Religions Vary On ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’

Hunting is not a sport, says comedian Paul Rodriguez. In a sport, he says, both sides should know they’re playing. Who told the animals they’re in a game? At the end of sport contests, opposing sides shake hands as a gesture of good will. This doesn’t happen much in hunting.

I’ve noticed that many hunters are Christians. Indeed, there are numerous Christian hunting websites that attract a large following. This is odd, because killing seems to violate one of God’s commandments. Worried about their spiritual fate, I mentioned this apparent violation to a Christian hunter. The hunter told me that the commandment against killing only applies to humans. I was relieved, but how does one know this? Is there a footnote attached to the commandment — Thou shalt not kill* (*Only applies to people)?

The edict against killing is a basic principle found in every world religion. What this prohibition applies to, however, is not the same everywhere. In some religions, “thou shalt not kill” extends to animals as well.

There is a higher percentage of vegetarians in India and among followers of Indian-derived religions — Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism — than in other places. Indeed, a United Nations report stated that Indians had the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa is commonly understood to mean non-violence or non-injury. Various traditions in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism take ahimsa seriously; and many monks, nuns and lay followers of these religions vow not to destroy life — all life, not just human ones — in word, action or thought.

The basic worldview conveyed in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism differs from the one taught in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jews, Christians and Muslims are taught that humanity is the greatest of God’s creations and humans were thus given dominion over the rest of nature as a result. Conquering lands to fulfill a covenant or sacrificing animals to better humanity’s standing before God is not a concern. But in Indian-derived religions, humanity is an intricate part of creation, not set apart.

One could thus argue that the principle of non-violence is more important for Buddhists than it is for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Indeed, the law against killing is ranked first among the precepts in Buddhism; but it drops down to anywhere between fifth and seventh place on the list of 10 Commandments. That being said, not all Buddhists extend the edict against destroying life to animals. Japanese Buddhist priests, for example, are meat-eaters. Perhaps they are not familiar with the first precept. I eat meat too, but I don’t kill animals. I buy them already dead from the store.

In Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, what is considered sacred is not restricted to a particular place or to a particular being — human or otherwise — but can be present everywhere and in any thing, even in plants and animals. Eating, therefore, is as much about death as it is about life, for in order to sustain life, life must be destroyed. Life in all its forms deserves respect. Destroying life, then, has consequences.

I experienced this worldview during a stay at a Jain temple in India. Meals were not only vegetarian, but of a particular type of vegetarian. Eating vegetables that grow underground — potatoes and carrots — were prohibited, since to procure the root the entire plant must be destroyed and with it the microorganisms in the soil. Eggplants and tomatoes were generally off-limits owing to the number of seeds they have. Seeds are carriers of new life.

“You are what you eat” is a commonly heard phrase. Jains go further in defining the character of an individual: “You are what you think” (criminals and social psychologists can confirm this). Jains believe violence in thought is as harmful to the development of a child’s character as violence in action. As a result, Jain children do not eat cookies or chocolates shaped in the form of animals or people, as this mimics cruelty and murder. Christians, on the other hand, eat Jesus during communion. From the perspective of Jainism and those who take the principle of ahimsa seriously, then, hunting is not a sport and hunters are not athletes. Avid hunters are more akin to serial killers than they are to sportsmen.