Many people in western countries hold the misconception that vegetarians are “on the fringe” and that you have to eat meat to be healthy. This flies in the face of reality. India, the world’s second most populous country, with a population of over 1.2 billion has around 500 million vegetarians.
Walking into a typical McDonald’s or KFC restaurant can be a distasteful experience for a vegetarian and many avoid it. In 2013, India is even opening up an entirely non-meat McDonald’s 1. Vegetarianism is very much a mainstream way of life with 42 percent of Indian households eschewing meat, fish and eggs 2.
India contains more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined—roughly half a billion people. This is mostly driven by class and religious systems. Unlike Western religions where practitioners are claimed to hold ‘dominion’ over the animals, most religious paths in India hold vegetarianism as an ideal. The principal of ahimsa applies to animals—a term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violence—himsa). Ahimsa encourages kindness and non-violence towards all living things including animals. It is closely connected with the notion that all kinds of violence produce negative karmic reactions.
Vegetarianism is so ingrained in Indian society that there are laws requiring all packaged products to be labeled with a mandatory mark showing if the product is vegetarian or non-vegetarian. In some regions the slaughter of cattle is prohibited, for instance if you slaughter a cow in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh you could be jailed for up to seven-years. Cows are revered in Hindu religious rituals and are allowed to roam free on the streets—scenes familiar to anyone who has visited India.
With so many vegetarians living in one country, and a culture that has embraced vegetarianism for centuries, India has the most sophisticated and ancient vegetarian cuisine of any country. Perfected over many generations, Indian cooking has become famous for its use of spices to exploit the flavour of vegetables and grains. The colour, taste and intrigue of Indian food is so diverse that you could spend many lifetimes eating your way through different Indian cookbooks.
Due to their commercial influence and grassroots reach, the meat industry has successfully inveigled their way into New Zealand’s outlook on diet but India demonstrates that vegetarianism is a mainstream diet option.
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