Vegetarianism in South Asia: Religious Impact

Vegetarianism, in modern times, is often compared to the kind that is practiced in South Asian societies. Alsdorf (2010) argues that a vegetarian has a higher nutritional value in comparison to the rest. However, the societies in South Asia largely practice vegetarianism based on the religious teachings. In this essay, the discussion will focus of foods in South Asia and how the societies transitioned to vegetarianism. A critical analysis of this issue makes it apparent that vegetarianism in South Asia is dependent on religious teachings.

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Historical accounts suggest that vegetarianism is prevalent in many societies where Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism are practiced. Burton (2010) argues that followers of these religions had utmost reverence to the teachings. To this end, the suspicion that the shift to vegetarianism was brought about by religion could be true. Consequently, a historical account of food coupled by the teachings of the three religions will help shed light on the thesis statement.

History of Food in South Asia

South Asian countries have a long and rich history with respect to food. According to Burton (2010), South Asian food items have been used for nourishment, rituals and even trade. However, changing times led to a corresponding shift in the roles of different food items. For instance, the introduction of currency meant that certain food items could no longer be used in trade. In addition, the growth of religious doctrines brought about restrictions to the kinds of food that would be used for nourishment and sacrifices.

In certain parts of South Asia animals and plants were collectively used as food. However, the influence of religious brought about the variance in diets among the people (Burton, 2010). Some societies began shunning the need for meat and related products in their diets. Others, (based on religious teachings) were inclined to select animals in their diets. However, the increased influence of religion among different societies had a corresponding effect on the respective diets to vegetarianism. The transition to vegetarianism was brought about by a number of factors. However, extensive studies point towards the influence of religion.

The shift from traditional diets to vegetarianism is a phenomenon that can be traced back as early as 500 BC. According to Alsdorf (2010), South Asian communities at the time were gradually getting the awareness of nonviolence. The result saw a shift from offering animal sacrifices and their inclusion in meals. The result of this transition is a growing number of vegetarian societies in the region. An interesting aspect of these societies is that they have strong religious ties. The transition to vegetarianism has not affected the role of food in terms of nourishment.

History of South Asian Vegetarianism

Transition to vegetarianism dates as far back as the 6th Century BC. According to Spencer (1993), Chinese scholars who visited India in the 5th Century AD, found that the inhabitants had relied on teachings that uphold the sanctity of life. At the time the inhabitants did not have the habit of breeding or selling animals for food. The Yogis, of India developed the practice of vegetarianism which has continued even in modern times. Even religious offerings took the form of vegetarian food. Spencer (1993) makes reference to bhaktas also known as devotees who offer a vegetarian offering to gods like Krishna before they can consumer it.

Vegetarianism was brought about by religious teachings of nonviolence. As early as the 6th century BC, Buddhists had strict rules forbidding violence for self gratification. Spencer (1993) argues that Jainism has always advanced a strict form of vegetarianism. Strict Tainist teachings is estimated to date back as early as 7th century BC when Tirthankara was the spiritual leader. To this end the shift to vegetarianism was a matter of how far the religions would spread at the time. The principle of nonviolence is evidently the main motivating factor. Religions that advanced this teaching at the time were the ones which contributed to the massive vegetarianism of South Asia.

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Religion and Vegetarianism


Vegetarianism in religions is discouraged on the basis of nonviolence. For instance, Jainism advocated for ahimisa which implies ‘non-injuring’ (Alsdorf, 2010). To this end, practitioners of this religion are expressly prohibited from eating meat. Consequently, Jains in South Asian countries are often vegans or in some cases, lacto-vegetarians. The nonviolence in this particular religion is not limited to animals only. Alsdorf (2010) explains that Jains practice vegetarianism in such a way that little harm is done to plants. The result is that foods like roots and tubers are absent in Jains’ diets. The idea of killing a plant to obtain food is not the norm.

The consequences of religious disobedience are harsh enough to ensure strict adherence to the rules among followers. The large number of vegetarians among the Jains is a justification of this claim. According to Alsdorf (2010), harmful karma is brought about by acts of violence committed by an individual. The accumulation of such bad karma often discouraged during the teachings in this particular religion. To this end, the Jain identity is one where non-violence is applied to everything that has life. Based on his form of nonviolence, vegetarianism is bound to thrive.


Buddhism has a mild approach to vegetarianism compared to Jainism. Buddhist teachings are mostly about how purity is attained. Buddha made the following statement;

Whoever kills, lies, steals, goes to someone else’s wife, & is addicted to intoxicants, digs himself up by the root right here in this world. So know, my good man, that bad deeds are reckless. Don’t let greed & unrighteousness oppress you with long-term pain (Thanissaro, 1997a, para. 6)

The excerpt, cited above, is meant to point out the elements that bring about impurity. Killing is cited as one of the main reasons for impurities. Alsdorf (2010) argues that, unlike in Jainism, Buddha did not make statements that would directly allow for vegetarianism. Based on the spiritual understanding, Buddha admonished the eating of 10 kinds of meat, especially among the monks. Consequently, in areas where Buddhism was practiced, the transition to vegetarianism wasn’t as swift as in the case of Jainism.

