As opposed to the popular views propagated by non-practicing Western and Indian sociologists and Indologists, the notion of Brahmin vegetarianism is not directly due to the influence of Buddhism or Jainism. Buddhism could not itself influence its followers to adhere to the idea of total Ahimsa as most Buddhists from the times of the Buddha till today are meat eaters. Theravada Buddhist tradition interprets the last meal of Buddha offered by Cunda to be pork, to which they attach no stigma or see no violation of the Ahimsa principle. Buddhist vegetarianism is a rare concept even in Buddhist countries like Myanmar and Thailand. Even Buddhism’s most famous patron, Emperor Ashoka, did not ban killing of animals and birds in entirety. Rather, Ashoka’s animal welfare policies only restricted the species of animals that can be killed for food in addition to banning ritual sacrifices of animals on the premise that it is wasteful.
Vegetarianism never was a principle to be strictly adhered to in Buddhism and no social stigma was attached to Buddhists who eat meat even in India, the land of its origin. This is reasonably clear from the fact that the austerities of Jainism which includes strictest form of vegetarianism long pre-dated Buddha’s birth and did not apparently influence Buddha’s eating habits after his enlightenment. Buddha and Buddhists continued to eat meat so long they were assured that the animal was not killed specifically for the feeding the Bhikshus. Dr. Ambedkar would have seen any such restrictions on individual dietary preferences as oppression and hence wouldn’t have converted to Buddhism towards the end of his life.
The alternative hypothesis that Jainism influenced Brahmin vegetarianism does not stand ground too as the Brahmins continued their ritual sacrifices and practices right through Mahavira, Buddha and the Charvaka‘s time and thereafter, even as the latter severely ridiculed such practices. Neither Jainism, Buddhism nor the Charvaka sect could make significant impact on Brahmninistic dietary practices as Yajnas and ritual sacrifices continued unbridled till the late middle ages and thereafter.
The 13th century Telugu poet Tikkana earned the title Somayaji after performing the grand Somayaga involving animal sacrifice; anything sacrificed at the Yajna being sacrosanct to Brahmins. Also, Ashvamedha Yaga involving ritual sacrifice of horses continued at least from the time of Pusyamitra Sunga (2nd century A.D.) till Jaipur’s Raja Jai Singh II of 18th century negating the view that Buddhism or Jainism could have influenced Brahministic vegetarianism. The 17th century Telugu philosopher poet Yogi Vemana chides the Brahmin Somayaji for forcefully killing a sacrificial goat in the following Padyam, clearly indicating the clear absence of Buddhist / Jain influences as late as 17th century.
Peru somajayi penu simhabaludaaye
Mekapotu batti medanu viruva
Kani kratuvu valana kaluguna mokshambu
(His name is Somajaji, mighty is his strength
as he twists the neck of the sacrificial goat
Will he attain moksa with this useless sacrifice?
Beloved of Viswada, listen to Vema)
It is a popular misconception that all Brahmins are vegetarians. Vegetarianism is generally true for the Pancha-Dravida Brahmins like Iyers, Iyengars, Namboothiris, Telugu Brahmins of all sub-sects, Kannada Brahmins, Maharashtra, Gujarati and Rajasthani Brahmins. It is not as generally true for the Pancha-Gauda Brahmins of North and East India. It is well known that the Bengali and Oriya Brahmins are meat eaters, however they generally avoid beef. While the Brahmins of the Ganga, Yamuna belt west of Bengal are generally vegetarians, we do see exceptions. Again Kashmiri Brahmins are said to be meat eaters.
The greatest influence
The greatest influence on Brahmin diet has, by far, been the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which expounded the theory and practice of Raja Yoga. While there have been other schools of Yoga, Raja Yoga gained greatest prominence as it is suitable for a practitioner to remain a householder and yet transcend the eight stages of Yoga (Ashthanga Yoga). Although Ahimsa, among others, is mentioned as a part of Yama, the first step of Ashthanga Yoga Paddhati, it is generally viewed as an abstinence of mental animosity towards any living creature as one of the means to achieve stillness of mind. The concept of Ahimsa has never been taken as an end in itself and certainly not to the level of the moral strictures of the Jains. Killing pests, dangerous animals and enemies of the nation are seen as virtuous acts as opposed to the hands-off philosophy of the Jains. General masses adopt the philosophies of Buddhism, Jainism and Vedanta interchangeably in a culture that integrated the Jain religion and deified Buddha in to the Hindu pantheon.
Food having Gunas (qualities)
The proliferation of Raja Yoga also brought with it the notions of spiritual purity of various kinds of food and their importance in practitioners’ life. Various foods are categorized along the lines of the Gunas that impact the spiritual progress of the practitioner. Accordingly, food is classified as Sattva, Rajas and Tamas based on the observed impact they have on spiritual progress. Sattvic diet is a diet based on foods in Ayurveda and Yoga literature that contain Sattva quality (Guna).
In this system of dietary classification, foods that harm the mind or body are considered Tamasic, while those that are neither positive or negative are considered Rajasic. Sattvic diet is meant to include food and eating habit that is “pure, essential, natural, vital, energy-containing, clean, conscious, true, honest, wise”. Sattvic diet is a regimen that places emphasis on seasonal foods, fruits, dairy products, nuts, seeds, oils, ripe vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and non-meat based proteins. Some Sattvic diet suggestions, such as its relative emphasis on dairy products, is controversial. Sattvic diet is sometimes referred to as yogic diet in modern literature. In ancient and medieval era Yoga literature, the concept discussed is Mitahara, which literally means “moderation in eating”.
Since the Brahmins are ordained to follow a lifestyle that ensures the spiritual progress of themselves and that of the society, they have adopted Sattvic diet. Kshatriyas and others who need to be physically and mentally engaged in the worldly affairs are allowed non-Sattvic diet, although they can choose to be vegetarians. For example, Vishwamitra, a meat eating Kshatriya, took to austerities as he aspired to become a Brahmarshi, whereas Parashurama, a brahmana, remained actively engaged in his war against the Kshatriyas. There have been Brahmin clans that have originated from Kshatriya lineages, like Haritasa, Aghamarshana, Satamarshana gotras that have renunciated Rajasic diet for a Sattvic diet based on their individual spiritual goals. Therefore, Brahmin diet is primarily based on the path (i.e., Raja yoga etc.,) and the spiritual aspiration of the individual / clan. Food never offended anyone. Ignorance about food did.
Once the discourse on Brahmin diet is cleared of the lens of western sociology and racist interpretations, the real reasons become clear and apparent.