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The Rich History and Tradition of Vegetarianism in India

- Dr Ausaf Sayeed
Revered Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, ladies and gentleman, Good afternoon. Let me
begin by thanking the Science of Spirituality and organizers of the VeggieFest for inviting me
to be amidst you this afternoon and providing me with a unique opportunity to exchange my
thoughts with you on this interesting subject.
Many of us are aware that ‘Vegetarianism’ as a movement has been gaining momentum
in Europe since the middle of the 19
Century. It is believed that the word ‘vegetarian’ was
coined in 1842 by the founders of the British Vegetarian Society, of which Mahatma Gandhi
was an active member during his student days in London. Gandhi in his book ‘My
Experiments with Truth’ cites numerous references pointing towards the benefits of
vegetarian food from different points of view. It is, therefore, not surprising that we have all
gathered here today to take the cause ahead.
India, the world’s second most populous country, with a population of over 1.2 billion has
around 500 million vegetarians. Vegetarianism is very much a mainstream way of life with
42% of Indian households eschewing meat, fish and eggs. This constitutes 70% of the world's
vegetarians. India has more vegetarians than all the world’s vegetarians put together.
Vegetarianism is ingrained in the Indian society and there are laws requiring all packaged
products to be labeled with a mandatory mark showing if the product is vegetarian or non-
All of you are familiar with US multi-national food giants McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza
Hut. But I doubt whether you ever heard of McDonald’s McAloo Tikki, which is a burger
made from spiced potatoes or the McVeggie, a patty of carrots, peas and potatoes or the
McSpicy Paneer which is a burger filled with Indian cottage cheese. Similarly, the KFC’s
India menu is dominated by vegetarian items like the ‘Veg Zinger’, the ‘Veg Snacker’ and the
‘Veg ZingKong’. The Pizza Hut serves amazing pizzas in India like Tandoori Paneer,
Paneer Makhani, Veggie Lovers, Simply Veg and Paneer Vegorama. Domino’s Pizza has
opened exclusive vegetarian outlets in Mumbai and Gujarat as did McDonald’s earlier near a
pilgrimage site sacred to Sikhs located in the city of Amritsar in northern India.
While this may seem the ingenuous adaptation of the local culture by Global Food Majors
to tap the increasing purchasing power of the expanding Middle Class in India, it also reflects
the growing acceptance of the concept of Vegetarianism in the world. Indeed, Vegetarianism
has enjoyed a long and diverse history and has been preserved in most cultures since the
beginnings of time.
Historically speaking, the earliest records of vegetarianism come from ancient India and
ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE (Before Common Era). Vegetarianism found favor
with some of the great figures of the classical world, most notably Pythagoras (580 BCE),
who was believed to be an exact contemporary of Gautama Buddha, and it is possible that the
Greek thinker may had come under the influence of Indian mystical teachings. Pythagoras's
ideas mirrored, in part, the traditions of much earlier civilizations including the Babylonians
and ancient Egyptians. A vegetarian ideology was practiced among religious groups in Egypt
around 3,200 BCE, with abstinence from flesh and the wearing of animal derived clothing
based upon karmic beliefs in reincarnation. Far from being a relatively new phenomenon, I
believe vegetarianism has enjoyed a long and diverse history and has been preserved in most
cultures since the earliest of times.
In Asia, vegetarianism was closely connected with the principle of ‘Ahimsa’ or Non-
violence and was promoted across history by many religious leaders and philosophers. Thus,
abstention from consumption of meat (and consequential ‘vegetarianism’) was central not
only to ancient religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that originated in India but
also to later religions like Zoroastrianism or the ‘Parsis’.
The history of vegetarianism in India can be traced to the Vedic period, an era that
dawned sometime between 4000 and 1500 B.C. The Vedas were the sacred texts that formed
the bedrock of the early Hindu spiritual thought. Among those texts' hymns and songs that
described with reverence the wondrous power of the natural world, we find an emerging idea
that sets the stage for vegetarianism in later centuries. In subsequent ancient texts, including
the Upanishads, the idea of ‘rebirth’ emerged as a central point. All creatures harbored the
Divine, so that rather than being fixed in time, life was considered fluid. Therefore, the idea
of having meat that once lived in a different form made it less edible. In the Manu Smriti, the
ancient law book from India, it is said, “Having considered the disgraceful origin of meat and
the cruelty of killing living beings, one should completely abstain from eating meat.” The
Yajur Veda says, “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures,
whether they be human, animals, or whatever.” (12:32)
In the Bhagawad Gita (5:18), Lord Krishna explains that spiritual perfection starts when
one can see the equality of all living beings as spirit souls; “The humble sage, in virtue of true
knowledge, sees with equal vision a peaceful and erudite brahmana (priest), a cow, an
elephant, a dog and a social pariah.” It is written in the epic Mahabharata: “He who desires
to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures, lives in misery in whatever
species he may take his birth”.
Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism, which enshrines compassion to all
living creatures but consumption of meat was not completely banned. Buddha insisted that
his followers should not eat the flesh of any sentient being. The Indian king Ashoka (who
reigned between 264~232 BC) converted to Buddhism, shocked by the horrors of battle of
Kalinga. Ashoka promulgated detailed laws aimed at the protection of many species,
abolished animal sacrifice at his court, and admonished the population to avoid all kinds of
unnecessary killing and injury.
Jainism advocates ‘ahimsa’, the doctrine of non-killing, non-violence and non-injury. It
believes in the Law of Karma and considers ‘Hinsa’ (violence), ‘nirdaya’ (lack of
compassion) and ‘krodha’ (anger) as some of the primary causes of suffering and injustice in
the world. Jains hold that it is wrong to kill or harm any living being and thus, adopt a
rigorous form vegetarian diet that also excludes onions and garlic.
The ancient Tamil text 'Tirukkural', which was authored by a Jain ascetic Thiruvalluvar,
a poet who is said to have lived anytime between 2nd century BCE and 5th century CE, is
regarded as the world's greatest ethical scripture. It states:
“How can he practice true compassion…who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own
flesh? Riches cannot be found in the hands of the thriftless. Nor can compassion be found in
the hearts of those who eat meat. Goodness is never one with the minds of these two: one
who wields a weapon and one who feasts on a creature’s flesh.”
Bhakti Saints like Kabir, Tulsidas, Mira Bai and Sant Tukaram always encouraged and
preached Vegetarianism to their followers. In Sikhism, only vegetarian food is served in the
Gurdwaras or the Sikh temples but Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free, although some
religious sects of Sikhs like the Damdami Taksal and the Namdharis believe that the Sikh
diet should be meat-free.
Vegetarianism is consistent with the parallel Zoroastrian attitude towards the harm caused
by dead flesh. In the section of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, titled Patet Pashemani,
the prayers for repentance from sins, the category of mortal sins includes whoever is
"polluted with dead matter, cooks dead matter on a fire, throws dead matter into water and
conceals dead matter under the earth"
The High Priest Atrupat-e Emetan in Denkard Book VI written in the 9 century circa
states "Be plant eaters, O you, men, so that you may live long. Keep away from the body of
cattle, and deeply reckon that Ahura Mazda, the Lord has created plants in great number for
helping cattle (and men)."
While there are undoubtedly communities like Jains and Vaishnava Hindus who observe
strict vegetarianism, there are millions of other ordinary Indians who are vegetarians as well.
Even in many Indian families where meat is consumed, it is done no more frequently than
one day a week, usually on a Sunday afternoon. For many other families, meat — again,
usually chicken or mutton — is partaken three or four times a year, most often at weddings.
Here obviously, the consideration is more to do with economy and adorability than religion
or ethics.
At this point let us also look at how some of the other religions had looked at the concept
of vegetarianism.
‘The Torah’ (Hebrew Scriptures) describes vegetarianism as an ideal. In the Garden of
Eden, Adam, Eve, and all creatures were instructed to eat plant foods. (Genesis1:29-30)
Several rabbinic oral traditions preserved in the Talmud and Midrash contains many
instructions on how people should treat animals and the rest of the creations.
The Bible presupposes a pristine state of vegetarianism. In the creation story, God
creates people (male and female) and says to them (Genesis 1:29), "See, I give you every
seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, they shall
be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything
that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food."
It was only after the Great Flood, as Noah and family emerged from the Ark, God told them
(in Genesis 9:3), "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I
give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it." Thus, we can
safely presume that the first human beings created by God – Adam & Eve – must have been
entirely vegetarian.
