Hinduism: Its Essence and Relationship to Vegetarianism

Kishor Trivedi, Ph.D., Kavita Trivedi, B.S., and Smita Trivedi
Editor's note: In the last several newsletters, we presented Christian and Buddhist perspectives on vegetarianism. This time we turn to Hinduism. Come to our yet to be scheduled early 1999 Hindu potluck! Don't miss Rynn Berry's visit this fall when he talks about religion and vegetarianism.
Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are religions founded by individuals; the dates of their inceptions are well established and their authors are known. No such dates or founder can be attributed to Hinduism.1
The word Hindu does not occur in the Vedas, the revelations of Hinduism; rather, Hindu derives its name from the river Sindhu in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.
Rather than a distinct religion, Hinduism is more appropriately classified as a fellowship of religions because of its liberal absorption and acceptance of other faiths. In fact, Hinduism can be interpreted as any "path in life" -- even if that path follows the constructs of another religion. Hinduism accepts the reality that there are varying intellectual and spiritual levels in each of us; hence, we strive to obtain the same goal, but follow different paths at various rates. For example, a Christian Baptist could also be considered a Hindu because s/he is actively pursuing a pathway to finding truth. Hinduism offers different religious approaches to persons of varied aptitudes, appealing to both the philosopher and the technician, the mystic and the person of action as well as the intellectual and the simple person of faith. Each can be guided by his/her own spiritual experience. Though Hinduism accepts the authority of the Vedas, it does not believe in a dogma and rejects the exclusive claim of even a highly evolved individual having a monopoly on Truth. Mahatma Gandhi clearly enacted the broader, inclusive vista of Hinduism by paying equal homage to the best of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Buddhism. His prayer book, Ashram Bhajanavali, contains prayers from all of these religions.
A newcomer to Hinduism is often confused about the many Gods. A common misconception is that Hindu sages introduced a polytheistic religion to posterity. Taking into consideration the limitations and emotional demands of the human mind and intellect, sages chose to include various deities in the practice of Hinduism to represent various concepts of the same Godhead.
Another misconception concerns idol worship. In Hinduism, idols exist since most minds cannot worship in pure abstraction. An idol is like the flag of a country. The flag represents the country; therefore, countrymen develop an emotional attachment to the flag itself. Similarly, an idol is a symbol of God and God's worshipers develop an attachment to the idol. Hinduism states that an individual may worship God in any form. The form is of no importance, the name is not significant, but the attitude of worship, called Bhakti in Sanskrit, and the intensity of devotion is of real consequence. Worshiping an idol does not signify worshiping an inanimate object as God, but signifies worship of the omnipresent Divinity in the form of an idol before us. We worship God in the idol, not the idol as God.
Whatever form of the supreme is adopted for worship, all represent aspects of the same Godhead. Truth is one but sages call it by different names -- Isvara, Rama, Krishna, Jehovah, Allah, God. These names, honored and worshiped by various religions, are symbols that enable finite minds to grasp the infinite. Hinduism teaches that the Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christians and the Isvara of Hindus. The God of Gandhi cannot possibly be different from the God of Mother Theresa. Having faith in God means acceptance of the common bond of all people. It also means equal respect for all religions.
The common man has humbly tried to describe almighty God in words, but He is above all attributes -- indescribable, inconceivable and immeasurable. He is one and yet many. He is smaller than an atom yet bigger than the Himalayas. He is contained in a drop of ocean yet the seven seas cannot encompass Him. Pure reason cannot understand Him.
Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his or her own destiny through thoughts, words and deeds. We also believe in reincarnation, the evolution through many birth cycles until all karmas have been resolved. Reincarnation ultimately leads to moksha, spiritual knowledge, that liberates one from the cycle of rebirth. No single person can be eternally deprived of this destiny.
Hinduism does not have a single human spiritual leader, though individuals may seek gurus to aid in their spiritual quests. The lack of a leader advocates a relativistic moral system. One dispute regarding the Hindu scriptures involves the question of eating meat, but with no empowered leader to clarify this question, every Hindu is able to decide individually. In no Hindu text is meat-eating prohibited, but I strongly feel that it is suggested.
Like Gandhi, I was born into a family that has been vegetarian for generations. Though Gandhi was raised vegetarian, he experimented with meat-eating. When he went to law school in London, he read Henry Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism2 and decidedly chose to be a vegetarian. My reading of Hindu scriptures such as the Upanisads and Srimad Bhagvad Gita has convinced me to remain a vegetarian by choice as well.
In a 1931 address to the London Vegetarian Society, Mahatma Gandhi explained the moral basis for vegetarianism. This basis is the fundamental tenet of Hinduism -- "All life is one". The essence of Hinduism, as reflected in a quote by Eknath Easwaran, states, "It is an urgent need of our time to recognize the unity of all forms of life, and the ultimate relationship between water, earth, air, plants and all creatures ... salvation, self-realization, nirvana, moksha -- these are just different words for the same discovery of the unity of all life. This is what we have come into this life to accomplish".3 If God is all, then all living beings, not just humans, must be sacred, and no injury should be caused to any living being. The highest value of Hinduism is non-violence. As Swami Tejomayananda points out, "there is one Self or one Life that pulsates in all beings; since all beings want to live happily in this world, we do not have the moral right to take away a life or to cause any unhappiness or sorrow to others". 4
A favorite prayer of mine states, "Dear Lord, you are my soul.... my body is thy abode." It is subsequently incumbent upon me to offer the purest of foods to my body. Food that we eat is considered an offering to the Lord, as stated in several stanzas of Srimad Bhagavad Gita. It is further suggested that our thoughts and hence our actions are considerably influenced by the food that we eat; thus, it is incumbent upon us to eat pure (Satwik) food to lead a moral life.
For more information on Hinduism, come to any religious program held at the Hindu temple in Morrisville -- call 481-2574. In early July, a new email discussion list about Hinduism and vegetarianism was started; to subscribe, send email to majordomo@VegInfo.com and in the body of the message, type "subscribe VegHindu". I also lead an informal philosophic religious discussion every Sunday at 9 am -- contact me at 660-5269 or kst@ee.duke.edu to participate. Finally, we will have a potluck with TVS in early 1999 and talk about this topic further.
Some References on Hinduism
Here are some fairly accessible texts about Hinduism:
Klostermaier, Klaus. A Survey of Hinduism.
Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1989.
Mahadevan, T.M.P. Outlines of Hinduism.
Bombay, Chetan Limited, 1971. (Also available from, Acorn Press, P.O. Box 3279, Durham, NC 27715-3279.)
Yoganand, Paramhansa. The Bhagvad Gita.
Los Angeles, CA, Self Realization Fellowship, 1996. Self-Realization Fellowship is an excellent resource; contact them at 3880 San Rafael Avenue, Los Angeles 90065-3298.
There are many good web sites. Try these:
Footnotes (Hit "Back" on your browser to return)
1. Bharati Krishna Tirtha. Swami Sanatana Dharma. Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1991.
2. Diet and Diet Reform. M.K. Gandhi, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, India, 1949.
3. The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living. Easwaran, Eknath. Tomales, CA, Nilgiri Press, 1992.
4. Hindu Culture, Part II, Mananam, Vol. XV, No. 1, Jan 1993, PO Box 129, Piercy, CA 95467.