All living beings originate from food, draw sustenance from it, and finally merge into it and hence ‘Annam Brahma’ [Food is God], says Taittariya Upanishad (3.2.1). This ultimate importance has been given to food in shrutis. If this is the case, most of us would think, do we really need to worry about Karma while having food? The answer is yes and no. We need to understand the concept of karma with regards to food in order to gauge this.
There are many opinions and recommen- dations in Hindu scriptures on what we should eat and what we should not. Given that animals look and act more like humans, there has been a great deal of effort expended on whether to eat or not to eat animal flesh, not only in ancient Indian literature, but also in Roman history. Additionally, in Sikhism, there are discussions on how plants also suffer, while being consumed as food. Even today, we hear a lot of discussions and debates around eating or non-eating of meat, from moral, health and religious standpoint. There are many organizations like PETA, who are trying to convince people to go for plant- based food for health and moral reasons. At the same time, there are many others who are trying to convince people to opt for meat based diet, because, as per them, it gives the body required nutrition.
Given that human body is designed to eat and digest meat as well as plant, there is no doubt that humans are omnivorous. In addition to being omnivorous, humans are also intelligent beings, who question and think over every aspect of life. The same thinking has been happening over many centuries on the food as well. While there have been many theories on what we should eat and what we should not, this article tries to look at food from Karma point of view.
The Hindu View about Food
Unlike what most people think, food in Hinduism is not really regulated barring eating meat of cows. It has been left to individuals to decide what kind of food they want to eat. There are verses in Rig-Veda which asks us not to kill a cow for any reason and that is mainly because she gives milk, which is beneficial to all humans. Simultaneously, there are many verses in Rig-Vega where meat eating of oxen is discussed, along with other animals like horses. There are no rules in the Shrutis or Upanishads, recommending people on their choice of food. Food in Hinduism is indirectly regulated by various core principles, like theory of karma.
Hinduism believes that human body is the only form where a soul can make spiritual progress, and it needs to be the goal of humans to use this body to go further on spiritual path and set ourselves free from the cycle of birth and death and attain Moksha. Unlike animals that act on their instincts, humans can decide what is good or bad for them, also what would help make progress towards spiritual path, and what will not. The same applies to food too. It is left to us to decide what we want to eat. With this freedom of decision comes the responsibility of owning it up too. This is where the philosophy of Karma would help to make most intelligent choices.
Let’s first consider the philosophy of karma.
What is Karma
According to the philosophy of karma, what a person does comes back to him, more like newton’s third law. What we get in life is earned by us; part of it is from this life and remaining from earlier lives. As learned people say, we take birth to spend the karma accumulated in earlier lives and while spending accumulated karma we end up creating new ones.
And to spend this newly created Karma, we need to take additional births. This way the cycle of birth and death continues. The only way out here is living life without generating any new karma, and that way we can slowly clear the accumulated karma from previous lives and come out of this cycle of life and birth. And one of the easiest ways to live life without generating any new karma is following the philosophy of ‘Do good, because doing good is good, without expecting anything in return’.
Karma’s Link to Food
As per karma, every action done with an eye on material comfort has an equal reaction, and this applies to harming an animal or a plant as well. Unlike other religions, where animal/plant souls are considered as lower grade, in Hinduism animal/plant souls are considered having similar status as human being. Hinduism believes that a soul, depending upon the composition of the accumulated karma needs to go through up to 8.4 million species/births, including various plants/animals, before it can take rebirth as a human being. Unlike other births, human birth is considered superior only for the reason that humans can try to act against their animal traits, while animals do not have the intellectual capability to go beyond their animal instincts.
With this background, we can see that harming animal/plant with the intention of eating them creates a karma, which needs to be expended either in this or in next human/ animal/plant life.
While most of the plant-based food (fruits, flowers, seeds, leafs, etc.), can be derived with no or minimum impact to the plant, there is no easy way to take animal flesh without really killing them. And as per theory of karma, when you eat animal flesh you are creating a karma, which means you have to bear the resultant effects in this or in future lives.
There are also some plant-based foods for which one needs to kill the plant in order to acquire the food like potatoes, onion, sugar cane, etc., which also would create similar treatment. So let’s discuss the karma created by the eating plant-based food and animal- based food separately.
Karma Created By Eating Animal-based Food
This topic has been discussed a lot in various Hindu scriptures. The best details come from Anushasan Parva of Mahabharata. As per Bhishma, the karma created by killing an animal for the purpose of eating, falls equally on five people or entities, involved in the whole chain. The person who actually raises and kills the animal for food, the person who dismembers and sells the meat, the person who transports the meat, the person who cooks the meat, and the person who finally eats it. The pain the animal has gone through while getting killed has to be repaid by them in this or in future births.
