Vegetarianism and Ayurveda

Vegetarianism and Ayurveda

In my blog last week, I addressed the mistaken belief held by some in the Āyurveda community that sufficient vitamin B12 can be obtained from plant-based foods. Unfortunately, this misperception is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the all-pervading belief both within and without the community of Āyurveda, that it is (primarily) a vegetarian-based system. Considering the decades of knowledge that we have accumulated on the very real issue of vitamin B12 deficiency, the notion that vitamin B12 can be obtained in plant foods is really nothing more than wishful-thinking, typically expressed by those who believe that eating meat is morally wrong. Normally, what someone personally believes isn’t my concern, but when this belief obscures the practice of Āyurveda, denies the basic science, and puts the public health at risk, it is important to speak out.

As painful as it may be for some to hear, the very real truth is that Āyurveda is not, and never was, a vegetarian system. There is nothing in any classical text of Āyurveda, including those of the bṛhat trayī (Caraka, Suśruta, Vāgbhaṭa) or the laghu trayī (Mādhava, Śāraṅgadhara, Bhāvaprakāśa), to suggest otherwise. All of these texts and many others not mentioned fully describe the qualities and properties of a multitude of animal products, including their use in the treatment of disease. With regard to the latter, out of the many diseases and syndromes described by Āyurveda, only for the disease of unmāda (psychosis) is a vegetarian diet sometimes prescribed, but not consistently. Otherwise, for every other disease the practical utility of animal products in the diet is described, such as the frequent recommendation of consuming the meat of desert-dwelling animals, as well as the ubiquitous application of māṃsa rasa (non-fatty meat soup).


Was Vedic culture vegetarian?

Āyurveda is a śāstra, or a teaching within the Vedic tradition, and it is not vegetarian because the ancient Vedic culture itself was not vegetarian. While this may come as a shock to many, in reality, there is so much evidence against the assertion that ancient Vedic culture was vegetarian that to state otherwise borders on the absurd. In his meticulously referenced tome, The Myth of the Holy Cow, Hindu scholar Dr. DN Jha systematically deconstructs the assertion that Vedic civilization was vegetarian. As the title suggests, the author puts forward evidence that ancient Vedic peoples did not elevate the cow in the same way as modern Hindus, making ample reference to their consumption of beef, which was especially valued as a ritual food by the priestly caste (brahmins). This irony was recently brought to light when the state of Maharashtra banned beef consumption, citing the historical importance of vegetarianism in Hindu society. Unfortunately for supporters of this move, it also brought to uncomfortable attention that many traditional brahmin communities continue to eat meat – including beef – as part of an unbroken lineage of practice that extends back thousand of years. As the great Swami Vivekananda said over a hundred years ago, “You will be surprised to know that according to ancient Hindu rites and rituals, a man cannot be a good Hindu who does not eat beef.”

Restoring the proper context for vegetarianism

Whether or not I am able to convince you that Vedic culture was not vegetarian doesn’t concern me: like any debate concerning a topic so vast, it is easy to cherry-pick one fact over another. Certainly there is evidence of vegetarian practices in the Vedic literature, but these relate to ascetic practices, and not general dietary advice. As a form a self-denial and purification, vegetarianism has long been a component of ascetic practices in ancient India. These practices ranged from meditation and yoga, to more severe methods such as plucking the hairs of the body or walking on hot coals – all as a practice to uproot worldly desire and uncover the penultimate truth. The ancientness of these practices including vegetarianism are attested to in the Rāmāyaṇam  when Lord Rāma leaves the comforts of his palace to follow the path of the brahmacarya, or worldly renunciate:

“I shall live in a solitary forest like a sage for fourteen years, leaving off meat and living with roots, fruits and honey”.

– Ayōdhyā Kanda 2-20-29

The association between vegetarianism and Hindu asceticism is undeniable, but it is not an exclusive relationship, and nor was this association meant to inform the practices of everyday society. In the sacred Hindu law book, called the Manusmṛti, vegetarianism is only mentioned as a technique appropriate to the religious-minded, and not as a general practice. And even though the Manusmṛti was compiled almost 2000 years after the end of the Vedic period in India, there is nothing in it – even at its comparatively late date – to suggest that vegetarianism was a requirement for the average Hindu.


