The other day, my six-year old Sunshine told me about the eating habits of his friend. This other child was a non-vegetarian, and apparently he described his food with a lot of enthusiasm. I saw that my son's eyes were shining, and asked him if he would like to eat that too. He replied with a nod and a bright smile.
At that moment, you could have felled me with a fork. Raised in a family of strict vegetarians and married into one, it has never occurred to me to eat anything other than vegetarian. When we were young, the "Eww" factor kept us from eating NV. During college days, I used to try to convert non-vegetarians to vegetarianism. But later, with more reading, I learned to be tolerant of, and accept others eating that kind of food.
Actually, non-vegetarianism is not new to sanātana dharma, and from old texts, it does not look like it was forbidden for Brahmins, either. In the famous story of sage Agastya getting rid of vātāpi, it is evident that he ate vAtApi,in the form of a goat. In the kathāsaritsāgara, there is the story of a brahmin, a servant in a merchant's house, who desired to eat meat -aamisha, and it is just one such example in our literature (On an aside, people who constantly complain that the learned brahmins sitting on high horses kept others away from knowledge should spare a look at classics like kathāsaritsāgara to get a more real and complete picture - but that should be a topic for a separate post). In fact, a story from the same classic explicitly mentions that sanātana dharma endorsed violence and therefore bauddha-dharma was better, because it preached peace and non-violence. If one wants examples from sacred texts themselves, it is very clear that animals were used in various yajñas (horse during aśvamedha and goat during somayāga), until religious leaders like Madhvācārya advocated the use of images of animals made of flour (piṣṭa-paśu).In fact, the manusmṛti says the following about eating animals for food -
'pravṛttireṣa bhūtānāṃ nivṛttistu mahāphalā' |, meaning that this was the tendency of living beings, but abstinence would be greatly beneficial.
Having said all this, this is my view of vegetarianism. Even if all the śāstras of the universe espoused non-vegetarianism, I would not eat non-vegetarian food. For the simple fact that I would be taking the life of another animal to satisfy not just my hunger but also my palate. Our ancestors had a simple reason to resort to eating animals - that of non-availability of food. When people did not know how to grow their own food, it made sense to eat the animals they got by hunting. This reason does not hold during the present time and age. As R says, a person can eat an animal if you kill it. If you can stomach the killing, you can stomach the kill.
Secondly, the animals in the feedlot are treated in a very inhuman way. Not just in crowded ranches abroad, but even in our non-violent country. Chickens, still alive, are often seen packed in metal boxes, with no space to stretch their wings. It is not a rare sight to see live chickens dangling from the handlebars of bicycles. I am sure the situation is no better for other animals in feedlots. Cows in dairy farms are probably treated better, but apparently they are also fed hormones, so that more milk is produced. Also there was this news about artificial insemination for cows. The question is, for how long can we get away with this kind of cruelty to animals?
The third issue is that of resources. Non-vegetarian food consumes a lot of resources. It makes collective economic sense to become vegetarian, or at least, reduce the consumption of non-vegetarian food. Not to mention the health benefits. Other factors being equal, a vegetarian is less likely to develop heart disease than his/her non-vegetarian counterpart. If this is not reason enough for continuing to being a vegetarian, I do not know what else is.
To come back to my Sunshine, I told him that non-vegetarian food was not really healthy and that we did not make it at home. Luckily, that evening, there was this program on Discovery, about catching sharks for their fins (shark-fin soup is apparently a delicacy). It was a bloody (sorry!) gruesome sight - the way the shark was caught, its fins were cut off, and it was thrown back into the water to die (if it was not dead already). My son was watching this too - and R asked him if he would like to do that to any animal. The shocked child replied "No", while I turned away, grinning. For a few more years, us parents can still influence him, at least in the matter of food.