Vegan? And why?

Recently I realized that not many in India are aware that there is an option of a 'guilt free diet'. I am often asked, "What is this vegan thing you talk about?" or "Why are you vegan?"

There are no short and sweet replies to both the questions. Because a short one leaves many doubts unanswered and because truth, as we know, is never sweet. I have tried to answer most questions I am asked by friends, relatives and strangers. Most of what follows is my answer to a fellow blogger who wanted to know the answer to the above question. If you are looking for a very scientific opinion, this is not the place. Obviously I approached the subject scientifically as well, once I decided to become vegan but the reasons I turned towards a vegan diet as an option were not scientific, but ethical. I have however provided links for the skeptics and the curious.

What is 'vegan'?
Vegan (pronounced as vee-gan) is a diet that excludes all animal and animal derived products such as dairy products (including milk and milk derived products), honey and meat (eggs, chicken, poultry farm, fish). Hence a vegan eats only plants and plant derivatives with the exception of yeast.

Being vegan is an extension of being human
Adopting a vegan diet is only a small part. The diet is a part of conscious or compassionate living. Compassionate living is a lifestyle choice. Being vegan by choice includes being harmonious with Nature. A vegan does not wear or use any product that makes use of animal products such as buttons made of shells and bones, natural silk made from silk worms, leather goods or accessories. Compassionate living includes minimizing the use of ecologically damaging products and using products that are eco-friendly. I never take plastic covers as a rule while shopping. I always have at least 2 or 3 cloth bags with me whenever I step out! If I forget my bags I simply do not shop. I try and procure organic substances as much as possible. I do not have a green thumb but I do try growing herbs and my two thriving tulsi plants have given me hope to try my hand at other herbs!

Why am I a vegan?
I believe very strongly that every human act has far reaching results. I started moving towards conscious living sometime in the late nineties. I believe that if there is progress, it should lie in bringing in peace and harmony in Nature. I believe that as human beings each one of us can bring about a positive change in the world, if only we make a few lifestyle changes. In 1999, I stopped using plastic bags and leather bags, belts and shoes. I stopped using natural silk since the last three years and moved towards a vegan diet two years back.

I became vegan having made a deliberate lifestyle choice. I chose not to be part of the chain of cruelty that makes us rob animals off their right to freedom and place in the world. My reasons were ethical more than scientific.

We have been taught since we stepped in school that cows give milk but the books conveniently omitted the part that cows give milk for calves and that the milk given by them is not suitable for human consumption. We force our bodies to adapt and accept external milk. Do you know what happens when babies are fed milk other than breast milk for the first few times? They puke, they cry because their stomachs cannot ingest it. It is the first sign that shows that the human body cannot take milk other than human milk. But we persevere, and adapt when there is absolutely no necessity to do so.

Cow's milk is meant for baby calves. Goat's milk for little kid goats. Period.

Honey is the extra food made by bees from nectar of flowers. When we use honey we are actually using the stored food of the bees.

Meat, is not meant for human consumption. Our body has evolved since the prehistoric hunting man's times and it is no longer designed to hunt or tear meat anymore. Please read this article titled "the comparative anatomy of eating" by Milton R. Mills, MD, for a scientific analysis. You might also like to watch the video on youtube here.

If you have been in India you must have seen how hens are carried off for slaughter from 'farms' when they are no longer capable of laying eggs. All chickens raised for eggs have had large portions of their sensitive beaks cut off when they grow. They spend their entire lives in a filthy, cramped wire cage. Each hen has an area smaller than a sheet of notebook paper in which to stand and doesn’t have enough space to spread even one wing. The cages are stacked on top of one another, so excrement from hens in higher cages often falls on those below. Ammonia and the stench of feces hang heavy in the air, and disease is rampant in these filthy, cramped conditions. Read more here. Is an egg in our diet such an important thing when the same nutrition can be procured from other green sources?

"Fish on aquafarms spend their entire lives in cramped, filthy enclosures, and many suffer from parasitic infections, diseases, and debilitating injuries. Conditions on some farms are so horrendous that 40 percent of the fish may die before farmers can kill and package them for food. In short, fish farms bring suffering and ecological devastation everywhere they go." Do you think the fish you eat is any different? Is it necessary to succumb to taste of caviar and roe eggs at such a cost? Read more here.

It is the treatment of the 'holy' cow that startles me the most! We in India are taught to revere even the 'gomutra' (the urine of the cow). We consider the cow so sacred that we use 'ghee' made of cow's milk for poojas (rituals). And yet we do not bother to find out what happens in our farms and slaughter houses. It does not seem to matter that the cows stay in pens that leave no room for them to manoeuvre themselves around. Cows are gentle, social, intelligent animals and do not even ask much yet human beings make use of them till their death. "Like all animals, cows form strong maternal bonds with their children, and on dairy farms and cattle ranches, mother cows can be heard crying out for their calves for days after they are separated." Read more here. Despite the awareness how much can we crush our conscience and go on feeding on their milk?

What made me turn into a vegan?
Some years back I was sent on an office training. It was related to smuggling of banned goods. We were shown samples that had been recovered and what I saw was devastating. Deer skin purses, snake skin purses and a purse made of a single layer of a baby crocodile that had been slit horizontally and relieved off its 'stuffings'! It made me recoil at the thought of the barbarism involved. We were told that most animals are skinned alive because a dead animals hide can never retain softness or flexibility that a live skin can! How gruesome can that be? Later that year Mumbai faced a massive flood during the rainy season on 26th July, 2005. Many people died, many houses were washed away. Mumbaiites were heralded for their heroism on helping fellow citizens without caring for their own safety. On that day, it was reported in some daily newspaper, that many animals had been left tethered in their sheds so that they would not chaos to escaping humans. It dawned on me that day, how cruel we human beings could be. We use the poor animals for our benefits, robbing them of their natural life, terminating their life at our choice for our convenience. It still took me three years to change my attitude. I am glad I did.

