Origin & History of Vegetarianism in India

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Origin & History of Vegetarianism in India

Text of speech delivered by Vn.Shankar Narayan, President of Indian Vegan Society and the Regional Coordinator for India, South & West Asia for the International Vegetarian Union (IVU), UK, on Friday, the First of August, 2008 at 04.45 pm on the occasion of 38th IVU World Vegetarian Congress (Centenary Congress) at the Festsaal, Kulturpalast, Dresden, Germany.

A Short Abstract: India is home to about 70% of world’s vegetarians with a history as old as the human civilization itself. Over thousands of years, withering many storms, Indian vegetarians have sustained and flourished to show the people outside a lifestyle which is more compassionate, healthy, and in harmony with nature. In India, traditionally, a vegetarian diet is considered to be very sober and having positive impact on our physical as well as mental health. Therefore, even a traditional non-vegetarian is more of a vegetarian than a non-vegetarian because on most of the days he is dependent on a vegetarian diet and even on meat eating days, it is mostly a vegetarian fare except for one or two side dishes.

“I have nothing new to tell the world, Truth and Non-violence are as old as mountains” Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest apostles of non-violence the world has ever seen, had said once. I am here in front of you, one of the most august gatherings the world has ever produced, today to speak about the ‘Origin and History of Vegetarianism in India’. The truth about the history of vegetarianism in India is always there for everyone to see though history is subject to one’s interpretations based on excavations and evidences available and there are many such versions of it. Instead of attempting to analyse and present before you all these versions, I concentrate my focus on giving you the essence of vegetarianism in India which in itself represents the essence of history of vegetarianism in India. Therefore, I am going to present some truths which I believe are true based on the evidences I had gathered from learned authorities on Indian way of living and reading of some of the authoritative books and the interpretations I have arrived at based on my own experiences.

Before going into the origin and history of vegetarianism in India, I need to tell you, in the Indian context, what we mean by vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

What do we mean by vegetarian in India?: According to some estimates, at present, India is home to about 1160 million people out of which about 40% (464 million) are vegetarians who do not eat meat at all. This makes about 70% of world’s all vegetarians, by far the largest concentration of vegetarians in any part of the world and the highest proportion of vegetarians in any population. Therefore, India can be rightly called as the home of vegetarians!

Indian vegetarians (sasyaahaari or shakhaahaari) are mostly lacto-vegetarians (about 75% of all vegetarians, do not consume either meat or eggs with no prohibition for milk and other dairy products) and the remaining 25% of vegetarians are lacto-ovo-vegetarians (who do not eat meat with no prohibition on eggs and dairy products) with a very small number (may be a few thousands) as vegans (ahimsaahaari) who do not consume any animal products at all. Vegetarianism in India is mainly guided by religion, caste and traditional values which rule the roost.

Most vegetarians abstain from eating meat, fish or eggs. I said “most vegetarians” because, in India vegetarianism is not a matter of choice. It is a traditional way of living, inherited by birth with caste and religious considerations. Being born a vegetarian, when eating out, one may tend to eat meat occasionally due to social considerations and still call himself or herself a vegetarian. Traditionally, some even consider eating fish is vegetarian.

Indian Non-vegetarians (maamsaahaari), again, one of the largest in the world, can be classified into two categories. First one, the traditional non-vegetarians, are meat eaters by birth and are ‘expected’ to eat meat due to the caste or religion they are born into or due to the nature of the job they traditionally do. Though they are called non-vegetarians, they sustain mostly on a vegetarian diet. They eat meat only on special occasions like festivals, social gatherings, during a monetary windfall or some other celebrations. They are very restrictive on the type of meat they eat and the days on which they eat meat. Many, especially in coastal areas, restrict their non-vegetarian food to fish only, some to fish and poultry, and some others to fish, poultry and mutton. There are very few who eat beef and other types of meat. One more feature of these non-vegetarians is that even when they eat meat, their diet consists of mostly vegetarian fares and only one or two side dishes are meat based. This type of non-vegetarians are generally economically and socially backward and found mostly in rural areas and some in urban areas also.

