Deer, camel, donkey, monkey, rats, creeping animals, birds and flies – one should consider them like one’s own children, and not differentiate between one’s children and these creatures. — Bhagavata Purana 7.14.9
The Hindu American Foundation and the vast majority of Hinduism’s leading sampradaya (religious traditions) regard the ethical treatment of non-human animals as a fundamental application of the Hindu understanding that the Divine exists in all living beings. No animal is merely an object for wanton human use and consumption in the Hindu tradition. Rather, all are equally embodied with the Divine and are fully deserving of respect and compassion.
Hinduism, the world’s oldest living religion, is a rich collection of hundreds of spiritual and philosophical traditions followed throughout Asia for more than 5,000 years. Amongst these traditions are some of the earliest teachings promoting the ethical treatment of animals — the basis of which stems from the concepts of karma and samsara (reincarnation), ahimsa (non-harming), and the understanding that the Divine is present in all living beings, including both human and non-human.
Despite differences in form, ability, intelligence, and self-awareness amongst varying life forms, the existence of the life-principle or soul in all forms binds all of existence and demands peaceful, respectful coexistence amongst humans, animals and other elements of nature.
In the Mahabharata epic, Yudhishtira chastises his cousin for carelessly chopping down a tree to release pent up anger by saying, “Humans should take from this planet only that which is necessary for our survival.” He continues to explain that when societies begin to violate this principle, all of humanity will be forced to face the repercussions as all life is interconnected and serves its unique purpose in the world.
Ultimately, there are serious karmic repercussions for taking an innocent life, causing unnecessary suffering or pain to another life form, as well as idly supporting such suffering and pain.
Accordingly, it is not only the man who kills the cow at a slaughterhouse who reaps some degree of karma, but also those involved in every step of the process, including the final consumers of the meat.
One of the most practical and egregious examples of this is factory farming, a practice increasingly common in many parts of the world. In these industrialized farms domesticated animals — and in some places non-domesticated wild animals — are kept in gravely inhumane, often filthy, conditions that threaten both the animals themselves, the surrounding environment, and people living nearby. These animals are then often killed in assembly line slaughterhouses, frequently in very cruel ways, or sold for slaughter in unsanitary live markets.
Treating animals in this way, as industrial commodities rather than fellow Divinely imbued living beings, is a deep violation of the principle of ahimsa.
Given the Hindu teachings of karma, samsara, and ahimsa, following a vegetarian diet is a common practice among many Hindus. Increasingly, mirroring global trends, environmental and personal health concerns also play into many Hindus being vegetarian.
In India overall roughly 30% of the population is vegetarian — though there are wide regional variations, with some areas approaching 70% vegetarian and some branches of Hinduism considering vegetarianism a core virtue and practice. Spiritual leaders such as swamis, sadhus, and gurus, are almost always strictly vegetarian. Most Hindu temples do not allow meat products on their premises. For lay Hindus, though, vegetarianism is not a religious requirement, in general, but abstaining from meat consumption is philosophically encouraged.
Ancient Hindu ritual and scripture in some instances call for a ritual sacrifice. Most Hindus carry out their sacrifices to the Divine using foods like fruit, grains, and clarified butter, and through austerity measures such as fasting. However, for certain Hindu sects this does mean killing and offering an animal. The majority of Hindus, including HAF, today do not take part in nor condone animal sacrifices.
He who does not seek to kill, cause pain or tie up living creatures and desires the good of all attains everlasting joy. — Vishnu Dharma Sutra 51.69