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Life/Recliner | Sep 26, 2009 | 33522 views

Being Vegan in India

Veganism as a concept is practically unknown in India, as this starry-eyed idealist learned when she attempted to keep the faith

W

hen I moved to India, I thought it would be a vegan’s Mecca, a place where, at last, I could mingle with others who practiced a lifestyle just as fervently as I did.

I had chosen veganism a few years before because the whole animal slaughter thing became too difficult to ignore. I knew that most often the motivation for vegetarianism in India was more religious than animal-inspired, but the idea that an entire country could strive for ahimsa towards animals seemed both astonishing and perfect.

Image: Abhijeet Kini

That first day in India, taking in the barrage of things foreign and unknown on Mumbai’s streets, one thing stood out: Nearly every restaurant had a sign that marked itself as “Veg” or “Non-Veg.” Entire restaurants devoted to vegetarianism? I had died and gone to heaven!

Later that day, traipsing through the supermarket with naïve glee, I revelled in the system of labelling in which vegetarian products bore a green dot in a green square and animal-based products bore the label in brown. Very few vegetarian labels existed in the US.

The Jain family with whom I was staying told me how pleased they were that I had chosen vegetarianism even though I was American. (Translation: They were glad that even though I was from a heathen country where a typical dinner was a hunk of meat, I had chosen to forego that.)

The notion of the sacred cow, which I loved ingenuously as a kid, I saw in practice: Buses and cars bunched up in traffic to let them pass. It all seemed too good to be true. And it was.

You see, while India can lay claim to the earliest records of vegetarianism, adopted for similar reasons to mine — “Thou shalt not kill to eat” — the more than 30 percent of the population who are vegetarians in India are lacto-vegetarian. Vegetarianism comes in different categories, and it is these crucial distinctions that make my trusting vegan assumption so wrong.

Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, and this country consumes a lot of them. India is the number one milk-producing country in the world, and dairy products are a vital part of the diet, in both rural and urban areas. I soon realised Amul’s milk, butter, and cheese were as ubiquitous as their ads.

Veganism runs against all of this. As a diet and as a lifestyle, it excludes the use of any animal products to produce food, clothing, or anything else you might use in daily life. So, not just no milk, curd or ice cream; it also means no silk sarees, leather shoes, and making the sometimes Herculean effort to use alternate toothpaste, shaving cream, and other basic products. Even sugar, which can be refined using charred animal bones, is taboo. (The first time I was told this by a zealous vegan cash register girl, I sheepishly removed the sugar from my shopping cart, and wondered if I would ever enjoy dessert again.)

Going to a restaurant was the first test of my veganism in India. My ignorance of Indian dishes at that time aside, there were few items on the menu which excluded dairy products.

Actually, that first time, there were none. Undeterred, I asked the waiter to please leave out the following: sugar, butter, milk, and any other dairy products. He looked at me without expression, though in my self-consciousness, I sensed derision. “Par wahi to khana hai,” he said, take all that away and what’s left? When the food came, I realised the dal had the glorious-yet-prohibited taste of ghee, which I had forgotten to mention.

After lunch, we went to get roadside tea. The vendor happily agreed to leave out the milk. Later, I found out the flavouring agent in the tea came from animals.

Just like in the US, animal products were intrinsically woven into the daily fabric of life.

As for vegan non-food products in India, forget it. Toothpaste? Bone powder. The beautifully-patterned shirts and sarees I had always longed for? Silk. Most cosmetics have wax. And alas for my premature excitement over supermarket labels: The same manufacturers who are so stringent about green dots and squares often do not list milk in their ingredients. That is, when they bother to list ingredients at all.

In a country that loves dairy products, and uses so many other animal-produced luxuries, I wondered dejectedly — but with a lingering sense of American superiority — was veganism even possible here?
Manish Jain is a vegan, and the creator of IndianVegan.com, a portal which promotes veganism in India by stressing ethical reasons, debunking myths and employing health experts for back-up.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine of 09 October, 2009
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Comments (41)
Saket K Feb 3, 2014
I'm not vegan, but my family members in India are - as a health choice.
It is indeed difficult to avoid animal products, since products that come from animals were traditionally on a small scale, cruelty was never intended.

