About a quarter of India's population is thought to be vegetarian. More vegetarians live in the state of Gujarat than any other, followed by Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. One of the main reasons for following a vegetarian diet is religion. People may also give up eating meat as a means of gaining social esteem. Large numbers in Pakistan and Bangladesh are likewise vegetarian. Being a healthy vegetarian in Asia has been possible for thousands of years owing to its vast diversity of vegetables, fruits, seeds, pulses, spices and sweeteners.
Vegetable stall in West Bengal showing the rich diversity of vegetables available.
Many Hindus, Buddhists and Jains refrain from eating all types of meat; hence, most vegetarian people of South Asia live in India, rather than Pakistan or Bangladesh, which are largely Muslim.
Vegetarianism in India derives from the doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence, first advocated in the Upanishads around the 9th century BC. These texts are part of a collection, referred to as the vedas; they form the basis of Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Hinduism is a vast complexity of faiths and practices; and to some, the consumption of flesh is often avoided. Indeed, a large proportion of Hindus in South India, Gujarat and the Hindu speaking heartland, stick to vegetarian diets. It is believed that by injuring or killing an animal the way to heaven will be obstructed. Cows are also held sacred.
In common with Hindus, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that the soul of a human may inhabit the body of an animal. Eating meat is strictly avoided by some Buddhists. However, some Buddhist do eat meat, believing that the real wrong is in killing the animal, rather than eating it. Some Buddhists also eat fish, where it may be viewed that the fish has been removed from the water, rather than killed.
There are about 7 million Jains in India. The religion is comparable in some ways to Buddhism in that the taking of life is prohibited. Jain monks sometimes go to the extremes of sweeping paths in front of them so that they do not tread on insects and may wear masks to avoid inhaling small flies. Only 'innocent' foods are eaten. Jains reject parts of a plant which are considered essential to its continued survival, or which have the potential to produce new life. Roots and tubers are thus forbidden; only fruits that have fallen from a plant are allowed.