The second category of the non-vegetarians, coming either from traditional non-vegetarian families or vegetarian families, are the ones living mostly in cities and towns and eat meat regularly. They are generally affluent and fancy eating meat for various reasons like health, social status and to flaunt their accumulation of wealth. There are non-vegetarians who are so because of influence of lifestyle followed in developed countries and with a belief that eating meat is superior and makes them more acceptable and intelligent.

There are some non-vegetarians who rarely eat meat for various reasons like dislike or health but they identify themselves with non-vegetarians as they are living with non-vegetarians and they are not averse to meat-eating.

With this understanding of vegetarianism in India, I would like to proceed with the matters relating to the origin and the history or journey of vegetarianism in India through the ages.

Origin of Vegetarianism in India: As we believe, when man was evolving, he ate mostly a vegetarian diet with some occasional exceptions like insects or worms which were caught and eaten raw. But when there was scarcity of his natural food, he resorted to eating whatever he could get his hands on including the flesh of animals which were dead or killed by him after hunting down.

As man’s thinking power increased, communities developed, population expanded, the need for food too multiplied. During natural calamities like flood, drought, etc., he had to starve and die. To combat this situation, he started domesticating animals, using them for agriculture, transportation and other activities, and eating them whenever need arose.

Along with the development in civilisation, savagery also increased and those who were helpless and voiceless among both humans and non-human animals were more and more exploited and killed to satiate human needs and greed thus disturbing the balance of nature. But fortunately, there were many serious attempts to bring back the humanity to sanity and restore balance from time to time. As Lord Krishna says in Bhagavadgita “yadaa yadaahi dharmasya glanirbhavati Bhaarata, abhyutthaanam adharmasya tadaatmmaanam srujaamyaham” (whenever there is decline of dharma, Oh Arjuna, I shall manifest Myself in order to restore balance), the history of India is replete with many instances of correction and restoration of the balance on earth by proclaiming the importance of living a life in harmony with nature by the leaders of the time.

In the unknown history, the great Indian sages or rishis as they are called in India, had laid a tradition of vegetarianism by living harmlessly to attain salvation. They lived and advocated a life where one lives using minimum resources and even the use of solar and wind energy. They propagated a harmless, healthy and cruelty-free lifestyle and established the importance of existence of all living beings and their inter-relations. With their self-less and sane thinking, they established order in everyone’s life and community. They mainly subsisted on fruits, nuts and roots which were not only pure vegetarian, but also they could be equated with the eating habits of the current day raw-foodies, fruitarians or vegan-organic eaters.

Indian scriptures dating back to Vedic period (7000 BC-2500 BC) and earlier are all replete with messages which propagate non-violent and saattvik (pure or having good impact on body) food and lifestyle. As per our ancient science of Ayurveda, the three qualities of universal energies are Sattva (purity), Rajas (activity, passion, the process of change) and Tamas (darkness, inertia). All these qualities exist in everyone in varying proportions and the superiority of a person is reflected in what he thinks and does. By managing our intake of foods that induce these qualities in us, we can modify, regulate and control our thoughts, actions and expressions. Just like by choosing the unadulterated gas we can improve and lengthen the life of a car, by using our understanding in choosing our food we can improve the quality of our lives.

Yoga (including asanas or postures and exercises), the technologies or disciplines of asceticism and meditation which are thought to lead to spiritual experiences and a profound understanding or insight into the nature of existence, also prescribes a saattvik food.

A saattvik food is one which calms and purifies the mind enabling it to function at its maximum potential. It nourishes the body and maintains it in a peaceful state. A saattvik diet, thus, leads to true health, a peaceful mind in control of a fit body, with a balanced flow of energy between them. Saattvik food includes cereals, fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, sprouted seeds, whole grains and milk (taken from a cow, which is allowed to have a natural birth, life and death including natural food, after satiating the needs of milk of its calf). From this understanding, it can be clearly said that a saattvik food is vegetarian food. It also closely resembles the modern day organic, healthy vegan food except for milk, included in saattvik food, which is also cruelty-free.

