Why is vegetarianism in India linked to purity?

Purity, pollution, authority, and tradition were found to be the chief concerns of Indian vegetarians, as per a 2013 study, as opposed to universalism, animal and environmental welfare which concern vegetarians elsewhere.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: July 8, 2017 3:41 pm
vegetarian india, vegetarian caste, non vegetarian india Image for representational purposes.

Vegetarianism in the west frequently corresponds with progressive, eco-friendly instincts such as sustainability, animal welfare, ethicality and inclusivity. It therefore should have been a matter of pride that nearly 30 per cent of Indian population, as per the sample registration system (SRS) baseline survey 2014, are vegetarians — a number vastly greater than any other country. Indian vegetarianism, however, manifests with markedly different values — and one of its signature features is to cultivate a social distance from non-vegetarian food and non-vegetarian people.

The question is why do vegetarians in India prefer distance from non-vegetarians — if not in general proximity then at least in their kitchens and dining areas. It bears some introspection especially when meat has become a prominent source of contention, repression and violence, along the lines of caste and religion.  

Such a behavior is frequently observed even among educated young people, especially when they look for people to share urban living spaces with. In a shared situation, a non-vegetarian is often expected to at least not ‘pollute’ and ‘contaminate’ the shared kitchen by bringing in non-vegetarian food items. In fact, it is true, as per the sample survey above, that urban India is more vegetarian than rural India.

Tiffin policing or ‘guidelines’ in Indian schools and workplaces is also not unheard of. In many urban schools, parents are instructed to pack appropriate (vegetarian) food in their wards’ lunch boxes. Many workplace canteens also serve and ‘request’ their employees to carry only vegetarian food in their dabbas, such as at the company headquarters of the multinational company, Essar, in Mumbai. In April 2014, a notice was issued to the employees of The Hindu asking them to refrain from bringing non-vegetarian food into the office canteen as “all are aware” that “it causes discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian”.

The issue of course is why some individuals must be socially coerced to deviate from and change their normal, regular diet in purportedly egalitarian spaces. Ethical vegetarianism, which is primarily based on concern for the environment and fellow creatures — animals and humans — does not quite account for the strong, visceral belief in ‘pollution’ and attempts at tweaking another person’s eating behavior. The latter has time and again begotten discrimination and violence towards non-dominant, non-Brahmin cultures  — quite contrary to the non-violence or ahimsa inherent in vegetarianism globally.  

“The morals of Indian vegetarians continue to be based less on compassion for humans and animals and more driven by ideas of hierarchy and purity,” writes Suryakant Waghmore, professor of sociology at IIT Bombay.  Echoing that, a joint study conducted by researchers in US, Canada and India in 2013 found that vegetarianism in North America and India differed in the respect that while among American and Canadian vegetarians, the primary concerns were universalism, animal and environmental welfare, among their Indian counterparts, it was purity, pollution, authority, and tradition. The study also found that Indian vegetarians did not differ significantly from their omnivorous fellow Indians in possessing heightened concerns for animals or the environment.  

Food practices, until a few years ago, were generally confined to the domestic sphere, and thought of as having little importance, yet rules of interdining, besides intermarriage, (“roti-beti”) have been at the heart of enforcing caste and religion distinctions. A look at caste-wise food preferences shows that higher the caste, the greater the possibilities of their being pure vegetarians. Similarly, the number of non-vegetarians among scheduled caste and scheduled tribe is far greater than in any other caste. In other words, there is a certain hegemony of higher caste palettes and eating habits in public spheres in urban India, which is expected to be accepted by all, without questions.

In case of vegetarian canteens and dining halls, many favouring the idea assert that the matter is simply about respecting the vegetarians and sparing them the discomfort and that it wasn’t about denying or restricting the non-vegetarians. The argument of “respect others” is frequently employed as a sacrosanct defense of any questioning of hegemony, to nip in the bud any rational discussion about rationales behind exclusionary vegetarianism. Instead, we need to ask ourselves why the ideas of ‘pollution’ and ‘purity’ are unquestioningly accepted and why an instinct of disgust for non-vegetarian food is blindly cultivated — even by the younger, modern, educated lot — when it only supports an inane, outdated exclusion, often along the lines of caste and religion. Many are indeed not sure why they react that way, except for the fact that they were raised to do so. Above all, the exclusivity achieves nothing for non-violence at the heart of vegetarianism.