Buddhism is a religion that advocates for freedoms. Alsdorf (2010) points out incidences when Buddha held the opinion that vegetarianism should be an option left for the individuals to practice. The perception is that a strict adherence to vegetarianism was not a core aspect in the teachings of Buddha. However, the quest for purity meant that a number of Buddhists would practice the ‘moderate’ vegetarianism advocated for the monks.

In South Asian countries, where Buddhism is practiced, vegetarianism is evident. In this regard, questions abound as to the stance on Buddhism on the issue of vegetarianism. Alsdorf (2010) provides a response to this subject by citing a conversation that Buddha had with a doctor by the name of Jivaka Komerbhacca. The doctor refers to cases where monks eat the meat that is offered for sacrifice to illustrate the absence of a doctrine on vegetarianism in the religion. Buddha responds to this claim by pointing out the absence of a law on religious sacrifice through animal slaughter (Alsdorf, 2010). Consequently, the perception of voluntary vegetarianism becomes evident from their discussion.

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South Asian countries where Buddhists practice vegetarianism, condemnation of non-vegetarians is not common. Buddhism advocates for a liberal approach to life as illustrated in the following saying:

“If you hold yourself dear then guard, guard yourself well. The wise person would stay awake nursing himself in any of the three watches of the night, the three stages of life. First he’d settle himself in what is correct, only then teach others. He wouldn’t stain his name: he is wise.” (Thanissaro, 1997b, para. 1).

From the excerpt, above, Buddha warms against taking extremist stances in several issues in the society. Thanissaro (1997b) makes reference to the need for an individual to evaluate what is correct prior to spreading teachings on the various subjects. Vegetarianism in Buddhist societies are not practiced through religious admonitions. However, the link between Buddhism and vegetarianism is that individuals are allowed to evaluate the religious teachings on the need for the practice. Since health is part of human life, South Asian countries that practice Buddhism do so based on the teachings on nourishment. Vegetarianism is advocated due to the nutritional value that comes along with it.


Vegetarianism is very much alive in societies where Hinduism is the main religion. According to Burton (2010), there are some sects of Hinduism where vegetarianism is not observed. Nevertheless, an estimated 57% of all Hindus are vegetarians (Burton, 2010). Based on the thesis statement societies adapt to vegetarianism in cases where the religion strongly admonishes the members. In this regard, Hinduism (like Jainism) strongly advocates for nonviolence, with respect to animals.

Vegetarianism, in Hinduism, follows the teachings on the result of animal torture and subsequent killings. According to Burton (2010), Hinduism teaches that human suffering is a result on violence meted upon animals. The argument is that the participants in the cycle that results in the consumption of meat are all regarded as animal slayers. Based on the teachings of this religion, the actions of animal slayers bring upon suffering to their lives. To this end, a huge number of Hindus practice vegetarianism out of the fear of self inflicted suffering.

Historical accounts of Hindu teachings indicate that animals were used to carry out rituals. In this regard, vegetarianism in among the Hindu is seen as an evolving concept. Burton (2010) argues that advancement in the religion brought about the eradication of animal sacrifices. The underpinning of the discouragement of animal sacrifices, lay on the principle that nonviolence is the highest duty of man. Compared to traditional Hindu societies, vegetarianism has become a common feature due to the principle of nonviolence, as illustrated previously.

Societies with a predominant practice of Hinduism practice a diverse kind of vegetarianism. Burton (2010) points out that there are cases of lacto-vegetarians in India which is a result of the caste system and traditions. In India vegetarianism is common inland as opposed to coastal areas. According to Burton (2010), coastal Hindus regard fish as part of their culture making it an exception to vegetarianism. Nevertheless, the teachings of Hinduism have affected vegetarianism in South Asia.


Vegetarianism is seen as the practice where people develop a diet that is devoid of animals and related products. The crux of this essay focused on evaluating of the vegetarianism in South Asia with respect to religious teachings. Alsdorf (2010) affirms that religion accounts for almost 70% of the human activities in South Asian countries. The essay has established that Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism have teachings that relate to vegetarianism. Indeed, the Jainist teachings expressly forbid the consumption of meat. Hinduism also discourages animal killings. However, Buddhism is moderate in the approach to vegetarianism.

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As already mentioned, religion has a direct impact on human activities. To this end, issues relating to diets are not an exception to this premise. The thesis statement presupposes that South Asian societies practice vegetarianism due to religious influence. To a large extent this sentiment is true as illustrated through Jainism and Hinduism. However, in the case of Buddhism, members are not given express instructions against vegetarianism but a number still carry on the practice (Alsdorf 2010). Consequently, religion can be said to be a contributing factor to vegetarianism and that further research is necessary to establish the phenomenon in South Asia. In conclusion, vegetarianism is only possible through the numerous teachings on nonviolence. Evidently, the concept has only been taught through religion.


Alsdorf, L. (2010). The history of vegetarianism and cow veneration in India. New York: Routledge.

Burton, S. (2010). A history of India. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Spencer, C. (1993). The heretic’s feast: A history of vegetarianism. London: Wiley.

Thanissaro, B. (1997a). Malavagga: Impurities. Web.

Thanissaro, B. (1997b). Attavagga: Self. Web.

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