Vegetarianism – The History

If you enjoy yoga and are considering the practice of not eating meat, or vegetarianism, you might want to look at the evolution of the Indian tradition of yoga and vegetarianism.

Ask any number of yogis to describe their diets and you’ll likely get responses as varied as the styles they practice. Many traditionalists see yoga as being linked with the meatless path, citing numerous ancient Indian texts to prove their conviction.

Therefore, today’s range of dietary habits are not a recent development – you’ll find a long tradition of ethical and moral debates with respect to animals. Indeed, the different stances yogis now take on vegetarianism reflect just the latest turn in a debate that started thousands of years ago.

The history of vegetarianism in India began during the Vedic period, an era that dawned sometime between 4000 and 1500 b.c., depending on whom you ask. Four sacred texts known as the Vedas were the bedrock of early Hindu spiritual thought. The hymns and songs in these texts describe the wondrous power of the natural world, and find the beginning stages for vegetarianism in later centuries.

In subsequent ancient texts, including the Upanishads, the idea of rebirth emerged as a central point. The belief in meat on a dinner plate as once living in a different, and possibly human form made it less palatable.

Dietary guidelines became explicit centuries later in the Laws of Manu. In these texts, we discover that the sage Manu doesn’t find fault with just those who eat meat, but “He who permits the slaughter of an animal,”, and “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.”

The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the most influential text of the Hindu tradition, added to the vegetarian argument with its practical dietary guidelines. It specifies that sattvic foods (milk, butter, fruit, vegetables, and grains) “promote vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life.” Bitter, salty, and sour rajasic foods (including meat, fish, and alcohol) “cause pain, disease, and discomfort.” At the bottom rung lies the tamasic category: “stale, overcooked, contaminated” and otherwise rotten or impure foods. These explanations have endured, becoming the guidelines by which many modern yogis eat.

In most cultures today, yogis live and eat with the understanding that a vegetarian diet is “a necessity” to the practice of yoga.

And still, equally dedicated yogis find flesh a necessary fuel, without which their practice suffers.

Therefore, today’s yoga enthusiasts who are still debating on whether they should pursue a meatless path, can take heart that the debate on vegetarianism has centered in the cultural ways of Indian spiritual tradition for centuries.


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Kyle Wolfe

Author/blogger residing in Indianapolis, IN and sometimes in Chicago and Detroit. I really enjoy urban settings. You'll catch me at the local sushi bar, and testing out local wines and craft beers. Coffee bars are nice, and my goal is moving to the west coast before too long. If you must know, I prefer Mac over PC.
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