A majority of Hindus are non-vegetarian, as they have always been7 min read . Updated: 04 Sep 2020, 09:01 AM IST
Beef and other meats were consumed in Vedic times, and later too by Brahmins. Ayurveda, for instance, contradicts present-day Hindu orthodoxy notably in the prescription of animal flesh for medicinal purposes
The schism between the two Hindu modes of engaging with food—Vedic (eater and eaten) and the later emphasis on purity and asceticism—helps us understand the assumptions underpinning belligerent calls for ‘vegetarian only’ canteens in newspaper offices. 2014 was a momentous year for this issue. First, questioning Shirdi Sai Baba’s status as a Hindu god, Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati said that Sai Baba was someone ‘who used to eat meat and worshipped Allah...a man like that can never be a Hindu god’. Furious devotees of Sai Baba led a PIL in the Supreme Court but the court prudently refused to intervene. In November of 2014, an organisation associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sent a letter to the central government asking it to ensure that only vegetarian food was served to students in the canteen of the premier Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). This letter along with twenty others was forwarded to the directors of these institutions by the Modi- led BJP government, with a note asking them to consider separate eating areas.
The letter writer was S.K. Jain, a trader and an RSS member from Madhya Pradesh. He bemoaned the West’s bad influence on India. ‘Non-vegetarian food is not part of Indian culture...children who eat non-vegetarian food have saddened their parents by their “tamasic" (inertia-inducing) behaviour. They are deviating from the Indian value system because food has a direct correlation with their thoughts.’
However, several of his statements are factually incorrect. Beef and other meats were consumed in Vedic times, and later too by Brahmins. Ayurveda, for instance, contradicts present-day Hindu orthodoxy notably in the prescription of animal flesh for medicinal purposes. In The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats: An Ecological Theme in Hindu Medicine, Francis Zimmerman points out that the Atharva Veda permits the eating of meat including cattle products in sacrificial contexts, in cases of medical emergency, and as part of a model of proper life for the Kshatriya. In the Ayurvedic medicinal text Charaka Samhita, women, after giving birth, are advised to consume a paste of ‘a portion of the right ear of the untamed and alive bull...cut and smashed in a stone mortar’. At the same time, Ayurveda also reveres the cow and says it should be treated with all respect. An explanation for this ambiguity about the cow, say scholars, is that reverence for that animal was part of an earlier tradition that Ayurveda developed but did not leave behind. The texts of classical Ayurveda were written during a time of political fragmentation when the Mauryan empire had fallen, and the Gupta empire was beginning to rise, during a time of religious and cultural flux.
See K.T. Achaya’s book where he quotes Brahmin poet Kapilar of the Sangam epoch (1-500 AD) speaking of meat and alcoholic drinks with relish and without fear of being ostracised. The Charaka Samhita has a verse in a chapter on food: ‘The flesh of cows, buffaloes and hogs should not be eaten daily’, which implies that they can be eaten occasionally. The author tells pregnant women to eat beef, which will make the foetus strong. The Brahmin of the Yajur Veda lists ceremonies that require the meat of cattle, and the type of cattle to be sacrificed (a red cow to Rudra and a barren cow to Vishnu and Varuna). In Food and Drink in Ancient India, R. Mitra points out that the only restriction on a pious Hindu while purchasing meat was that he had to offer a portion of it, after dressing it, to the gods, guests, or beggars, which sufficed to accomplish a yagna. The mischievous killing of cattle is included among the secondary offences in these texts, and is not considered to be as heinous as killing a Brahmin.
