Why is vegetarianism in India linked to purity? -Nandini Rathi

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published Published on Jul 17, 2017   modified Modified on Jul 17, 2017
-The Indian Express

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.

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.  

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The Indian Express, 8 July, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/web-edits/why-is-vegetarianism-in-india-linked-to-purity/

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