Now that these products are produced on a larger scale, industrial level production of milk and animal products is happening there, but the Indian consumer is still still to be educated of what goes on behind the scenes!

Some peer sites like MealTango have started helping vegans in finding others who follow their diet by finding vegan homes (mealtango.com/vegan).

Sites like grubwithus (grubwithus.com) and homedine (homedine.com) are also potentially useful for finding vegan families in other parts of the world.
Sam Oct 26, 2013
Can't really understand why anyone would seriously want to be a vegan. Vegetarian, I get. Cruelty to animals, sure. But milk? And silk? I think that's going a bit too far in coo-koo land. Rich people with too much time on their hands and too little to do.
Response to Sam:
Jess Dec 20, 2013
Sam, you need to educate yourself. Milk is fine if you're milking the cow yourself. But milk that you buy in the super market comes from very cruel practices. How do you think a cow can produce milk? She needs to be pregnant. What happens to all those baby cows? They are slaughtered immediately and the cow is kept in a constant state of pregnancy which is cruel and painful for the cow. If somebody is vegetarian only because they lactose intolerant then fine, but other wise being vegetarian doesn't make sense. Strict vegetarian (vegan) is the only way to be if you care about the environment. Sadly a lot of so called environmentally concerned people eat animals or/and their products and it makes no sense. Watch 'if slaughter houses had glass walls' by Paul McCartney see if you can get through it with a dry eye.
Response to Jess:
Uday Dec 31, 2013
"Milk is fine if you're milking the cow yourself." No, it's theft in the best case -- we're stealing milk that's meant for the calf. Worse, usually we steal the calves from the mother, causing enormous distress to both. Male calves are killed off at birth (in some countries, they're allowed to live for a few weeks and then killed for veal), female calves enter the same hell as their mother. The cow had to be raped to make her pregnant. She suffers this torture 3-4 times, until (because we bombard her with hormones and antibiotics to boost "yield") she can't produce enough milk to be economically viable, at which time (at age 5, against a normal lie expectancy of 20-25) she is sent to slaughter. "Educate yourself".
Shweta Jun 19, 2013
That's an important point to ponder on... being a vegan here means saying no to ghee, butter, coffee, sweets and confectionery, milk shakes, milk, tea, coffee, and many other things with little or no replacement. I've very recently turned vegan, but haven't been able to find soy milk in my neighboring market, which as you mentioned, makes breakfast near impossible! Any suggestions in the same would help!
S Apr 20, 2013
Thankfully now Bangalore has a 100% vegan restaurant 'Carrots', and one more 'Paradigm Shift' is soon going to open. Hopefully this trend will continue and many more will open, spreading awareness and injecting veganism into mainstream thought.
John Apr 2, 2013
India is also the world's largest exporter of beef. So their love for the fruits of cows comes at a grisly and often in humane cost.
As a vegan traveling in india I was disappointed by this when I found it out. They have rebranded the red meat industry to pink meat.
Atanu Dey Jan 27, 2013
I think, being an enthusiast vegan from US, it was very natural on the writer's part to exclaim on the pathetic condition of veganism in India and she is never wrong in describing the scenario here to a great extent. Veganism is still unknown in India and in my 10 yrs of vegan life I always find it difficult to convince socially. None of the religions of the soil advocated veganism. Our religions promote vegetarianism but the practice completely remains unrelated to ethical and compassionate treatment to animals and that is what shocks the vegan people from other country were people turn vegetarian or vegan out of sheer compassion for other living beings and not religion.
J Sep 2, 2012
thanx for telling us this... IT IS extremely difficult to be a vegan in India, been there quite a few times, and I always end up getting dairy in my food, sometimes without kwowing about it. There is no simple solution, (stay at home?), no, i like travelling, I love India and the spices, and specially south indian food... so lets be persistant and really try to "educate them", that is, get to make them understand that there is such a thing as veganism, and that dairy is not wanted at all. In the end, people will start to know what a vegan is, but it'll take some time... india is obsessed with the cow, and it's milk, butter, ghee. Body fluids from a mammal gland , coming from a suffering animal does not make them realize the truth behind dairy: yes India is hard on vegans, lets try to change that, one step at a time....
Ashutosh Sep 1, 2011
I agree with others who say this article contains lot of exagerations. I dont think it is easier to be a vegan anywhere more than in India. In India there are many vegetarians who do not eat meat or even eggs (they have dairy products as it doesn't kill the animal). I think Sugar in India or even toothpaste doesn't contain any animal products like bone powder etc. If it were so, many people will raise hell. I dont think its possible.

