There is often an element of sacrifice associated with vegetarianism. In the Christian world, people abstain from eating meat during Lent, as a sign of righteousness. It is their way of showing that they are devoted to him. Of course, devotion also has its limits. In medieval Europe, it was considered proper to eat fish during Lent, so many man-made lakes in France were built only to allow fish to breed during Lent. And as the church became more and more corrupt, rich people could buy special provisions from priests and monks that allowed them to roast pigs or kill sheep during Lent.
Even in India, we give up meat to show devotion to God. I know many bloodthirsty carnivores who refuse to eat meat on Tuesdays because they dedicate that day to honoring a god or goddess. They say that the gods have no objection to eating meat. It is more that they want to give up the things they enjoy as a sacred gesture that day.
And then, of course, there are ethnic associations. Overall, Brahmins do not eat meat. (Although there are notable exceptions like the Brahmins of Kashmir and Bengal.) So, if they are going to attend a religious ceremony presided over by a Brahmin – for example – a pooja – the Hindus will be vegetarians that day. And there are festivals like Navratra, which require people to be vegetarian as a sign of faith and respect.
So, both in India and abroad, vegetarianism has always been a virtue. It’s an easy way to show our respect for God. And, at least in India, there are ethnic associations. It is not only Brahmins. The Baniyas, a prosperous mercantile caste, would refrain from eating meat in all circumstances, given the long worship and temple construction.
There are some regional differences, but perhaps we make the most of them. We say that Gujaratis are vegetarians but, in fact, only a few Hindu Gujaratis are vegetarians, on the basis of caste. Brahmins and Bania (Vania of Gujarat) are vegetarians. But the lower castes and tribes do not have time for what they eat. Neither are the Gujarati Rajputs. And for Gujarati Muslims, they have excellent non-vegetarian dishes.
But, there is a kind of Gujarati who is always vegetarian: Gujarati Jain, my own community. Jainism has complex rules about what we can eat: underground vegetables are no-no. So, the potato is out. For example, in my grandfather’s house in Ahmedabad, the cooks (maharajas) were not allowed to eat garlic or onion even though they were not Jains. They were mostly Hindus from the Gujarat-Rajasthan border.
My parents ignored them (later in life; they grew up as vegetarians) and grew up accepting vegetarian orders and my grandparents accepting that they ate meat.
But, I still remember, when I was young, Gujaratis of my grandfather’s generation used to treat meat like consumption of alcohol. Whenever we hear of someone’s son who ‘ruined his life’, this alcohol is not the only culprit. I also used to eat meat.
Along with this order new rules were made. You can be a carnivore if you like. However, meat is not allowed in the house. You can go to a restaurant and eat your minced meat but when you were at home, it was always dal-bhat-rotli-shak, we Gujaratis say.
Therefore, many rich Gujaratis lived a double life. My mother had a very sophisticated uncle who set up an account in the 1960s at the Mumbai Taj (then, the most beautiful French restaurant in India) where he ordered lobster thermometers and lamb cutlets. But in his own house he only ate dal-dhokli and other Gujarati dishes.
I imagine that the same was true of the rich merchants of other communities. The Willingdon Club’s now popular egg-toast dish is called Egg Kejriwal, who was not allowed to eat eggs at home. So he would come to Willingdon and order his eggs.
Growing up around many vegetarians (or part-time vegetarians), I came to understand their mentality and the virtues संकेत inherent in their vegetarianism. But I also know that most of India is non-vegetarian, but differently and sometimes, to an amazing degree.
Punjabis, for example, consider Gujaratis to be fanatical non-vegetarians, in fact, are mostly vegetarians. Meat is not a part of every meal, and even when served, it is one of the many dishes on the table. The Bengalis, I found out when I was living in Kolkata, are fanatical carnivores. Almost every meal will include meat, poultry or fish. And often there will be more than one non-vegetarian item.
All of this has made me aware of the generalizations of vegetarianism because there are relatively few Indians who always insist on meat. And there are those (less and less as the demographic changes) who say they don’t eat meat under any circumstances.
So, it is increasingly frightening that I have seen a fake India-vegetarian conservative development in the last few years. The truth is that India has never really been a vegetarian country. Archaeological evidence suggests that meat-eating has always been a part of Hindu tradition. Ancient texts refer to dishes made from frogs, lizards, reptiles, peacocks, and a variety of animals and birds that we would never eat today. The most prominent orthodox vegetarians have always been Jains and it has been suggested that it was the influence of Jainism that gave the Hindus the virtues of vegetarianism.
In any case, we now have proof that India is not a largely vegetarian country. The National Family Health Survey (conducted between 2019 and 2021) tells us that the proportion of men who have never eaten meat, poultry or fish is only 16.6 percent. These figures are in the age group of 15 to 49 years and they also reveal that despite all the political propaganda, more and more Indians are becoming carnivores. In a 2016 survey, 21.6 percent of men were completely vegetarian. This is five percent less this time around, which shows that they are actually staying away from vegetarianism.
There are reasonable explanations for the decline in vegetarianism. Many people are eating so-called ‘outside food’ each year – in restaurants, hotels, in Thalasses, through delivery operations and using pre-packaged meals. As opportunities grow and options expand, they are tempted to use new, naturally sufficient foods – often, non-vegetarian varieties.
I don’t make any valuable decisions about this trend. People should be allowed to eat their favorite food. Only people who do not know what good food is can politicize it.
But how can we perpetuate and stop the need for vegetarianism in the Hindu tradition? It’s not. And, can we stop declaring the virtues of being a vegetarian?
Because, obviously, the statistics show, no one is listening.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
For a distinction between vegetarianism and vegetarianism, please see my next column, The Taste, a few weeks ago.
From HT Brunch, June 4, 2022
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us at facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch