Veganism and Hinduism

by Jyoti Mehta

Defining Veganism
Veganism is a growing trend within the vegetariancommunity, and is considered a stricter form of vegetarianism. As well as not eating meat, fish or fowl, vegans extend this to not consuming anything that is derived from animals. This essentially means the removal of milk and all other forms of dairy from the diet. Some people confuse vegans with those who are lactose intolerant, but whilst lactose intolerant people avoid cow produce for allergy reasons, vegans do no eat anything derived from any animals, and this includes products such as goat’s cheese. Many vegans also do not eat honey because it is derived from bees. As with vegetarianism, veganism is a lifestyle that aims to minimise animal exploitation and suffering and maximise compassion. In practise, this means that strict vegans will avoid wearing even silk or wool.

For vegans, the drinking of milk is exploitative of the cow, who should feed her young that milk. In the UK, milk is in such demand that it is not necessarily a ‘natural’ food. To meet country demands, cows are artificially impregnated repeatedly in their lives to give birth many more times than they would naturally do. They are pumped with hormones to produce greater yields of milk and the unnatural and repeated pregnancies means that many cows cannot physically take this burden on their body. Many suffer from lameness and mastisis (severe inflammation of the udder). Gone are the days when milk for human consumption was simply excess milk the young calf did not want, and gone are the days when cows would roam green pastures.

Milk in Hinduism
The memory of cows in green pastures is one very strong within the collective memory and imagination of Hindus. The cow is revered by Hindus and known affectionately as Gaumata, or mother cow. Anyone who has been to India will remember that cows make themselves comfortable on busy main road, often with garlands or tilak/chandlos. This respect for the mother cow has a long history in Hinduism. Lord Krishna is famously known as Gopal, or the cow herd, and his love for the cow is apparent from the wealth of art based on these anecdotes and from anyone who has seen Mahabharata. Representing the male bull, Lord Shiva is commonly seen with his vehicle, the bull named Nandi and many even conduct Nandi Pooja. In South India, as part of their Siddha Darshan Day, they have a Go Pooja, which translates to pooja (worship) of the cow. Many believe that it is only the holy and auspicious that have the honour of being born as a cow, and that the very space they walk on is considered sacred and holy.

Krishna and Balaram with a herd of cows.

It is perhaps for this reason that Hindu culture seems to abound with the gifts from mother cow. In religious practices, milk is a key ingredient used in pooja, and also used in the form of curds and ghee. It is worth mentioning that divas (lamps) are generally fuelled with ghee (purified butter) and that milk or water are often used to wash idol’s feet. Even after religious ceremonies, the prashad (blessed offerings) handed out is often of a dairy base, such as milk or milk-based sweets (mithai). In this sense, dairy produce has a surprisingly prominent role in Hindu religious life. However, looking from a cultural stand point, the same can also be observed. Indian cuisine, unlike many from around the world, uses a lot of dairy produce, perhaps to compensate for a largely vegetable-based diet. The importance of using ghee (purified butter) is often discussed in cooking. Dairy produce is indeed much favoured in the traditional Indian diet, and even Lord Krishna loved his butter!

Realities of Milk Industry Today
All of these dietary and religious traditions however hark back to a time in India when the cow was treated as one of the family and with great respect and reverence. This is far from the reality of contemporary Britain. Here, the milk industry is inevitably connected with the cruelties of the meat industry, and the male calves are often a slaughtered by-product of this process. With this being the case, perhaps there is a case for promoting veganism within the Hindu community. Whilst dairy from the Gaumata was used in religious rites for its holy properties and in a display of love for the cow, it is perhaps a greater mark of love now to spare the use of this milk that has been obtained by forceful and exploitative methods. Perhaps the use of milk that has its sources in the filth of a factory farm no longer can be considered holy. Furthermore, I fail to see how milk, which now contains puss, antibiotics and growth hormones, can be considered a pure substance. An abstention from milk would by no means be an insult to the cow, or the reverence by which we esteem her; it would be criticism of the conditions in which cows are today reared. To make a stand against the injustices of the milk trade and the suffering involved would be a display of our respect for the cow and the acknowledgment that cows are not merely a commodity.

Even in India, the picture is far from perfect; the dairy industry there too is profit-driven and under a high demand. As with in this country, once the cow can no longer produce milk, it is slaughtered. This no doubt helps with India being one of the biggest exporters of leather in the world.

Whilst I am in no position to encourage every Hindu to become a vegan, I do urge Hindus to re-evaluate old customs and traditions in a changing world. Perhaps by using vegetable ghee in our divas and soya milk in our religious rites, we can reduce an already overwhelming demand for milk; the pressure of which is very acutely felt and suffered by animals. I believe that as we become more aware of the realities of the meat and milk trade, Hindus are beginning to realise perhaps a need to change. The Food for Life programme, organised by the Hare Krishna movement, now claims that 80% of their food is vegan. It is likely that they have stopped unnecessarily cooking with ghee, as used to be the norm. Hopefully the prashad served by other Hindu communities will also take this example. Hinduism teaches the concept of ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence), and by being vegetarian and vegan, we are able to practise this powerful concept through our diet, our religious ceremonies and our consumer power.

As a vegan myself, I believe that by switching to soya produce, I am honouring the mother cow, as generations of Indians have done. My way of displaying this is admittedly different from my ancestors, but I also live in a different time and society to my ancestors. It is perhaps high time for Hindus to reconsider the dietary and religious traditions that have gone unquestioned for many years and adapt, not eradicate, them for a new millennium.

Food for Life, Milk in Hindu religion.

For in-depth nutritional advice and detailed discussion of veganism: