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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