This is my response to the cow in the caste, curry and cows view of India. A sizable population in India do not eat any meat. It is usually not a conscious choice, but just a tradition in most Hindu families. Meat eating has become a highly contentious issue in India where emotions on both sides run high. Any debate quickly gets heated and personal.
First, let me summarize the principal arguments that vegetarian people give and why I think none of them is a ‘clincher’.
Argument 1: vegetarian diet is more healthy
I think this is the weakest of all the arguments. There are plenty of examples of meat eating communities who enjoy good health and have a long life expectancy. Just look at Japan! I am sure one can design a healthy meat based diet and an unhealthy vegetarian diet.
Argument 2: meat eating is cruel to the animals
Consider this – just like strawberry picking, would you advocate taking kids to a slaughter house? After all, where food comes from is part of education. If your answer is no, then clearly you see something wrong with eating meat and the vegetarian sides wins. But if the answer is yes, then the argument fails.
Argument 3: meat eating is bad for the environment
For me this is the strongest argument against meat eating as it is prevalent today. I was shocked to learn recently from this amazing 2015 documentary, Racing Extinction (http://racingextinction.com/), that more greenhouse gases is generated by animal husbandry than all fossil fuel based transportation world wide! Where this argument gets problematic is that it is really a public policy issue related to farm subsidies, trade rules, vested interests of MNC food companies, etc. For an individual, to quit meat in the hope of impacting climate change would be equivalent to driving a Prius with the same motivation. Given the current state of affairs, any impact of either is most likely going to be too little and too late.
Now, before I proceed, lets take a step back and think about how unnatural it is for a whole population to be vegetarian.
Let us first admit that meat tastes good! I know many who tasted meat for the first time in college. And then they did their best to make up for the lost time! Eating meat certainly greatly expands your food options, especially if you travel outside India, and also a lot of creativity has gone into coming up with new preparation. The key factor though, might be that humans are wired to like meat. We have evolved from omnivores. Agriculture was most likely invented to safeguard against scarcity of meat. In other words, in ancient times, the food of choice was most likely meat, and farm produce was likely a fall back option or, at best, a side dish. That is how it is even today in almost all cuisines world wide, except in India.
In spite of the likely delicacy status of meat, India evolved to become a predominantly vegetarian culture. Why?
And we are not talking about meatless Mondays; we are talking about meatless. Period! And this is in spite of plenty of wild life and a conducive climate for hunting all year round. So scarcity of meat couldn’t have been the reason. Also it was also not by fiat of a king. There are vegetarian cuisines from different corners of the Indian subcontinent which were ruled by different kings in different periods.
Essentially a whole population of the scale of India voluntarily took to a vegetarian diet. I think this is truly amazing – vegetarianism is one of the great ideas of the Indian civilization, up there with zero!
The best explanation that I can think of is that giving up meat is one aspect of following the Dharmic principle of ahimsa (principle of least harm). In particular, the Jain tradition took this idea to its logical extreme, even avoiding eating certain plants.
At this point, I usually hear “oh, but plants also have life and feel pain.” I am not going to give the “plants do not have nervous system” response because I have no idea about it! All I will say is that this argument is more a reflection of your poor understanding of Dharma, than of your knowledge of plant biology or of your debating skills. Vegetarianism is neither an end goal nor a core principle of the Dharmic traditions. It is just one aspect of being compliant with the principles of Dharma. And remember that leading a Dharmic lifestyle is completely a matter of personal choice. No king or guru can, or, rather, is supposed to impose it on you. So if you are interested in why India adopted vegetarianism delve deeper into the different Dharmic philosophies, perhaps starting with Jainism.
And now its time for the disclaimers:
- I think this is one of those debates which technology will soon render pointless. Scientists are already growing meat in a petridish. The process just needs to be scaled up. Then growing meat would not involve killing any animal and will be just like farming – add water and chemicals and you have your food. As a colleague said – the future is tumor-on-a-stick!
- Finally, let me remind you of my motto – Your moksha is not my problem, and mine shouldn’t be yours! So what you eat is up to you. I have no interest in knowing or changing it.