This post is not going to advocate vegetarianism, but will instead give a glimpse into my experiences—it may help you if you're on the fence about giving up meat.
As a kid growing up in Madurai, I hated eating meat. My parents used to send me and my elder brother to buy meat. We didn't have air-conditioned supermarkets then and only open air shops. Indeed, we have open air meat shops in Madurai even now, where goats are slaughtered right in front of you. I hated eating meat for two reasons 1. The poor goat was slaughtered in front of me. When it was cooked and served in my plate, I could only see the poor goat and I could never eat it. 2. The meat shop was just opposite the house of my Brahmin classmate (on whom I had a crush later when I grew up) and I used to feel ashamed.
Over the years, though, I lost this childhood "goodness" and "compassion" for animals. As I started to travel, I started appreciating other philosophies that justified the eating of meat. Also, my meat consumption increased from once in a week in childhood to almost two meals a day. But deep inside, somewhere, I had this desire to give up eating meat but my taste buds conquered my heart's impulses.
Over the years, I lost my childhood "goodness" and "compassion" for animals. As I started to travel, I started appreciating other philosophies that justified the eating of meat.
There were a few triggers that moved me deep inside that brought me back to my childhood compassion. The first one happened in Japan. I went on a fun trip to a dam close to our university in Japan. After sightseeing, we went to a snack bar there and saw a long queue. We quickly realized that fresh fish was being sold and joined the queue. As we moved closer to the counter, we saw a terrifying scene. The counter staff were piercing live fishes with a long, thin and sharp stick (similar in size to the one used for cotton candy) and then inserting the skewer into a sandbox heated by coal at the bottom. The fishes flapped as they got roasted alive—it was horrible. We dropped out of the queue. My childhood memories were brought back and it stayed in my mind for quite a while.
The second trigger was in 2012 during the Diwali season. I went with my father and my son to buy mutton. As I said earlier, Madurai still has meat shops in the open as people don't like to eat preserved meat. When we went there, there was a sheep and a lamb. The shop-owner asked us to come later as they had run out of meat. They had slaughtered around 20 sheep overnight and the shop owner was proudly sharing his Diwali success. When I went back after a while, the lamb was there but the sheep wasn't. She had been slaughtered and was ready to be served to customers. Here was a lamb that had just lost its mother and I had gone there with my father and son. The sheep family was sacrificed for my family. I had this unexplainable deep guilt inside. When I came back home and when the meat was cooked and served, I was completely in my childhood state—I didn't see the food anymore; instead eyes saw the little lamb and its mother. I still ate it because I didn't want to disappoint my mother whose food I was having after a long time and who took so much effort to feed me. This one stayed with me for quite a while.
[My friend] said something that stayed with me forever —"If you can kill, you can eat. But if you cannot, you should not eat because that is disrespectful."
Even after such powerful triggers that moved me deeply inside, the transformation didn't happen because there are so many justifications that our intelligence allows us to make.
In 2014, I went to Panama and during that trip, I met Andres Pineiro Coen, one amazing 23-year-old man. Andres shared a very powerful personal story. Andres was in a similar state of mind like me when he did a backpacking trip across South America. He told himself that he would eat meat only when he could slaughter the animal or bird. He was able to slaughter a chicken twice but beyond that, he couldn't. He said something that stayed with me forever and that transformed me —"If you can kill, you can eat. But if you cannot, you should not eat because that is disrespectful." It was so profound and it was transformative for me. The way he connected this dilemma to "respect" resonated powerfully with me.
When we talk about animal cruelty, we need to remember the following. We drink milk, use leather bags, wear leather shoes and these things are even crueler. A cow gives milk for its calf and we "steal" that milk for us. It is no different from the little lamb story that I shared earlier. There it was killed once. Here, they are killed every day. People justify it by saying that a cow gives enough milk for everyone which is an absurd argument. Each mammal species secretes milk to feed its offspring and it is the same whether it is a cow or a leopard or a horse. The "blind theories" only help us to feel good about ourselves.
What Andres shared is not a theory that was imposed on him by the virtue of his birth. It was an insight from practice. It shook me and it transformed me. His choice of the word "respect" was very unusual and powerful for me.
I respect the fact that we have open slaughterhouses in my hometown because they are the last hope to help people understand where their meat comes from!
When I returned to Geneva, another interesting conversation with my friend Amin Khosravi sealed it for me. Amin is Iranian but was raised in the UK. When I shared Andres's story with Amin, he amplified that core message with a story from his father. Amin's father was raised in Iran. His family reared sheep and in those difficult terrains, they sometimes had to slaughter these beloved animals to sustain themselves. It became a question of whether to keep your life or keep the sheep's life. So the best way to thank the animal was to eat every bit of it and any waste was not tolerated. I interpreted it this way —"If the shepherd stays alive, most of the sheep have a better chance of survival except the odd one or two who literally are the 'sacrificial lambs'. If the shepherd gave up his life, a pack of wolves could take down all the sheep. In this scenario, sacrificing one for the sake of the rest is the only option left. When we eat the flesh of an animal, we need to lead a life that is worthy of the animal's sacrifice."
Amin also shared how the last remaining open air slaughter houses in some UK villages were closed during his childhood and how people lost touch with the suffering of the animals. Nowadays, people buy meat from air-conditioned supermarkets; kids especially remain buffered from the suffering of the animals. This ignorance extends to vegetables too... many kids don't know whether rice grows in a plant or tree! Everything is packed attractively and as a result, they have lost touch with the source. I respect the fact that we have open slaughterhouses in my hometown (even though it's not hygienic) because they are the last hope to help people understand where their meat comes from!
It's possible to find a way to connect to your inner compassion. The following question may help you — "Which life, my life or the animal's life, has the greatest chance of making a good impact on this planet?"
All these stories and instances of inspiration took me back to my childhood and to the place of compassion that I had back then. I also watched lot of slaughter videos on YouTube and at one point, I gave up meat at one go. It was instant. It was a transformation and not a change. It has been three years and never once have I felt a craving to eat meat in that time. It is expensive to avoid meat in Switzerland and there are a few countries like Japan and China where it is extremely difficult to get vegetarian meals. But it is one of my best life decisions.
The next step in the process is to become a vegan. I still consume a lot of milk products, use leather goods etc. I'm trying to change this—for example I have found a way to avoid wearing leather shoes to office. Changing from a leather belt to a cloth one is not that difficult also. The biggest challenge is going to be milk consumption. These are small steps and all these require extreme discipline. But I am confident of getting there.
If you are an active consumer of meat, then please try to reduce your intake to once or twice a week instead of every day. Over-consumption is not good for the planet whether it is cars or meat. They have an adverse effect on the planet. If you want to give up, listen to your heart and your feelings. Don't listen to what others preach. It has to come from within through your own experiences and that is the only way you can create lasting change. The brain will provide so many justifications—but don't fall for it. It's possible to find a way to connect to your inner compassion. The following question may help you — "Which life, my life or the animal's life, has the greatest chance of making a good impact on this planet?" If the answer is YOU, go for it. I hope your answer is BOTH.