Around the world, followers of Santana Dharma (Hinduism) are recognized by a few conspicuous traits. One of those is the practice of ahimsa, the concept of non-violence. Because Hindus believe that everything that takes birth, ages, and dies has a soul it is considered a sin to kill animals. Thus the eating of flesh is frowned upon. Of course as with everything in Hinduism, the call for humanity to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle is delivered as a suggestion rather than a command. This is due to the concept of freedom of belief–of choice–within the faith. No, you won’t burn in hell forever for eating meat, but because of the law of karma (action-reaction, cause-effect) and samsara (rebirth or reincarnation), someone who killed a goat in this life could very well end up one in the next.
Each birth (until moksha, or liberation) is viewed as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of a past life. Being born as a goat then would (in theory) help that soul sympathize with the plight of said creature, thus giving him the chance to erase the effects of his negative karma in the future. The food one selects to eat is also said to fall into one of three categories:
Sattva is the healthy stuff. This includes fruits, vegetables, rice, yogurt, and milk. Each food category is also associated with a type of energy which transfers from the food itself to the consumer. Sattva energy then is described as creating a tranquil, non-aggressive, and balanced person.
Rajas is your hot, spicy foods that are thought to create a passionate, authoritative, and aggressive nature.
As with much of Sanatana Dharma, there are exceptions and variants–even with the concept of the vegetarian lifestyle. The caste system in Hinduism (the original one that resulted from one’s choosing and disposition, not ascription via birth) recognizes a society as being one of four parts: the priests or teachers, the warriors, the merchants, and the workers. Because warriors need to be aggressive and apathetic toward their enemies, it is acceptable and encouraged for them to partake of both rajas and tamas varieties of food.
There are obvious health benefits to living a vegetarian lifestyle. By doing so, you help stop animal cruelty through the butchering process. An animal raised for food often leads a painful, short, and terrified life of darkness and torment. Vegetables also hoard less (if any) unhealthy fats and hormonal additives that meat is notorious for. Eating vegetarian also places less strain on the environment. Eating meat involves feeding animals grain (unnatural in most species) and therefore twice as much land and fossil fuels are consumed in just raising the animals, butchering them, and transporting them through each phase. The vegetarian lifestyle translates into a direct from field to consumer transaction–especially when this includes locally grown produce.
As I mentioned, vegetarianism within the Hindu faith is a choice, not a commandment. Hinduism places a high value on individual choice. Your karma is your own, and no one–not god or your priest–can intrude upon the law of cause and effect. I chose to live as a vegetarian during my Hindu month and I can honestly say that I feel 100% healthier and have a more tranquil, peaceful outlook. In fact, I might just keep this going.