Monday, December 24, 2007

Rejection of Rationality V: Vegetarianism

[This is the fifth part in a series. The first four are at Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.]

The minor trace of vegetarianism embraced by few people of the West is celebrated by Hindus as vindication of their longstanding habit of vegetarianism. Indian Hindus quickly quip, “We have always been vegetarian for a long time now, and you have come around in full circle to embrace it!”

Though this rejection of meat-eating may show certain similarity between the behaviors of the West and the Indian Hindus, there are two big differences. One, this phenomenon is a fringe movement in the West, where only certain people of yuppie crowd have renounced mean to embrace vegetarianism it as a fashion or a lifestyle, while in India there are millions who have never tasted meat in their entire life. There is no other country on the planet where there is such huge population of complete vegetarians. Most of the world is invariably meat eaters. Two, the underlying reasons for practicing vegetarianism are completely different. I will be discussing the second difference here.

Unlike the West’s post-modern rejection of meat-eating which is based in health reasons and other guilt reasons emanating from treatment towards animals, Indian Vegetarianism is NOT founded in ‘health reasons’ nor has a basis in ‘good diet’. It certainly does not emanate from guilt reasons. Certain people in the West, especially some New Age enthusiasts, have rejected meat because of the West’s excessive and preponderance dependence on meat in their regular diet. 

West’s rejection of excessiveness of non-vegetarianism is misconstrued by Indian Hindus as rejection of non-vegetarianism in all its forms.

Food habits amongst Indian Hindus are very much caste-centric. Most Brahmins, expect in some regions (such as Kashmir or Bengal), are completely vegetarians. In most regions of India, all upper caste Hindus do NOT touch or eat meat. Many Shudras eat chicken, mutton, fish, etc, but NOT beef or pork. Some higher Shudras who live more like higher caste than lower caste DO NOT eat meat just like higher caste of that region. Dalits and tribals eat most meats including game, beef, pork, pigeon, etc.

In each region of India food habits are distinctly aligned along caste lines. Knowing one family’s food habits of certain caste will allow one to know the eating habits of all families of that caste in that region. Thus, meat eating habits are synonymous to caste hierarchies in India and NOTHING to do with healthier diet habits. 
Indian vegetarianism has a halo or an elite status in India, which suggests that it is more to do with one’s class and caste and not much to do with healthier diet consciousness. Though there are renewed attempts to justify this vegetarianism as a sanction of the scriptures, most ancient scriptures heavily indulge in meat-eating and sacrificial rituals. Therefore, it is clear that the basis for vegetarianism is not found in scriptures and therefore not sanctioned in religion.

Though meat-eating was a common phenomenon in ancient India, through time, as it was elsewhere in the world, certain trends suggested a practical sense to move towards vegetarianism reducing the burden on the meat which became a scarce commodity in civilized societies. How this practice got intertwined with Indian caste system is not exactly known (to me, though I could speculate some reasons), it is now seen strictly along caste lines.

Most (not all) Indian twice-born castes reject meat, terming it ‘debased, depraved and lowly’, something suitable for lower castes. Much the same way as Muslims consider pig as a filthy and a lowly animal, upper caste Hindus considered eating meat (in all forms, NOT just beef) lowly and depraved worthy of lower castes. The rejection of meat became a renewed affirmation of one’s caste when during Muslim rule the Muslims were clearly identified by their meat eating habits. It was upper caste Hindus’ way of saying that chaste Hindus are quite different and in some way more refined and elite compared to barbaric Muslim hordes descending on India. ‘Not eating meat’ became a sign of elite and higher status and to an extent an identity itself. 

Now, many people in India share similar opinion and look down upon meat eaters, with some exceptions such as urban yuppie crowd who have welcomed meat eating cuisine departing ways from their parents. While some continue their journey as meat-eaters, many others revert back to vegetarianism after a brief spout of rebellious streak. The guilt factor of deviating from the tradition and culture rides too high for them.

In the towns and villages of India, the people of lower caste who aspire to be elite, those who want to move upward in the social echelons, renounce the habit of meat eating, thereby embracing vegetarianism, so that they could feel ‘superior’ or ‘equal’ to other higher castes. Some lower castes have gone up in the caste hierarchy by renouncing meat eating and aligning themselves closer to the elite upper castes.

