Anyone who has ever visited India will be aware of the slew of questions that follow such a journey upon returning home. You will be pressed to comment on just about every aspect of Indian culture and life as if you were an expert.
Inevitably, you will be asked: Do Indians’ eat meat?
Well… do they?
India is home to the highest population of identifying vegetarianson Earth. In total, it accounts for as much as 30 percent of the nations’ total population – in 2018 this stands at just under 450 million people. This is an exceptionally high number by any standard, but particularly when compared to the abysmal rates of meat abstention or moderation in most affluent countries.
By this precedent, much curiosity is drawn. Why are so many Indians vegetarians? What underpins this oddity in a rapidly intensifying global livestock economy? Can we extrapolate these actions to future peoples?
There is an answer to all these questions, but it starts first by recognising a flaw in the overriding line of thinking. The Indian race and the quality of vegetarianism are inaccurately conflated – Indians are not vegetarians by virtue of being Indian. If these two factors were dependent, the number of vegetarians in India should be close to 100 percent, not a minority group.
Still, there must be a correlating dynamic between the two factors, which has resulted in the high percentage of vegetarians in India. While standing as individual identities, their relationship is not coincidental nor entirely independent. What connects the two? Hinduism.
Around 80 percent of Indians, give or take 5-10 percent, identify as practicing Hindus. This equates to just under 1 billion Hindus in India alone. Naturally with such a numerous and expansive population, the details and application of said faith will vary. However, Hinduism as a national identity can be whittled down to a few general principles.
These principles begin with the archetypal belief in a supreme being, sometimes referred to as Brahman, who espouses three absolute tenants of the faith – truth, dharma and karma.
Brahman is seen as the collective identity of many individual gods and goddesses that personify said being’s individual aspects, such as Saraswati the goddess of learningand Lakshmi the goddess of good fortune– think of it like a puzzle set, where pieces have individual faces but interlock to form a single cohesive unit.
Some Hindus look to the authority of the sacred scriptures known as Vedas – the Hindu equivalent of the Bible or Qur’an. In translation of these ‘truths’ and other teachings, such as those of the enlightened Buddha, somepracticing Hindus adopt a restrictive diet. But, what specific beliefs motivate this abstention?
Most modern Hindus abstain from the consumption of cattle, although they may consume the flesh of other animals. The source and exact starting point of these beliefs are difficult to discern. (Historians can tell us when events occurred and detail the transition at length, but are unable to decipher the subjective reality).
To some, cows are perceived as a mother figure due, in part, to their involuntary provision of milk – relating to the story of Gomatha orAditi. Some Hindus’ view them as the vahanaof gods, by which they symbolise an omen of sorts – many temples still follow the tradition of having a Nandistatue preceding. Some Hindus’ believe beef abstention is written into and prioritised in the Vedas scriptures.
There is a variety of religion-based reasoning used by Hindus to abstain from the consumption of beef.There is just as much diversity in reasoning for completemeat abstention. Although, two main ones are as follows. Either, vegetarianism is adopted as a derivative of ahimsa – a key teaching in the Hindu faith. Or, vegetarianism is adopted as a rational extension of Hindu scripture, which regularly forbids beef consumption on compassionate grounds – an individual could pose: if we must care for cows, why not all lifeforms?
However, the adoption of vegetarianism is not synonymous with the faith, as much of the teachings is lost in translation or perception. Hinduism is not an organised religion, in the same manner as Christianity or Muslim. Its teachings are not confined to a single book or set of tablets. Local, regional, caste and community-driven practices influence the way individuals and groups interpret and practice their beliefs. From this system, the diversity in beliefs is borne.
Just as diversity of culture exists within the worlds countries, so too does it exist within a single religion, especially a pantheistic and polytheistic religion. There are people in India that maintain religious or non-religious views from polar ends of the spectrum, from fundamentalists to agnostics and atheists. There are those that swindle general Hinduist ideology to reject common Hinduism teachings of altruism and kindness in a vain attempt to justify meat consumption without conflicting with their faith in the gods or threatening the self with acts of immorality and anti-faith. Potential translations of Hinduism harbour as much variation as its adherers superficial qualities.
