Question from a student: As a Hindu living in the U.S., should I remain a vegetarian? If I include meat in my diet there are so many more choices in restaurant menus. Also, when I go to parties I feel awkward telling the host that I can’t eat many of their meat dishes. It is really uncomfortable. I see many of my Indian friends eating meat and fish and caviar and whatever is available and I feel they are more accepted socially in the western culture and that will help them get ahead professionally as well and make more money. As an American born in India, I feel very conflicted about this whole vegetarianism issue. There is pressure from my family to remain a vegetarian but my friends who are not vegetarians are having a better time at my college it seems.
Answer By Dr. Shyam Subramanian
In India and in many other spiritual traditions, vegetarianism is a well-accepted and universal recommendation for a spiritual seeker. So there is no need to feel insecure in your orientation and your traditional roots. Ultimately, what life style and dietary approach you adopt is really up to you. Being vegetarian does not make you a saint nor is consuming meat going to make you a bad person. I doubt if your vegetarian diet will hold you back socially or professionally or you will make less money because of it. If you believe these things then you are at a disadvantage indeed.
Although certain vegetarian diets are considered healthy, the primary basis for vegetarianism in Hinduism and Jainism is a moral one and based on the doctrine of Ahimsa. Ahimsa means nonviolence. According to this philosophy, one should minimize violence in thoughts, words, and deeds towards others as well as oneself. The philosophy of Ahimsa includes all life forms.
There is no meat-eating without violence, without killing another living being. That living being may be an animal but it is still living and it has the same survival instinct as human beings. Anyone who has had a pet feels in their heart that the pet is sympathetic and understands them and experiences different emotions such as sadness and fear and anger.
Now one may argue that even plants are living things also, and there is certainly violence involved in eating them as well. Of course, that is true but we have to use some common sense.
Let us consider this. First of all, when we eat fruits and vegetables, these are products of the plant which will go to waste eventually. The ripe fruit will at some point simply drop off from the plant; and so as far as fruits and vegetables go, there is no violence to the plant itself. Moreover, the plant is not something which has an advanced level of consciousness that enables it to feel fear, pain, and distress unlike say a lamb or a cow.
Many people in different religions who consume meat will choose not to eat it on certain religious or holy days or other special occasions – showing that there is a part of them that does regard this practice as being less desirable.
No need to be judgmental of others: Simply be yourself. Being judgmental about people who do not embrace your values, dietary approaches, or lifestyle, is unnecessary and not constructive. On the other hand, giving up your lifestyle and spiritual orientation in order to be more accepted by others has its own long term cost to you.
As a Hindu and a vegetarian in the U.S., I understand your innate discomfort at “standing out” at parties and on social occasions. it’s always a bit awkward to declare your choice of foods in the midst of people who may not have an appreciation of your spiritual orientation.
This is almost as true for alcohol as well. Most people in the West consider not consuming alcohol as being an oddity. I am often asked, “You mean you don’t even drink wine?” I always smile and say, “no” without further explanation. This is such a common question to me at parties. However, it does not cause me to start drinking wine in order to make others happy.
Be true to yourself and people will respect you for it. Standing up for what you believe to be right and drawing a line for what you think is acceptable for you is a must! There are plenty of people who will appreciate you for it as well. If one wishes to not inconvenience one’s host, one can always find something to eat which is vegetarian.
I find that most hosts are very understanding if you let them know beforehand that you are vegetarian. Typically some vegetarian dishes are always available at restaurants and other social places and parties. Sometimes when I am not certain that I will find some good vegetarian food at a party I just eat at home before I go. At the party, I simply snack on something like fruit or salad.
I have a large circle of friends who share my beliefs and value structures including vegetarianism. So typically when I socialize with them, this is not a problem. The bottom line is that we all have to make certain choices which affect our general quality of life. When one has prioritized ones’ values, these choices are more easily made.