It is clear that vegetarianism in India is rooted in caste and to certain extent religious affiliations and nothing to do with dietary or New Age rejections as seen in the West. If it were indeed really prescribed as healthy diet in Hinduism, such habits should have been more universal, not just along caste lines.

Indian celebration of stories of vegetarianism and renouncing of meat eating by fringe class of the West is for wrong reasons and has no common ground. Imagine we now find a new dreadful disease caused by eating pigs. It’s like Muslims saying, ‘Look! We always knew it. That’s why we never ate it to begin with!”

Vegetarianism in India has no founding in any of the empirical evidence, scientific argument or logical conclusions. It has no basis in healthy dietary experiments, conclusion or arguments. It has everything to do with religious orthodoxy, blind belief, superstition soaked with strict and distinct casteist sentiments based on showing ‘one’s superiority over inferior others’.

23 comments:

  1. " ... How this practice got intertwined with Indian caste system is not exactly known ... "

    I take my guess -- Not eating meat is a Jain influence on current Hinduism ... Would have started with the elite Brahmins assimilating the jain philosophy ... Slowly the effect would have percolated down the caste hierarchies.

    Though I think the roots of not eating beef were laid in the ancient Aryan roots ... It seems both Avesta and Rig Veda consider Cow Dog etc as good animals which help mankind

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  2. You may like to read this hypothesis by Ambedkar on the Genesis of Castes in India ...

    http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_castes.html

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  3. My God! You have such narrow minded world view. Do you really believe that Indians are sitting around watching what the westerners are up to and feel happy when they do something which we consider part of our culture?? Really, you writing seems contemptuous of Indians, their culture, religions.

    Some are vegetarians, others aren't. The reasons might be different from the reasons westerners give. But just because some are vegetarians because of their religions doesn't give you the right to mock them and hold the westerners on a higher pedestal. Tomorrow you'll do the same for Yoga sayin Indians practise it because it's part of their culture and not based on science and rationality!

    The fact that you make such sweeping generalisation about Indians as well as Westerners shows your ignorance about this country.

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  4. I am a vegetarian and a humanitarian - so I eat vegetables and humans only ;-). Dude, it is just preference - I like chhole chawal and you like mutton biryani - what big deal.

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  5. Anonymous said,
    "i like chole chawal and you like mutton biriyani- what big deal."

    Big deal?" replace MUTTON BIRIYANI with BEEF BIRIYANI.

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  6. Ignorance is bliss and so is being sujai. You know no more Hinduism than what you learnt by watching Doordarshan. Never read any Vedas or Upanishads. But in a free country any fool can have not only an opinion
    but a strong one!!. Read the Gita. In Hinduism vegetarianism and ahimsa are always glorified as salubrious. It is certainly for both health and conscience reasons. Habits of vegetarianism along caste lines is coincidental. People who did physical labor often supplemented their food with meat and there was a rationale behind it. Also meat eating has increased among other castes during Islamic times only. Even today most Gujaratis irrespective of caste don't eat meat. So ppl who sit on their asses writing blogs eating meat should develop some guilt.

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  7. Beef Biryani - Yucks :). I like cow raw in the form of milk ;-)

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  8. Sujai,

    I never read an article with such venom and hostility. I am a vegetarian, but not a brahmin.

    I was a classical non vegetarian to boot with. But I had the rare misfortune of sitting through a slaughter. A cow, was bled to death before my own eyes. It was shackled to a hard pole. Then one individual(murderer would be more appropriate) strolled with a cool demeanour and slit the cows throat. The poor thing writhed in pain for 3 minutes to a horrible death.

    Do we need to kill and maim a fellow being to quench the hunger?

    Should we murder and slash an animal for culinary pleasure?

    Is a human being so irrational and heartless to do such an act?


    The answer would be big NO.

    Please do not look at this from a rational point of view. THis is much more, this is a humanitarian aspect.

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  9. Bhanu Prasad:

    I never read an article with such venom and hostility.

    I am sorry that you find this article hostile. I didn't intend to target or upset anyone in particular.

    My stand is simple- dietary habits in India are heavily confined along caste lines (with minor exceptions). If you think otherwise, I am ready to listen.