I agree though that some vegetarians are not so conscious about the usage of leather and silk, but these products are not widely used in India as they tend to be expensive.
Shalini Jul 19, 2011
I think you have exaggerated that its difficult to be vegan in india. I am a vegan and i don't find it difficult at all. Yes, if u eat out a lot u will find it difficult but most homecooked food is vegan and what is not are usually sweets that are not what we eat daily but my favourite sweets are already vegan. And there are still lots of options specially in south indian restaurants. I found replacements for my soap, shampoo etc. very easily. And whatever i didn't find was not something i couldn't do without.
Response to Shalini:
Tsiq Sep 2, 2013
Do you have recommendations on where to buy good and relatively CHEAP vegan soaps and shampoos?
Response to Tsiq:
Shalini Sep 13, 2013
you can try lush. its somewhere in saket. you can check the website for address.
It's not cheap. But anything I get from there usually lasts 4 to 8 months for me so I guess its ok. You will have to check which products are vegan though. Medimix is vegan and easily available. I'll try looking for something else if you find lush is not your thing.
Response to Shalini:
Ashutosh Feb 13, 2014
Will appreciate if you can name few brands for vegan sugar (white or otherwise). Thanks!
Lj Feb 23, 2011
Actually, no child has ever died from veganism. The two children who died were RAW FOODISTS. Learn the difference. We vegans take all the flak for their unhealthiness.

On that note, raw foodist would say that it didn't kill the children, a bad diet did.

Plus, what about all the morbidly obese children on conventional diets?? That kills thousands more.

And vegan's are no more likely to get deficiencies that anybody else. If its harder to get B12 and iodine in a vegan diet, it's much harder to get vitamin's C, E, folate and iron on a conventional diet.

The writer of this is surely too ignorant and mis-informed to be a genuine vegan
Scruffy Duffy Feb 18, 2011
Being vegan and traveling is entirely possible! Challenging? Of course. Sometimes downright painful. But possible? Yes.

The fact that this article mentioned meals on domestic flights not being vegan...and you might have to eat them -- you're not going to starve. Don't eat them. Ask for applesauce or crackers or something if you think you're going to 'die of hunger'.

Veganism is a philosophy and sometimes takes hard work. I am sort of dumbfounded that a vegan went to India not realizing the wide use of ghee in Indian cooking!

I'm a vegan, going on my tenth year. I've always made it work. It's my philosophy, my religion, etc and while eating out or while traveling can bring on a headache (due to frustration or hunger)...it has always worked out in the end. I made sure it did.
Chandan Bhurat Feb 17, 2011
I am also a Jain and I also left consuming sugar, and started consuming deemerara sugar, but while googling i found in beauty without cruelty india site i found that sugar manufactured in india is vegan........http://bwcindia.org/Webforms/LearnAbout/Sugar.html
Himani Shetty Nov 26, 2010
Hey!! its not all bad! we have a very strong & growing vegan community in india!! Next time you get onto facebook and type vegan india... you will be surprised!! Most indian food can be had vegan, specially most south Indian food. So is our staple dhal, roti, chawal, sabzi combo! People just don't realize they are vegan most of the time ;)u just need to speak with the right people! :)

