Hinduism, Vegetarianism, and New Jersey's Most Costly Samosas

Last week when CNN interviewed me for a Hindu perspective on a recent ruling from a New Jersey appellate court that would allow a group of strict vegetarian Hindus to sue for the cost of travel to India to purify their souls after being served meat samosas, I wasn't sure how to answer -- as an attorney or as a vegetarian Hindu? I ended up answering as both.

As a vegetarian in a meat-eating world, I know that I run the risk of eating things that aren't 100 percent vegetarian. Going to the grocery store seems more like a trip to the library some days, as I pore over fine-print labels, just in case the manufacturer decided to change the recipe of a staple item -- like when the makers of Frosted Mini Wheats started adding gelatin.

If we're eating out, I have a different routine depending on the cuisine. Mexican for dinner? Call ahead to ask whether they use lard in their beans or chicken stock in their rice. Thai night? Say you're vegan or that you have a severe allergy to fish because, for many apparently, fish sauce grows on trees. But even with this exercise of due diligence, there are still risks of vego-transgression from the vantage of a Hindu understanding of what counts and doesn't count as vegetarian.

Vegetarianism is a common practice among many followers of Hinduism. And while not all Hindus are vegetarian, they make up the largest percentage of vegetarians in the world today. Lay Hindus are given more leniency in their diets, however spiritual leaders, such as swamis, sadhus, and gurus, are almost always strictly vegetarian, and most Hindu temples do not allow meat products on their premises. Vegetarianism in the Hindu context stems from the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence); a strict vegetarian diet being an important means to practicing this concept. Negative karma is incurred on a variety of levels beyond just the actual slaughter of the animal.

While degrees of vegetarianism may vary in the Hindu population, those who are strict or more orthodox in their practice will refrain from any meat, poultry, and fish to the extent that even "vegetarian" food items that might contain animal-derived products, such as gelatin or fish oil, or that have come in contact with any kind of meat or meat byproduct are also considered non-vegetarian. It is this latter reason that keeps many of my relatives from ever eating out in restaurants (plus the fact that they adhere to a strict Vaishnava diet that also has proscriptions against onions and garlic).

What do I mean by contact? How about the Subway sandwich maker who doesn't change his latex gloves between a ham and cheese sandwich and my Veggie Delite? Or the pizza saw used to slice up my pie right after a large Meat Lover's? And let's not forget that beyond contamination are the "accidents" -- the, "oops, the manager apologizes and will take that off your bill. So sorry." Being a Hindu vegetarian, in this light, is risky business, and I, along with many vegetarian Hindus accept the karmic blip we might incur in dining out in spite of the knowledge of potential meat contamination or accidental service.

So if the group of Hindus in New Jersey were so strict as to require returning to India for a long, elaborate 30 day purification ceremony, it begs the question -- did they too not take the same risk as the rest of us when they chose to eat out? I suppose one could argue that it was an Indian restaurant which may be more keyed into religious dietary sensitivities. There's also the fact that the waiter apparently assured them that the restaurant didn't even serve meat samosas.

Does a Hindu have to go through a purification ceremony for the accidental ingestion of meat? Thanks to the diverse, decentralized, and experiential nature of Hinduism, only the individual adherent can be the judge. Was the restaurant negligent? Did the group assume any risk? Was their mental anguish enough to merit round-trip tickets to India? For these answers, the jury will soon be out.