International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India

From The Vegetarian, Jan-Feb, 1958:

Inaugural Speech by the President of India
Dr. Rajendra Prasad

Presentation to President
The Secretary of The Vegetarian Society making a presentation to the President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, after speaking at the inaugural dinner in Bombay.

"I extend to you, ladies and gentlemen, who have come from long distances to attend this Vegetarian Conference, a hearty welcome. I see before me a gathering of convinced and confirmed vegetarians. Vegetarianism as a movement has been going on in Europe for a long time and Mahatma Gandhi in his Experiments with Truth mentions a number of books proving the superiority of vegetarian food from different points of view. He also mentions a Vegetarian Society in London of which he was an active member during his student days in the early nineties of the last century. It is, therefore, not surprising that a Conference of this nature should have been held in some countries of Europe.

You have had previous sessions of the Vegetarian Conference in other countries, but India has certain characteristics which are her own. I do not think there is any other country where people in such large numbers are vegetarians and have been abstaining from meat diet for generations. That has been so because meat diet has been regarded as unsuitable, if not harmful, to spiritual growth, and our scriptures have laid down rules regulating food. These rules are based essentially on an appreciation of the laws of non-violence or ahimsa, that is, avoiding harm to all, not only living creatures, but plants, etc., also. All our ancient sciences and shastras look upon life as an integrated whole and co-ordinate different activities in such a way as to fit in with and help in the upward growth of man. We have thus no double standards nor artificial divisions in our activities such as we sometimes hear made by some people. For example, it is common enough to hear that a man's religion is his own affair and has nothing to do with his politics. Similarly his life and politics are two different things, and what he eats, how he lives and carries on his other private affairs have nothing to do with his public activities. We as a matter of fact believe that each activity has its repercussions on other activities and we cannot divide either the activities or their effects. It is on this basis that food is sought to be so related as to create that kind of calm and unperturbed mind, which in its turn may devote itself to private or public functions, to spiritual no less than to mundane affairs.

When I say all this, I do not claim that as a people we are living up to these ideals. If we did, the country and our people would be something very different from what they are: and yet it is some of these which have enabled us to survive trials and vicissitudes which few other nations or people have faced as we have had to do in history. If we analyse the factors, the fundamental thing as I have said above, is non-violence, which in its active and positive form means active love for others, and in its passive form means tolerance for others. In other words, while on the one hand we believe in doing active good, on the other, we believe in allowing others to live their own lives, to have their own thoughts and to talk in their own way and freely. This tolerance has been a characteristic faith of our people and has in fact been the mother of all our metaphysical and philosophical thought, and the growth side by side of different religions within the country. It was not a mere accident but a logical result of our thought processes that at a time when animal sacrifices were insisted upon by the predominant school of thought, Buddhism with its philosophical insistence on non-violence, and Jainism with its practical application in the most meticulous and in some respects extreme form, arose in this country. It was again not an accident but equally a logical process that Christianity, since its earliest days when it had no political significance, and later on Zoroastrianism found a hospitable atmosphere and field to flourish in this country. Islam, with all its conquering zeal, became tamed in India, and the conquests by its saints became as significant as, if not more than the conquests of the Muslim conquerors and rulers. And today we have got a composite culture in which so many elements have contributed to make a mosaic of a most beautiful and variegated pattern of society.

Vegetarianism therefore in India has always been a semi-religious social feature of our life and not merely expressive only of dietetic theories or economic necessity, although results in these respects have also flowed from it. It is therefore not surprising that there are so many castes and communities which have been vegetarian for genera-tions, no member of which has ever touched or tasted meat derived from any slaughtered animal, big or small. When I say this, I should not be misunderstood as claiming that India as a whole is vegetarian or that even a majority of its population is vegetarian. It is only some Hindu castes and communities who are vegetarian as such. The Muslims, the Christians, the Parsis, the Sikhs, and even the Buddhists, are not vegetarians as a community: that is to say, meat-eating is not socially prohibited amongst them, which is the case with the other communities mentioned above. But in another sense a large majority is vegetarian, not in the sense that it does not or cannot eat meat but because it does not get it or cannot afford it. It is only a small proportion of our population who are regular meat-eaters. Even among these, vegetables, cereals and fruits constitute a larger proportion of their daily fare in this country than in other countries.

It may also be stated that we have our peculiar ideas - call them prejudices if you like - about some of these matters. Even those who eat meat are not permitted to take all kinds of meat, but have limitations put on their choice of meat either by restricting the animals the flesh of which may be eaten or by restricting the time and the number of days in the year when it may or may not be taken, and curiously enough, even by the method of which an animal intend-ed for food is to be slaughtered. Thus there are certain animals which differ from community to community the flesh of which may not be eaten and must be eschewed. There are some days or some occasions on which meat may not he eaten, and there are restrictions on the way in which, and the occasion on which the animal may be slaughtered and its flesh eaten. So far as the Hindus are concerned, all these restrictions and inhibitions are based more or less on a recognition of the weakness of man's palate, on the value of absten-tion and on the necessity of restricting the use as much and in as many ways as possible. No wonder therefore that whether as a matter of tradition or family custom, personal belief or communal regulation, or whether as a result of economic factors or appreciation of the value of non-meat diet for healthy growth of body, mind and soul, we have a considerable proportion of our population which completely abstains from meat, and a very much larger proportion which indulges in meat diet occasionally and on particular occasions. I may also note for the information of foreigners who may not be acquainted with our customs, that, generally speaking, in India we do not regard milk and milk products as non-vegetarian food. On the other hand, eggs, even non-fertile eggs, are regarded as non-vegetarian food in orthodox circles.