Most Indians are not vegetarians; in fact, only 31 per cent are vegetarians, according to The Hindu—CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey in 2006. The figure is 21 per cent for families (with all vegetarian members). Another 9 per cent of the population is ‘eggetarian’, or vegetarians who eat eggs. Women are more likely to be vegetarian than men and so are those above the age of fifty- five. But there is no broad correspondence between age and vegetarianism. Among the young, the figure is only slightly below the national average. The lowest proportion of vegetarian families are in coastal states such as Kerala (2 per cent), Tamil Nadu (8 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (4 per cent), Orissa (8 per cent) and Bengal (3 per cent). Most land-locked states, especially in the West and North, are places with the highest proportion of vegetarian families: Rajasthan (63 per cent), Haryana (62 per cent), Punjab (48 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (33 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (35 per cent) and Gujarat (45 per cent). Hindus who worship every day are more likely to be vegetarian, but the majority of all Hindus are non-vegetarian. Other data supports this assumption. A 2010-2011 National Statistical Sample survey on household consumption in 100,000 households shows that as people get richer, they consume more meat, fish, eggs and nutrient-rich food. The consumption of meat and fish has risen from 1 kg/per capita in 2004 to 2.5 kg/per capita in 2014, and is expected to almost double in 2023.
Notwithstanding these inaccuracies, Jain’s letter is interesting for two reasons: first, it demonstrates Khare’s ‘Hindu style of thinking’; and second, it highlights the conceptual element of seeing food in terms of the principles it represents—for example, meat produces inertia in children.
A Hindu mode of thinking, Khare points out, recognises reality (or practice) as an integral part of the thought, but also makes actual (external) existence of objects only an extension of the primary conceptual principles. Food is conceived only in terms of the major principles (or meanings) it represents; food’s physical existence is not given any independent validity. For instance, in prasadam, the thought is concerned only with divine grace (kripa); in annadaan, it is the thought of the daan (the giving) that commands other characteristics; and in cow dung, it is the representation of the divine principle through parts and products of the sacred cow that is in focus. By this logic, it is the thought of the pure or the ascetic mind and being that is in focus in the injunction to be vegetarian.
But as we saw earlier, there isn’t just one Hindu mode of thinking about food. The association between a food concept (vegetarian) and a value system (Indian) by Hindu right-wing organisations collides with ancient (Vedic) and Dalit practices of non-vegetarianism, which continue to inform the practices of a majority of Indians. Gopal Guru argues that Dalits have used non-vegetarian food, particularly beef, as a powerful cultural medium to undercut the culturally superior status of the upper castes, which seek to chain the Dalits to a savage identity. At the same time, Dalits have internalised the hierarchical framework of the Hindu Dharmasastra. Guru points out that the Dalits of Maharashtra used clay pots for cooking the meat of dead cattle, aluminum vessels for toliv (beef) and steel vessels for cooking chicken and lamb. Dalit women took particular care to keep these vessels separate.
The new element in this clash of value systems is the way in which food is perceived by those whose incomes have risen, and who are also connected via social media and the internet to ideas and experiences in other parts of the world. There is greater emphasis not just on consumption but also on how food is produced (witness the debates on use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides). In recent years, particularly in the metropolitan cities, there has been a shift in the way citizens deal with the production of food. More than any other era, we are connected to the global world through the revolution in telecommunications. Social media (YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, email, Facebook, Whatsapp and so on) has created pathways to connect friends and strangers from different cultures, nationalities and ethnicities. The mobile phone has become a staple not just among the well-off but also among the poorer groups. By the middle of 2019, there were over 1000 million users in India. It is not surprising, then, that ideas about the production of food too have diffused between continents.
The emphasis on organic food, urban gardening, terrace and balcony kitchen gardens are all part of this movement. For instance, Bangalore’s horticultural department is promoting kitchen gardening in urban areas; about 10 per cent of the terraces in Bangalore have such gardens. The demand is from the professional middle class but it is still not as high as it is in the West. So in this context, Khare’s observation about the low emphasis on the production of food in the Hindu mode of thinking is still relevant. For some, the notions of purity and pollution are less about religious and caste profiles, and more about cleanliness and hygiene. For others, the consumption of a particular type of food is connected with the notion of being an Indian. For yet others, religious and caste profiles continue to matter tremendously. These multiple views make for hot-tempered debates about vegetarianism, Indianness and religion, which are not going to disappear anytime soon.
Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Excerpted from Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India's Tastes with permission from Speaking Tiger Books.