In today’s world most of the animals getting killed for food are raised for food, and when they are killed, they know for many days in advance that they are going to get killed, and they live in a state of terror. They are mostly kept without food and in many traditions they are killed slowly leading a longer time to die with more pain and miseries for animal. Unlike in the wild, these animals cannot use their survival instincts to save themselves, in fact they do not have an opportunity to save themselves. In short, they endure a very long psychological and physical pain before and while getting killed.
Additionally, most of the animals are raised in very inhumane conditions, fed with lot of artificial food so that they grow faster and many times they grow so fat that they cannot even walk, additionally, they are killed in very tender age, even before they could fulfill any of the animal instincts because somebody is craving for their flesh.
Every entity involved in the chain has to repay that back, by going through in some measure pain and suffering. While Hinduism has a concept of Heaven and Hell, that is reserved for some souls who do either extreme good or extreme bad karma, which they cannot
repay in this material world. Most of the time a person needs to take a birth in the world and live out that karma, by taking various animal and plant forms, so as to go through the same pain in some way or the other.
How About the People Who Chose To Be Vegetarians
Things are less complicated for vege- tarians, mainly because most of the plant- based food is derived from fruits, for example vegetables like tomato, potato, beans are all fruit, and same is the case with apple, banana, etc. Unlike meat, fruits can be taken from plants without harming the plants. In fact, fruits are generally thrown out by the plants itself, even if we don’t pick them. So eating fruits does not really create any bad or good karma.
Having said that, there are some plant- based food for which one would either trouble or kill the plants. For example, for all the leafy vegetables, even though you don’t need to kill the plant, you need to trouble it. For root- based food like carrots, onions, you need to uproot the plant, thus killing it. Most of the time, when we do this, plants would have lived almost all of their life, but still it results in killing the plants.
In terms of generating karma, vegetarians are at far more advantage than their meat eating counterparts, as they generate far less karma when they eat plant-based foods. But having said that, it is not zero—they too are not completely out of it.
So, What Should We Eat?
We think the answer lies more in ‘how’ than in ‘what’. As suggested by Sri Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita, the secret of not generating any karma while eating food lies in how we eat food. There are two approaches we can take.
One, for those people who don’t believe in Personal God, if they could achieve a state where they are eating food, only because of the need of body, and not for taste, nutrition or any other material comfort, then in that case they don’t generate any karma by eating food, even though they choose to eat plant-based or animal-based food. Meal needs to be taken as a sacrifice where in the fire of hunger, the food is sacrificed. This is easier said than done, but achieving moksha is also not an easy thing!
There is an easier path for those people who believe in Personal God. As suggested by Bhagavad Gita, if these people wholeheartedly, first offer all the prepared food to God and then only eat it as an offering to be partaken, they do not generate any karma.
In summary, a person may even eat meat without creating any karma, if he or she follows any of the above paths. What is important is not just what one eats but what one does after eating. The impact of Karma on food is just a small portion of the total karma one has. One accrues Karma by the type of life one leads, one’s good and bad actions. The point is after ‘eating’, we should be doing noble actions and think good thoughts which have more influence on our Karma-deposits than only the food that we partake.
An Example from Mahabharata
One of the easiest ways to understand this concept is through Mahabharata story of ‘Vyadh Gita’—a narration by sage Markandeya to Pandavas while they were going to Vanaprastha Ashrama. The story is about a learned Brahmin being asked to meet a butcher (Vyadh), as the butcher is very knowledgeable in dharma. In the conclusion of this section, having got the knowledge, Brahmin asks the butcher, ‘Why are you still doing the low level, filthy work’. In reply to it, he says, ‘This is the work I got from my forefather and the only thing I know how to do best, and I am doing it without any attachment to the work itself, along with other responsibilities in life, like looking after my parents.’ So the work he performs does not come as an obstacle as this is the natural work that came to him.
In this example, Vyadha was actually a part of the chain, which accrued karma for killing an animal for food, but was still saved from generating any karma. This was mainly because of his unattached approach and his natural progression doing his work.
Everybody creates more or less karma in the process of eating food. Vegetarians have a clear advantage over the meat eaters, but are not completely saved from it either. So in order to completely avoid any karma getting generated due to eating any food, a person needs to practice either eating food for the purpose of sustaining the body, without attaching to the real nature of the food or by eating the food as an offering to God.
Both these paths save us from creating new karma and slowly leads one to the path of liberation or moksha, as it is called.
Original Article and “Vedanta Kesari” Issue of January’2016 is available at: