A Buddhist’s analysis of meat and beef eating in ancient India (by Shravasti Dhammika)


There is no evidence that Brahmanism, the main religion during the Buddha’s time, taught vegetarianism. Vedic sacrifices in which animals were slaughtered were still being practiced and are frequently mentioned in the Tipitaka (e.g. Anguttara Nikaya I,66; II,42; IV,41). However, the Vinaya mentions what were called maghata, certain days of the month when animals were not slaughtered and meat was not available in the markets (Vinaya I,217). The Jataka also mentions maghata and adds that they would be announced by the beat of a drum (Jataka IV,115). Were these non-killing days a result of a general unease about meat eating, or due to the influence of Buddhism, or of Jainism? We don’t know. The Kama Sutra (3rd cent CE?) points out that alcohol and dog meat increase a man’s virility but then adds, somewhat halfheartedly, that a circumspect man would nonetheless take neither. It also gives recipes for aphrodisiacs, many of them including animal flesh and organs. So once again we have an ambiguous attitude towards consuming meat.

Neither of the two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata teach vegetarianism and both often refer to eating meat as if it were normal and uncontroversial, as indeed it was. In his detailed study of everyday life as depicted in the Ramayana Ananda Guruge writes, “The Aryans of ancient India were not altogether vegetarians. Their diet was a mixed one; they ate fish as was offered to Bharata and his party by Guha. Meat too was consumed quite widely. Not only did Rama say that animals are killed by men for their flesh but he also killed many animals – deer, wild boar, antelope, etc., – for food during his sojourn in the forest. Meat was eaten with relish and a verse which describes a meal of Rama and Sita states, ‘He sat on a rock tempting Sita with meat (saying) this is pure, this is tasty and this is well cooked by fire.’ In Bharadvaja’s hermitage Bharata’s army was supplied with venison, mutton, pork and flesh of the peacock and the snipe Likewise, Kumbhakarna consumed large quantities of venison, beef and pork and drank blood. Although the Vanaras are generally depicted as vegetarians, the Brahmans were actually not. The concept that ‘a purely vegetarian diet is an indication of spiritual progress and an advanced culture’ is a later development in India. Even ascetic Brahmans were not strict vegetarians. Although their usual fare consisted of vegetables, they did not abstain from meat-eating as a principle of either religious or social significance. In fact, Agastya is represented as eating rams and he says, ‘I am able to eat comfortably even one whole ram at a Sraddha ceremony.’ There seems to have been no ban on meat-eating by Brahmans even at the time of Bhavabhuti for his Uttararamacarita depicts Vasistha as eating a tawny calf Further, Valin’s statement specifically mentions the animals whose flesh could be eaten by Brahmans. (The Society of the Ramayana, 1960, p.147-8).

In the chapter on food the Sushruta Samhita (1st– 4th cent CE) recommends all kinds of fish, bird and animal flesh showing that meat eating was commonplace during that period. This and a great deal of other evidence shows that like Buddhists, Hindus were for centuries in two minds about vegetarianism. It was only after the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries that vegetarianism started to become widespread in India.