The White Hindu has moved

The White Hindu has moved! This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Veg and Non-Veg

I haven't heard these terms much in America, but it is the way that Indians refer to being vegetarian or not vegetarian. I thought I'd talk a bit about the history of vegetarianism in India and Hinduism today.

Personally I been feeling very drawn to being Veg, my body seems to want it. For the last week or so I have stopped eating meat except for fish. For the time being I am still eating fish and animal products like eggs and milk. So I can't really call myself Veg yet, but I'm closer anyway.

According to Wikipedia, India is 31% vegetarian (this being something called lacto-vegetarian, which includes eating diary products except for eggs). Another 9% eat eggs. That number seemed low to me. I was surprised. Although Wikipedia seems to say that only 4% of Americans identify as vegetarian, so that puts the number in perspective. Then again, the article says some estimates put the number of Indian vegetarians at 20-42%. I wonder if the variation has to do with the definitions being used for vegetarian. In America, I know, there is a lot of variety of which things can be eaten.

I think in America we are often less cautious about animal products that wander into unexpected places. Gelatin in a variety of foods, chicken broth used for vegetable soups, or MacDonald's fries that have been fried in animal lard. It depends on the individual how strict she is going to be. According to the article, Indians are much, much more cautious about what is in food and packages of food and medicine are marked according to whether they have any animal product in them.

Two main reasons given for vegetarianism in India are 1) Ahimsa and 2) the belief that what we eat effects our personalities, minds, souls ("You are what you eat").

Ahimsa is a Sanskirt word meaning non-violence. It is listed by Krishna as one of the qualities of a great man. I've heard several people say that ahmisa is much more stressed in Buddhism than in Hinduism, but Hinduism has started to be affected by it through Buddhism. A history of ahimsa can be found here.

The wikipedia article on vegetarianism in India says: "Also, Hindus believe that one's personality is affected by the kind of food one consumes and eating flesh is considered bad for once's spiritual/mental well-being. It takes many more vegetables or plants to produce an equal amount of meat [10] many more lives are destroyed and more suffering is caused when meat is used as food [11]."

The analysis of the statistics say that the percentages of vegetarianism are much higher for Jains and Brahmans (55%).

Jainism is an off-shoot of Hinduism. Sometimes it is considered a separate religion and sometimes it is considered a branch. The standards of ahimsa are extremely strict. Ideally only fruits and vegetables that have naturally fallen to the ground can be eaten so as not to harm the plants by pulling things off.

Some commenters have mentioned before that different degrees of Veg or non-Veg are expected for different castes. This seems to relate to the idea that what we eat is related to who we are and what we do.

Hinduism is a religion that is beautifully grounded in consequences. A good reason for Veg diet and ahimsa is the law of karma (law of action). It is better for our sanskara to limit the amount of killing or suffering we are causing.

Also, getting a bit off topic, the belief in reincarnation makes the consequences of everything more important. The long-term sustainability of a meat-less diet and the help to the environment is really important because Hindus cannot just shrug and figure that the long-term consequences won't effect them. Because we live over and over again, the damages that happen to the environment now are things we will have to deal with ourselves when we are reborn, not just something our children or grandchildren will have to deal with.

Now, in Vedic times animal sacrifices were part of the larger worships. The way that animals were killed is called jhaṭkā . The article doesn't say, but presumably this is a method of killing an animal which is more humane. One of the concerns with eating meat is that the fear that the animal felt in its last moments of life would be transferred into those who ate it. Meat that is sometimes eaten is often lamb meat. Never beef for any Hindus, as far as I know.

I'm sure that you've heard that the cow is sacred. Well, all animals and all people and all everything is sacred! The cow is special because the cow is so generous and provides us with the gift of milk, ghee, cheese, yoghurt, etc.

The transition from the culture of animal sacrifices to valuing ahimsa seems to give support to the idea that Hinduism was influenced by its off-shoot, Buddhism. Now, none of these articles has said what is common for those of the Kshatriya(warrior) caste to eat and I would suspect they were the ones doing most of the animal sacrifices in ancient times. And certainly there is plenty of hunting going on by this caste in the great epics.

