What makes Indian vegetarians different from Westerners who have given up meat?


PHOTO/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

In the West, it’s an act of rebellion. In India, it’s largely driven by conformity to traditional social norms.

To the world, India is often known as the land of Gandhi, spiritualism, and yoga – three sets of beliefs and practices closely associated with some form of vegetarianism. They have played a role in creating the widely held assumption that Indians are vegetarians.

Though India has the largest population of vegetarians worldwide, it is a predominantly meat-eating nation. Nevertheless, vegetarianism is both a powerful norm, and an important performance, both of which are central to a person’s claim to high status in the largely caste-based Indian worldview. As a desired attribute of so-called upper caste groups, vegetarian norms are so desirable that they enforce periodic ritual abstinence even among frequent meat eaters.

Vegetarianism is also present in several societies outside India, especially in the West where a small but increasing number of people aspire to live without consuming meat. The roots of vegetarianism both in India and in the West lie in a comparable time period. Vegetarianism started becoming an aspired value in the South Asian region around the seventh century BCE in Hindu scriptures, and a few centuries later in Jain and Buddhist texts and practices.

In Europe, the earliest mention of the virtues of vegetarianism is found in the works of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (sixth century BCE), who propagated a meatless diet. In fact, vegetarians in Europe were called Pythagoreans until the founding of The Vegetarian Society in Ramsgate, England in 1847, and the American Vegetarian Society in New York City in 1850. However, similarities between Indian and western vegetarianism end here. While vegetarianism has been popular in India for a much longer period than in the West, the more important difference is that vegetarianism is led by, and leads to, very different worldviews in both places.

West: Vegetarianism for social justice

Although 19th century vegetarianism in Britain and the US was rooted in the Bible Christian Church, it has evolved in these two countries primarily through secular social movements. Four broad values have driven these movements: ethics and morality, environmental concerns, animal rights, and health and food safety. Barring the last one, the first three concerns are comparatively altruistic, and oriented towards a shared public good. Participants in vegetarian social movements transform themselves both in thought and behaviour, by changing not only their belief about food but also everyday consumption patterns. This is an extraordinary transformation because eating habits are one of the most resilient to change, especially those that involve excluding previously consumed food items completely.

In the West, to be a vegetarian is also to be against the general norms about food – it is often seen as a rebellious act opposed to long-standing cultural norms and expectations. Therefore, vegetarianism in the West is a lifestyle that involves a deep commitment to self-transformation, breaking away from everyday dietary preferences, going against the forces of socialisation, and rebelling against cultural norms – all for the sake of newly discovered ethics and concerns.

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