEAT-EATING AND ANIMAL SLAUGHTER
To start with, the Manu-samhita clearly and logically recommends that, “Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to the attainment of heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun the use of meat. Having well considered the disgusting origin of flesh and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let him entirely abstain from eating flesh.” (Manu-samhita 5.48-49)
However, it is not simply the person who eats the meat that becomes implicated by eating the dead animal, but also those who assist in the process. “He who permits the slaughter of an animal, he who cuts it up, he who kills it, he who buys or sells meat, he who cooks it, he who serves it up, and he who eats it, must all be considered as the slayers of the animal. There is no greater sinner than that man who though not worshiping the gods or the ancestors, seeks to increase the bulk of his own flesh by the flesh of other beings.” (Manu-samhita 5.51-52)
As we get further into the Manu-samhita, there are warnings that become increasingly more serious. For example, “If he has a strong desire (for meat) he may make an animal of clarified butter or one of flour (and eat that); but let him never seek to destroy an animal without a (lawful) reason. As many hairs as the slain beast has, so often indeed will he who killed it without a (lawful) reason suffer a violent death in future births.” (Manu-samhita 5.37-38)
In this way, the only time to carry out the need to kill animals for consumption is when there is an emergency such as when there simply is nothing else to eat. Otherwise, when there are plenty of grains, vegetables, fruits, etc., to eat, it is only mankind’s lust and selfish desires that motivate one to kill other beings to satisfy one’s tongue by tasting their blood and flesh, or to fatten one’s wallet by making money from participating in the distribution or the cooking of meat. Such violent actions create opposite reactions. For this reason the warnings are given, “He who injures harmless creatures from a wish to give himself pleasure, never finds happiness in this life or the next.” (Manu-samhita 5.45)
Nonetheless, there are also benefits that are mentioned that a person can attain simply by not eating the bodies of other creatures: “By subsisting on pure fruits and roots, and by eating food fit for ascetics in the forest, one does not gain so great a reward as by entirely avoiding the use of flesh. Me he [mam sah] will devour in the next world, whose flesh I eat in this life; the wise declare this to be the real meaning of the word ‘flesh’ [mam sah].” (Manu-samhita 5.54-55)
“He who does not seek to cause the sufferings of bonds and death to living creatures, (but) desires the good of all (beings), obtains endless bliss. He who does not injure any (creature) attains without an effort what he thinks of, what he undertakes, and what he fixes his mind on.” (Manu-samhita 5.46-47)
Also, “By not killing any living being, one becomes fit for salvation.” (Manu-samhita 6.60)
The earlier texts, such as the Rig-veda (10.87.16), also proclaim the need to give up the eating of slaughtered animals. “One who partakes of human flesh, the flesh of a horse or of another animal, and deprives others of milk by slaughtering cows, O King, if such a fiend does not desist by other means, then you should not hesitate to cut off his head.”
“Those who are ignorant of real dharma and, though wicked and haughty, account themselves virtuous, kill animals without any feeling of remorse or fear of punishment. Further, in their next lives, such sinful persons will be eaten by the same creatures they have killed in this world.” (Bhagavata Purana 11.5.14)
The following verses are from the Tirukural:
How can he practice true compassion who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own flesh?
Riches cannot be found in the hands of the thriftless, nor can compassion be found in the hearts of those who eat meat.
He who feasts on a creature’s flesh is like he who wields a weapon. Goodness is never one with the minds of these two.
If you ask, “What is kindness and what is unkindness?” It is not-killing and killing. Thus, eating flesh is never virtuous.
Life is perpetuated by not eating meat. The jaws of Hell close on those who do.
If the world did not purchase and consume meat, no one would slaughter and offer meat for sale.
When a man realizes that meat is the butchered flesh of another creature, he will abstain from eating it.
Insightful souls who have abandoned the passion to hurt others will not feed on flesh that life has abandoned.
Greater than a thousand ghee offerings consumed in sacrificial fires is to not sacrifice and consume any living creature.
All life will press palms together in prayerful adoration of those who refuse to slaughter or savor meat.
From these verses there should be no doubt that the Vedic shastra recommends that such selfish meat-eating must be given up if one has any concern for other living beings, or one’s own future existence, or for attaining any spiritual merit.
There are also references in the Mahabharata that forewarn the activity of eating flesh. This is in the Anushasana Parva section where there is a conversation between Yudhisthira and Grandfather Bhishma about the merits of abstaining from meat eating and the demerits and consequences for doing so. It is quite revealing. One quote is: “He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures, lives in misery in whatever species he may take his [next] birth.” (Mahabharata, Anu.115.47)
“The purchaser of flesh performs violence by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does violence by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing. He who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts off the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells, or cooks flesh and eats it–all these are to be considered meat-eaters.” (Mahabharata, Anu.115.40) All of these people will also incur the same karmic reactions for their participation in killing, distributing or eating the flesh of animals, as explained next.