@ badal... its easy to get non leather shoes, most local shoe shops keep non leather options coz of our Jain community. metro, bata, action, inc 5 all have non leather options. very pretty formal shoes can easily be bought from the local shops who keep stuff from bangkok. pity i just read this article...
Badal gupta Sep 27, 2010
Hello u mention only about diet , Pl tell me solution to avoid leather shoes, as in India it is not easy to find footwear without leather, and canvas shoes cant be used for all purposes , is there any alternative?
Miranda Sep 26, 2010
I was so disappointed when I read this. I was hoping India would have a lot of vegan options, but I guess not. What would be the most vegan country then? United Kingdom?
Nikita Jain Sep 21, 2010
I want to become vegan but very difficult. Can you give me solutions like instead of butter i wud go for peanut butter for other products, need your help...
Amith Seshagiri Jul 23, 2010
Vicco Vajradanti toothpaste is Vegan!
Partha Sharma Jul 17, 2010
I was overjoyed when I read Mr Jain's statement, the one that said that gelato is an alternative for vegans in India. But aren't most types available in malls in Delhi and other big cities made from dairy products. I believe non-dairy gelato is a rare thing as is, and especially rare and/or unheard of in India.
Chiranjit Karar Apr 12, 2010
Like meat in west, milk and milk products have become a part of Indian food culture. In the states like Kerala, Tamil nadu, West Bengal, Orissa, etc fish has become a regular diet. It will be a mistake to think India as a compassionate land.
VeganIndia Apr 11, 2010
We've open a blog with the aim to provide resources for vegans and vegans visiting India. http://vegan-india.blogspot.com/
Dhaval Mehta Apr 7, 2010
I'm on the same boat. After being a vegan for nearly 2 years in the U.S. and now having moved to India, I find it extremely difficult to maintain the diet.

I was a practicing vegan and Jain in NYC and even compiled a list of restaurants so that other vegans who also wanted to maintain their Jain diet of no root vegetables can enjoy finely prepared meals.

Alas, in India it's become too much to maintain or handle. But I'm starting with baby steps, this month I'm cutting out cheese completely.

Next is to perfect my homemade recipe for almond milk so that I don't survive on buffalo milk alone and further down the road, who knows, cutting out restaurants . . .

It's a slow and uphill battle being a vegan and a Jain but someone's gotta do it.

Love your article.
julieannz Oct 13, 2009
i am shocked also. i have always thought India was more vegetarian than this article shows. i am also shocked at the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses in India.
khushboo Oct 10, 2009
I really like this article on veganism. I would like to know about the vegan society mentioned in the article as i look forward to join it.

I first time came to know about veganism through an outlet of cosmetics in bangalore called Lush as they offer lot of vegan products.

I think we should spread this in our country in order to save animal cruelty and its a great way for fit and healthy living.

thanks to the author of this article.
Pooja Stanslas Oct 7, 2009
good article! i think the thrust should be minimising killing. it becomes virtually impossible to be a vegan short of a fruitarian. i am lacto vegetarian for more than 12 years though i wish i could be a vegan or fruitarian! but thought provoking article. do u know india is also the biggest exporter of beef?? horror of horrors!
Manoj Oswal Oct 6, 2009
You should join our vegan potluck. I eat everything that a non vegan would eat... made with vegan dairy alternatives. I do not break the bank for it. Please visit www.sharan-india.com for loads of vegan recipes and guides.

Also visit whomanoj.com to join community of vegans active in India
Arun Oct 5, 2009
Nice article. But it is very easy to be a vegan in India. For calcium, there is an amazing cereal called ragi (Nachni in Marati/Hindi and Kezhvaragu in Tamil) which gives 400 mg of Ca for every 100 g. More than twice the amount in animals' milk, and it is cheaper than animals' milk.
For protein we have cheap soy chunks! For B12, injection is an option, apart from fortified foods.
Any search in PETA dishoom, veganbengaluru.wordpress.com, bwcindia.com would have resulted in enough vegan non-food products!
And there are enough vegan sweets like agra petha, ladoos, jangiri (south indian jilebi made of urad dhal; no buttermilk is needed), date burfi, ... Any sweet can be veganised.

