This is probably one of the most hotly debated subjects for Hindus. The important ideology to remember is that Hinduism does not give us a list of do’s and don’ts, it provides a collection of very profound teachings that allow us to learn and use our own wisdom to govern the actions we take. A Hindu that lays down ‘commandments’ that have to be satisfied by all Hindus, may be misguided in his or her understanding of this intricate guide to a pure, balanced and compassionate way of life.
The basis of guiding the Hindu towards vegetarianism is the Dharmic law of Ahimsa, non-injury (physically or mentally) to other living creatures. There are many scriptures that point towards this, for instance, Manusmriti declares that one should refrain from eating all kinds of meat, for such eating involves killing and leads to Karmic bondage (Bandh) [5.49]. In the Vedic literature, the last of the great Vedic kings, Maharaja Parikshit, is quoted as saying that only the animal-killer cannot relish the message of the Absolute Truth [Shrimad Bhagvatam 10.1.4.].
According to the Himalayan Academy Publications approximately 70% of Hindus are non-vegetarians. This does not point to 30% good and 70% bad Hindus, since there is every likelihood that some vegetarians do not follow other, equally important, teachings of Hinduism which many non-vegetarians will. Geographically, Southern India contains the largest concentration of vegetarians, whereas the North has the largest concentration of non-vegetarians. This has, in the main, arisen due to the Islamic and British influence in the Northern areas of India during their rule.
Whether one is a vegetarian or not is not usually the real issue that causes heated debates, leading to divisive arguments. The issue, in majority of cases, is one of consideration for others. Should one bring physical or mental discomfort to others by his or her actions, in this instance the of consuming meat in a primarily non meat eating environment? Consider an example which does not essentially sit within the religious arena; the effect of a smoker on non smokers when smoking within an enclosed environment. Is it not better for the smoker to refrain from smoking, or smoke in an area that will not harm or ruin the enjoyment of others? A hardened smoker may say that his enjoyment is as important as the non-smoker, and a politically correct non-smoker will say that smoking should be totally banned. Yet it is obvious that by smoking away from non-smokers the smoker will satisfy the need of both factions.
As Hindus we should try to follow the teachings emanating from the Vedas. The ‘religious’ scriptures (although Hinduism is not really a religion in the strict sense of the word), are the oldest known to humankind and have stood the test of time. The fact that Hinduism has gained the respect of many non-Hindu organisations and individuals in the 20th century confirms the strength of its universally applicable philosophies.
To reiterate, Hinduism does not have ‘laws’ laid down for you to obey. It is for you to apply the wisdom of the scriptures to govern actions you take. Be considerate, show patience and compassion for others; be selfless in your desires. Aspire to the concept of Ahimsa.