“The sins generated by violence curtail the life of the perpetrator. Therefore, even those who are anxious for their own welfare should abstain from meat-eating.” (Mahabharata, Anu.115.33)
A more thorough and educational rendering of the teachings of Bhishma in the Mahabharata is as follows:
Bhishma started, “Numberless discourses took place between the Rishis on this subject, O scion of Kuru’s race. Listen, O Yudhisthira, what their opinion was. (115.7)
“The highly wise seven celestial Rishis, the Valakshillyas, and those Rishis who drink the rays of the sun, all speak highly of abstention from meat. The self-created Manu has said that the man who does not eat meat, or who does not kill living creatures, or who does not cause them to be killed, is a friend of all creatures. Such a man is incapable of being oppressed by any creature. He enjoys the confidence of all living beings. He always enjoys the praise of the pious. The virtuous Narada has said that that man who wishes to multiply his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures meets with disaster. (115.9-12)
“That man, who having eaten meat, gives it up afterwards wins merit by such a deed that is so great that a study of all the Vedas or a performance, O Bharata, of all the sacrifices [Vedic rituals], cannot give its like. (115.16)
“That learned person who gives to all living creatures the gift of complete assurance is forsooth regarded as the giver of lifebreaths in this world. (115.18)
“Men gifted with intelligence and purified souls should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated. It is seen that even those men who are endued with learning and who seek to acquire the greatest good in the shape of liberation, are not free of the fear of death. (115.20)
“What necessity be said of those innocent and healthy creatures gifted with love of life, when they are sought to be killed by sinful wretches living by slaughter? Therefore, O King, know that the discarding of meat is the highest refuge of religion, of the celestial region, and of happiness. Abstention of injury [to others] is the highest religion. It is, again, the highest penance. It is also the highest truth from which all duty emanates. (115.21-23)
“ Flesh cannot be had from grass or wood or stone. Unless a living creature is killed it cannot be procured. Hence is the fault of eating flesh. The celestials who live upon Svaha, Svadha, and nectar, are given to truth and sincerity. Those persons, however, who are for satisfying the sensation of taste, should be known as Rakshasas [flesh-eating demons] pervaded by the quality of Darkness. (115.24-25)
“ If there were nobody who ate flesh, then there would be nobody to slay living creatures. The man who slays living creatures kills them for the sake of the person who eats flesh. If flesh were not considered as food, there would then be no destruction of living creatures. It is for the sake of the eater that the destruction of living entities is carried on in the world. Since, O you of great splendor, the period of life is shortened by persons who kill living creatures or cause them to be killed, it is clear that the person who seeks his own good should give up meat altogether. Those dreadful persons who are engaged in the destruction of living beings never find protectors when they are in need. Such persons should always be molested and punished even as beast of prey. (115.29-32)
“ That man who seeks to multiply his own flesh by (eating) the flesh of others has to live in this world in great anxiety, and after death has to take birth in indifferent races and families. High Rishis given to the observance of vows and self-control have said that abstention from meat is worthy of praise, productive of fame and Heaven, and a great satisfaction itself. This I heard formerly, O son of Kunti, from Markandeya when that Rishi discoursed on the sins of eating flesh. (115.34-36)
“ He who purchases flesh, kills living creatures through his money. He who eats flesh, kills living beings through his eating. He who binds or seizes and actually kills living creatures is the slaughterer. These are the three sorts of slaughter through each of these acts. He who does not himself eat flesh but approves of an act of slaughter, becomes stained with the sin of slaughter. (115.38-39)
“ That wretched man who kills living creatures for the sake of those who would eat them commits great sin. The eater’s sin is not as great. That wretched man who, following the path of religious rites and sacrifices as laid down in the Vedas, would kill a living creature from a desire to eats its flesh, will certainly go to hell. That man who having eaten flesh abstains from it afterwards acquires great merit on account of such abstention from sin. He who arranges for obtaining flesh, he who approves of those arrangements, he who kills, he who buys or sells, he who cooks, and he who eats it, [acquire the sin of those who] are all considered as eaters of flesh. [Therefore] that man who wishes to avoid disaster should abstain from the meat of every living creature. (115.44-48)
“ Listen to me, O king of kings, as I tell you this, O sinless one, there is absolute happiness in abstaining from meat, O king. He who practices severe austerities for a century, and he who abstains from meat, are both equally meritorious. This is my opinion. (115.52-53)
“ Yudhisthira said: Alas, those cruel men who, not caring for various other sorts of food, want only flesh, are really like great Rakshasas [meat-eating demons]. (116.1)
“ Bhishma said: That man who wishes to increase his own flesh by the meat of another living creature is such that there is none meaner and more cruel than he. In this world there is nothing that is dearer to a creature than his life. Hence, one should show mercy to the lives of others as he does to his own life. Forsooth, O son, flesh has its origin in the vital seed. There is great sin attached to its eating, as, indeed, there is merit in abstaining from it. (116.11-13)
“ There is nothing, O delighter of the Kurus, that is equal in point of merit, either in this world or in the next, to the practice of mercy to all living creatures. (116.19)
“ Hence a person of purified soul should be merciful to all living creatures. That man, O king, who abstains from every kind of meat from his birth forsooth, acquires a large space in the celestial region. They who eat the flesh of animals who are desirous of life, are themselves [later] eaten by the animals they eat. This is my opinion. Since he has eaten me, I shall eat him in return. This, O Bharata, forms the character as Mamsah [meaning flesh] of Mamsah [me he, or “me he” will eat for having eaten him]. The destroyer is always slain. After him the eater meets with the same fate. (116.32-35)
“ He who acts with hostility towards another becomes victim of similar deeds done by that other. Whatever acts one does in whatever bodies, he has to suffer the consequences thereof in those bodies. (116.36-37)
“ Abstention from cruelty is the highest Religion. Abstention from cruelty is the greatest self-restraint. Abstention from cruelty is the highest gift. Abstention from cruelty is the highest penance. Abstention from cruelty is the highest sacrifice. Abstention from cruelty is the highest power. Abstention from cruelty is the greatest friend. Abstention from cruelty is the greatest happiness. (116.38-39)
“ Gifts made in all sacrifices [rituals], ablutions performed in all sacred water, and the merit which one acquires from making all kinds of gifts mentioned in the scriptures, all these do not equal in merit abstention from cruelty.” (116.40)