I turned vegetarian in my mid-twenties. I still remember the date; it was 11th of August, 1997. The date remained in my memory as I had pre-decided it. Why I chose 11th? In fact, during those days I was not aware of actual date of my birth which wasn’t 20th as reflected in my school certificates; and with the little knowledge of Numerology I had, I used to make every possible effort to match any important date in my life with my ‘Birth Number’ that was ‘two’ as per Numerology. There is a small story concerning my date of birth, which I would share some day later.
Back to my resolve to go vegetarian; in fact the decision had its seed sown much before I had actually taken the vow and quit non-veg food completely. I was around 11-12 years of age then and in our neighborhood there lived a Muslim family, which was into ready-made garment export business and comparatively rich. The festival of Eid (Eid ul Zuha), also known as the ‘festival of sacrifice’, was approaching and the family had brought a goat about a week in advance for the purpose. We all children used to play with the goat and also feed it with vegetable remains. Soon it was Eid and we saw the goat no more. The realization of what had happened to it, saddened us all.
In the afternoon the family had distributed the ‘sacrifice’ in the close neighborhood who they knew were non-vegetarians. I can’t express how I felt imagining that the flesh of the goat we used to play with would be cooked and served for dinner that evening. My mind was constantly busy looking for an excuse to avoid eating that meat. In hindsight, I could’ve simply said that this was the meat of a goat we have been playing with till a day before and I just can’t think of eating its flesh now. But during those days it wasn’t as simple as that. We, as children, were just not supposed to speak up. Everything about us was to be decided by our parents and elders – what to wear, what to eat, where to go – just about everything. We didn’t have a say in anything concerning us. Difficult to believe now, but that was the case during those days.
I don’t remember whether I had succeeded in my efforts to avoid consuming meat that day, chances of which were really very distant; but, it was for the first time that I realized that it takes a life of a living being to satiate our taste buds with non-veg food; and that was something I perceived as ‘not being human’.
Realizing something is often different from simply having knowledge of something. I give an example. As a child, the idea of fishing always excited me as I had seen my father going fishing with my elder brother. I was too small then and hence never had the opportunity to accompany them. When I grew up, I used to make plans with one of the local boys for going fishing someday. We arranged for every articles required for making a fishing rod except fishing-hook which we didn’t know where to procure from. However, before we could arrange it, something happened which wiped out the idea of fishing from my mind forever.
It was one evening around sunset while my father and I were taking a walk at the banks of river Yamuna, we spotted a person sitting on a large rock with his crude fishing rod. As we walked past, the man sensing that a fish has taken the bait, suddenly pulled the fishing rod up and the fish attached to the hook fell flat in front of us squirming. The man got hold of the fish and pulled out the hook from its mouth leaving its mouth badly ruptured and bleeding. He then put the fish in a container and left it to die. It was more than enough for me not to think of going fishing again in my life.
So, it was the realization and not the knowledge, which made the difference. I always knew that ‘fishing’ means to kill a fish, which I never realized until I saw it with my own eyes and felt the pain the fish might have gone through before it finally died. Same was about meat eating, I always knew that the animal needs to be killed before its flesh is processed to satiate our palate, but the realization came only when we as a child lost the goat we used to play with and felt the pain out of the compassion for the animal.
Despite this realization however, it took me about one and a half decade to go vegetarian mainly on account of the internal conflict between the urge to satiate my taste buds and being a person who value life of every living being as equal. A conflict in which the former always won and, as a matter of fact, when I finally decided to give up non-veg food, it was for a different reason altogether.
The other reason behind the delay was – as I grew up I considered my soft-heartedness, even towards animals, as a sign of my weakness. I even tried to overcome it once by deliberately witnessing a large quantity of chickens being ‘processed’ while making arrangements for a housewarming party in the family. It never worked however and I remained a ‘chicken-hearted’ person all through my life.
Before I proceed further to share my views on vegetarianism, I must reveal the reason behind my taking a vow to abstain from non-veg food and become a complete vegetarian. It was when my nephew (son of my elder cousin) was born. I was in the hospital and the family members were worried about the unusual shape of the new born baby’s head. I remember my uncle (grandfather of the new born) saying – “I don’t understand what’s happening to our children”. Incidentally, the son of my eldest cousin in another State too was born with some medical complications during that period; and not long back, my real brother had lost his son, who was born with certain incurable medical conditions. It was then, while praying for the well-being of my nephew, that I decided to give up one thing in my life which I was fond of. The first thing that came to my mind was ‘non-veg food’ which I was really fond of especially fish. I decided to give it up completely and took a vow to this effect later.
Therefore, the immediate reason for my abstaining from non-veg food apparently had nothing to do with my moral sense with regard to consumption of meat. But, of course, it was somewhere in my mind ever since that childhood incident I’ve mentioned earlier in the instant write-up, otherwise I would have chosen ‘alcohol’ which I was very fond of too (although I took it very occasionally and in small quantities) while taking the vow to forego one thing dear to me for life.
Whether consumption of meat by human beings is unethical or not is a very complex issue and there are as many views and arguments as there are people, for or against, on the subject.
Analyzing the issue from the point of view of my emotional self, I would say that we are all created by the same God and as such are equals. We are all sharing this planet as living beings and none is superior or inferior to the other. It is therefore morally wrong on our part to consider animals to be of less importance and treat them as if the God has created them for us to exploit. Further, just as it is immoral (in some cases illegal too) to kill animals for their skin or body parts, killing them for any reason other than the survival need must also be regarded as unethical.
As regards the contention of non-vegetarians that if the entire human species turn vegetarian then the whole ecological system of the earth would be damaged; I would say, of course, there is a natural food chain system where one organism is the food for a larger organism, which in turn becomes food for an even larger organism. We must however appreciate that while the natural food chain system is a survival need for all creatures in the animal kingdom, we humans kill animals just for taste of our tongue.
I thus relate our meat-eating to the killing of other sentient beings who are in no way less important than us in the eyes of nature. Once a non-vegetarian myself I could say that killing, or causing it in any manner, just to pamper our palates, always carries a sense of guilt; more so because it is against the fundamental precepts of any religion.
It could however be argued as to where this sense of guilt disappears while we kill countless of insects/small creatures like – mosquitoes, flies, bed-bugs, ants, cockroaches, termites, spiders, centipedes etc. all our life. The counter argument is, as one could appreciates the difference, that the insects or the small creatures that people often kill, pose a threat to their well-being or even to their life in some way or the other. So it is the ‘intent’ that makes the difference. But then again what about vegetation – they too have life. If one considers all living beings as equals then uprooting a plant or cutting a part of it too should be considered as unethical. So, the rounds of arguments and counter-arguments go on endlessly. I would however say one thing – as there is nothing called absolute truth in this world with so much depending on individuals’ perspective, there is no such thing as ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ in absolute terms. There are people, the Jain Munis, who cover their mouth with a piece of cloth just to avoid unwitting killing the insects or living beings (that we can’t even see with naked eyes) through the process of breathing. Then there are people who claim moral superiority over their fellow beings on the basis of the type of non-vegetarian food they eat or do not eat. So we are all standing at different points on the scale of morality, which is different for different people.