All these considerations have combined to produce a society in India which in the matter of food differs in this respect from other countries. Whether it was considered a valid argument or not in the olden days when ahimsa and the effect of the food on human nature were emphasized in eschewing animal food, our present-day economic situation fits in very well with our traditional mode of living. Our population is large and is growing tremendously at the rate of 4 to 5 millions per year. The quantity of land is limited and can-not be increased even by an inch. The uncultivated portion may be brought under cultivation, but there is no doubt that within the foreseeable future, it will be impossible to increase the land under cultivation. Increase in yield per unit of land has also conceivably a limit. We have therefore to consider whether cereals or meat can be more economically grown on the land. In countries where vast areas are still available and grazing grounds extend far and wide animals may be bred for meat purposes. "The generally accepted computation is that 2 1/2, acres of land are required to provide a minimum adequate diet for each person, by Western standards, anyhow. On a vegetarian diet it has been estimated that 1 1/2 acres per head may provide enough. The reason for this difference is that animals grazed for meat-eating purposes require from 9 to 15 times more land than is necessary to raise an equivalent amount of nutrition in the form of grains, vegetables and fruit for human consumption." This is the conclusion arrived at by Mr. Richard B. Gregg, an American, on a study of the literature on the subject. It is therefore a very lucky and fortunate coincidence that our vegetarianism, limited though it may be, reduces tremendously the pressure on land which is already being felt in many parts of the country.

It is not for a vegetarian to claim that his food can produce better men and women than meat food. There may be various standards for judging men and it is possible that judged by one standard, meat-eaters are better than vegetarians: and vegetarians may be found to be better than meat-eaters if judged by another standard, as for example in the matter of endurance.

But apart from these, there is a fundamental point which has become relevant in the context of modern conditions and the history of civilization as it has developed during the past few centuries. There can be no doubt that non-violence or the policy of live and let live, is the only policy which can solve most of our troubles and problems. As I have indicated above, in its active form it means readiness to sacrifice one's self, one's comfort and one's ambitions for the sake of others. The alternative is to utilise others to fulfil one's own desires and ambitions. Somehow or other, man has for centuries convinced himself that he is the best and the most evolved of all known creatures and it is therefore only right and proper that all other creatures should be made to subserve man and satisfy him. It is this policy or theory which enables us to slaughter without hesitation other living animals either to satisfy our palate or to fill our stomach or to decorate our body or only to give us amusement as in sports.

In times which were considered to be less civilized and when man was only a hunter, he lived more or less like any other wild animal by hunting another animal for his food. As his tastes and desires were limited, he did not destroy as much as the more civil-ized man of today has to destroy to satisfy his tastes. In those days, although man lived on other animals, he did not breed animals only to be slaughtered as is done today on a tremendously big scale. Millions and millions of animals are bred and fattened only to be slaughtered to supply food and other requirements of man. Medi-cines too account for the torture and slaughter of numberless animals in various ways, and so, as we have progressed in civilization, respect for life has become less and less. We have now reached a stage when that lessened respect for life is not confined to what are called lower animals, but has come to include human beings: and therefore it is a matter of deep concern though it is more or less a logical result of lessening respect for animal life that respect for human life also has gone down tremendously. That is, if man being superior to another animal can exploit and even slaughter it for his own pur-poses, the next natural step is that the stronger man or nation should consider it nothing wrong to exploit or even destroy a weaker man or tribe or nation. This is what has happened and what is at the root of all exploitation by the people of one country of the people of another for no reason except that it was necessary to do so to raise the standard of living of the former at the expense of the latter.

Not long ago there used to be restrictions on wanton destruc-tion of human life even in war and between warriors of opposing sides. But that idea is now out of date, and today, with the weapons of mass destruction at man's disposal, the human race itself is in imminent danger of being destroyed. It is a far cry from veget-arianism to atomic or hydrogen bomb, but if you look at it, there is no escape from vegetarianism ultimately if we want to escape from the hydrogen bomb. Any integrated view of life as a whole will reveal to us the connection between the individual's food and his behaviour towards others, and through a process of ratiocination which is not fantastic, we cannot but arrive at the conclusion that the only means of escaping the hydrogen bomb is to escape the mentality which has produced it, and the only way to escape that mentality is to cultivate respect for all life, life in all forms, under all conditions. It is only another name for vegetarianism.

Let me hope that your deliberations in the environment of this country will be fruitful and even India, which at the present moment seems to he rushing headlong on the path followed by Western nat-ions, will stop awhile and think out afresh the implications and ultimate consequences of her own policies."