Vegetarianism means consuming a diet which excludes all animal products. While many Indians were vegetarians earlier, there is some doubt about how many of them are still vegetarians today, as mindsets and food habits are changing. More and more people are being exposed to new countries and this is leading to the growth of new lifestyles and diets. In some cases, those who eat vegetarian meals at home consume non-vegetarian food when they are dining out. However, the tradition of vegetarianism goes back a long way.

The Beginnings and Growth of Vegetarianism

When the Jainism and Buddhism movements arose in India, there was opposition to non-vegetarian food. The belief in ahimsa or non-violence propagated by these religions opposed the consumption of any animal products. While Gautama Buddha did not believe in animal sacrifices to appease the Gods, Mahavira (the leader of the Jains) took one step further by proclaiming that all potential forms of life must be preserved. In the early times, the Aryans were noted for their love of various meats. They even consumed cattle, although the scriptures strictly advised against this. The Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita both contain passages promoting a vegetarian diet. The Hindu’s believed that the cow was a holy animal, besides being a useful domestic pet.

Saints such as Tukaram and Kabir also advised their followers to take up a vegetarian diet. In recent years, Mahatma Gandhi was an advocate of vegetarianism. In today’s times, apart from the Buddhists and the Jains, the Brahmin priests consume a vegetarian diet. The followers of lord Vishnu are also vegetarians. In India, there are more vegetarians found in the states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. In the coastal states of Kerala and West Bengal, a non-vegetarian diet is very common. Many upper-caste Brahmin leaders have made cow-slaughter and beef-eating illegal in many states today.

From Vegetarian to Vegan Diets

There are variations of a vegetarian diet too. While some vegetarians eat eggs, others exclude them from their meals. In a more extreme form, a vegan diet even excludes all dairy products. Very orthodox Hindus and Jains do not even include onions and garlic in their cooking.

Reasons for a Vegetarian Diet

While earlier reasons for vegetarianism were related to religion, nowadays many people have taken to vegetarianism as an ethical stand in favour of animal rights. There are economic reasons for sticking to a vegetarian diet too—as meat products are expensive, many poor people are forced to stick to vegetarian meals only.

In many Hindu families, a widow is supposed to stick to a vegetarian diet as the consumption of any animal product heats up the body and excites the passions. Again, in some orthodox families, the men eat meats of different kinds whereas the women do not. Here again, the non-vegetarian foods are associated with the building up of masculinity and power. However, most of these are earlier notions that are not followed too commonly today.

For vegetarians, cereals, pulses, milk products, soya products, rice and wheat form a major part of the diet. Vegetarianism is also healthy, as the over-consumption of meat items leads to various digestive problems and other health issues.

Last updated on 23 August 2012