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Philosophy Then

Meat is Murder

Peter Adamson contemplates non-violence in ancient Indian thought.

In my last column, I talked about the challenges and excitements of tackling ancient Indian philosophy in my History of Philosophy podcast – thankfully with the help of an expert, Jonardon Ganeri. We’ve already received some feedback about the series, young though it is. One of the most common queries is whether we can really talk about philosophy in ancient India, as opposed to religious belief systems. Is Buddhism a religious tradition, or a philosophical tradition? Are the Upanisads really philosophical texts? My response to these questions has been twofold: first, they’re slightly above my pay grade, and second, even if we think that these texts and traditions are religious, they certainly contain philosophical material.

An interesting test case is the Indian concept of ahimsa, meaning ‘non-injury’ or ‘non-violence’. Even Indologists do not agree as to whether this notion is fundamentally religious or ethical in character. It is invoked most famously, and perhaps obviously, to encourage abstinence from eating meat. But ahimsa is about more than vegetarianism. In the hands of its most devoted practitioners, the Jains, ahimsa becomes a comprehensive way of life. The Jains want to avoid killing even minute organisms on the ground or in the air around them – they sometimes wear face masks to avoid inhaling tiny creatures, or observe a fast after nightfall lest they may ingest a stray insect in the dark. This is part and parcel of a radically ascetic lifestyle, adopted especially by Jain ‘renouncer’ monks in imitation of Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha whom Jains revere as the last in a line of great teachers (‘ford-makers’) who pointed the way to escape the cycle of rebirth. Not that the Jains have an intellectual copyright on ahimsa. Other texts and traditions also encourage a non-violent way of life. Famously, the Buddhists make this part of their compassionate approach, and Hindu texts also speak of the ethic of ahimsa – sometimes in a way that flirts with self-contradiction: the Laws of Manu (2nd C. BCE to 3rd C. CE) tell us not to harm any living thing since this bars the way to heaven, but also that killing an animal in a Vedic sacrifice doesn’t really count as killing and is needed to maintain the balance of the cosmos. This illustrates the difficulty: were these discussions of violence really ethical, or rather disagreements about religious practice?

You can argue the point both ways. On the one hand, scholars have argued that ahimsa first emerged as a kind of ritual taboo, born out of the ‘embarrassment’ of engaging in rituals that required the slaying of an animal. Slowly rituals became more symbolic and less bloody, not to respect animal rights so much as to escape the prospect of karmic retribution. (There are stories about sacrificers being fed upon in the afterlife by the animals they had slain and eaten. That’s enough to put anyone off their food.) On the other hand, numerous ancient texts argue for ahimsa in a way that irresistibly calls to mind the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. A Jaina work says, “All living beings without exception desire to live, not to be killed. Therefore, those without fetters [i.e. the Jaina monks] avoid the dreadful act of killing” (from Haranandalahari, trans L. Schmithausen, 2000, p.273). And we can find similar passages in Buddhist texts and the Mahabharata.

Perhaps then we should settle, as some scholars have, for the idea that ahimsa began as a religious taboo born out of fear of karmic retribution, but evolved into a genuinely ethical precept. It’s a story that flatters the philosopher: religious ideas being refined and purified until they count as philosophical ideas. But as so often in the history of philosophy, what looks familiar at first sight comes to seem more exotic on closer inspection. We’re used nowadays to philosophers arguing that we should be vegetarian and more generally promote animal welfare, often from a utilitarian point of view. But the Jains, and other ancient Indians who designed their lives to avoid violence, were no utilitarians. They were not trying to maximize pleasure or utility for the greatest number of sentient beings. This is shown by several facts. For one thing, they didn’t only care about sentient beings, or at least those beings we would recognize as sentient. Jain dietary restrictions extend to some kinds of fruits and vegetables, which are believed to contain numerous life forms within them. Plants aren’t people either, but you can still kill them: thus if meat is murder, so is salad. That’s not to say that all killing is seen as on a par. It was recognized that the violence involved in killing a plant is less heinous than that involved in slaughtering an animal, to say nothing of a human. Still, what are you to do if you believe that even eating plants violates ahimsa, in however minimal a fashion?

These renouncer traditions found a solution. Buddhist and Jain monks lived on alms – food donated to them by charitable laypersons – in part because it meant allowing them to eat without killing anything. (The Buddhists even have texts applying this strategy to meat-eating.) So long as the food was not actually prepared with the monk in mind, the monk could eat these ‘leftovers’ with a clean conscience. The renouncers were above all concerned with their own purity – with ensuring that they themselves were not directly implicated in violence. Jains and Buddhists have certainly encouraged others to follow the same non-violent path, and can thus be credited with trying to reduce the total amount of harm to living things. But this wasn’t their primary goal. Rather, much like ancient Greek and Roman virtue theory, the ancient precept of ahimsa was above all about shaping the self.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2016

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1 & 2, available from OUP. Both are based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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