What about ahimsā?

While vegetarianism serves as a form of self-denial, important for penance or ritual purification (as in the story of Rāma), vegetarian practices are also based on the concept of ahimsā, or non-injury. As a specific form of spiritual practice, ahimsā found its greatest expression in the post-Vedic spiritual traditions of the first millennium BCE, including Jainism and Buddhism. By fully embracing the concept of ahimsā, these new spiritual movements clearly distinguished themselves from the Vedic religion, attracting new followers by critiquing the “decadent” practice of ritual animal slaughter.

Between the two, Jainism took the most radical approach to the problem of ahimsā, which in its highest expression involves the practice of sallekhanā, or starving oneself to death. While most assuredly causing the least amount of harm, sallekhanā as a spiritual goal is typically undertaken by very few people. For the vast majority of Jains, the practice ahimsā as it relates to diet allows for the consumption of dairy (as no apparent harm is caused to the cow by milking), as well as the allowance of the aerial parts of any plant as food – but not the roots (which would kill the plant). In contrast, while the practice of ahimsā is a prerequisite to spiritual advancement, simply eating meat isn’t a violation in Buddhist teachings because meat is not a living thing. Unlike Jainism, which views karma as a subtle material essence that attaches to a permanent soul, Buddhist teachings believe karma to be a function of cause and effect that relates more to intent. Thus, the Buddha would eat meat if it were given to him as part of his alms, but in order to uphold the principle of ahimsā, he would refuse to eat the food if knew beforehand that the animal had been specifically slaughtered on his behalf.

Both Buddhism and Jainism grew during the post-Vedic period, but due to its greater flexibility with regard to diet, as well as the fact that it rejected the caste system maintained by both Hindus and Jains, Buddhism became the dominant religious force in India during the later part of the first millennium. The growing and pervasive influence of Buddhism in India meant that its concepts including that of ahimsā indelibly shaped Indian society and later Hindu beliefs. Inspired by the Buddhist teachings on ahimsā, the Emperor Aśoka established a law of the land in the 3rd century BCE, enshrining the rights of animals, banning animal sacrifice, and promoting environmental stewardship. In this regard Aśoka wasn’t advocating for vegetarianism, but for greater thoughtfulness, care and consideration for all living beings.


Buddhism exerted its influence in India for almost 1000 years, and its emphasis on ahimsā as a practice had a strong influence on the Hindu revivalist movement that emerged with the decline of Buddhism. In the 7th century a Hindu reformer named Ādi Śaṅkara successfully modeled a new version of Hindu teachings that only slightly varied from Buddhism, adding the concept of an eternal god (brahman), but including the same Buddhist emphasis upon ahimsā. Gradually, this revivalist movement became a syncretic religious movement influenced by regional folk traditions, including the bhakti (devotional) movement of South India, to evolve into the dominant form of Hinduism found today in India – called Vaishnavism.

As the Hindu revival emerged during the early medieval period, India began to suffer the first wave of more than a thousand years of foreign invasion, continuing right up until the British left India in 1947. Some scholars have asserted that the ideal of ahimsā was so pervasive in early medieval Indian society that it left the country vulnerable to invasion. Certainly there was a marked difference between the character of the invading forces, whose God justified all-manner of violence and brutality, to the spiritual principles of Indian society, which valued peace, contemplation, and insight.

While there were many Hindus, including the Marathi warrior Śivaji, that attempted to fend off the invaders, the cultural traditions of India were systemically damaged during this period. Now already in decline, foreign invasion meant for Buddhism its complete eradication from India, as the hoards of Turkish and Arab warriors found little resistance from its monasteries and universities. For Hindus, it meant the destruction of a great deal of their cultural heritage, including religious monuments such as the temple at Ayōdhyā, which marked the traditional birthplace of the Hindu god Rāma.

