“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
One of the four regulative principles of devotional service requires one to refrain from eating meat, fish, or eggs. Meat eating involves unnecessary violence towards animals, so anyone who stays away from such food will avoid the negative karma associated with it. Living a simple, non-violent lifestyle allows us to concentrate our time and energy on God realization.
One will find, however, that the concept of animal sacrifice is very prominent in the scriptures of all major religions. The Christian Bible has a detailed list of which animals can be sacrificed and how they are to be offered. Similarly, the Vedic literature lists many such animal sacrifices which reward the performer with material benedictions. During Lord Krishna’s time on earth, the great king Yudhishthira performed the sacred Ashwamedha sacrifice, which involves sacrificing a horse. Prior to that, during the Treta Yuga, the famous Maharaja Dashratha of Ayodhya also performed the sacrifice. It was performed by many kings with the idea of bestowing good karma on the king and his kingdom. Dashratha’s sacrifice bore fruit in the form of Lord Rama, God Himself, being born as his first son.
The performance of such sacrifices seems to contradict the principle of no meat eating. However, this type of animal sacrifice bears no resemblance to the violence committed against animals in modern day slaughterhouses. The Vedas are somewhat complex, with different dharmas (religious duty) assigned to different classes of people. Since the material world is a place governed by gunas, or qualities (goodness, passion, and ignorance), every living entity has a different level of intelligence and thereby varying capacities for understanding scriptural injunctions. Though bhagavata-dharma, loving service to God, is the highest form of religion, God is so kind that He provides other forms of religion so as to allow everyone to make spiritual advancement. Below the system of bhagavata-dharma is the religious system involving the four rewards of life. Those who are religiously inclined generally seek the rewards of dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense gratification), and moksha (liberation). To achieve these benedictions, there is a section of the Vedas known as karma-kanda. It is in this portion of the Vedas where one will find the various animal sacrifices performed by kings of the past. The idea wasn’t to allow meat eating for simple sense gratification, but rather to sanction violence in a regulated manner, which would be both beneficial to the performer and to the animal sacrificed. In a sacrifice properly performed by qualified brahmanas wherein mantras were perfectly recited, the living entity inside the animal would immediately be rewarded a higher birth in the next life. The performer would also immediately receive the material rewards they were seeking after. Naturally, such a religious system is subordinate to bhagavata-dharma, but it was nonetheless performed as a way of allowing kings to make gradual elevation in spiritual consciousness. The kshatriyas, or warrior class of men, generally live in the mode of passion, rajo-guna. Due to this fact, they are allowed to gamble and even hunt deer as a way of practicing their defensive skills. Unnecessary violence towards animals was never condoned, and there are many historical incidents mentioned in the Vedic texts of kings being punished for acts of unnecessary violence towards deer or other living entities in the forest. The same Maharaja Dashratha once accidentally shot and killed a young boy with his arrow while ranging the forest. Since the boy’s parents would eventually die from the grief resulting from the untimely separation from their son, they cursed Dashratha to suffer the same fate in the future. For this reason, Dashratha died after the exile of His eldest and most beloved son Rama.
“In the Vedic literature there are numerous prescription of sacrifice. And in some of the sacrifices animal sacrifice is also recommended. So that animal sacrifice does not mean to kill the animal. Animal sacrifice means to prove the strength of Vedic hymns so that one old animal is put into the fire and he's given again a new life, renewed life, just to show the potency of the hymns, Vedic hymns. But in this age, Kali-yuga, those sacrifices are forbidden." (Shrila Prabhupada, Lecture, 700416LE.LA)
These sacrifices were a means of testing the brahmanas who would preside over them, and was also a way of benefitting the animal being sacrificed. The entire purpose was aimed at providing purification. These sacrifices were performed during previous Yugas, where dharma had a stronger presence in society. According to the Vedas, dharma gradually declines amongst the population as time goes on. The current age we are in, Kali Yuga, is best known for dharma having only a twenty-five percent level of strength, whereas it was at one hundred percent at the beginning of creation. Gradually with this decline in religiosity, came the tainting of these sacrifices. Brahmanas were no longer performing them for purification, but merely as an excuse to eat animal flesh.
“When there was too much animal sacrifice in India, Lord Buddha appeared. And in the Vedas there is recommendation for animal sacrifice in some sacrificial ceremony, not ordinarily. And that sacrifice is meant for testing the power of chanting mantra. An animal would be put into the fire, and it would come again with renewed life. In this way, there is recommendation in the Vedas that some animals... But people misunderstood it. People began to slaughter." (Shrila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, Tokyo, 720422)
Krishna advented as Lord Buddha specifically to stop the degraded process of animal slaughter. In order to justify his message of nonviolence, he preached against the injunctions of the Vedas. In this way, the modern day injunction against meat eating was instituted and the animal sacrifice process was gradually stopped.
Meat eating involves killing another animal, which shouldn’t be done. But God is so nice that He understands that many people won’t be able to give up such a practice easily. Bestowing His mercy upon them, He provided for the rituals of animal sacrifice to allow them to gradually rise up the chain of God consciousness. If one sacrifices an animal before the Goddess Kali, he is at least thinking about God prior to committing such a heinous act. One will find that dishes containing goat meat are very prevalent in Indian restaurants and it stems from the tradition of sacrifice to Goddess Kali. Even a sanctioned sacrifice like that has many stringent rules attached to it. The animal must be a goat and the sacrifice can only be performed once a month. In this way, God is helping people by making meat eating such an arduous task.
"Even though one may be religiously inclined, animal sacrifice is recommended in the shashtras, not only in the Vedas but even in the modern scriptures of other sects…When such people kill animals, they can at least do so in the name of religion. However, when the religious system is transcendental, like the Vaishnava religion, there is no place for animal sacrifice." (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.26.1-3 Purport)
The word “Vaishnava” refers to devotees of Lord Vishnu, who is the same as Lord Krishna. By following the principles of devotional service, we have no need for mundane material sacrifices. We should all try and rise to such a platform. Giving up meat eating may seem very difficult, but if we dedicate ourselves to constantly chanting the names of God in a loving way, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, then we will surely succeed.