In essence, Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma, and that Dharma is from time immemorial; it involves pursuit of Moksha through self-reflection, inquiry, and Self-Knowledge. Self-Knowledge in Hinduism is synonymous with Moksha (Liberation from the cycle of birth and death).
Therefore, the one who is seeking to understand the ultimate mystery of existence and thereby gaining salvation or release is a true Hindu, irrespective of the nationality, caste, creed or gender. With that catholic understanding, one can see that Hinduism becomes a way of life because the pursuit of the essential purpose of life is the goal of the ideal Hindu life. If you ask most Hindus whether they believe in God, you will get a firm “Yes”, in response.
With this perspective, it is easier to analyze all other questions including whether Hinduism requires one to be a vegetarian. Since the purpose of life is securing liberation or Moksha, until we reach that we need to maintain our body. Keeping the body healthy through proper nourishment is the Hindu Dharma. The human body is considered a temple of God. Therefore, it is sacred and should be treated with respect.
You asked whether a Hindu has to be a vegetarian. Well, it is a fact that not all Hindus are vegetarians. Hindu kings and princes and the warriors have eaten meat for thousands of years. So your question is not whether a Hindu should eat but whether you should eat meat. Since such a question has already arisen in your mind, perhaps you have developed a degree of sensitivity about harming other living forms to satisfy your physical hunger. If that is true, you may be better off not eating meat. That way you will be at peace with yourself. Since you are sensitive to this issue, your intellect may be directing you towards being a vegetarian. It is a possibility. However, your mind wants the pleasure of eating meat and your body may crave it due to past habits. So you have to reflect on this. Why has this question come up for you? What is the right thing for you to do?
Follow Your Self-Nature
When you go against your own intellect and good understanding of life you commit a sin. An act that is contrary to your SWADHARMA (your own nature) creates a conflict within you. So you have to reflect on whether being a vegetarian is natural to you or not. Now, of course, even the traditional non-vegetarians are choosing vegetarianism not because of any compassion to other animals but they are recognizing that meat is not good for their health.
I have already mentioned that Hinduism does not say to you “don’t do this and don’t do that”. You must determine your own actions based on your intellectual values, culture, education and primary goal in life. You will find that following your Swadharma (your own nature) will make you comfortable with yourself. It is not for others to judge what food is right for you! It is for you to decide.
While you are trying to decide whether to be a vegetarian do this experiment. Imagine your self to be a chicken or cow who is about to be slaughtered for food. Would you not advise the guy who wants to make a dinner out of you to be a vegetarian instead? The golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can sometimes help shape our analysis.
Life Lives on Life
Life lives on life. That is the law of nature. Whether I eat an animal or plant, I am destroying a life in some form. Among all life forms, Man is different from the rest. He has the capability to discriminate right from wrong. That gives him the freedom of choice which animals and plants lack.
According to ancient teachings and our observations, plants have just a body and perhaps a rudimentary mind. Animals have both body and mind to express their feelings and suffering, but rudimentary intellect. Man has not only body and mind but also a well developed intellect to discriminate between good and bad, and to choose.
Man always has three choices: He can choose to do something, not to do it, or find another alternative way to do it that is more satisfactory. For animals and plants there is no freedom of choice. They are instinctively driven. The cow does not sit down before meals and inquires whether it should be a vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Same with the tiger or the eagle. They don’t say prayers before eating like we do. They just act according to their nature. No one can hold that against them.
Man and Sin
For a Man the discriminative intellect is much evolved. Plants and animals do not commit sin in their actions because there is no will involved in their actions. For a human, the story is different.
You may wonder why I brought sin in the argument. Let me explain. Sin is nothing but agitations in the mind. It is these agitations that prevent me in my journey to Moksha. Mind has to be pure (meaning un-agitated) for me to see the truth as the truth. (Bible also says blessed are those whose minds are pure).
To define sin more scientifically: It is the divergence between the mind and intellect. Intellect knows right from wrong. But we feel like doing things even though we know they are wrong . That is, the intellect says something but mind which should be subservient to the intellect rebels and does whatever it feels like. This divergence is sin.
After a wrong action is performed there is a guilt feeling. Intellect, although it was overruled, does not keep quiet. It keeps prodding “I told you it is wrong. Why did you do it?” With peace of mind gone, Man goes through a “Hell”. Man is not punished for the sin; he is punished by the sin! Think about it. All the Yoga schools, if you analyze clearly, are bringing this integration between the body, mind, and intellect so that there can be harmony. With harmony, there is peace.
For a true Yogi, what he thinks, what he speaks, and what he does are in perfect alignment. In our case, we think something but have no guts to say what we think. Our lips say something different from what we are thinking. Sometimes people say, “Watch My Lips or Read My Lips “. They mean to emphasize that what they say can be counted on. However, if you watch their lips as requested and follow their actions these are again different! There is no integration anywhere. Our lips and our hips have divergent paths. We live a chaotic life of freestyle dancing! Besides deceiving others, we deceive ourselves, and the worst thing is sometimes we don’t even realize that.
Animals and Sin
Now, when a tiger kills and eats, it does not commit a sin. Because its intellect is rudimentary, it does not go through any analysis before it kills and asks “should I kill or not kill this cute deer”? A tiger does not ask itself, “Should I be a non-vegetarian or a vegetarian?”. When it is hungry, to fill the natures demand, it kills its prey and eats what it needs and leaves the rest when it is full. A tiger does not overeat. There are no fat tigers in nature.
A tiger is not greedy either. It does not seek luxury beyond satisfying its needs. Animals and plants and birds and bees and insects and all living things follow a beautiful ecological system. It is only man who destroys the ecology by being greedy. But Man also has the beautiful instrument of the intellect and the ability to develop it and to meditate on the reality of the universe.
Should I be a vegetarian or non-vegetarian?
So yes, “Should I be a vegetarian or non-vegetarian?” is asked only by a man. Why does that question come? It comes due to reflection. Because man has a discriminative intellect, he can reflect on the nature of pain and suffering. Perhaps a man may think at some point in his life whether it is justifiable to harm and kill an animal to fill his belly. A person may reflect whether eating animals is consistent with the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. A man may consider whether this maxim applies to all forms of life or just other human beings.
Plants are life forms too. “Should one hurt them?” you may ask. If one can live without hurting any life forms that is the best, but that is not possible. Life lives on life – that is the law of nature. My role as a human being with discriminative intellect is to do the least damage to the nature for keeping myself alive and well.
At least, I am not consciously aware of suffering of the plants. That is why eating to live and not living to eat is the determining factor. In Bhagawad Geeta, Sri Krishna emphatically says that a Sadhaka (one who is in pursuit of Moksha) should have a compassion for all forms of life. There may come a point when it is advisable to be a vegetarian – only taking from nature what you need to keep the body in optimal health.
In one’s spiritual growth, one develops subtler and subtler intellect. That is, the mind becomes more sensitive, calmer, and self-contented. Your sensitivity to suffering of others also grows. Hence, the thought about becoming a vegetarian may come. Only you can decide what is right for you and not someone else. Any decision that is imposed on you from the outside does violence to your nature.
Many young people are now becoming vegetarians. They all have their own reasons. Fortunately vegetarianism is mainstream now and accepted. Most schools and universities offer vegetarian and even vegan meals and so the option to become a vegetarian is easier today than ever before.
Flowers grow in their own time. Whether you are vegetarian or not does not matter ultimately.
You are all flowers blooming in the light of the divine.