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Crossing the waters: The generational journey to being vegan as a Hindu

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While many Hindu families are vegetarian, some previously ate meat before moving to the UK, many still do, and others lead a vegan lifestyle. So how does the Hindu diet fluctuate?

As a Hindu, I have always been a vegetarian and have never eaten any meat. I never questioned my family; it’s a lifestyle I have followed for 20 years and will continue to do so. If someone were to ask me about my diet, my reasoning would always align with religion, and I have been vegetarian since birth — it would never go further than that.

With my grandmother being from Gujarat — a predominantly vegetarian state in India — and then my parents living in Africa (my father in Tanzania and my mother Uganda), they have both eaten meat at some point in their lives. My father is a flexitarian; he ate meat in Tanzania but described it as a “social diet”. After moving to the UK, he gave up meat as when he lived with his Nani and Nana — his maternal grandparents — they were all vegetarian, and so it was easier to follow this diet. He started eating meat at the age of 25 again and has been since, but is now contemplating becoming a vegetarian.

My mother ate meat up until the age of 24 — which is surprising for females, who are usually vegetarian from birth in Hinduism — but she has been a vegetarian ever since. Like my father, my brothers led a vegetarian lifestyle for a while but now consume meat.

This is a common trend among Hindus living in the UK — especially those who didn’t grow up here, but have children who did. However, in terms of religion and delving into Hinduism itself, the majority are vegetarian, but may not be strict ones, despite what our religion prefers.

In Sañatan Hindu Dharma, three factors govern the vegetarian ethic: the law of karma,  ahimsã (non-injury) and dayã (compassion), and Hindu diet purity and spirituality, leading to moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth) according to publisher Swaminarayan Aksharpith, whose book states: “To kill a living creature is considered a pãp karma, which results in pain, misery or disease, either in this birth or subsequent births” If you add more pãp karmas by eating flesh, this can lead you away from the path of moksha.

hindu vegan
Photo: Shivani Ruparelia

Additionally, from a Hindu perspective, eating flesh can also mean that the individual is equally as responsible for the death of that animal, even if they did not kill it themselves. The Manusmriti verse 5.51 states: “Anyone who sanctions the slaughter of an animal, cuts its flesh, buys, sells, cooks, serves and eats it, are equally the killers.” Arguably, a vegetarian diet does involve injury to plants, but this is to a lower degree than that of killing animals.

Sandeep Ruparelia lived in Uganda before coming to the UK. He says: “I ate meat because my dad told me I could eat it. I didn’t actually know what it was at the time, I just assumed it was food.” He explains that eating meat as a Hindu at such a young age was a norm for him as he trusted what his parents fed him.

He describes that in Africa, eating meat was very common amongst Hindus: “Most older men ate meat to join in with the African tradition, and many men had manual jobs where they would be away for long periods of time and vegetarian food would be hard to find, so it was easier to eat meat.” Nevertheless, moving to the UK, many had a change in their career paths and therefore adjusted their diet to the new lifestyle.

“It was quite normal for men to eat meat and they were encouraged to do so, but for some reason, it was seen as taboo if women ate meat,” he adds. This is a common trait amongst Hindu couples. However, as men were able to spend more time at home and a lot of women were vegetarian, the males’ diets changed. “My father is a prime example of this, as when he came to the UK, he was able to spend more time with my mother, who remained vegetarian her entire life, and this had an influence on his diet.”

He also recognises the discrimination with diets and Hinduism in his generation; in families with mixed siblings, only the men eat meat and the woman don’t — a tendency that has developed over time.

Read more about how meat plays a role in masculinity and traditional gender norms.

Ruparelia had a “religious epiphany” that made him transition to vegetarianism. But it was also because of the ethical reasons and arguments he has learnt from his vegan daughter, which have opened his eyes.

Shivani Ruparelia, like her father, grew up on what she was given. Her father being vegetarian from the age of 20 and her mother vegetarian too, this is the lifestyle she led. However, her parents didn’t forbid her from trying meat, but she chose not to. She tells me a story about when she first saw raw meat being cooked at a family barbecue with some cousins.

