India seems to be the only country that houses the most vegetarians than any other country in the world. Given that more than half of the population eats meat. Well, it’s simply the numbers game when it comes to India. Only by India’s sheer strength of population that there are more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined. According to a 2006 survey by ‘The Hindu’ newspaper, it was found that 40 percent of the Indian population. That makes it some 400 million Indians are vegetarians.

Vegetarianism in India has been a lifestyle for centuries. Hence there is no beef or pork in any McDonald's in India. In fact the only non-vegetarian items as in McDonald’s India’s online menu have chicken and fish. To a kiwi friend of mine who visited Mumbai recently, the menu in McDonald’s had very little meat options and disappointing to his palate. In saying that, even a traditional non-vegetarian in India is more dependent on vegetarian food as on most of the days he is dependent on a vegetarian diet. Even on meat eating days like a Sunday most dishes are vegetarian except for one or two side-dishes with meat. Non-vegetarians in India typically consume meat only once or twice per week and it wouldn’t be totally off the mark to assume that meat may be regularly consumed by less than 30 percent of the Indian population due to its higher cost.

The reasoning behind the practice of vegetarianism is wide-ranging though influenced mainly by the tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism. The other compelling reason is the affordability of non-vegetarian food. Health and social consciousness increasingly play a part in bringing about a change in the Indian psyche towards a vegetarian lifestyle. It’s fashionable for Bollywood stars to say they are vegetarians. “Vegetarianism is becoming a way of life now, not just in food but also in lifestyle products as people care more about health, environment and animals. They do not want to brush their teeth using bone-powder, they want to exclude leather from their furniture,” says NG Jayasimha, campaign manager, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India.

Add to this the corporate strategies that hinge on vegetarianism for products like toothpaste, ice-creams, skin care products, soaps, apparels etc. Here’s an example of how big brands have joined the vegetarian bandwagon. Pizza Hut has at least 60% of its sales in the Indian market to vegetarian food items. McDonald’s vegetarian selections account for around 50-65% of total sales. Colgate India carries the ‘always 100% vegetarian’ label on the carton. Baskin Robbins has 100% vegetarian ice-creams which are advertised in a big way. The world-famous-in India celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor also mentions interesting facts about the Indian ‘vegetarian-friendly’ society. “If I release a book on ‘non-vegetarian’ recipes, even then 70 out of 100 dishes would be vegetarian than just purely non-vegetarian dishes.”

India as a vegetarian country draws her veggie-food culture in a big way from her religions. The earliest records of vegetarianism as a way of harmonious living by a significant number of people come from ancient India. The rise of vegetarianism in India goes back to more than 500 BCE, which saw the rise of Buddhism and Jainism preaching the principle of ahimsa or non-violence till today.

The spiritual traditions right from the days of Emperor Ashoka in 300 BCE which assert the principle of Ahimsa (non-violence) being the highest dharma (Ahimsa paramo dharmah) led to Article 51A (g) of the Indian Constitution which enjoins on every citizen to have the fundamental duty to show compassion towards all living creatures. "You must not use your God given body for killing God's creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever" advises the Yajur Veda. Shri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs says, “You kill living beings, and call it a righteous action. Tell me, brother, what would you call an unrighteous action.”

The Vedic scriptures of India, which predate Buddhism, also stress nonviolence as an ethical foundation of vegetarianism. "Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures," states the Manusmriti - the ancient Hindu code of ethics, "Let one therefore shun the use of meat." Even in the Mahabharata there are many injunctions against killing animals.

Saints and sages believed that eating vegetarian food to be a part of purification, bestowing good health and a restful mind. Our bodily constitution and mental framework are determined by what we eat. The great Indian mystic Osho shares, “Vegetarianism is nothing but a by-product of deep meditation. If a person goes on meditating, by and by he will see that it has become impossible to eat meat.” Mind-Body guru Deepak Chopra says “In general, it is obvious that a vegetarian diet is healthier, it is better for ecology, and less violent on life as a whole. Eating habits are based on culture, geography and influenced by religion.”  In Sikhism the langar food served at Gurudwaras is always vegetarian. All the food offerings in a Hindu worship can only be vegetarian.

Given all this, the one thing in favour of the Indian vegetarian lifestyle is the fact that it has a positive impact on climate change. Could the world leaders at Copenhagen not have ignored this about Indian lifestyle as one of the many strategies to save the planet? Or should they heed to Albert Einstein’ advice as one of the many planet saving strategies, when he said “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

After all that is said than done, vegetarianism or otherwise like many things in life is simply a matter of taste, choice, habit, availability and reasoning.