Vegetarianism and religion are strongly linked in a number of religions that originated in ancient India (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism). In Jainism vegetarianism is mandatory for everyone, in Hinduism and Buddhism it is advocated by some influential scriptures and religion authorities. Comparatively, within the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) vegetarian diet is not promoted by mainstream authorities. In Christianity, however, there are minority groups promoting vegetarianism on religious grounds (Wikipedia).
Vegetarianism has been a common thread among the major world religions, even if only a minority have adopted the diet as an expression of their faith. Christians have always striven to minister to poor and hungry people. However, today the inefficiency of meat eating works against that ministry. In the United States 66% of the grains are fed to animals being raised for slaughter, wasting most grains’ calories and proteins. Ron Sider of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary has observed, “It is because of the high level of meat consumption that the rich minority of the world devours such an unfair share of the world’s available food.” (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, pp. 43-44). Knowing the deleterious effects of animal-based foods on human health, Christian principles favor a plant-based diet.
Hinduism’s encourages a vegetarian diet, though not all Hindus are vegetarian. Hindus almost universally avoid beef since they consider the cow sacred. Hinduism’s vast scriptures contain thousands of passages recommending vegetarianism based on the profound link between ahimsa (nonviolence) and spirituality. For example, the Yajur Veda says, “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they be human, animals, or whatever.” (12.32) Mahatma Gandhi, however, took Hindu vegetarian observance one step further by declaring, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.”
While the violence of slaughter wrongs animals, it also harms those who consume animals. Causing unnecessary pain and death produces bad karma (ill-effects on oneself as a consequence of ill-treatment of others). Belief in the sacredness of life, reincarnation, nonviolence, and the law of karma are central, inter-related features of the Hinduism’s “spiritual ecology.” While Hinduism’s basis for vegetarianism is deeply spiritual, its practical merit has also been confirmed by science. For example, the prohibition against harming or killing cows frequently benefits nutrition in India. Cattle contribute milk and dairy foods, labor, transportation, and dung fuel.
Vegetarianism is expected practice among Jains, who hold that it is wrong to kill or harm any living being. Jain traditions respect ahimsa (nonviolence), aparigraha (non-acquision), asteya (respect for other’s rights) and satya (truth). While Jains comprise less than 1% of India’s population, they contribute more than half of all the money donated in India to provide medical and other social assistance to India’s poor people.
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was a Hindu who accepted many of Hinduism’s core doctrines, such as karma. His life and teachings offered special insights into how to address problems of human existence, and he explicitly taught vegetarianism as a component of his general instruction to be mindful and compassionate.
The Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras strongly denounces the eating of meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct in the Lankavatara Sutra their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.
The Chinese religion of Taoism holds nature as sacred, and this view also favors vegetarianism. Taoism teaches that yin and yang are the two fundamental energies in the world, and Taoists have always “taken the accomplishments of yin [the non-violent, non-aggressive approach] and rescue of creatures as their priority.” (Journal of the Academy of Religion, 54: no. 1, 1987) For example, the famous Taoist Master Li Han-Kung explicitly prohibited “those who consume meat” from his holy mountain.
Taoism is distinctive in stressing simplicity. As early as the 6th century BCE, the Taoist scripture called Tao Te Ching warned against waste (80 TTC). The Tao Te Ching teaches that simplicity allows the individual to live a peaceful life and it protects nature from overuse and pollution. Modern studies of ecology and factory farming have demonstrated that meat production today is extremely complicated and inefficient. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that meat consumption is far less efficient in producing protein than consumption of beans and grains. Because it requires far more grain, modern meat production requires more pesticides, more water, and more fossil fuel to run tractors to farm the extra fields of grain. Burning more fossil fuel wastes natural resources and pollutes the planet. Taoist simplicity encourages eating vegetables, grains, and fruits instead of meat. According to the Tao, the process of meat production tends to be too yang – too aggressive; it involves extreme and unnecessary impact on the environment.
The Torah (Hebrew Scriptures) describes vegetarianism as an ideal. In the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve, and all creatures were instructed to eat plant foods. (Genesis 1:29-30) The prophet Isaiah had a utopian vision in which everyone will once again be vegetarian: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb … the lion shall eat straw like the ox … They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. For example, Exodus 23:5 requires that one relieve the burden of an overloaded animal, and the Fourth Commandment includes the instruction that Jews must allow livestock to rest on the Sabbath. The parameters of such laws are discussed in the Talmud and codified in the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law). The revered medieval legal authority/philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that we should show mercy to all living creatures. The 16th Century mystic Rabbi Moses Cordovero and 19th Century thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expressed similar sentiments. By contrast, factory farms routinely confine animals in cramped spaces; often drug and mutilate animals; and deny animals fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any opportunity to satisfy their natural instincts. In response to this, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland Rabbi David Rosen has written, “The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable [not kosher].” Other rabbis, while agreeing that animals should be raised and slaughtered in humane ways, do not agree that such meat is forbidden.
Other Jewish values favor vegetarianism. Judaism advocates treating the environment respectfully, while animal agriculture squanders water, energy, land, and other resources. Judaism holds that human life is sacred, and we should diligently care for our health. Since animal-based foods can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, we should move towards a plant-based diet. Judaism encourages us to share our bread with hungry people. Yet, the inefficiencies of animal agriculture waste grains and lands that could be used for staple crops, thereby depriving hungry people of food. In summary, although Judaism does not mandate vegetarianism, many Jewish teachings support the diet.
Christianity, based on Judaism, prohibits cruelty to animals. Jesus’ central teachings involved love, compassion, and mercy, and it is hard to imagine Jesus looking upon contemporary factory farms and slaughterhouses and then happily consuming flesh.
Christians have always striven to minister to poor and hungry people. However, today the inefficiency of meat eating works against that ministry. In the United States 66% of the grains are fed to animals being raised for slaughter, wasting most grains’ calories and proteins. Ron Sider of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary has observed, “It is because of the high level of meat consumption that the rich minority of the world devours such an unfair share of the world’s available food.” (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, pp. 43-44). Knowing the deleterious effects of animal-based foods on human health, Christian principles favor a plant-based diet.