The original inhabitants of the North American continent, keenly aware of seasonality and scarcity, allowed themselves to kill only what was deemed necessary to survive long northern winters. They kept themselves in check with elaborate rituals to launch hunting parties and equally elaborate prayer rituals of gratitude for what they killed. An excellent example is the Kwakiutl tribes First Salmon Ceremony in which the trapped fish was awarded utmost respect for sacrificing its life. Among the prayers recited was one by the wife of the brave who made the season’s first catch: "Oh swimmers! I thank you that you are willing to come to us. Protect us from danger that nothing evil may happen to us when we eat you. Supernatural ones!" The ritual meal always ended with the salmon remains returned to the river in hope the fish would come again.
Hinduism does not necessarily prohibit eating meat. It just happens that poverty forces millions of Hindus to subsist on a vegetarian diet. Also millions commit to vegetarianism to live by the ancient principle of ahimsa: no harming. So India and Nepal have developed a rich vegetarian cuisine. But the Hindu calendar has holy days that demand animal sacrifice followed by feasting. The animal is usually a goat or lamb because there is one huge meat rule that absolutely cannot be broken: no beef. The cow is sacred to Hindus because it’s worth more alive than as steak. It pulls the plow that provides rice, vegetables and fruits; it provides dung for cooking fires and converts solar energy into milk. This protein consumed as yogurt or cheese or butter, often with protein rich beans, is Hinduism’s popular substitute for meat.
People wonder how some Buddhists, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, take vows to not kill, preach compassion and still eat meat. The Buddha, an Indian, preached no killing, yet ate meat admirers offered, to not offend them or deny their generosity. The absolute prohibition against eating dead animals came hundreds of years later when Buddhism spread to the egregiously carnivorous cultures of China and Japan, where the religion needed to make a point that set it apart. All monks had to be vegetarian—thus popularizing tofu, noodles and seaweed, and although lay disciples continued to eat meat, annually they acknowledged this sin by releasing a bird or animal into the wild or care of a monastery. Lay Buddhists also abstained from fish and meat on sacred days and momentous events like death in the family. Tibet was too frozen to have vegetarian alternatives, so Buddhists restricted their meat meals to large mammals whose one death could sustain many humans. They avoided chicken, birds and fish. Tibetans also paid their meat bill with sky burial: leaving their corpse on a hilltop for birds of prey and carnivorous animals to feast upon.
“The permission to eat meat and fish,” a great 11th Century Tibetan sage explained, “is a teaching that needs to be interpreted. The Buddha declared that if he had forbidden meat from the very start, there were some who would never have entered the teachings. It is with skill, therefore, that he only gradually excluded it. On the other hand, as an antidote for those who claim that the mere abstention from meat is their great and all-sufficient practice, the Buddha declared the contrary by saying that meat eating does not constitute a hindrance to pursuing Dharma. He said this to put down those who considered that they were superior on account of being vegetarians.”
Sandra Garson is the author of Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking and How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers’ Market. As a longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism and well-known cook for Dharma centers from Maine to Mongolia, she became the first food historian to explore the Buddha’s influence on how the world now eats. This led to exploration of more religious beliefs about food.