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  1. R
    Ron Bhattacharya
    Jul 10, 2017 at 5:50 pm
    Gosh, where are you getting your data manufactured IE?! Less than 10 in India are vegetarians!
    Reply
    1. R
      Ron Bhattacharya
      Jul 10, 2017 at 5:51 pm
      > 10
      Reply
      1. P
        Punekar
        Jul 10, 2017 at 11:17 pm
        How was your Ilish maccher jhaal?
    2. A
      Amit Deshmukhe
      Jul 10, 2017 at 9:28 am
      If a person brought up in non-veg food eating family, no one can prove that she would react any differently, than vegetarian, if she knew she is eating an animal. The research studies can reach results as per expectations. If you search you will get studies telling otherwise than whatever mentioned in this article.
      Reply
      1. D
        dhruv
        Jul 9, 2017 at 10:54 am
        All indian vegeterians are racist and casteist b.i.g.o.ts.
        Reply
        1. Z
          Zina
          Jul 9, 2017 at 12:24 pm
          All indian non-vegeterians are racist and casteist b.i.g.o.ts.
          Reply
          1. A
            Arvind
            Jul 9, 2017 at 4:39 pm
            According to you somehow killing animals makes you less racist - dumb- thinking
            Reply
          2. S
            Sven Smalgand
            Jul 9, 2017 at 4:38 am
            So now we the MSM has created "good vegetarian" and "bad vegetarian" by resorting to a strawman argument. Ritually purity exists in many religions and is enforced in public eating places in many cultures. In Arab countries during Ramadan everyone fasts and I doubt one can have pork chops for lunch brought from home in any cafeteria of any corporation in the Middle East. Many ins utions will enforce kashruth or kosher laws in Israel. The author is mistaken that vegetarianism in India is not based on environment. Has she read any of the scriptures and read what they say about the practice of ahimsa in diet? Unfortunately this sort of article says more about the poor research done by journalists and the lack of any coherent understanding of issues by various media personalities. A sorry state of affairs indeed.
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            1. A
              Amit Deshmukhe
              Jul 10, 2017 at 9:31 am
              Yes indeed
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            2. S
              sahil
              Jul 9, 2017 at 2:42 am
              Purely due to the implementation of manu-smrt by brahmins
              Reply
              1. Z
                Zina
                Jul 9, 2017 at 12:24 pm
                Purely due to the implementation of manu-Ambedkretts
                Reply
                1. A
                  Arvind
                  Jul 9, 2017 at 4:40 pm
                  Nothing wrong with teachings that care for animals too.
                  Reply
                2. V
                  Varun
                  Jul 9, 2017 at 1:58 am
                  It is strange that Kashmiri Pundits relish -"Mutton Rogan Josh" but brahmins in the south won't even eat eggs.
                  Reply
                  1. V
                    Varun
                    Jul 9, 2017 at 1:49 am
                    "Pure" vegetarians are only averse to "impure" Indian non vegetarians . You can find these same Pure Veggies licking the boots of their White American masters when they go the US/UK for jobs. You can even find them jostling amongst each other desperate to be seated across their White Masters.
                    Reply
                    1. Z
                      Zina
                      Jul 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm
                      Another trolling non-veg hypocrite
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                      1. N
                        News Hound
                        Jul 10, 2017 at 7:24 am
                        Yes I completely agree with you Varun. India with it's eclectic diets varying across regions cannot afford to be discriminatory when it comes to food. Our diets are dependent on the weather terrain. In Nagaland, beetles fried insects are a delicacy which may be abhorred in other parts of India. In TN there is a snake catching tribe called Irula who subsist on rats. These are ecologically conscious methods but we tend to negate them in our quest for food purity. With a coastline of 3500 kms with numerous rivers other water bodies there are going to be people who consume meat in the form of sea food. Similarly Bengali Saraswat brahmins eat fish which is treated as kosher. This coerced vegetarianism will not wash in our country as food is primarily an individual's choice the State interfering in it smacks of deviousness in its dealings. As Jesus in the Bible states that what goes in to your body does not matter but what comes out from your heart mouth matters.
                        Reply
                      2. V
                        Varun
                        Jul 9, 2017 at 1:43 am
                        Another hypocritical stance of Indian vegetarians is the use of leather. Indian vegetarians don't mind leather seats in their cars , leather belts, leather purses , shoes...etc. They will even explicitly demand such products made of PURE leather . But when you point out their contradictions and hypocrisy , they will delude themselves and try to convince you that it is artificial leather.
                        Reply
                        1. Z
                          Zina
                          Jul 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm
                          Another trolling non-veg hypocrite
                          Reply
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                            Arvind
                            Jul 9, 2017 at 4:42 pm
                            Doing some good is better than doing none. Just because we use some animal products, doesn't mean we should kill and eat animals every day. Another Varun's dumb argument.
                            Reply
                            1. S
                              Shridhar Shettigar
                              Jul 10, 2017 at 7:51 am
                              He called you hypocrite...
                            2. M
                              Manjeet
                              Jul 10, 2017 at 10:13 am
                              Using animal leather doesn't mean, killing is endorsed. Killing of animals for leather is actually banned officially. Only leather from dead animal is used. So whats an issue in using the skin of dead animals? It is indeed great that they can be used after they die. So correct your notions regarding vegetarian peoples. They are animal phobic. They just not endorse killing some animal mercilessly for your eating.
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                                Ranjan Kumar
                                Jul 10, 2017 at 2:44 pm
                                What? Killing of animals for leather is banned in India? Where? By which laws? Yes, killing of some species is banned. For example, the most sought after leather is that of crocodile, which you are not allowed to. Otherwise, what is the legal issue in using leather from any cattle hide other than cow obtained from slaughtering for meat and leather. Which world you are living in? You must be a brain dead Modi bhakth. Hence these type of (mis)understandings.
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