 

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A post shared by Shivani (@kupcakesandkale) on

“I asked my dad and he basically explained what it was. He was quite graphic with his explanation, but he told me that the same way I would cry if a monster took my mum away, a chicken does too.”

Shivani is vegan and went through several stages before she officially labelled herself one. She stopped wearing leather when she was 11 because she saw cows (a sacred symbol of life in Hinduism) in real life and the idea of not eating them but still wearing them seemed hypocritical to her. Then she stopped eating eggs when she was 14, as in India, eggs are considered as non-vegetarian, unlike here. Her transition to veganism began when she turned 16;  she wanted to take care of her health as dairy wasn’t working for her diet.

She says: “I watched Earthlings and cried for the whole weekend. I’ve been vegan ever since.” This was a huge spark in her transition; having studied geography at university, she was inspired by the climate change modules., “By the end of my degree, most of my friends had turned vegetarian or vegan. I think that speaks volume.”

However, as a South Asian vegan, her parents found it difficult to accept her transition at first. She says: “My parents hated it when I first started and thought it was just a phase. It was primarily because of the practicality behind it.”

Her father explains: “It initially was very difficult as she would eat different things than the rest of our family. For example, we used to share a mutual love of paneer and I felt guilty eating the food without her.” But now, he informs her of all the new vegan products that come out and enjoys trying them too. He adds: “My daughter and I now share a mutual love of vegan junk food.”

Her mother was worried, because, like many Indian parents, she thought milk was a superfood essential for your wellbeing. After learning otherwise from Shivani, the family eats a lot of plant-based foods and her mother even uses vegan butter for everything, subbing out the staple in Indian cuisine, ghee. Shivani adds: “I’m now in a really fortunate position as my parents are incredibly supportive and my brother turned vegan five years ago.”

In terms of Hinduism and vegan cuisine, Shivani explains that her mother has actually been subconsciously cooking vegan cuisine for years, as Indian food is simple to veganise. Ahisma, the principle of non-violence is a core part of Hinduism, and so making Indian food vegan is simple. She says: “I genuinely think South Asians have it the easiest when it comes to changing to a vegetarian and vegan diet, as we have such a rich culture of incredible vegetarian foods.”

Check out Indian street food dishes that are traditionally vegan.

Additionally, as a vegan with such a rich culture, she enjoys making Indian vegan food that can be shared in the “family-style”. She now posts her creations on her Instagram page to help fellow Indian vegans.

 

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A post shared by Shiv Thakkar (@shivcooks) on

Shiv Thakkar, Shivani’s fiancé, has also had quite the diet journey as a Hindu. He grew up with vegetarian parents and was quite fussy, but as he has grown up, he has become more adventurous with his food. His younger brother started eating meat when he was fourteen, and so he also implemented meat into his diet, through university and when he moved to London.

Navratri is a major Hindu festival that spans nine nights and is the celebration of good over evil. During this time, Hindus who eat meat must not eat it for the nine days. Thus, for religious reasons, Shiv stopped consuming meat. This time led him to reflect on his eating habits, and so he decided to stick to vegetarianism.

However, when he met Shivani, he was eating meat at the time. He explains: “Initially I used to tease her about being vegan as I had never met a vegan before. It’s opened my eyes to a whole new world of food as well as made me more conscious about eating food packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals.”

He adds: “I don’t think I would ever be fully vegan, but I have definitely become more plant-based since we met.”

In terms of religion, the South Asian diet can quite easily be made vegan, and especially as Hindus are not meant to eat eggs, there isn’t a lot that would need to be substituted. There is a huge population of Indians living in the UK that grew up and ate meat in Africa.

Since many have become more religious, many have turned vegan but despite this, there is a large group that still eats meat. It could be deemed as controversial that many Hindus do not follow their diet in terms of the law of karma, ahimsã and dayã. However, it is also interesting to evaluate how diets have developed over time as families have moved to the UK.

Mansi
Mansi Vithlani
Mansi Vithlani is a journalism student at City, University of London. A vegetarian her whole life and a massive foodie, she enjoys discovering more about veganism and eating vegan cuisine! She enjoys investigating social media based stories and how its influence has made a significant difference in the last few years.