A tainted history.
Few Hindus wish to acknowledge past practices in the name of their faith. For instances in this history could be described as diametric to modern translations of the faith. But, they are important to recognise because they help formulate an understanding of the faiths current practices.
Roughly two millennia ago, during the post-Vedic era, cows attained a symbolic importance in the faith. Prior to this, cows were used in sacrifices; exonerated on special occasions; had little religious value; were hunted for their meat and hide; et cetera. But, the religion underwent ground-shaking and relatively quick transformations in the way it identified with cattle.
Most scholars generally equate the rise of meat abstention in Hindu cults to a period around 300 B.C. with the telling of a Sanskrit epic – the Mahabharata. The epic in question reads:
“Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”
This myth describes the rise of a symbolic and utilitarian value for cows. Where people abandoned the hunting of wild cattle, choosing instead to domesticate and preserve their lives. In this sense, the cow became a paradigmatic animal that provides a food source without being killed.
This same period saw a multitude of underpinning factors that supported this change of ideals. For example, some dharma texts proposed that cows should not be eaten because of their increasingly recognised presence in scripture and tales, where they were associated with Brahmin – a sacred creature in Hindu lore.
As the centuries progressed, factors like social status became intimately connected to food restrictions. Whereby abstaining from meat became a ‘matter of status’ – the higher the caste the greater the food restrictions. M. N. Srinivas, an Indian sociologist concerned with the caste system and social stratification, described, in great length, how lower castes gave up beef in order to move up the social ladder, in a process known as ‘Sanskritization’.
(There is potentially 10s of thousands of contributing factors to the rise of beef abstention in Hindu culture. The aforementioned factors are merely some of the more notable and empirically supported underpinnings).
After two millennia, we return to current times and, once again, are face-to-face with a group of well-intended acquaintances asking…
Do Indians eat meat?
Some Indians eat meat. Some Hindus’ eat meat. Some Indians abstain from meat. Some Hindus’ abstain from meat. The variety of restrictive and non-restrictive diets is as diverse in India as its landscape.
Hinduism is a religion of contradictions when interpreted on an individual basis. The faith can be interpreted to suit individual preferences. So, while Hinduism is intimately connected to the high concentration of vegetarians in India, it is not the sole cause. Hinduism is the prescribed reason in an individual’s decision to become vegetarian only if said individual’s subjective beliefs can be translated into the Hindu faith – rarely will Hinduism promote vegetarianism if it is opposition to the subjective self.
If some individual wishes to describe themselves as a Hindu, while continuing to consume meat, it is as simple as translating the teachings of Hinduism to suit their prescribed desires. While beef does appear to be a common abstention, even amongst meat consumers, the majority of practicing Hindus seem to have no issue with eating all other forms of meat.
Hinduism ≠ Vegetarianism
Do preordained sentiments motivate vegetarianism more than Hinduism?
***Many practicing Hindus whom observe the teaching of compassion for cattle have inadvertently and unwarily perpetuated the abuse of the species. In line with the notion of cattle being the providers of milk, many in India consume high amounts of dairy. Like most nations this has resulted in the industrialisation and systemic abuse of the cattle. And, also like other nations, smokescreens and deception are the backbone of the industry. For if Indians’ truly new the practices undertaken to produce the milk and milk-products they consume, it would be impossible to abide by their own beliefs of reverence for the cattle while still consuming its milk.
*** Many Indians do not expressly follow the ethics or guidelines of vegetarianism, but have partially adopted the diet out of circumstances. To accommodate a high population of vegetarians, many stalls and restaurants have aligned their menus with the diet, with very few offering more than one or two options. Such a small variety of options, not to mention the popularity of Indian vegetarian food, has driven many people in the nations developed cities to consume little meat.
Those living on the peripheries and in rural areas do consume meat but this is more out of circumstance than religion or ethics. Poverty or destitution has forced many to undertake subsistence lifestyles, relying on the bread of the land – they eat meat out of necessity. Their diet consists of what they can grow, forage or hunt and occasionally raw foods purchased at the local market.