And most importantly, we can make soy milk for Rs. 5-6 a litre at home!!
Sowmya Oct 5, 2009
interesting article. Been a vegan since 6.5 years, in India and abroad, mainly for ethical reasons reasons but realized it is just more friendly to the environment a as well. Eating a balanced is the key. But overall never been healthier since i became vegan.
Shankar Narayan Oct 5, 2009
By the way, if you want to attend a vegan event (opening of Vegan Centre) in India on Nov.1, please visit www.indianvegansociety.com or cotact Manish Jain.
Tejas Oct 5, 2009
Very good article. Although a detailed research would show that an Indian company called Vicco manufactures various products from toothpastes to shaving creams which are 100% vegan. The dairy obsession on India is true. Without supporting it even a bit (as myself being a vegan), I can still claim that there is way too less animal cruelty in India than US or for that matter, rest of the world. Even people who eat meat in India have it only occasionally like 1ce or 2wice a week (in general, exceptions are there). This compared to industrialized nations is very very less.
monika mehan Oct 4, 2009
Mr. Jain,

given a chance, you would turn a lion into a vegan, u r convincing in a natural way that helps one to follow this environment friendly lifestyle with ease, Thanks for helping me too!
Brinell Lewis Oct 4, 2009
You came to India with the wrong pre- formed expectations if you expected India to be a vegans paradise. If you would have rather expected us Indians to understand once if you explain to them what vegan is, (as most of us have not yet warmed up with the idea), may be you would have had a better experience. We Indians are a bunch who let you do what you wish to do, follow what you want to follow, eat what you want to eat. The only difference here is that unlike America, we do not serve all your requirements in a platter, its more of a "Do it yourself" culture.
george jacobs Sep 27, 2009
Being different is often difficult, but by being a noisy vegan or at least a noisy partial vegan you make the path easier for others to follow. Let's do what we can and be proud of ourselves for that.
Shankar Narayan Sep 26, 2009
Most Indian vegetarian dishes are originally vegan but with more milk production and more money in the hands of consumers, all such dishes have become dairy-based. Even fruit juices have become milk-tainted. Hope India awakens soon.
KSD Sep 26, 2009
I should also add that Indians are pretty accommodating of different diets. Ultimately, if you believe in something as philosophical as veganism, Indians will help you to get what you are looking for. I had no problem telling hosts and my family there to lay off on the butter and milk an ghee; they didn't mind and in fact they enjoyed the new way of eating. Or they would make sure that there were vegan options, as well as lacto-veg options. Americans are too "polite" in the sense that they worry about offending their hosts and what not if they make requests (such as the different bread for pav bhaji---it's not a big deal to eat rice or roti instead!); things don't work the same way in India, where you need to be assertive and direct. If you ever go back, don't be afraid to ask for what you want. It's not the US and you won't be seen as a burden. As they say in India, "The Guest is God."
KSD Sep 26, 2009
I lived in India for over a year and was quite happily vegan. Admittedly, I am of Indian origins myself, so I knew what dishes tend to have dairy products.



Health-wise, I came back to the US healthier than ever, as I ate more fresh fruits and vegetables in India than I ever would in the US. Once in the US, I gourged myself on soy ice cream, vegan baked goods and other things that don't exist in India.



And honestly, I think it's easier for men to be vegan. I rarely hear of vegan men having health problems, but I'm always hearing of women who, like you, got anemic and whatever else when trying to be vegan. It could be that you didn't eat the right foods (as I know vegan women who stuck to it and found a way to make the life choice work for their health), or it could be that women just need different foods. I'm not sure.



For the most part, I had no troubles being vegan in India (and I wasn't even living in a city), though I did find myself missing vegan staples that aren't easily available---fresh tofu, seitan, tempeh, vegan margarine/butter, brown rice, soy milk, etc. Soy chunks are relatively easy to find, but I prefer tofu. Soy milk is getting more common, even in mid-size cities and towns, but it's still not cheap enough there.
veghead Sep 26, 2009
I found your article fascinating because I'm a vegan and plan to visit India someday soon. I asked a friend, also a vegan, who has been to India a dozen times (mostly the south), and she told me there's plenty of vegan food avalable. So, go figure!
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