Many early Christians were vegetarian such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John
Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and others. The historian Eusebius writes that the Apostle
“Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh." In late antiquity and in the
Middle Ages many monks and hermits renounced meat-eating in the context of their
asceticism. The most prominent of them was St. Jerome, whom they used to take as their
model. The Rule of St. Benedict (6th century) allowed the Benedictines to eat fish and fowl,
but forbade the consumption of the meat of quadrupeds.
It was not before the European Renaissance that vegetarianism re-emerged in Europe
as a philosophical concept based on an ethical motivation. Among the first celebrities who
supported it were Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). In the
17th century the paramount theorist of vegetarianism was the English writer Thomas Tryon
In the United States, there were small groups of Christian vegetarians in the 18th century.
The best known of them was Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, a religious community
founded by Conrad Beissel in 1732. Benjamin Franklin (one of the Founding Fathers of the
United States) became a vegetarian at the age of 16, but later on he reluctantly returned to
meat eating. He is later believed to have introduced Tofu to America in 1770.
During the Age of Enlightenment and in the early nineteenth century, England was
the place where vegetarian ideas were more welcome than anywhere else in Europe, and the
English vegetarians were particularly enthusiastic about the practical implementation of their
principles. In England, Reverend William Cowherd founded the Bible Christian Church in
1809. Cowherd advocated vegetarianism as a form of temperance and was one of the
philosophical forerunners of the Vegetarian Society. English vegetarians were a small but
highly motivated and active group. Many of them believed in a simple life and "pure" food,
humanitarian ideals and strict moral principles. Vegetarianism was frequently associated with
cultural reform movements, such as Temperance and Anti-Vivisection. It was propagated as
an essential part of "the natural way of life." Some of its champions sharply criticized the
civilization of their age and strove to improve public health.
Even the Islam traditions mention about the virtues and health benefits of several fruits
and vegetables like olives, black seeds and dates.
Mahatma Gandhi was, perhaps, India’s most famous exponent of vegetarianism. Gandhi
sought to draw a close association between the practice of vegetarianism and the observance
of non-violence, understood both as the renunciation of violence and positively as conduct
leading to the good of others. Gandhi attached great importance to diet, and argued
vigorously that vegetarianism was more conducive to a life led according to the precepts of
Now the ethics of being a vegetarian can be very well derived from what Mahatma
Gandhi said, “Ethically they had arrived at the conclusion that man's supremacy over lower
animals meant not that the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should
protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two as between man and
man. They had also brought out the truth that man eats not for enjoyment but to live.” The
Gandhian thought had a profound impact on the Western world and contributed to the
popularization of vegetarianism in the Western countries.
Contrary to the popular notion that eating meat was an essential step in human evolution,
leading scientists and anthropologists have pointed out that “Humans are Natural
Vegetarians”. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus at Cornell University explains that
the inclusion of meat in our diet came well after we became who we are today. Dr. Neal
Barnard says in his book, 'The Power of Your Plate', in which he explains that "early humans
had diets very much like other great apes, which is to say a largely plant-based diet, drawing
on foods we can pick with our hands.
Renowned paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey explains the essential herbivores traits of
human beings by noting that "you can't tear flesh by hand, you can't tear hide by hand.... We
wouldn't have been able to deal with food source that required those large canines". Dr.
William C. Roberts, editor of the American Journal of Cardiology writes, "Although we think
we are, and we act as if we are, human beings are not natural carnivores. When we kill
animals to eat them, they end up killing us, because their flesh, which contains cholesterol
and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores."
Ample evidence from science proves that when we choose to eat meat, that causes
problems, from decreased energy and a need for more sleep to increased risk for obesity,
diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There is a growing inclination on the part of people across
the world towards naturopathy, Ayurveda, Siddha, Homeopathy and other traditional forms
of alternate medicines.
Last word: I would like to sum up my thoughts with three quotes from three different
personalities in the history.
Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), Russian novelist; author of War and Peace said:
"A human can be healthy without killing animals for food. Therefore if he eats meat he
participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite."
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), Swiss-German scientist; author of the theories of relativity,
"Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as
much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." “It is my view that the vegetarian manner of
living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially
influence the lot of mankind.”
However, it was Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), considered as the ‘Father of the Nation’
by Indians, who took vegetarianism to the next level by observing:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its
animals are treated.”
Let the Gandhian thoughts and the spirit of vegetarianism live!
The talk was delivered on August 9, 2014 during the 9th Annual Veggie Fest held in Chicago.