Did Lord Rama eat meat?
Transcription by: Rekha Vangala
Question: Is it mentioned in the Ramayana that Lord Ram ate meat?
Answer: The word mamsa is used in the Ramayana; what it refers to is certainly not decided. So if we want to open and check answer to that it is not available and as long as we look at the over-all evidence of vedic culture, the answer would be a strong ‘No’ because vegetarianism has a strong emphasis in the literature especially as we move from the Vedas which focus on karma kanda then move towards the jnana kanda and then we move towards the Bhakti literature then the emphasis and even the insistence of vegetarianism becomes more and more emphatic. So let us understand this progression and let’s look at the specific verses and context in which these references come.
Firstly, one example that is given of, say, Lord Ram eating meat which is totally concocted is that actually Sita told Ram to kill the deer Maricha who has come as the deer so that they could eat the flesh of that deer and that is completely wrong because the Ramayana mentions that actually Sita was attracted to the deer so that she could have the deer as a pet when she would go back to the kingdom of Ayodhya she could offer that as a gift to Kausalya, Lord Ram’s mother. So certainly her attraction to the deer was not because she wanted the deer skin; she wanted the deer and Lord Ram eventually; if Lord Ram had wanted to kill the deer and get the deer skin itself then he did not have to chase that deer for a long distance. He had to chase the deer because He wanted it alive and actually eventually Lord Ram could have taken a bow and shot it, that deer. It’s not that Lord Ram had to come closer and eventually take aim. Even if we consider from the lila point of view and say that Lord Ram is not acting as the Absolute Truth and that’s why He has to chase the deer but still he was famed enough archer. From the point of view of archery and He could have shot the deer right at the beginning itself but the desire of mother Sita was not to have the deer killed. She wanted the deer alive as a pet because it was so attractive and when Lord Ram kept chasing and chasing that and in this chasing the deer was mystically appearing and disappearing and suddenly jumping high in the air and jumping down and going here and bounding off in that direction. So Lord Ram kept chasing the deer and finally when the deer kept mystically appearing and disappearing for a long time then Lord Ram understood that there is; rather that within the lila He acted as if He then understood that this is not an ordinary deer; this is a demon who has taken the garb of a deer and finally that’s why He decided to kill him. So if the deer was needed for flesh then Lord Ram could have shot him right in the beginning itself because the deer was visible when Sita pointed out actually right in front grazing in the vicinity of hermitage. So that reference to meat is certainly complete invalid reference from the point of view of context.
So the second reference comes when Lord Ram says that when I’ll go to the forest. Rather Lord Ram because He is staying in the forest it is said in the Ramayana that He is living such austerity that He is abstaining from a variety of delicious food items and a variety of things basically. He is abstaining from variety of things – one of them is said to be the meat. So from these some people infer that this means that Lord Ram would normally eat meat but in the jungle He decided to stop eating meat. So this reference comes in the 3rd book – The Aranyakanda, chapter 43 of the Ramayana.
Another reference that is commonly quoted for saying that Lord Ram ate meat comes in the Ayodhyakand in chapter 20 among the 119th chapter that comprises the Ayodhyakand which is in the 2nd book where Lord Ram is shown to be departing from the forest. In 2.20 – 29 it is mentioned that Lord Ram while He is departing He says that I shall live in this solitary forest as a sage for 14 years leaving off meat and living with roots, fruits and honey. So I shall leave off meat. So what shall leave off meat means the word specifics hittva amisham – without meat. So does this refer to can this be validly used to conclude that I’ll avoid meat in the jungle that means that I was normally eating meat but in the jungle I’ll avoid meat. That could be one interpretation. But if we look at, as I said that, the overall context of the vedic culture, it shows compassion to all living beings. And when we see that Lord Ram when He goes out into the forest and He is living as a sage, as a ascetic and as a ascetic if the person is living in the forest a person may not get adequate things to eat and in such situations there might be what is called as apadharma. Apadharma means emergency religion. So if it’s a matter of life or death and a person doesn’t get anything to eat at that time if a person has to eat an animal flesh that is considered to be an unavoidable thing and so it is accepted. That is certainly not recommended in the normal diet and certainly not that huge slaughter houses we maintain so that so many animals can be killed and eaten. So in a forest it is quite likely that because of lack of foods sometimes, those who are living in the forest may have to resort to the eating of meat. So Lord Ram is saying over here – No. Even if I have to go to the forest I’ll not eat meat. That is the emphasis of His message over here and why is He giving such a message? Because He wants to re-assure Kausalya that actually don’t be in anxiety of me; don’t be anxious that because I go to the forest not only I have lost my kingdom, I’ll lose my dharma also. I’ll protect my dharma. So that way Lord Ram is taking a vow of simplicity and austerity and He is saying as normally if the absurd circumstances be there and I’m forced to eat meat but because I’m taking a vow of austerity, I’ll ensure that I’ll live up – hittva amisham – I’ll not take meat. I’ll live with roots, fruits and honey. That’s all that I’ll take. So that way, this context also doesn’t justify the interpretation that Lord Ram ate meat. It’s more of a moral assurance that there won’t be a lapse into immorality when a person is going into situations where the normal protection of morality is not there. So here morality is referring to diet. So if a normal diet, say vegetarian diet is not available in certain situations such a person eat non-vegetarian. Lord Ram is saying I won’t. Although it is allowed in emergency situation, Lord Ram is saying I’ll not eat it.
