Hinduism and Animal Rights

 Within South Asia, where Hinduism is prevalent, animals are treated with a certain level of respect. Many Hindus, particularly the upper class Brahmins, opt for a vegetarian lifestyle, mainly so that no harm will be inflicted upon any animal. [For more information see Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It [Phelps (2013)]. Refraining from eating meat also serves the very important purpose of maintaining ritual purity. Priests and other high-ranking religious figures must absolutely adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle in order to achieve of a high level of purity, which will allow them to fulfill their priestly duties. [For more information see How to Become a Hindu: A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus, Subramuniyaswami (2002)]. Many Hindus believe that performing priestly duties requires a significant level of spiritual consciousness that cannot be attained with a meat-based diet. This vegetarian lifestyle is not merely a modern movement, rather, Hindus have been following this practice since the Vedas first appeared, thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The Vedas promote vegetarianism primarily because all animals are said to have once been human, or have the potential to become a human again. This is because Hindus believe in reincarnation. Maiming or killing an animal is frowned upon because humans share the same life force as all the animals residing on earth (Puskar-Pasewicz 87). Evidently, it is clear that animals receive a very high status in the Hindu faith. However, it is important to note that there are occasions where violence is permitted. If one wishes to make an offering to the gods, sacrificing an animal is usually permitted, but only if there are significant benefits derived from doing so (Dombrowski 22).

To Hindus who promote vegetarianism, one may ignore the Vedic scriptures and continue to harm animals and eat meat, but this comes at a cost. As mentioned earlier, purity and spiritual consciousness will be greatly inhibited by opting for a meat-based diet. Without an adequate level of spiritual consciousness, one is unable to attain the ultimate Hindu goal of moksa, which is essentially freedom from the painful cyclical rebirth that an individual faces after death. Attaining moksa is achievable only by recognizing that we are all one with the divine; this recognition requires a high level of spiritual awareness (Bhattacharyya 181-182). By saying that we are all one with divine, we must realize that this definition includes all living beings, not just humans. While many other religions believe in immortal souls that are invested with the divine, Hinduism acknowledges the existence of a soul in all living things (Edwards, 136). If one does decide to harm animals, one will risk developing bad karma. Karma can essentially be seen as the collection of one’s actions, whether good or bad, which will influence the person’s subsequent lives. So if one gathers a lot of bad karma, they are basically harming themselves in the future. Likewise, if someone behaves in a proper manner, particularly towards other living beings, good karma will develop. One of the most significant points about karma to know is that it is something that cannot be erased; that is, if you have developed a lot of bad karma, the only way to ensure a better life is by performing acts that promote good karma (Thirumalai 117). Indeed, proper treatment of animals is seen as critical if one wishes to achieve the ultimate goal of moksa, or at the very least, to ensure a better subsequent life.

For centuries, many animals residing in Southeast Asia have benefitted from the Hindu belief system. The Hindu desire to achieve moksa had allowed many animals to roam freely and avoid harm. However, within the past several centuries, the rise of modernity and globalism has led to a change of values within many Hindu countries. Prior values of the upper classes, such as vegetarianism, are at risk of being erased (Phelps 201). The Hindu perspective of the treatment of animals is beginning to radically shift. Animals that were once treated with respect are now being treated as a commodity. Since karma and moksa are significantly impacted by how we treat other living beings, the transition from vegetarianism to eating meat can potentially be seen as the slow destruction of the Hindu faith itself. Seeing this clear threat, an organization has appeared within India called the “Hindu Renaissance Movement.” This movement has the primary goal of encouraging faithful Hindus from all castes to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle in order to conserve the Hindu identity (Phelps 201-202). This movement is very important because, traditionally, only the upper caste of Hindu society would refrain from meat, while the lower castes had frequently consumed meat (Muesse 81). The emphasis for all castes to refrain from meat is an indicator of the changing ideals that are occurring within South Asia today. Although there is a shifting attitude due to the west’s influence, it is important to note that some animals are still privy to a life free from slaughter due to their high status. One well-known example of a high-status animal is the cow, which Hindus believe symbolizes the whole animal kingdom. The cow is symbolic of all mothers, due to its ability to provide us with many forms of sustenance, such a milk, dried dung, and even urine, which is seen as a cleansing agent (Muesse 81).  Even if a Hindu has made the transition from vegetarian to meat-eater, the cow would still not be harmed because of the severe karmic consequences. In ancient Sanskrit texts, cows were seen as symbolic of the Brahmin; therefore, killing a cow is considered to be equally as bad as killing a member from the Brahmin class (Doniger 658). The significance of the cow is important to note when considering one of the most disastrous consequences of modernism: pollution.

