[updated October 2012] India can reasonably claim to be the spiritual home of vegetarianism, with an unbroken line of countless generations over thousands of years. There are currently about 300 million lacto-vegetarians in India, equal to the entire population of the USA, but the issues there are rather different to those facing us in the west.
There is a common misconception in the west that all the Hindus in India are vegetarian. Various sources suggest that less than half of the Hindus in India actually keep to plant food plus cow milk products.
In India vegetarianism has always been associated with religion, mainly Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Today many young people enticed away from their religion by the consumer-driven western lifestyle, including western style junk-food. Attempts to turn them back to traditional lifestyles have not made much progress, but what we have seen over the last few years is a remarkable rise in an Indian adaptation of western-style veganism, especially among young people.
There have long been Lacto-Vegetarian Societies in India, and IVU was represented by them for 50 years up to 2006 (right: Jayantilal Mankar, the first IVU Regional Secretary for India in 1957). The approach of these groups was traditionally to work within the Hindu and other smaller veg communities, offering valuable support to existing vegetarians and encouraging others Hindus to join them. It is difficult to get figures, but there are indications that the proportion of lacto-vegetarians is declining.
With one-third of the population still not eating meat the fast food businesses have had to adapt, so they do provide a lot more lacto-vegetarian food than we see from them in the west. But demographic changes could bring huge changes in the future.
Add to that about 150 million Muslims in India, along with many other minorities who are not likely to be attracted to what is mostly seen as a ‘Hindu diet’. It is becoming clear that the only way to reach out to all those westernized young people is to use westernized arguments. And that increasingly means veganism.
As far back as 1889 there were vegetarian societies in India, run by Indians. Mahatma Gandhi recorded in his autobiography that in 1891, while he was studying law in London, he read a book by Henry Salt which persuaded him
that being vegetarian was important in its own right, not just because of the religious vow he made to his mother when he left India. This did not negate his religious beliefs, it just gave his vegetarianism a separate identity. (photo: a young Gandhi in 1891)
In 1931 Gandhi returned to London, and while there gave a talk for the London Vegetarian Society (photo left) . During that talk he made it very clear that he would have preferred to live without any use of animal products at all. (see: Gandhi - and the launching of veganism )
During his student days in London Gandhi had attended an International Vegetarian Congress, and just before he returned home he said he hoped that such an event would be held in India. Sadly that did not happen until nine years after his death. The first IVU World Vegetarian Congress to be held in India was in 1957, and they have been held there several times since then.
The photo right is a pioneer ‘Vegan Society of India’ at that IVU Congress in 1957. It was perhaps rather ahead of its time and doesn’t seem to have lasted long, but it shows that this is not a new idea in India.
There were more huge IVU Congresses in India, in 1967 – opened by the Dalai Lama, below, who was vegetarian at the time – and 1977. All of there were organised by the extraordinary Jayantilal Mankar on the right of the photo. He was a leader of the Bombay Humanitarian League and took each of these Congresses to what were then Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras.
The Indian Vegetarian Congress, founded in 1959 and for most of its existence a very traditional lacto-vegetarian organization, now states as one of its objectives: “The IVC will spread awareness of the benefits of soy beans and endeavour to distribute soy milk whenever possible.” – and they have recently gone even further by co-opting Shankar Narayan, founder and President of the Indian Vegan Society (IVS) onto their board.
Just four years ago this would have been hard to imagine, but things have been changing fast. In 2010 The Telegraph of India newspaper finally caught up with what is happening and ran a story about the increase in veganism: ‘The temple priest was surprised. It's not often that devotees refuse the curd-based prasad - but here was Ritika Ramesh turning it down. "I thought of the documentary on Indian dairy farms that I had seen, and my resolve doubled," says Ramesh, a 25-year-old assistant film director in Mumbai. Ramesh is a vegan.’
The last IVU World Veg Congress in India was held in Goa in 2006, organised by the great Jashu Shah who is sadly no longer with us. This was at the end of his 18 years as IVU Regional Coordinator, which included launching the Asian Vegetarian Union in 1999.
In the top photo, right, Jashu is with Shankar Narayan (on the right) who had just been elected to the IVU International Council. The lower photo is some of the excellent food being served at the Congress – the first major event ever held in India where all the food was vegan.
Shankar is the president of the Indian Vegan Society, which immediately puts him at odds with some Hindu and Jain vegetarians who see milk and milk products as an integral part of their religion. But it also sends a clear signal that future progress for the vegetarian movement cannot be entirely dependent upon religion.
Shankar follows Gandhi's principle of vegetarianism being important in its own right, and seeks to persuade more Indians to follow Gandhi in that decision, whether as lacto-vegetarian or vegan. Following his election Shankar agreed to take on the role of IVU Regional Coordinator for India and West Asia (aka the Middle East).
In 2007 Shankar organized the first International Vegan Festival to be held in India, and by October 2010 we were able to meet with a substantial group of vegan activists, and what he calls ‘vegan sympathizers’ from all over India. Bangalore has its own local vegan society and a vegan animal rights group. Perhaps it’s not surprising in a city with so many western computer companies that the young people there are adopting these western ideas.
In October 2010 IVU supported a Vegetarian Congress in Bangalore – completely vegan of course as it was organised by Shankar and IVS. The photo right is Mohan Santhanam and friends providing some wonderful music during that Congress.
One of the older speakers told us that in his youth his community used milk products very sparingly, but today he is alarmed at the huge quantities being consumed by his fellow Hindus. The dairy industry is now just as industrialized and commercialized as everywhere else, and they use the same persuasive advertising.
For a cow to produce milk it must of course become pregnant every year, and the male 50% of the offspring are slaughtered in vast numbers as they are of no use to the industry – and all of this in ‘the land of the sacred cow’, and in the name of ‘Ahimsa’ – non-violence – or ‘not consuming the products of slaughter’.
Right, outside a vegan organic shop in Bangalore – myself, Marly Winckler (IVU Coordinator for Latin America) and Shankar, trying to spell out I-V-U…
In January 2012 the Indian Vegan Society celebrated its 7th anniversary with a gathering at it base in Karnataka. One recent survey estimated an increase from 2,000 to 20,000 vegans since 2006.
In January 2012 the Indian Vegan Society celebrated its 7th anniversary with a gathering at it base in Karnataka. Only a few years ago veganism was almost unknown in India, but one recent survey estimated an increase from 2,000 to 20,000 vegans since 2006. The photo below is from the event:
For more about vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” It has now been updated to include the above article, and more. You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: www.ivu.org/history/Vegan_History.pdf (5mb)
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