So hittvam eesham – if we see the overall context of the Ramayana and the overall theme of vegetarianism and compassion with all living beings based on the understanding that they are all souls- This is the understanding that pervades the vedic literature and based on this understanding it is this understanding of this verse that is most plausible, most compatible, most reasonable. Beyond that when the word mamsa comes in the vedic literature in some places, what does it refer to? Mamsa can refer to meat directly but it is also known to refer to other things. So it is not necessary that mamsa ——says that mamsa has multiple meanings. One common meaning of mamsa is skin of a mango and for example in Srirangam and other South Indian temples actually it is one of the offering prayers is iti mamsa khanda samarpayami that we offer mamsa and what actually offered is mango. So we cannot just take generically mamsa’s meaning flesh without considering the context. So when Srila Prabhupada was asked this question about did Lord Ram eat meat? Srila Prabhupada was not at all defensive or apologetic about it. Srila Prabhupada took a different track and He said that Lord Ram is the Absolute Truth. He can eat the whole universe and still will not be affected. So Esha or Lord Krishna devoured the forest fire also. So can we do that? Srila Prabhupada when such references at all were pointed out, Srila Prabhupada just took a very aggressive stand over that. He is not at all fearful or insecure because that is not the way to deal with these references. They are to understand the broad vedic culture.
So we understood the answer from 2 points of view. One is that everything Lord Ram has done is for imitation. There are many things which Lord Ram has done for imitation. He is a model for us to follow in our lives; the way He was a dutiful son and protector of the citizens and as a king the annihilator of miscreants. There are many things in Lord Ram’s life which are as an ideal human being for us to emulate. But Lord Ram’s building a bridge over the ocean is not for us to imitate. So like that even if somebody insists there are certain references which refer to meat. Srila Prabhupada is taking even that remote possibility into account by saying that actually it doesn’t refer to if Lord Ram even if He ate meat, how does it make any difference? We are not meant to imitate Him. We are meant to follow His instructions. The overall directive in the vedic literature is that one should avoid meat.
In the manusamhita, in the original vedic literature there are some references to meat eating because it is a concession. So animals are allowed to be slaughtered and then their flesh can be eaten but in Manu Samhita and other places, especially the puranic literature and the itihaasic literature it is said that actually one doesn’t need to eat meat, offer animals. Also instead of offering a real animal, one can offer an animal made of wheat flour or some other grain flour. It is just shaped like animal and that is good enough. So the idea is, is it that God is so foolish that He doesn’t understand what is a real animal and what is a flour animal? obviously not; It is the same; Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya used to talk about these things and they have talked about the glory of God in various ways. So actually this is not meant to fool God. This is meant to free us from our own foolish ritualistic adherence to certain activities. For example in the temple of Goddess Kali, it is said that the Goddess loves blood; that’s why animals are sacrificed and when some people say that actually hibiscus flowers are red and other flowers are also red. So what the Goddess likes is the red color. So instead of red blood if you offer red flowers that is also ok. So now is it that if a person is meat loving person, instead of blood, if that person is offered some flowers of red, will that person become satisfied? Then why is that such injunctions are given in the tradition? Even by the scriptures themselves and by great saints. Actually it is because not that they consider God to be foolish or they are trying to fool God but it is because certain people literestically stick to certain rituals without understanding their broad purpose. If somebody argues no in the vedic literature it is said that the Goddess loves blood, therefore we have to give blood to her. Ok. ok, if that’s what your conception is then understand that, that actually what she likes is the red color. So like that somebody argues that in the scriptures it is said that we have to sacrifice an animal in the yajna. Ok. Then sacrifice a clay animal, sacrifice an animal made of wheat flour. So the idea is that some people who are especially influenced by karma mimamsa which says that one has to very strictly perform the rituals and if one strictly performs the rituals, automatically one will get the results. So those who want to strictly want to adhere to the letter of the scripture, so for such people, who do not understand that the scriptures have a hierarchy and in the scriptures there is a lower level dharma for those who are very attached –tamasic activities and there are higher level of dharmas for those who are open to sattvik influences and sattvik activities. Those who do not understand this and those who do not understand that the tamasic dharma can be given up later, so for them, such concessions are given. So ok you want to offer mamsa, you can offer mamsa but if a person is capable of (by mamsa I refer here to flesh) but if the person is capable of giving up mamsa, actually you need not offer mamsa but you can offer mamsa with clay – clay animal or flour animal and then later on actually this whole in this Kaliyuga, the whole yajnas are not required. The sankirtana yajna which is the most important. So we don’t have to offer a real animal or a flour animal; just perform sankirtan; that is the progressive revolution in the vedic literature. So therefore, within the vedic literature itself, there is a tradition of how the scriptures are to be understood and that is not by cheripaking verses here and there and interpreting them according to one’s own pre-conceptions and without considering the context of the scriptures.
So here, I answered the question at 3 levels. First level is if you just look at the context of the Ramayana, it doesn’t refer to either the section of the animal – deer being killed or Lord Ram’s statement when He is departing from Ayodhya, they don’t support the idea that it refers to meat. Second level even if somebody says that it refers to meat, then Lord Ram is not meant to be imitated; at least not those activities which are going to give us karmic entanglement just as we cannot imitate Lord Ram’s activities which are super-natural like building a bridge across the ocean. Thirdly, we discussed even if there are some references to meat in the vedic scriptures, what is the purpose for them? It is to elevate the attached people and that’s why if we are fortunate enough to get the conclusive understanding on the final purpose of vedic literature that vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo Lord Krishna tells in the Bhagavad Gita 15.15 then one can supersede and reject all those rituals in one’s own practice and understand and explain their transitional, contextual purpose to those who are open to hearing it. But for those who are hell bent on misinterpreting the scriptures for their own ulterior motives, such people it is best to leave them alone and continue on sharing Krishna consciousness with those who are more open-minded and who are more amenable to discussion and rationale understanding.