Finding Vegetarianism in Indian culture

The “Vegetarian” v/s “Non-vegetarian” debate has been on for centuries in India. The debate comes  with mockery, disgust, guilt, doubt and confusion. I happen to be a classic specimen of a confused vegetarian (or not) Indian .

Let me give a little background, I was born and raised in a North Indian Orthodox Hindu (Sanatan Dharma) environment, which in general, prescribes a Vegetarian life as the right way-of-life (Dharma). I accepted this as truth, and remained a strong promoter of vegetarianism for very many years without question. Very few people around me ate meat, which was obviously aDharma (sin).

The first seeds of doubt came during my under-Grad days, where out of my gang of 12 friends, only 2 of us were vegetarian and we were the butt of many jokes due to this. Using quick Math, only 17% of my group of friends was vegetarian, then 83% were serious sinners. Extrapolating the numbers to the world (assuming everyone outside India ate meat), only about 3-5% people on earth seemed to be vegetarian from that angle (there was no Google back then to confirm this). I used to wonder – with so many people eating non-vegetarian food, Hell (Narka) would be very a very busy place.

Well, I had the doubts but I stuck to my strict vegetarian regime. A few years later, I was reading about how all religions tie together and came across a clear reference in the Book of Genesis that eating meat was allowed by God !!! My image of “Dharma” started to shake… Religious differences apart, God is undoubtedly One… How could different people have different Dharma for something as fundamental as food, based on the religion they were born in??? There had to be a prescription that works for all because God created everyone alike. Politicians carved out religions. (We all get to use Azithromicin during strep-throat infections).

When staged with such fear and doubt about one’s belief system,a person has 2 choices:

  • #1 – Have Faith and Trust in what was taught to you growing-up as absolute truth and draw a line between “your community” and “others”. In essence, tell yourself that you have a superior way of life. This choice leads the person into a religious routine prescribed by a priest of some sorts. This is to ensure they remind themselves of their prescribed beliefs on a regular basis (moderate religious), which I respect. Some go out extreme and start openly shunning every other perspective by pen or by gun (religious extremist).
  • Choice # 2 – Research and think about the meaning behind what was taught as “Dharma” and find the true intent and the circumstances under which the prescription was written or taught.

I just lost focus from reference to food. Coming back to the topic, I chose the second path. I started some reading about the Hindu religion, its roots, its teachings, its meaning. Understanding Rta, Dharma, Karma and all the other jargon and what I found was that the ancient scriptures don’t talk about us being vegetarian or non-vegetarian. In fact, the Vedas are believed to be full of non-vegetarian medical recipes.

There are numerous instances in Indian scriptures that indicate that eating non-vegetarian food could not have been banned by the ancient architects of the earth (Gods).

  • The Goddess Kali drank a lot of blood to save us from monsters. In fact, many Goddesses are given animal flesh as offering in the form of “Bali” across the country in India in today’s date and time.
  • Lord Ram’s father had 3 wives. Sounds like a semi-cultured semi-barbaric way of life back then. Very difficult to digest that the family could have been vegetarian. He killed the young boy when he was out on a hunting trip. I hope he was out hunting for food, because “Game-hunting” would’ve been even a worse thing to do.
  • Lord Ram himself went out deer hunting before Sita got abducted. Clearly, a “golden deer” was a metaphor for a soft young deer meat. Even, if the hide was to be used for decoration, it was not very good to kill for pleasure.
  • Many important Gods from beyond-earth ride carnivorous animals in Indian symbolism. Tiger for Goddess Durga, Eagle for Lord Vishnu, Owl for Goddess Laxmi and countless others. These animals are also prayed to as Gods and reside in Hindu temples. They sure don’t want anything to do with Bell Peppers and Tomatoes.
  • Coming to non-Gods, Rishi/Sage Vyas’s mother Satyavati was a fisher woman, implying it as an acceptable practice in the common society.

You get the point… But, there still is a dangling question. Why are Indians made to believe that eating meat is sinful. The truth lies in the period when the Hindu “way of life” was being carved into an organized religion. The Gita says that one must make himself one with Him to attain eternity. In quest for methodologies, the saints and sages must’ve found that in order to be devoted completely, there needed to be sacrifice. There were various levels of sacrifices that are discussed in various Indian scriptures. The people who sacrificed most were Brahmins and Rishis. Some sacrificed family life or vowed to celibacy, some sacrificed several years of their lives to meditation, some sacrificed their kingdoms, etc. But, once someone went on a path to attain proximity to Him, the answer seemed to lie in sacrifice. So, if an individual is living a normal life and is not consciously on path for finding union with God, there is no need for any conscious sacrifice. For such people, their Karma is their Dharma and any form of sacrifice in the name of religion does not make any sense. To submerse themselves into the Karma (job) that they have signed up for is enough sacrifice to be attain unity with God.

For the people, whose Karma was to to attain knowledge and serve humanity, it was a common theme to be on a path to find union with God by way of meditation and conscious sacrifice. Just by the sounds of job description, such people sound like on the top of the social Org Chart, i.e. Brahmins (Note: roots of the Caste System). As the Brahmins were sacrificing earthly pleasures, a high protein, fatty and tasty non-veg diet would only be natural to give up. Over the years, the Brahmin household was fully vegetarian and they wouldn’t want to be near any meat to avoid temptation. Superstition was bound to follow within the Brahmin community and then spread to other parts of the society who looked up to the Brahmins to guide them with the knowledge of “way of life” or “Dharma”. Right on the top, they were enjoying power due to their knowledge and branding. They were easily able to carve social laws and everyone else wanted to imitate them. (Now, this is beginning to sound like a High school flick!!!)

From what it sounds, majority of India being vegetarian seems to be a superstition blown out of proportion? Because, the ancient scriptures never suggest vegetarianism unless one is set out on a specific path to obtain special knowledge or union with God.

As for me, after living about 3 decades as a strict vegetarian, I converted…. I converted into a food eater agnostic of it being vegetarian or non-vegetarian. All foods have their nutritional value and its important to balance one’s diet. I converted because I believe in what I read, think and build opinion… I converted because I declined following a superstition without questioning it…. I converted because I belong to a proud religion whose scriptures teach inclusion of everyone irrespective of their beliefs, liking or dietary restrictions. The scriptures were written to provide a way of life to everyone.

If the future ever takes me to a point where I set out on a journey to find myself and God, I will start sacrifice, and the first step will be to sacrifice non-vegetarian food.

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