The “pure veg” conundrum

Yet another storm is raging on social media with people going ballistic over Sudha Murty’s remarks on her efforts at maintaining her vegetarian food habits. This isn’t going to abate any time soon, as food habits provoke extreme reactions from either side involved: the vegetarians and the non-vegetarians.

Vegetarians like to use the term “pure veg” and it ticks off the non veg eaters no end. Vegetarianism is often associated with casteism and Brahmins in general, as using the term “pure” makes it liable to be part of the purity vs pollution debate. But only a third or so of so-called “upper castes” are actually vegetarian. And what do these people who see caste reasons in everything have to say about the rapidly rising graph of veganism and vegetarianism in the West?

I’m going to court some controversy here. In Hindu Puranic tales, Brahmins though predominantly vegetarian have for the most part not been shown as strict vegetarians. Take the famous Vatapi – Agasthya or Shukracharya – Kacha stories, for example. If you don’t know about it, look them up. Even the Buddha is supposed to have passed away due to ingestion of rotting meat offered to him. Kashmiri Brahmins are pretty voracious meat eaters, and Brahmins from the Konkan and Bengal do not even consider fish as non-veg.

This is not to say that Brahmins are supposed to eat meat. Vegetarian food of sattvik nature is recommended for them by the scriptures as it helps in spiritual pursuits. By and large, suffice to say that in earlier times, Brahmins were bound to accept what was offered to them as “bhiksha”, which sometimes did extend to meat. There are also many Shudra and Vaishya communities that do not eat meat. Suffice to say, Hindus are extremely diverse in their practices. They often go by what is available and do not often follow what is prescribed in the scriptures, because it isn’t mandatory for them to do so in Sanatan Dharma.

And now some statements that will be difficult to digest for many vegetarians, but are completely true. Bhagwan Sri Ram too was not a strict vegetarian. And although Bhagwan Sri Krishna has been portrayed in modern times by the Vaishnavites as strict vegetarian teetotaller, the Mahabharata has a vivid description of, well, read it for yourself.

Khandava Daha Parva, chapter 224, Mahabharata

But then only Bhagwan knows His leela. In the middle of the party in the grove, Agni suddenly shows up and Bhagwan and Arjuna both receive him immediately with respect and devotion, completely sober. In these avatars, Bhagwan Sri Ram and Sri Krishna were Kshatriyas and these types of food and drink are, according to the scriptures, rajasik in nature, allowed for consumption by them. I won’t recommend Bhagwan Sri Krishna’s extravagantly depicted lifestyle for the ordinary man. Everything offered to Bhagwan is “aahuti” and is consumed without any effect on Him. Most of us don’t have the self control or capacity needed to handle such things.

Some non-vegetarians resent the thought behind “pure veg” because, let’s face it, no one will like to think of their food as being impure. Humans are omnivores. Their bodies can digest all kinds of foods. So why fuss over it? What is pure or impure? And plants too have life, don’t they? This is indeed a compelling argument. Plants as well as animals are sentient. Then why prefer one over the other? If it’s wrong to take an animals life it’s equally wrong to extinguish a plants life. But the argument is a flawed one, and I will explain in a bit why I say this in detail. Please bear with me. First, it is important to put where I stand on this on the record.

I’m a vegetarian, but not a born one. I turned into one about 30 years back, from a very hardcore non vegetarian. By hardcore, I mean thrice a day for five days in a week kind of non vegetarian. Seven of ten members of my joint family (excluding me, my better half and elder daughter) continue to be non vegetarian. I have seen both sides of this dietary battle at close quarters, and can at least pretend to be genuinely neutral since even my younger daughter is a confirmed non-vegetarian. The elder one quit eating non-veg when she joined MBBS (don’t ask me why).

There was a specific trigger that started the process for me, way back in 1992. Crab. My favourite seafood after prawns. I was a regular at the fish market. That day, I and my cousin went as usual to buy crabs for a family get together at home. This is how it works: you select the crabs you want, negotiate the rate and pay. The fisherwoman takes the crab out of the basket. The crab tries to break free. She breaks its claws one by one. The crab continues to struggle. Then she puts the still moving body of the crab along with all its broken limbs into a plastic bag and hands it over to you. You rush home with your “absolutely fresh” food, your cook applies masala to it and puts it in the cooking pot.

And when the crab was put in the cooking pot, I noticed that its body was still twitching. Everyone agreed it was indeed the tastiest crab they had ever eaten, but something had deeply shifted inside me that day. I found it tasteless. From that point on, meat felt tasteless for me no matter how well it was cooked. Now I understand that after a visit to the “market”, many non vegetarians temporarily lose their appetite for meat. But for me, who was pretty much a veteran at the markets, it inexplicably became a permanent aversion. For nearly two years, I struggled with the revulsion I had started feeling on eating the flesh of dead animals, birds and marine life. One fine day in 1994, I decided enough was enough and that it was pointless for me to eat non-vegetarian food as I wasn’t enjoying it. And that was when the problems began.

You see, my girlfriend, who later became my life partner, was a born vegetarian. And the entire blame for my decision landed on her shoulders. So now, not only did I have to deal with the problem of my cook pressuring me to back off by refusing to cook any vegetarian food for me at home, an entire new dimension of interpersonal conflict to deal with emerged. Fortunately, good sense prevailed. My mom stepped in, retrained the cook (who had basically forgotten to make decent veg foods!!) to make many nice vegetarian dishes for me and things settled down. Of course, she still jovially continues to give the credit for my decision to become vegetarian to my wife!!