Jeevo jeevasya jeevanam
Often people argue with me and advice me, "Jeevo jeevasya jeevanam." These words in Sanskrit, mean "life is sustained by life only." People have conveniently contorted the implication of these words to mean that it does not matter if we inflict pain on other creatures, as we do this only to survive, which is the natural law. Unfortunately, that is not what the words meant. The natural law never speaks of storage, of farms, of greed or of making money by killing other lives.

Coming from a country that produced a leader (Gandhi) who showed the world that 'ahimsa' is the only way to establish peace and freedom, this form of cruelty angers me to the core! But then again, Lincoln too had said, "Nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so." Do we choose the easier route - not to think at all?

The environmental impact of a non-vegan world:
"A 400-page United Nations report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that cattle farming is "responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases".The production of cattle to feed and clothe humans stresses ecosystems around the world, and is assessed to be one of the top three environmental problems in the world on a local to global scale. The report was made in 2006. Four years later, not much has been done to reduce livestock. If anything the number of cattle breeders, violent and unhygienic means of rearing has only multiplied. As long as we treat animals as 'livestock' instead of 'live' the problem will only increase. What if there were no consumers for these 'farm products'? We would not only have cleaner and greener earth but also enough space for agricultural produce. Read about the worsening impact here.

Do we have a choice?
It is surprising but most of us do not make choices in life unless it has monetary motivation or promises more luxuries. We resist choices because the very idea pushes us out of our comfort zones. We resist awareness rather than confront truth.

So, we are vegetarian or non-vegetarian by birth. Sometimes we may change to a different diet due to dietary restrictions caused by diseases or age or religion. But unless there is a strong cause we prefer to continue the way we have been brought up.

I was brought up a vegetarian but my parents allowed us to have bakery products with eggs in them simply because they felt they were giving me more choice. Many of my relatives are non-vegetarians because they feel it is an advantage when they go to foreign countries where vegetarian dishes are few. They feel strengthened by having included 'more' to choose from.

Somehow, 'choice' has always meant including more. But the truth is we have a choice, at every step of our lives and we choose what we want to be. Some choices seem difficult but once you start to reason and eliminate the excuses, the path becomes much easier. In a world that aims at having excess of everything, minimizing your options might strike as an odd choice, but then is it not the idea of progress to breakdown complexities and move towards simplicity? Being vegan is a step towards simplified living. A step closer to Nature.

Is not a vegan diet imbalanced? Without milk how can one get calcium?
One of the many wrong ideas that have been drilled into our minds since childhood is the the importance of milk for strengthening bones. On the contrary, many of our physical problems are linked with consumption of milk. Childhood tooth decay is often due to frequent residue of milk in the mouth than sweets! Milk consumption often worsens asthma and lung disorders. Please click here for a more comprehensive article. In India we do not check children for lactose intolerance. We prefer to force the child to adapt. Unfortunately even doctors submit to the myths propounded by lobbyists of the dairy industry.

How to include calcium in your diet if not through milk?
The easiest and the best way is to have a bowlful of 'red millet porridge' daily. The content of calcium in millet is considerably high with about 350mg for every 100g of millet (Source:Outlook). This grain can be used to make several tasty as well as nutritious and easy dishes. I shall try and post a few recipes that I have incorporated in my diet soon. Two ragi rotis (millet flatbreads) a day provides enough calcium required by the body.

Advantages of a vegan diet:
Apart from feeling good, healthier and happier after adopting a natural lifestyle? I have actually got rid of the frequent bouts of acidity I was prone to earlier. My skin that was riddled with acne has become pock free! I have not put on weight and shed some without any effort!

A vegan diet comes closest to our physical make up and also reduces threats of diseases caused by non-vegetarian or vegetarian diet. While you can never guarantee that animals have been raised organically [because farms are factories and do not care how their animals look except in their packed containers], you can definitely rely on vegetables to be grown organically. It is easy to be an urban farmer if only we all try a little.

Life without milk? That is difficult!
Try living without milk and milk products. It is actually pretty easy! There are plenty of alternatives to milk available these days, soymilk, coconut milk, almond or any nut milk and rice milk to name a few. You can get them off shelves or prepare your own.

Do I have to forego cakes and ice creams?
Why? Vegan cakes and ice creams are as satisfying to the palate as eggless or egg based cakes and icecreams, while also being guilt free. Vegan cooking and baking is definitely not rocket science:).

As a vegan do I hate non-vegans?
The whole idea of compassionate living is to love and respect other creatures so why should vegans hate non-vegans? I wasn't a vegan two years back. I regret many of the things I have done and I would like to undo so many actions. But hate is never an answer. However, every vegan is an activist for animal rights.

Have you ever wondered?
Where does one go from here?
I chose to be a vegan because I love my planet and its creatures. I hope you will make your choice too. It takes only a thought to make the change happen. Once the first step has been taken you can also think of better health, organic living in the true sense and food in its most natural form.

Give it a thought today and make the best choice.

If you would like to know more about compassionate living please go through the following links:

If you are aware of any shop in India that sells only vegan items please leave a comment with the address or phone no. of the shop, alongwith the name of the City so that it may help other vegans.

[I would like to acknowledge the Manish Jain of for his inputs and for many of the excerpts I have used from their site.]

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