Some Vaishnavas (one of the major branches of Hinduism) also stay away from garlic, onions, and other overly-stimulating foods. Someone mentioned here earlier that ISKON avoids those things and they are a Vaishnava organization. This has to do with the guna of food. I'll have to do a post on the gunas soon!

So, there is my overview of Veg and non-Veg. Please, feel free to comment and correct or clarify what I have found.


  1. Your article is nice and almost correct. But one sentence "Now, in Vedic times animal sacrifices were part of the larger worships.".
    There might have been animal sacrifices but Vedic literature don't depict/allow it. In Vedic time two most widely performed sacred worships were Yajna and Havanam. Wiki have short notes on it.

  2. i can't say with certainty but going by the meaning of the word jhatka possibly refers to beheading with one single swing .

    failing to do so is a huge bad omen.

    and animal sacrifice still happens mostly in shakti pujas , though admittedly much less in number compared to a century ago.

    - basu

  3. aamba,

    I really enjoyed this post. It was very informative.

    I wonder if some Hindus choose vegetarianism simply because meat is more expensive in India and because they have learned to live in a a lifestyle of culinary foods that are more veg friendly and they have never really incorporated meat into their diet.

    Adi's parents eat meat once every week to two weeks only. He says that they have just always eaten veg and that meat in their house is seen as more of a delicacy and therefore is only eaten in just a couple of meals. Of course they don't eat beef.

    I'm glad you feel like you are ready to go veg. I wish I could and maybe I will when I move to India(for convenience), but right now it just won't work for me.


  4. Personally for me I think half the time, I'm vegetarian (no eggs or anything that contains eggs such as biscuits, noodles, ice cream just to name a few). I really have no problem with gelatin (though sometimes it concerns me) but apparently our body makes the same proteins as ones found in gelatin. Alternate uses for gelatin is usually seaweed. I can't stand the smell of raw meat and I never touch raw meat, so when we do have meat at home, my mum will do the cutting. But we've recently deceided to go back to how we use to be before moving to Australia, which was strictly no cooking meat in the house.

    Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and the concept of non-violence has always been there in Sanatana Dharma but I think the Buddhists practiced it more to a certain extent. The higher 3 castes were definitely asked to practice vegetarianism and it was the belief that the fourth caste consumed meat. But that is also changing now. And I also think that if one was a vegetarian back in the day, that was meant he/she was of higher caste.

    On Mondays/Pradhosam/Matha-Shivarathri (all of those days belong to Lord Shiva) I fast as Lord Shiva is my Ista-Devata, take no food except at night which is Veg. That helps greatly in becoming a complete vegetarian.

    I don't know if it's fair to say that becoming vegetarian is a fad now. All those PETA ads make me want to cringe and slap the campaigners. Not for promoting Veg but for using half or almost naked celebrities and models to get their message across. It's consumerism at it's worst using the over cliched term that sex sells.

    p.s Would you mind doing a post on Ista-Devata? Who is yours if you don't mind my asking? =)

  5. Hi Aamba,

    Please read this .

  6. I am quite certain that there is no eating of beef in the Vedas and I never said that there was. I do believe that there are animal sacrifices, but as I said, as part of large, less common ceremonies. This page is one of a several I found that say there are references to animal sacrifices in the Vedas: "Animal sacrifice is very clear in the Vedas as a part of the rituals. The Rig Veda has several very clear references to animal sacrifices. In a reference to the sacrifice of a goat it says (1.162.2) “The dappled goat goes straight to heaven, bleating to the place dear to Indra and to Pusan.” In one of the hymns to the horse (1.162.9-11) it says, “What part of the steed’s flesh the fly does not eat or is left sticking to the post or hatchet, or to the slayer’s hands and nails adheres, among the Gods, too may all this be with thee. Food undigested steaming from his belly and any odor of raw flesh that remains, let the immolators set in order and dress the sacrifice with perfect cooking. What from thy body which with fire is roasted when thou art set upon the spit distills let not that lie on earth or grass neglected, but to the longing Gods let all be offered.” "

    Now, I don't think that the Vedas or any book needs to be taken word for word as the right way. I think that's part of the beauty of Hinduism, that there isn't a book that tells you everything, direct from the mouth of God, thousands of years out of date.