As a response to foreign invasion, the medieval period understandably marks a period of consolidation within Indian culture, and the crystallization of a Hindu orthodoxy and its beliefs. To maintain its religious distinctiveness, and as a way to distinguish Hindus from the non-vegetarian invaders, vegetarianism was elevated as part of the Hindu cultural identity. This crystallization of Hindu teachings, however, had a dramatic impact upon the understanding and sophistication of Āyurveda. In much the same way that the sophisticated medical knowledge inherited from the Greeks and Romans by the Church underwent decline during the Dark Ages in Europe, the preservation of Āyurveda by the Hindu orthodoxy during the medieval period meant that much of the knowledge became theoretical and academic. Rational practices such as surgery almost completely disappeared from Āyurveda during this time, replaced by superstition, and a greater emphasis upon magic-religious techniques to resolve disease. In this way, the vegetarian diet as a hallmark of Hindu culture was not only associated with morality, but served as a kind of talisman against disease.


On the subject of sattva, rajas, and tamas

One frequent way used to explain the difference between vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism, as well as the practices that comprise the Hindu orthodoxy from those of the non-Hindu, is to reference the concept of triguṇa.  Individually called sattva, rajas, and tamas, the triguṇa represent three distinct, yet interdependent qualitative states, each representing a difference sphere of experience. The origin of this concept is found in Sāṁkhya, a teaching considered by some scholars to be the most ancient of the Vedas. Although the original teachings of Sāṁkhya have been lost to time, it exists in redacted form as a text called the Sāṁkhya-kārikā (3-5th cent. CE), supplemented with a few references to its teachings in the Bhagavad-gītāSāṁkhya is particularly important to the epistemology of Āyurveda, however, and it is in classical texts such as the Caraka saṃhitā that we find the oldest surviving exposition of its teachings.

According to Sāṁkhya, sattva, rajas and tamas relate to three qualities manifest within an individuated being (called ahaṃkāra). Within this temporal state, sattva, rajas and tamas represent different aspects of individuated experience. According to the Sāṁkhya-kārikāsattva is described as “illuminating”, giving rise to pleasure; rajas is “activating”, giving rise to pain; and tamas is “restraining”, which gives rise to delusion. Collectively, these three qualities represent the entire spectrum of experience.

Derived from the root words sat (eternal truth) and tva (thyself), sattva represents the subjective consciousness, which is only experienced in fullness through deep meditation, when the mind is turned inward and away from the compulsions of rāga (desire) and dviṣ (aversion). This is why sattva is said to give pleasure – not the temporal pleasure that fulfills desire – but rather, the bliss that comes from deep spiritual insight (saccidānanda). In contrast, tamas represents the objective, physical world, which includes our bodies, the food we eat, the earth itself, and all the stars in the universe. In Āyurveda  this includes the five elements, and the three doṣa(s) that emanate from them. Between them lies rajas as the “activator”, the quality that binds sattva to tamas, drawing the illuminated consciousness outwards into the inertia of physical reality.

When the teaching of Sāṁkhya became crystalized within the Hindu orthodoxy, the concept of triguṇa became much more literal. Rather than representing the esoteric concept of the illuminated consciousness, sattva became synonymous with “goodness” and “purity”, representing the religious and spiritual values of orthodox Hinduism. Likewise, rajas became associated with “conflict” and “disturbance”, and tamas with “evil” and “contamination”. In this way, when applied to food, that which is vegetarian is automatically considered to be sattvic, whereas non-vegetarian foods are tamasic, and rajasic foods are those which stimulate the desire for tamasic foods. For example, milk and rice – two staples of Indian vegetarian cuisine – are considered “sattvic”, whereas foods like meat, fish and alcohol are considered “tamasic”. Supposed “rajasic” foods include onion, garlic and chili, which all stimulate the appetite for heavier (i.e. tamasic) foods. While this definition may seem to make sense on the basis of its own internal logic, it only does so if one ignores the original teaching of Sāṁkhya and Āyurveda. According to Caraka, the word “sattva” is synonymous with the mind, and if we accept this definition, it cannot be possible for food also to be a product of sattva.


Each of us must consume food to nourish our bodies, and thus both food and the body relates to the quality of tamas. It is impossible to say that one food is “sattvic” and another is “tamasic”, when in truth, all foods are tamasic, and are eaten precisely for these tamasic qualities, i.e. to nourish and sustain our tamasic bodies. When a tamasic object such as food is elevated to the quality of sattva, we are practicing a subtle form of spiritual materialism, in which object become confused for subject. Since the medieval period in India, Hindu beliefs and practices have frequently reflected this misapprehension, devolving from the symbolic, sacred meaning of objects and the impression this is meant to convey to the mind, to the elevation of these objects as the embodiment of the spiritual experience itself.