The following are some of the teachings in olden days on saattvik food and cruelty-free lifestyle which have relevance even today:

“One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings, who is non-violent to all creatures” - Bhagavadgita.

“He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take birth” – Mahabharata.

“One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma (justice). Yielding to desire and acting differently, one becomes guilt of adharma (injustice)”-Mahabharata.

“They who eat the flesh of animals who are desirous of life, are themselves eaten. By abstaining from meat and showing compassion to all creatures one becomes incapable of being molested by any creature, and acquires a long life, perfect health, and happiness” – Mahabharata.

“Those who kill animals…… will be eaten by the same creatures they have killed in this world” – Srimad Bhagavatam.

"One should treat animals such as deer, camels, asses, monkeys, mice, snakes, birds and flies exactly like one's own son. How little difference there actually is between children and these innocent animals". – Srimad Bhagavatam.

A cruel and wretched person who maintains his existence at the cost of others' lives deserves to be killed for his own eternal well being, otherwise he will go down by his own actions." - Srimad Bhagavatam

“One who partakes of human flesh, the flesh of a horse or another animal and deprives others of milk by slaughtering cows, O King, if such a fiend does not desist by other means, then you should not hesitate to cut off his head”- Rig Veda.

"You must not use your God-given body for killing God's creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever."- Yajur Veda

“Those noble souls who practice meditation and other yogic ways, who are ever careful about other beings, who protect all animals are the ones who are actually serious about spiritual practices” – Atharva Veda.

"By not killing any living being, one becomes fit for salvation."- Manusmriti

“How can he practice true compassion who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own flesh?” – Tirukural.

“The most violent weapon on earth is the table fork….. To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body. The more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man…The greatness of a nation and its moral progress may be seen by the way its animals are treated.”- Mahatma Gandhi.

All great Indian saints and seers like Kapila, Vyasa, Panini, Patanjali, Shankaracharya, Chaitanya, etc., all Sufi saints of Islam and all the great apostles of peace like Gautama Buddha, Bhagwan Mahavir, Guru Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi who taught the lesson of non-violence, were all pure vegetarians and were against the eating of flesh-food, because right thinking and spiritual attainment are not possible with meat eating.

The origin of vegetarianism in India has often been linked to the cow protectionism and veneration associated with Hindu culture. This characteristic is believed by some to have originated in the pastoral Aryan culture that populated the Indus Valley sometime after 2000 BC. The Aryans brought with them the sacred Vedas and certain analysts point out that the Vedas call for non-violence towards all bipeds and quadrupeds and eating meat entails punishment. In some passages, the killing of a cow is even equated with the killing of a human. However, other analyses of the Vedas argue that while meat eating was quite rare, there was in fact no restriction against it. Cows were venerated, but they were also commonly used for sacrifice. If used for sacrifice, they could then be eaten, but only under the supervision of a Brahmin priest. This sacrifice is thought to have developed after 1000 BC, and it is in fact the influence of Jainism and Buddhism that ultimately contributed to its demise. These new religions were developed partially as a reaction against Brahminism, and condemned its excessive use of animal sacrifice. This contributed to a slow transition within Hinduism from occasional cattle sacrifice to a total ban on cow slaughter and beef eating.
The development of Buddhism had revolved around the principles of attaining salvation from worldly sufferings, universal brotherhood and more importantly peace and non-violence. Jainism is a religion in which all life is considered worthy of respect and this emphasizes this equality of all life, advocating the protection of smallest creatures. Both these religions were established almost about the same time between 600 BC and 500 BC.

In Sikhism, some sects like Namdharis promote vegetarianism and food served at Gurudwaras is always vegetarian. Punjab state, which has 60% sikh population at present is about 50% vegetarian. Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs says “The world eats dead carcasses, living by neglect and greed.  Like a goblin, or a beast, they kill and eat the forbidden carcasses of meat."

Saints like Kabir, Tulsi Das, Mira Bai, Sant Tukaram, Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi always followed, preached and encouraged vegetarianism to their followers. And of recent, Mahatma Gandhi followed vegetarianism and stopped drinking cows’ milk citing the reason that cows used for milking were cruelly treated. Among the current day spiritual leaders, Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar are prominent who promote vegetarianism.

