Just How Vegetarian Is India?

There are many vegetarians in India, but there are many more meat-eaters. Indians have always consumed meat – as India becomes wealthier, they are merely eating more.

Popular symbols in India designating non-veg (red) and veg (green) cuisine.

A story has been making the round on various NPR stations over the past week that describes vegetarians as India’s new pariahs. While it’s true that India’s appetite for meat is increasing, I get the feeling that most people, including Indians, exaggerate or over-estimate the extent of vegetarianism in India – as if India is inherently vegetarian, and that only now, through exposure to the outside world and new-found wealth, are Indians eating meat.

India’s reputation as being a predominantly vegetarian country is fueled largely by the projection of Brahmanical norms and comparisons to a largely non-veg “rest-of-the-world”. It probably also has something to do with the fact that so many Westerners experience/consume India through that which is spiritual and exotic. If your connection to India consists of visiting ashrams and practicing yoga, then it’s likely that you have been presented a strictly vegetarian perspective.

In many ways, India is the center of the vegetarian world, but there is a common misconception that India is a predominantly vegetarian country. Just how many people actually refrain  from eating meat? Even the NPR story is modest in its estimate of 300 million( 25%). A survey conducted by the Hindu, CNN and IBN in 2006 concluded that 40% of the country was vegetarian (including consumption of eggs). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations sited the National Sample Survey which found that 42% of the country was vegetarian. But still, in India, 40-42% is almost half a billion people, which is greater than the number of vegetarians in the rest of the world combined.

As is the case throughout the world, wealth drives demand for meat in India, the consumption of which is often a status symbol. This is to say that until now, the number of vegetarians in India has been so high, not because people were adamantly opposed to eating meat, but because they could not afford it.

The mistake would be to associate increased meat consumption with “Westernization”. The current increase in meat consumption is merely the intensification of something that already represented a majority of the Indian population. All over the world, as people get wealthier they consume more meat. In the economically developed world, the script is beginning to flip – vegetarianism is often a status symbol associated with wealthier and more educated classes.

Furthermore, there are parts of India such as Kerala, Punjab and Bengal where meat is a staple of the diet. It is safe to say that Indian culture is informed by, accommodates and celebrates vegetarianism, but by no means is India a vegetarian country.

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6 thoughts on “Just How Vegetarian Is India?

  1. As an Indian bad vegetarian, I see you have an opinion that is just an opinion.
    Hindi heart belt, home to about 700 million, is largely vegetarian even though it is remarkably more wealthy now than 20 years ago. Eggs, in our lingo is part of non vegetarian diet. Even those who do eat meat, eat it once a month or less. In most Hindu homes, even those who do consume meat, cooking and storing of meat is looked down upon because kitchen is shared between food and God.
    There’s so much to India and Indian culture that west will not understand. So please don’t make an assumption that you know how we operate.
    In conclusion – India is the beacon of hope for modern society that will endorse vegetarianism as a way of life to prevent global warming, water table depletion and nonsensical violence that pervades our planet.

    1. I agree Ankur that there is much about India that the West does not understand, but there is also much about India that Indians do not understand. For example, many of my North Indian friends found it hard to believe that Beef Curry is quite popular in Kerala.

      And I agree with you that in most parts of the Hindi belt, eating meat has a stigma. But that’s just the thing, this stigma is fading rapidly. My post is mainly combating the notion that increases in meat consumption are not a sign of Westernization – that meat eating in India has a long and storied tradition and that with few exceptions throughout the world, as poor people become wealthier, they eat more meat.

      I agree with you that everyone in the world should eat less meat, and that the meat that is consumed should be produced in more humane ways. All I’m saying is, if people in India are eating more meat, that doesn’t make them any less Indian.

      Let’s not turn this into a debate of West vs. India.

  2. Strongly disagree with the statement “as poor people become wealthier, they eat more meat.” I am from the business community of India (Marwari), which is among the wealthiest in India, and we never eat meat or eggs. Similar is true for other business communities – Gujaratis or Jains. So, please correct your notion. Meat is eaten by the lower caste people (who are also usually poor) and meat-eating is what causes them to display an aggressive/boorish attitude at times.

    1. Sorry Tanmay but you could not be more wrong. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule as is the case with Marwaris and Jains, but in India as in the rest of the developing world today, there is a strong positive correlation between wealth and the amount of meat one eats. You sound like an angry upper caste person with more than a few misconceptions about meat, about caste and about India.

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