When I have raised these issues before, one frequent argument I am met with is that I must be saying that food has no impact upon consciousness. This conclusion, however, similarly reflects the ignorance of someone that doesn’t fully comprehend the interdependent nature of triguṇa. Just because food and mind are not the same thing, it doesn’t mean that food cannot impact the consciousness – obviously it does –  just as anyone who has perhaps eaten too much chili pepper or horseradish can attest to. But this effect is not a unique property of food, as anything within the realm of tamas can impact the mind. How do you feel on a rainy day – a little depressed and sad perhaps? What if you had an argument with someone – do you feel angry? Or what if you won the lottery? Would it change how you feel? There is no denying that tamasic experiences can and do impact the equilibrium of the mind (sattva), but they do so most powerfully when we confuse subject (i.e. the mind) for object (i.e. physical reality). For example, if someone does something we don’t like, and we get angry, is that person the cause of our anger, and thus responsible for it, or is our anger purely an emanation of our consciousness?

Confusing vegetarianism with spirituality

During the Buddha’s lifetime, he had a follower named Devadatta who wanted to change some of the teachings. Specifically, Devadatta believed that the vegetarianism practiced by other religious sects, such as the Jains, should be incorporated into the Buddhist monastic code. While upholding the principle of ahimsā, the Buddha rejected Devadatta’s request, which eventually resulted in his expulsion from the saṃgha.  The reason the Buddha rejected him is because Devdatta was fundamentally confused, wanting to turn the teaching into a cult of materialism that elevated vegetarianism as a spiritual goal, once again, confusing subject for object. Likewise, throughout the spiritual history of India, the great adepts have rejected spiritual distinctions with regard to diet, including Shirdi Sai Baba, who sought to overcome communal politics by embracing a practical and egalitarian approach to food. Consider as well, what the Sikh holy book, called the Guru Granth Sahib, says on the matter:

“The fools argue about flesh and meat, but they know nothing about meditation and spiritual wisdom. What is called meat, and what is called green vegetables? What leads to sin? It was the habit of the gods to kill the rhinoceros, and make a feast of the burnt offering. Those who renounce meat, and hold their noses when sitting near it, devour men at night. They practice hypocrisy, and make a show before other people, but they do not understand anything about meditation or spiritual wisdom. O Nanak, what can be said to the blind people? They cannot answer, or even understand what is said.”

My intent in writing this post has not been to hurt anyone’s feelings. Vegetarianism is an ethical and moral choice, and despite what conclusions might be drawn from my writing, I have a great deal of respect for this choice. I applaud the efforts of animal rights activists, and am fully behind the effort to deconstruct the industrial food model that treats living creatures as nothing more than commodities. But the choice of vegetarianism is just that – a choice – not an imperative. There is nothing in Hinduism or Āyurveda that mandates vegetarianism, despite the fact that almost all college-trained physicians of Āyurveda recommend a vegetarian diet. To this day, physicians will directly contradict or modify the practices of Āyurveda to promulgate the mistaken belief that a vegetarian diet is “healthier”, or is somehow intrinsically better to achieve mental balance. As we can see with the issue I raised with regard to the problem of vitamin B12 deficiency in vegetarian communities, the all-pervasive belief that vegetarianism is superior diet is a kind hubris imposed onto Āyurveda, limiting its practical utility, and causing irrevocable damage to its integrity.

The issue of vegetarianism in Āyurveda is a metaphorical sacred cow that obfuscates its authentic history and practice, and forces it to become nothing more than a pale replica of itself. The reality is that Āyurveda is for everybody, regardless of diet, faith, gender, age, culture, geography, or climate. According to tradition, the knowledge of Āyurveda is built into the very fabric of matter itself, and in this way, is a part of us all – even if we don’t know it. Āyurveda is a system of knowledge that allows you live in concert with dharma, or the natural rhythm of life, no matter where you live: whether its the lush tropics of south India where being a vegetarian is very easy, or the frigid steppes of Tibet, where being a vegetarian isn’t even a possibility. My hope in addressing this issue is to reopen the dialogue around diet, restoring Āyurveda to its proper state: resplendent in its grounded, earthy wisdom.