There is often an element of sacrifice associated with vegetarianism. In the Christian world, people abstain from eating meat during Lent as a gesture of piety. It is their way of showing God how devoted they are to him. Of course, the devotion has its limits. In medieval Europe, it was considered okay to eat fish during Lent so, many of France’s many man-made lakes were created only so that fish could be bred to be consumed during Lent.
And as the Church grew more corrupt, rich people could buy special dispensations from priests and monks that allowed them to roast a pig or slaughter a sheep during Lent.
In India too, we give up meat to show our devotion to God. I know many full-blooded non-vegetarians who will refuse to eat meat on say, Tuesday, on the grounds that they devote that day to respect of a god or a goddess. It is not that the deity objects to non-vegetarianism, they say. It is more that they want to give up something they otherwise enjoy as a pious gesture on that day.
And then, of course, there are the caste associations. On the whole, Brahmins will not eat meat. (Though there are notable exceptions like the Brahmins of Kashmir and Bengal.) So, if they are going to be part of a religious ceremony presided over by a Brahmin—a pooja, for instance—Hindus will stay vegetarian that day. And there are festivals, like the Navratras, that require people to be vegetarian as a gesture of faith and respect.
So, there has always been an element of virtue-signalling to vegetarianism, both in India and abroad. It is an easy way of showing our respect to God. And, in India at least, there have also been caste associations. It isn’t just brahmins. Even baniyas, a prosperous trading caste, much given to long poojas and the building of temples, will abjure meat-eating in all circumstances.
There are some regional variations too but perhaps we make too much of them. We say that Gujaratis are vegetarians but, in truth, only some Hindu Gujaratis are vegetarian, depending on caste. Brahmins and baniyas (vaniyas in Gujarat) are vegetarians. But lower castes and tribals are not as fussy about what they eat. Nor are Gujarati Rajputs. And as for Gujarati Muslims, they have outstanding non-vegetarian cuisines.
But, there is one kind of Gujarati who is always a vegetarian: the Gujarati Jain, my own community. Jainism has complicated rules about what we can eat: vegetables that grow underground are a no-no. So, potatoes are out. In my grandfather’s house in Ahmedabad, for instance, no garlic or onions were allowed even though the cooks (maharajs) tended not to be Jains. They were often Hindus from the Gujarat-Rajasthan border.
My parents ignored (in later life; they were brought up as vegetarians) the dictates of vegetarianism and my grandparents grew to accept that they ate meat.
But, I still remember, when I was young, that Gujaratis of my grandfather’s generation would treat non-vegetarianism on par with the consumption of alcohol. Whenever we heard about somebody’s son who had ‘ruined his life’, it wasn’t just alcohol that was the culprit. Meat-eating was also involved.
As this went on, a new rule was made up. You could be a non-vegetarian if you liked. But, no meat would be allowed in the house. You could go to a restaurant and eat your keema-mattar but when you were at home, it was always dal-bhaat-rotli-shaak, as we Gujaratis say.
So, many wealthy Gujaratis led double lives. My mother had a very sophisticated uncle who maintained an account at the Rendezvous at the Mumbai Taj in the 1960s (then, the fanciest French restaurant in India) where he would order lobster thermidor and lamb cutlets. But at his own house, he would only eat dal-dhokli and other Gujarati dishes.
I imagine that this was as true of wealthy baniyas from other communities. The Willingdon Club calls its now famous egg-on-toast dish Eggs Kejriwal after a baniya gentleman who wasn’t allowed to eat eggs at home. So, he would come to the Willingdon and order his eggs.
Having grown up around so many vegetarians (or part-time vegetarians), I understand their mentality and the virtue-signalling that their vegetarianism implied. But I also know that most of India is non-vegetarian, but to different and sometimes, surprising degrees.
For instance, Punjabis, regarded by Gujaratis as hardcore non-vegetarians, are actually mostly vegetarian. Meat is not part of every meal, and even when it is served, it is just one of several dishes on the table. Bengalis, I discovered when I went to live in Kolkata, are hardcore non-vegetarians. Nearly every meal will contain meat, chicken or fish. And often there will be more than one non-vegetarian item.
All this has made me wary of generalisations about vegetarianism because there are relatively few Indians who will always insist on meat. And there are some (fewer and fewer as demographics change) who say that they will never eat meat under any circumstances.
So, it is with mounting horror that I have watched a bogus India-is-vegetarian orthodoxy develop over the last few years. The truth is that India has never been a truly vegetarian country. Archaeological evidence suggests that meat-eating was always part of the Hindu tradition. Ancient texts refer to dishes made with frogs, lizards, reptiles, peacocks and many kinds of animals and birds that we would never eat today. The most prominent hardcore vegetarians were always the Jains and it has even been suggested that it was the influence of Jainism that made Hindus attach virtues to 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 never eat any meat, chicken or fish is a mere 16.6 per cent. These figures are for the age group 15 to 49 and they also reveal that despite all the political propaganda, more and more Indians are turning non-vegetarian. In the 2016 survey, the figure of men who were totally vegetarian was 21.6 per cent. It is five per cent lower this time showing that there is actually a move away from vegetarianism.
There are reasonable explanations for the decline in vegetarianism. More people are eating so-called ‘outside food’ each year—at restaurants, at hotels, at thelas, through delivery operations and by trying pre-packaged foods. As the opportunities increase and the options expand, they will, naturally enough, be tempted to try new foods—often, of the non-vegetarian variety.
I make no value judgments about this trend. People should be allowed to eat what they like. Only people who don’t know what good food is can politicise it.
But can we please stop going on and on about how vegetarianism is essential to the Hindu tradition? It is not. And, can we stop proclaiming how virtuous it is to be vegetarian?
Because, frankly, as the figures demonstrate, nobody is listening.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
For the difference between veganism and vegetarianism please see my other column The Taste from a couple of weeks ago.