Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
About a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again, because vegetarianism as a spiritual practice is an important part of how I live by my values every day.
I grew up vegetarian. That was the default lifestyle and diet in my family and community when I was growing up in Mumbai. I started eating meat in my twenties, partly because it was difficult to find meat-free options in 1980s America. Equally, I was motivated by a desire to be cosmopolitan and open to new ideas and experiences.
But then, about a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again. Whereas originally, it was an inherited practice, this time it is something I have mindfully chosen. And while the choice makes sense for a multitude of reasons, at its very core, it is an important part of how I live by my values every day.
I am a born-again vegetarian.
Most faiths have spiritual practices. Across religions, these range from prayer, meditation and fasting to lighting of lamps and candles, to giving alms to the poor. Regardless of the religion, it seems that each spiritual practice is a way to promote stillness, reflection, introspection. It is a way to slow down, to withdraw from the busyness of life, to focus on something outside oneself. It promotes selflessness and intentionality, humility as well as gratitude.
For me, all of these benefits are realized by the simple act of giving up meat and most other animal-based products such as dairy and leather.
There are many reasons for giving up meat. According to many studies, it is good for health, as it eliminates harmful substances from the diet. It is good for the environment, as the amount of water and land needed to create a meat-based calorie is many times more than what is needed to create the same calorie from plant-based foods. For me, these two are the “icing on the cake” of my chosen vegetarian lifestyle.
The “cake” is the knowledge that by giving up meat, I am no longer a participant in the industrial “manufacture” of meat—a system that, at its core, is based on cruelty to animals. I want to say, “inhumane” treatment of animals, but the word is quite unequal to the task of describing the routine horror that is being perpetrated on creatures that are sentient and can feel pain every day.
This point came home to me when I was in the middle of reading a book called “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It has a section that describes how cows and pigs are treated as they are led to slaughter. About a third of the way into this section, I could not go on reading. It was just too horrific.
This crystallized the issue for me—if I cannot bear to read the words—forget about viewing pictures or video—of what the animals are made to undergo so we might have abundant meat, how can I , in good faith, continue to consume the products manufactured by such a system?
A guru is a teacher or master, particularly someone who has attained a level of scholarship through lived experience. My gurus in my chosen spiritual practice were my son and his friend Peter who came from a self-described “meat-and-potatoes” family.
When he was in high school, as he became aware of the animal cruelty that is part of a meat-based diet, Peter chose to become a vegetarian. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to adhere to this lifestyle. To be surrounded by smells and flavors that he grew up with and enjoyed, and that could be his for the asking; and yet to reject them for a principle, was both admirable and humbling.
Inspired by Peter’s example, my son too gave up meat. Being away at college during these years, there were times when there were too few choices, or he was left out of campus events like “Asian Street Food.” But, convinced about the rightness of his choice, he did not budge. He even went on a road trip to New Orleans and managed to find vegetarian food—not always healthy, but vegetarian nonetheless—during the entire trip.
As a mother who worried about his health and his ability to enjoy life, I often urged him to not make perfect the enemy of the good. What I meant is that it was okay if he occasionally allowed himself to eat meat, especially when there were no good alternatives, or simply as an occasional treat. For, while renunciation too is a kind of spiritual practice, when carried to the extreme of denial, it can do more harm than good, and might even lead to a renunciation of the spiritual practice itself.
In that spirit, many people observe new traditions, such as meatless Mondays or eating only locally grown organic meat, or eating meat only after 6 pm. The good news is that it keeps getting easier to eschew an animal-based lifestyle. Not only are there meat substitutes like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat, there are also new vegan options for butter, cheese, eggs, and ice cream.
Evolution is a process of continual incremental improvement—in nature as well as within us. A quote of Thomas Edison brings together the concepts of evolution and vegetarianism: “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.