I can see why vegetarians would want to think of their food as “pure”. They get revulsed by the very idea of dead meat in their plate. They would much rather not eat than have anything to do with it. I have seen vegetarians throw up when they accidentally ate a piece of chicken. They struggle when they visit overseas, often to the point of having to stay hungry as nothing other than some bread and butter is available. I took a helping of salad once at a buffet in Hong Kong after being assured by the chef that it was vegetarian, and was shocked to find a piece of salmon in it. His reply on my angst: “Yes pure vegetarian, only fish!” On our trip across UK, Switzerland and France, we carried dozens of packets of MTR. It was a real life saver.

May I point out to all those who claim vegetarians lack adequate protein in their diet, that the most vegetarian states in India are Rajasthan (75%), Haryana (70%) and the Sikh majority state of Punjab (67%). In other words, the huge hulks of Bharat, who battle for glory and toss their opponents on the mat with aplomb across the world, are mostly vegetarians!! Gujarat, which comes first to mind when people think of “pure veg”, comes in only at number four with 61% vegetarians. The highly caste-ridden state of Bihar has only 7.5% vegetarians.

By the way, the national percentage of vegetarians is only about 29%. Anyone speaking of “protecting minorities” yet??

Am I proclaiming vegetarian food as the “healthier option”, as most vegetarians like to think? The answer is a big NO. I often like to point out to my vegetarian patients that their vegetarianism isn’t good enough to be called a “healthy diet”. After all, what is sugar? Or oil/ghee? Or noodles?? If you look objectively, the list of unhealthy items is dominated by vegetarian foods. And so the meat eaters have a point here. On the flip side, a low fibre content in diet of non vegetarians means they expose themselves to the risk of a variety of bowel disorders and even an increased risk of some types of cancer.

Then why do I say the thinking that a plant life is equal to an animal life is flawed? Well, because they aren’t equal. One plant produces hundreds or even thousands of seeds or fruit. A large number of them aren’t even capable of germination. The purpose of producing huge excess is that animals will ingest some and transport some of them, which will then get deposited and germinate to form new plants. Agriculture works because you can grow thousands of plants over and over again from the seeds of those plants themselves.

Also, let’s face it, would you rather roam about in a beautiful plant orchard or a stinky poultry farm? Would you rather smell like a freshly plucked mango or a dead fish? There are plenty of reasons for people to be put off by non vegetarian foods. To label it as casteism is childish and immature.

On the other hand, if you kill an animal that is pretty much the end of the story. Now you can again claim that many plants we eat need to be uprooted, such as carrots, potatoes and onions, and so the story is over for them too. But no, it isn’t. Because their buds (“eyes”) can be replanted and each one can become a new plant – which is how the cultivation goes, actually. In this context, many people claim unfertilised eggs to be vegetarian as they are incapable of developing into a fowl. And it’s fine. Whatever suits your belief.

My considered view on this subject is that vegetarianism is neither a “healthy” choice nor an “unhealthy” one. It is a lifestyle choice and a belief system, and for its followers not to have the food mixed in any way with meat and blood matters a lot. The mindset is not something that non vegetarians will understand easily unless they themselves give up meat, like I did so many years ago.

And of course in India we have an entire classification of vegetarians!!

But seriously speaking, studies have shown despite the high percentage of overall people consuming non vegetarian food, most of the population (68%) only occasionally consumes meat with only the most “kattar” of them, around 6%, having it daily.

For a born vegetarian to be married into a home where non veg food visibly and odorously rules the roost must have been really scary for my better half. But in fact, as things turned out, it was quite fine. She was never pressurised to join the family’s eating habits at any point. Mom went the extra mile in ensuring preparation of “pure” vegetarian food for her without any “contamination”, so to speak. And that is how things need to be. Both ways. My born vegetarian TamBram aunt cooks a mean chicken gravy for her husband and daughter without flinching or, of course, tasting. On the other hand, I know many born veg people who started eating non veg voluntarily after marriage. A couple of my cousins, who were Sikhs with strict vegetarianism at home during their childhood, became voracious non vegetarians for a while during their rebel teen years and then eventually went back to being vegetarian again on their own. My good friend Tasneem Shaikh, with whom I have had many a fight on political issues while not doing medical camps together in disaster hit areas, is a strict vegetarian, by choice. So, veg vs non veg is not even a binary. A lot of people drift in and out, depending on their mental state, religious inclinations and a lot of other things we have no idea about.

Food can be a great unifier if people “adjust” to the other’s habits, or a great divisive force if they try to proselytise their point of view to non believers. Now please don’t drag the beef debate into this as it is a sensitive religious issue involving the beliefs of 93% of population which abhors the slaughter of the cow. There is a reason why protection of cattle is in the directive principles of the Indian constitution. But from a non-religious perspective, we can consider that red meat is classified as group 2A carcinogen (probably causes cancer) by WHO, and that cow urine and dung are vitally important for organic farming and soil health. The cow is a much more useful animal alive than dead. For that matter, even goat dung is excellent for manure and farmers actually pay goat herders to graze goats on their fields. Maybe our ancestors were on to something by encouraging people not to eat too much meat and to rear and protect animals.

To sum up, food habits are only a small part of an individual’s personality. Vegetarianism is a belief system that tries to be humane. It neither confers good health nor takes it away. And, it does not have anything much to do with caste but has been wrongly and even mischievously projected as a caste issue. The veg vs non veg battle seen on social media is therefore an interaction only between the extreme ends of the food spectrum. Most Indians do consume non vegetarian food but only occasionally, which is the sensible thing to do. Eating right, and having a balanced and moderate diet is a sensible approach that works well for two thirds of our population.

Differing opinions are welcome as long as you keep it clean, so go for it :)