Since the rise of modernism, pollution within our world had become rampant. Many modern products are composed of such things as plastic and metal, which do not decompose easily. With waste found in nearly every part of the globe, many animals are at a serious risk of consuming litter and subsequently suffering an excruciating death. One such animal that has been the victim of pollution is the cow. In South Asia, particularly India, it is forbidden for cows to be killed because of their high status, so many cows are instead allowed to roam the streets freely. It is assumed that cattle can freely graze on grass until they die of old age. Unfortunately, investigations have shown that many cattle have an abundance of plastic bags within their stomachs, which not only have no nutritional value, but also are also not digestible (Thumb 235). Although Hindus have a high level of respect for cows, their refusal to slaughter them has indirectly led many cows to suffer slow and painful deaths. Additionally, allowing animals to roam free in India has led to many car accidents, which as result has led to many human and cow deaths (Thumb 235-236).

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

In relation to animals, Hindus are quite peaceful; however, there are occasions when animals are sacrificed. Throughout the Vedas, sacrifice is seen as something that should occur, going so far as to suggest certain animals that would be ideal for sacrifice. [Animal Sacrifices, see Regan (1987)]. Even though the tradition of sacrificing animals has ancient roots, it has not disappeared. There are still many festivals and events within Hinduism that require animal sacrifice. It is important to note at this point that sacrifice does not necessarily pertain to the killing of an animal, although that still can occur at times. Animal sacrifices are usually symbolic acts. A major component of a sacrifice is the ritual, not the harming of an animal. In the rare instances when an animal is killed, Hindus explain that it is not an ordinary killing because there is no hate directed toward the animal (Regan 202). Essentially, even on occasions when an animal is killed, it is seen as a justifiable act. Perhaps by looking at the relationship that Hindu followers have with their pets, this concept can be solidified. Pets are very popular in Hindu culture. Families that own pets treat them as if they are members of their own family. Many pets are fed and taken care of quite well because it is seen as a religious duty to care for animals, especially if one is responsible for them. By faithfully taking care of one’s pet, Hindu followers will achieve good karma (Regan 201). This interaction between persons and their pets conveys the idea that Hindu followers have good intentions within their relationships with all animals.

In addition to an individual’s relationship with animals, there have also been many Hindu organizations and groups that have arisen to protect animals and vegetation. One well-known group, which has existed for nearly half a millennium, is the Bishnois group from western India. This group was founded on the idea that harming the environment will ultimately harm the individual. [For more information see Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability, Jain (2013)]. This notion was so deeply ingrained within this community that many have died in defense of this cause; it was better to sacrifice oneself than to develop bad karma. One well-known historical example of the Bishnois’ devotion to animal conservancy is found in the 1940s, before India’s independence from the British Empire. A group of British soldiers were traveling by train through a Bishnois village. One soldier decided to fire several shots at the nearby animals. As soon as the Bishnois people realized what was occurring, they attacked the train. Even with the arrival of modernity, the Bishnois are still very passionate about animals and the environment; in 1975 the Bishnois established one of the most well-known Hindu animal rights organizations, the Jeev Raksha (Jain 70). This organization is indicative of the idea that Hindus are in staunch opposition to any killing of animals, with the exception of sacrifice. Although this organization is localized, there are many other Hindu organizations that operate on an international level. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is unique in the sense that it has its focus on US and international policies. Issues such as the proper treatment of cattle are advocated for on a frequent basis (Flueckiger 223). With the mass consumption of meat in the western world, companies have turned a blind eye to the treatment of animals before and during their slaughter. Although HAF will not likely be able to influence millions of individuals to convert to veganism, they can influence the treatment of the animals.

Finally, although one may only speculate on the future of animal rights within Hinduism, the rise of animal conservancy organizations suggests that proper treatment of animals will likely exist far into the future. However, it is quite likely that maintaining animal rights will require more effort due to western influences and due to the ever-increasing amount of pollution, which continues to indirectly harm all life.



Bhattacharyya, Ashim K. (2006) Hindu Dharma: Introduction to Scriptures and Theology. Indiana: iUniverse, Inc.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. (1988) Hartshorne and the Metaphysics of Animal Rights. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2009) The Hindus: An Alternative History. Westminster: Penguin Books.

Edwards, Linda (2001) A Brief Guide to Beliefs: Ideas, Theologies, Mysteries, and Movements. Westminster: John Knox Press.

Flueckiger, Joyce (2015) Everyday Hinduism. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jain, Pankaj (2013) Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Muesse, Mark (2011) The Hindu Traditions: A Concise Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Phelps, Norm (2013) Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation is So Hard and How We Can Win It. Brooklyn: Lantern Books.

Puskar-Pasewicz, Margaret (ed.)(2010) Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Regan, Tom (1987) Animal Sacrifices. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Subramuniyaswami, Sivaya (2002) How to Become a Hindu: A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus. Hawaii: Himalayan Academy Pubns.

Thirumalai, Madasamy (2002) Sharing Your Faith With a Hindu. Michigan: Bethany House Publishers.

Thumb, Tom (2009) Hand to Mouth to India. Road Junky Publishing.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Blood sacrifice


Chambhar caste


Gadhimai Mela







Shakahara Vrata


Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic












Article written by: Kyle Klassen (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.