The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations ranks India as the second-lowest consumer of meat in the world (4.4 kg per person per year). Despite the clear rise in the consumption of meat in India, one can easily find delicious meat-free food as India has the highest number of vegetarians in the world, with more than 400 million people identifying themselves as a vegetarian.
Vegetarianism is deeply rooted in culture and religion.
Vegetarianism in India has its roots in Buddhism and Jainism and their emphasis on the concept of ahimsa or non-violence towards all living things - animals, insects, birds, and humans. Even many Hindus often shun the consumption of eggs, meat, and dairy products, making India a safe haven for not only vegetarians but also for vegans. Indian vegetarianism is not just about religious and cultural beliefs but also about the concern for health and the environment.
The History of Vegetarianism in the World
Before we delve deeper into the origin and practice of vegetarianism in India, let's find out how this popular dietary habit came about in the ancient world.
The Pythagorean Diet
The world mostly associates the Ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, with his celebrated mathematical theorem. However, did you know that, for centuries, Pythagoras was the accepted father of vegetarianism? Indeed, a meatless diet in the ancient and medieval world was referred to as a Pythagorean diet for years until the mainstream vegetarian movement of the modern world gained momentum in the mid-1800s.
Even before Pythagoras started advocating for a meatless diet, humans were believed to be vegetarians since well before recorded history. Many archaeologists and anthropologists are of the consensus that early humans would have eaten a predominantly plant-based diet as plants were much easier to procure in nature than animals or birds in the wild. Moreover, the human digestive system resembles that of herbivores, more than it does that of carnivorous animals.
Prehistoric man ate meat, of course, but plants formed the basis of his diet.
The main reasons why Pythagoras proposed and practiced vegetarianism were mainly due to religious and ethical objections. The philosopher believed that all living beings, including animals, had souls. Therefore, meat and fish found no place in his diet. However, strange as it may sound, Pythagoras also opposed the consumption of the harmless bean, a favorite among vegetarian eaters of the modern world. This was because of his belief that beans and humans were created from the same material. Pythagoras had a special dislike for fava beans for their hollow stems that could allow the souls of the dead to travel up from the soil into the growing beans!
India and Her History of Vegetarianism
India has been home to many origin stories of some of the world's most foremost religions. She is the homeland of Hinduism, a religion that traces its roots to the ancient Vedas. One of the chief tenets of the Vedas was ahimsa, which means non-injury or non-violence to animals and humans. The Sanskrit-speaking people of the Rig Vedic society venerated the cattle as their chief source of wealth. Eating meat was frowned upon in the Rig Veda and other ancient texts, now considered holy scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita. The Rig Vedic stanza, 10.87.16-19, speaks harshly of meat-eaters.
...Agni, from days of old thou slayest demons, never shall Rakshasa in fight overcome thee. Burn up the foolish ones, the flesh-devourers let none of them escape thine heavenly arrow...
In this stanza, Agni, the god of fire, is called upon to kill flesh eaters. In the rest of the stanza, there are more references about how meat-eaters should be dealt with. Elsewhere in the Rig Veda, plant-eating is praised as a noble deed.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach the doctrine of ahimsa. However, there were exceptions in various Buddhist texts regarding the prescription of meat and fish for certain health ailments. The Buddhists could eat, meat if offered, provided the animal was not killed specially for them. There are no such exceptions in Jainism. Jains follow the principle of ahimsa to the letter. Vegetarianism is mandatory for every practicing Jain.
The vegetarian practices in ancient India were known far and wide in the ancient world. Both the Greek ambassador, Megasthenes, who visited India in the third century BCE, and the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hsien, who visited the subcontinent in the 5th century AD, observed that Indians refrained from eating meat.
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Casteism and Vegetarianism
Vegetarianism in contemporary India is a continuation of dietary traditions and beliefs central to Brahmanism and the caste system of the ancient Vedic society. Upper caste communities, barring a few, are expected to strictly maintain vegetarianism, while such restrictions seldom apply to the so-called lower castes. However, most Hindus belonging to the upper castes, at least those in urban India, have generously taken to non-vegetarian foods as well!
Some commentators suggest that Hinduism owes its resurgent vegetarianism to Jainism and Buddhism.
Vegetarianism in modern India has evolved in two ways. The first pertains to the Brahmanical conformity and caste sensibilities, especially followed by the traditionally vegetarian upper castes. The second evolutionary pathway has seen the adoption of vegetarianism through the influence of populist religo-spiritual cults, headed by gurus (Ramdev, Sathya Sai, and many others), and thriving across India in recent times.
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Popular Indian Vegetarian Dishes
At a superficial level, one may find similarities between Indian vegetarian food and Indian non-vegetarian food because most dishes have gravy in them. This gravy is usually prepared with vegetables like onions and tomatoes, and, sometimes, with cashews or spinach. Many different spices are added to the gravy to give it a unique flavor.
Most vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes in India are either eaten with rice or flatbread (roti). The dishes that are prepared dry (without gravy) are called sabzis. These are roasted vegetables prepared with a myriad of spices. Here are our top picks in vegetarian foods in India!
A favorite sabzi in many Indian households, aloo (potato) gobi (cauliflower) is a dry dish that is typically spiced with turmeric, curry leaves, and sometimes kalonji (fennel). The yellow color of the dish is derived from the addition of turmeric powder, with garlic, ginger, onion, coriander, tomatoes, peas, and cumin rounding off the flavor.
Dal or lentil soup, in its varied local forms, is one of the staple dishes across the length and breadth of India. Dal is usually seasoned with turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, asafoetida, and red chilies. Typically, there are 3 popular versions of the dish in India, namely, yellow dal, green dal, and black dal.
A flavorful and delicious vegetarian alternative to meatballs, malai kofta is prepared with a combination of potatoes, a mixture of vegetables, paneer, heavy cream, and spices, formed into balls. The koftas are stuffed with chopped nuts and raisins, deep-fried, and served in well-seasoned gravy.
A favorite accompaniment for roti lovers, palak paneer is a healthy and delicious dish made with cubes of pan-fried paneer (cottage cheese), simmered in a spinach-based gravy. The whole preparation is seasoned with fenugreek leaves, onion, garlic, tomato, and unique Indian spices.
This one is another popular vegetarian dish in India. Matar is the Hindi word for peas, the primary ingredient in this preparation, along with paneer (cottage cheese), of course. Matar paneer is cooked with traditional Indian spices, such as coriander, cumin, turmeric, and garam masala, and usually served with naan or roti.
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What was once a popular street food of Mumbai, pav bhaji has now entered the modern Indian household as a wholesome vegetarian meal. It includes a sauce that is made from an assortment of vegetables, such as potato, cauliflower, tomato, and peas, along with a toasted, buttered bun.
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Vegetarianism: India's Gift to the World
Tracing the history of vegetarianism in India, we have come to learn that it was the practice of Jainism, particularly under the 23rd Tirthankar, Vardhaman Mahavira, almost 2,500 years ago, who preached an extreme form of ahimsa, that led to the widespread acceptance of the vegetarian diet in the subcontinent. Mahavira's contemporary, the Buddha, was also a proponent of ahimsa. However, the Buddha was more practical in his outlook and allowed Buddhist monks to eat any food put in their alms bowl, including cooked meat.
Since the times of the Buddha and Mahavira, vegetarianism has risen in prominence in India, even among the Hindus. Many Brahmin and trading communities across the country adopted a vegetarian diet. These traders spread the message of non-violence to other countries, beyond the shores of India, on their travels. Thus, it can be said that vegetarianism was India's gift to the world.