Vegetarianism has a long history dating back to the early days of civilization. Particularly in India, the idea of ahimsa (nonviolence) was a basic tenet of human society. Animals were respected and protected; kings were known as the protectors of the people, janadhipa, including the animals.
Ahimsa is an important idea in several prominent religions originating India including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Ahimsa is also a term used to describe the traditional (non-violent) vegetarian diet of ancient India that was taught by Lord Buddha and many other religious teachers and scriptures.
One doesn’t have to be a follower of any of these religions to believe in ahimsa or to practice ahimsa. Anyone who is a vegetarian is actually practicing ahimsa, because ahimsa means kindness and non-violence towards all living things.
In the Bhagavad Gita (16.1-3), an ancient Hindu text, it states, “Ahimsa is a quality belonging to godly men endowed with divine nature.” Mahavira, a prominent Jain, said, “A wise person does not kill any living being.” Ahimsa is seen as one of Jainism’s most essential principles. Jains go out of their way to not harm even the tiniest insect. Similarly, Buddhists have always condemned the killing of living beings. Ahimsa is the first of 5 precepts of morality taught in Buddhism.
More recently, Mahatma Gandhi was a great exponent of ahimsa, saying, “The way to truth lies through ahimsa.”
Christianity and Judaism have passages about nonviolence towards animals in their scripture. For Jews, the Talmud (Avodah Zorah 18B) forbids not only hunting but also even associating with hunters. In Hebrews 10.5-10, it says one of Jesus’ missions was to do away with cruelty to animals and the practice of animal sacrifice. “Thou shalt not kill”, one of the Ten Commandments, is perhaps one of the clearest ways to express the idea of ahimsa.
Unfortunately, today, animals are not respected or protected at all by governments. Evidence is seen in the age of factory farms, which emerged only 50 or 60 years ago. Animals on factory farms are subject to cruel and inhumane treatment ending in gruesome and violent slaughter.
To treat the land with respect, to farm sustainably and organically; to produce foods that are beneficial for people and don’t harm them; to be kind to animals and all living beings, to not eat them: this is ahimsa.