    Dhurga, I will start thinking about and composing a post about Ista-Devata. That is a great idea!

  7. Ahimsa

    Ahimsa comes in 108 Upanishads. Rishi Shandilya questions Atharvan and Ahimsa is explained.

    Under Yama (forbearance) are ten: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Daya, Arjava,Kshama, Dhriti, Mitahara and Saucha. Of these, Ahimsa is the not causing of any pain to any living being at any time through the actions of one’s mind, speech, or body. Satya is the speaking of the truth that conduces to the well-being of creatures, through the actions of one’s mind, speech, or body.................................

  8. @kat

    I would like to make a correction here,
    if you will observe closely most of the Indians who are vegetarian are living in states which have comparatively higher GDP like Maharashtra,Gujrat,Harayna etc.

    So Indians who are vegetarian are mostly because of the cultural upbringings or may be because of personal choice :)

  9. Hi All,
    I am a "born' vegetarian.Meaning I was raised a vegetarian as were my parents and grand parents.but I must say I am not that strict a vegetarian as my ancestors were.Because I have to go to birthday parties[yes ,they are ubiquitious now,not when I was a kid:I had never had B'day parties,nor any of our siblings].birthday parties go hand in hand with a Cake[made of eggs along with the rest of the ingredients.I also eat more onions and Garlic than my parents... The choice was made by communities then,nowadays the choice is with individuals,but we ask our children to be careful what they put into their mouth,especially at parties that offer both kinds of food.There are traditional nonveg eating families/communities too among all the castes. For ex. Kashmiri and Bengali Brahmins eat N.V. cuisine. I don't know about how they follow vratas,but generally ,i find meat is taboo on Amavasya,fridays and tuesdays and any other vrata days.

  10. I guess we are missing forests for the trees here. The question is not fundamentally about whether hinduism/christanity or whatever religion allows for meat consumption or not. It's more about whether we as a human race will continue to sacrifice & brutally murder animals for our own trivial interests such as gustatory pleasures. Who gave us the power to behead animals just because we can do so? If you are a staunch supporter of survival of the fittest theory, you might then like the idea of a much more technologically advanced species of aliens descending upon this earth & tearing apart human babies for their ingestion. The idea is to have compassion & mercy towards other species who definitely own this Earth as much as we do.

    You might want to read more about my views on the same on my blog.

  11. I love animals they are so tasty so dont worry eat them or else their population will increase and they will start attacking us..

  12. Hahaha, interesting justification. :) I just personally can't stand the thought of putting meat in my body at the moment. I'm not sure where that's coming from, but I'm going to continue to follow that instinct.

  13. Aamba,

    This seems to be an old post but an interesting one indeed! Started reading your blog only recently so my comments are coming a little or very late! :)

    I was born in a Vaishnava household that always avoided cooking garlic, onions, drumsticks and foods like these. As a kid I was told that I will have no control over my senses if I did consume these kind of foods. However, after I started my quest on Sanathana Dharma this is what I concluded. However, I may be incorrect and I would request you/your readers to correct me.

    Brahmins in those days were people who transferred knowledge to the people. They offered lessons about the Brahm and they taught people to take certain steps to lead a peaceful life. However, they were not those who would have to fight a war or those who would have to work on the field to grow rice/wheat. So, their work involved thinking and less of physical labour. Whereas the other 2 sections had to do a lot of physical work and hence were able to digest food like meat easily.

    Glory to Sriman Narayana!

    - Nithya

    1. Ah, I had not really thought about the other castes eating meat to maintain more strength. That seems very plausible to me!

      This veg and non-veg thing continues to be an issue for me. I continue to not be certain how important being veg is. I've been both and haven't been able to discern a difference in how I feel, so it seems to come down to moral arguments for me.