In spite of the wrath of the marauding invaders and their rule of India for many centuries, in spite of foreign rule which saw many changes on the landscape of India, in spite of abject poverty which often makes many people die of starvation, in spite of globalisation which has exposed India to foreign cultures, vegetarianism in India is, by and large, vibrant and very strong and continues to show the rest of the world how one can flourish by following only ethical means.

Since the International Vegetarian Union (IVU) was formed in 1908 at its first Congress at Dresden, Germany, India has participated in and contributed to the organised Worldwide Vegetarian Movement in many ways. India has organised 5 of the 38 IVU World Vegetarian Congresses in 1957, 1967, 1977, 1993 and 2006 and the 11th International Vegan Festival in 2007. Among the prominent members of IVU at present are The Vegetarian Society, Delhi, The Vegetarian Society (Reverence for Life), Mumbai, The Indian Vegetarian Congress, Chennai and The Indian Vegan Society. In addition, India has sent regularly to serve on the IVU Council many famous personalities like Rukmini Devi Arundel, J.N.Mankar, Surendra Mehta, Jashu Shah, D.M.Popat, Dr. M.M.Bhangara, Diana Ratnagar and Hiren Kara. Even before the establishment of the IVU, we had presence in world vegetarianism with Mahatma Gandhi attending the International Vegetarian Congress and serving on the board of the Vegetarian Society, England.

The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), the world’s largest animal rights organisation, which also promotes vegetarianism, has its roots in India. Ingrid Newkirk, PeTA founder, visualised the formation of PeTA while being in India in her early days. Maneka Gandhi, Member of Parliament and former minister, who founded India’s largest animal rights/welfare organisation People for Animals (PfA) in 1992, is an ardent campaigner for vegetarianism.

Thus, all Indian religions proclaim “Ahimsa Paramodharma” (Non-violence is the greatest of all religions) and continue to inspire millions to follow the path of vegetarianism. Ahimsa means non-violence, non-injury or non-killing. In all Indian religions, whether it is Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism, Ahimsa is a paramount virtue.

Hindu Dharma teaches that all forms of life are manifestations of the Supreme Self. We must not be indifferent to the sufferings of others. One must consider all living beings in the image of one’s own self and thus not commit acts of violence in thought, word or deed against other living creatures.

Anger and hatred cannot coexist with ahimsa. Anger blinds reason and leads one to violence. Greed and possessiveness are two main causes of social injustice and suffering and a practitioner of ahimsa should never hoard wealth beyond needs. Compassion and austerity are essential elements of ahimsa. The concept of Ahimsa extends to all living beings, and therefore, protection of environment, natural habitats and vegetarianism are natural derivatives of the concept of ahimsa.

Why Indian diet is predominantly Vegetarian? :

-All Indian religions and scriptures preach compassion and respect for all lives.

-Ancient preachings suggest minimum use of resources for food and living (ascetic living).

-Because of the geographical location also, a vegetarian diet is naturally suitable for humans in India.

What is ahead?: In spite of so many favourable conditions for vegetarianism in India, there are many challenges ahead. Vegetarianism is inextricably linked with non-vegetarianism as everyone has a non-vegetarian element in oneself and each one of us has to strive to improve the vegetarian element in us.

With the surge in India’s population, India has one of the largest meat-eating population in the world now. India being the largest producer of milk in the world, dairy industry, which considers our holy cows as only milk producing machines, is thriving. Pressure on population exerted by commercialisation and globalisation of lives is increasing to acquire material wealth at the cost of morality and our highly held age-old values. In utter ignorance, millions of innocent lives are tortured and killed every day for the material benefits they are perceived to give for million others but in fact millions of innocent people are suffering because of their KARMA.

Therefore, I hereby give a clarion call to each awakened citizen, irrespective of the nationality, creed or religion, to put aside whatever differences we may have to awake further and join hands together to awaken and educate every other person on earth so that we will have a true vegetarian world laden with complete and sustainable peace where all sentient beings can live happily and in harmony with nature by the time we celebrate 200 years of IVU.


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