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Vegetarianism in India: From Ancient to Modern Times
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Vegetarianism in India: From Ancient to Modern Times

There are approximately 360 million vegetarian people in India, more than all of the vegetarians in the world combined. Indian vegetarianism is not only about religion, but it is also about the concern for health and environment. However, a booming economy and rising disposable income is threatening India’s proud history of vegetarianism.

India is the homeland of Hinduism, a religion that traces its roots to ancient Vedic times. One of the chief tenants of Hinduism is ahimsa, which means non-injury or non-violence to animals and humans. The Sanskrit-speaking people of the Rig Veda revered cattle as their chief source of wealth, and although they ate beef, they ate it only on special occasions. Yet meat eating was frowned upon in the Rig Veda and other holy scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita. The Rig Vedic stanza 10.87.16-19 below has harsh words for meat eaters.

‘’. . . Agni, from days of old thou slayest demons never shall Rāká¹£asas in fight overcome thee. Burn up the foolish ones, the flesh-devourers let none of them escape thine heavenly arrow. . .”

The god Agni is called upon to kill flesh eaters. In the rest of the stanza, there are more references about how meat eaters should be dealt with. Elsewhere in Rig Veda, plant eating is praised as the most noble of deeds.

Although Hinduism and Buddhism preach the doctrine of ahimsa, there are exceptions when eating meat is permitted. Various Hindu texts prescribed meat and fish for certain health ailments, and Buddhists could eat meat if offered, providing it was not killed specially for them. There are no such exceptions in Jainism, and Jains follow the principle of ahimsa to the letter – vegetarianism is compulsory. Jains are most numerous in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Some commentators suggest that Hinduism owes its resurgent vegetarianism to Jainism and Buddhism.

India was known for its vegetarianism and benevolence in ancient times. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes of the third century BC, and the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-hsien of the 5th century AD, observed that Indians refrained from eating meat. Vegetarianism suffered at the hands of Muslim and British invaders as many Indians tried to become ‘civilized’ like their meat eating rulers. They abandoned their principles of compassion for animals and happily gorged themselves on the chopped remains of dead animals.

India is a country of 1.2 billion people and is often portrayed as vegetarian nation. In truth, 71% of population is non-vegetarian and roughly 29% is vegetarians. Rajasthan has the highest number of vegetarians, followed by Haryana and the Punjab, while Telangana leads the nation in the meat eating stakes, with West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Kerala bringing up the rear. In my home state of Gujarat, often touted for its vegetarian ethos, 62% of the people surveyed said that they were vegetarian and 38% were non-vegetarian. Indians are embracing meat eating with gusto, while the rest of the world moves in the opposite direction, towards lower meat consumption.

In days gone by, the caste system determined who was a vegetarian, though in modern times this is no longer the situation. As a high caste Kshatriya, I am forbidden from eating meat, yet only three to four centuries ago my feudal ancestors, the Rajput kings, hunted game and ate meat. In the last few years numerous Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants have opened in India, tempting Indians to ditch their long cherished values of ahimsa and dharma and to sample their meat and seafood-based cuisine. Some of my fellow Hindus are hypocritical when they don’t eat beef but have no problem eating chicken, buffalo meat, pork, and mutton, and let’s not forget fish.

Indian values are changing and eating flesh is now seen as socially acceptable. It is no longer scandalous to see a Brahman or a Patel sitting in a McDonald’s outlet, happily munching on a Big Mac mutton burger*. In earlier times he would have been beaten up. If he was in South India, he would be left alone to savor his burger unmolested. India is ranked as the fourth fastest poultry market in the world according to a 2014 survey, growing at annual rate of 5.9% between 1992 and 2013. An increasing number of Indians are aping the western lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and indifference to the suffering of animals. Some of my compatriots don’t care about the cruelty and pollution that went into producing the meat on their plates.

As a Hindu, my vegetarianism is rooted in the culture of ahimsa, my concerns for the environment, and the influence of corporates, especially the agro-chemical and biogenetic firms. I was born a vegetarian and have never known the taste of meat and don’t ever want to. My next step is to become a vegan and further remove myself from the web of suffering, one day at a day time.

*Beef eating is highly offensive to many Hindus, and reprisals against beef serving outlets can be harsh.

White cows decorated for Diwali celebrations Image filed under attribution CC BY 2.0

 

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    This is such a great and thorough post. Thanks for taking the time to share!
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