Tuesday, February 14, 2006


There was a post on Sepia Mutiny blog a few days ago about being vegetarian in the USA and related stuff. The post and the many different comments to it, got me thinking about the issue. I was a "non-vegetarian" till February of last year and changed my preferences since then, thanks to a video made by PETA showing the gruesome treatment of animals on the factory farms here in USA. After that friends asked me a lot of questions and there was a lot of skepticism and some appreciation too. I guess the typical questions were:

Q> So no meat huh? It is simply not possible to live without meat in the US man! In India it is fine but not here.
A> I don't think so. It has been really fine till now.

Q> How can you eat only ghaas-phuus (a Hindi term for leaves and grass)?
A> Well given the fact that I ate primarily that for the first 22 years of my life, (till then I was in India and very rarely ate chicken or mutton prepared the Indian way... tandoori etc.) I guess I will be fine. To one guy who expressed total disgust at a delicious dish I was eating, I have said, "well ghaas-phuus is better than rotting carcasses". But that was just mean.

Q> PETA video huh! What rubbish! It's all part of nature man! Big fish eat small fish... Tiger eats the cow... Your vegetables were also alive you know!
A> I know! I never said that I am against eating "non-living" beings. I only stated where I wanted to draw my line (Eating vegetables only. Oh! And also milk and eggs once in a while). I know some Indian friends who eat all other meat (Chicken, duck, fish etc.) but don't eat beef or pork. They are drawing their own line where to stop and I am drawing mine.

As the one of the comments to the SM post pointed out, there are primarily four reasons people are/become vegetarians:
  1. Religious precepts - as with jains, amritdhaari sikhs, jews, muslims, vaishnavs etc.
  2. Incompatibility with dietary requirements - allergies, performance maximization, weight management
  3. Anti-vivisection principles (I take this to mean that someone is against slaughtering of animals but not due to his/her religion)
  4. Psychosomatic aversion - general nausea associated with odor, texture etc
BTW, there is a lot of gradation between "Vegans" and "Non-vegetarians". You can check it out here. I guess I am a "lacto-ovo vegetarian". My reasons fall somewhere in between #1 and #3. In my family my mother and sister have always been vegetarians. My father tried all kinds of meat in his youth and later stopped eating meat. My wife has always been a strong vegetarian. In her case probably all of the four reasons above apply. My family neither encouraged me to eat meat nor did they oppose me when I did.

Reasons #2 and #4 don't apply either. The reason I stopped eating meat was I could not stand the way in which animals were treated before/during the slaughter. So that would strictly fall under #3. Someone pointed out to me that there are alternatives to that and I could eat ethically raised and slaughtered animals instead (like free-range chicken, pasture grazed cows etc.). In principle, yes! But I don't want to do that because it is hard to verify that everywhere I eat (I don't cook meat at home) and it is much simple not to eat meat at all.

Recently I have been reading a lot about Buddhism and practicing meditation with Happy Valley Sangha, thus becoming a culturally Hindu, practicing Buddhist and religiously confused person. That has added a "religious" angle to my being vegetarian as well. People often ask me if Hindus/Buddhists are strict vegetarians. The answer is No! Non-violence is one of the precepts to be followed by practicing Buddhist as well as practicing Yogis (those who follow Patanjali's system of yoga). Thich Nhat Hanh has explained this precept very well in one of his talks. I am paraphrasing it here.
Suppose you are lost in a forest and you want to go north to reach certain destination, you should follow the north star. This does not however mean that you expect to reach the north star. You expect to reach north, following the north star is only a tool or guidance to go north. Practicing non-violence is like that. You want to make sure that you are causing the least amount of harm to living beings. That does not however mean that you will be able to cause "no harm at all". Non-violence helps you to achieve your spiritual goal. The greater your diligence in practicing it, the greater will be the reward. The greater your diligence in following the north star, the earlier you will reach your destination.
There is another argument that I heard very recently about Vegetarianism. I attended a lecture about the ecological footprint and the speaker argued that one way of reducing your ecological footprint is to reduce meat consumption or become vegetarian. The reason is, the amount of energy that goes in to produce meat (and store, transport it etc.) is many time more than the amount of energy one get out of it. For vegetables and grains the ratio is smaller and in some cases less than 1. I am looking for this data and if it is really true, it would add another dimension to my being a vegetarian. My research into this will also be a new post soon.

I was a bit hesitant about writing this post. I don't like "evangelizing" about Vegetarianism. It sometimes evokes a very strong reaction among people. I personally wouldn't want to be told what to eat and what not to either. But there are some people who get offended even when I am not evangelizing about it; e.g. when I ask the waiter about the vegetarian choices they have, others at the table get annoyed. It's as if I am doing a horrible crime by asking about it. Among Indians (especially some FOBs) there is something about eating meat and being cool. I have seen reactions which amounted to: "vegetarian huh! What a sissy!". (BTW, I have observed a similar sentiment about booze). I have learned to ignore such reactions.

Ultimately, how much your choices matter to you depends on what purpose they serve and how strong your commitment to the purpose is. I really admire Americans and Europeans who have been raised in a non-vegetarian culture but have become vegetarian for a principle. Their belief in the principle (be it ethical/environmental or some other) is strong enough to influence their choices. But I have no beef (or chapatti) with those to whom it's simply a choice and doesn't serve any other purpose than filling the tummy. I have had a chance to "taste" both sides and I have to say that both are equally yummy. Since now though, I am sticking with the veggies.

Update (03/10/06): My follow-up post about vegetarianism and its impact on environment is here.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post ..