    Do we need to kill and maim a fellow being to quench the hunger?

    I am sorry that I cannot answer this question. We all have different definitions for what constitutes a 'fellow being'. I am not sure if people are allowed to kill mosquitoes or rats during malaria or plague or use pesticides to kill insects. Its a different debate altogether and I didn't get into that for deliberate reasons.

    Should we murder and slash an animal for culinary pleasure?

    I am not sure if I can answer that. How about this question- Should we murder and kill bacteria to protect ourselves? should we kill rodents to protect our crops that in turn serve our culinary pleasures?

    Again, please don't answer these questions. They are for you to answer to yourself.

    Thanks.

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  10. whatever you are getting paid to write this crap is too much...it is entirely wasted on someone with a less than desirable grasp of logic and finesse of the language.

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  11. My stand is simple- dietary habits in India are heavily confined along caste lines (with minor exceptions).

    Yes. But it is beginning to change. Many of my brahmin friends eat meat, and few of non-brahmin friends espouse vegetarianism.

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  12. "Also meat eating has increased among other castes during Islamic times only."

    What about the arrival of Christianity in India? Didn't that have any impact on meat eating?

    Did Hindu kings impose any bans on meat eating or slaughtering?

    ~ Vinod

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  13. @jellicles says "whatever you are getting paid to write this crap is too much.." I did not know that Sujai gets paid writing this popular blog :-) Amazing thing is he has been able make a killing without even putting blogads!! One look at your blogger profile reveals who you are and what group you belong to. Please go back to minding the stray dogs and rats of Bangalore. Leave the burden of understanding the logic in this blog to the rest.

    @alam, you are correct about Jain and Buddhist philosophies having had an impact on the eating habits of Hindus, especially upper caste ones. I also believe that the upper caste Hindus during Vedic times did eat meat. Given the importance of horse in the central Asian regions where early vedic culture originated, the Ashwamedha Yagna would involve not just the sacrifice of the horse, but eating of the horse meat too. With the Jain and Buddhist influence the upper castes began to be strict vegetarians with the exception of a few groups as noted by Sujai.

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  14. Seriously,you don't know how to reason. You take one point,make a conclusion and try to prove that your conclusion is right. Why don't you put forward different opinions you think can be reasons and leave the conclusion to the reader.

    From your blogs, it seems you are dragging back India to the 16th century or may be more.It's not your fault, may be either you are less read person or less travelled person.

    Everyone needs introspection, the earlier the better.You should read and think whether the reader will gain anything(any knowledge) with your blog.Research research research, research is the key......

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  15. Anonymous:

    You take one point,make a conclusion and try to prove that your conclusion is right.

    Yes.

    Why don't you put forward different opinions you think can be reasons and leave the conclusion to the reader.

    Sorry. This is not a blog which collects news items or TOI (Times of India) which presents VIEW and COUNTER-VIEW. These are my opinions. I don't leave the conclusion to the readers. I provide my VIEW on this blog. You are free to provide a COUNTER-VIEW on your blog (or write it as a comment here).

    From your blogs, it seems you are dragging back India to the 16th century or may be more.

    If going to 16th century includes imparting rational thinking, better treatment of downtrodden and minorities, and a cleaner India, then I am up for it.

    You should read and think whether the reader will gain anything(any knowledge) with your blog.

    I don't provide any knowledge here. If ever, I try to induce a small amount of wisdom, my style. If you like it, read along, otherwise, all you have to do is hop onto some other website. Its so easy. Really.

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  16. Interesting post.

    Anything you say on this topic will inflame one side or another. As Nita Kulkarni pointed out in her post - which is where I found your link - the key issue is tolerance.

    Nita's post here:
    http://nitawriter.wordpress.com/2008/01/03/non-vegetarians-get-a-raw-deal-in-mumbai/

    She cites my post from September 2007 on the fallacy of all Hindus being vegetarians in the article.

    Thanks,

    Shefaly

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  17. hmm, you have proposed a very novel theory that some castes renounced meat eating to move up the caste hierarchy. Could you please list out any castes who have done this. The whole notion that only lower castes eat meat in india is not based on any data.

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  18. Probably it never occurred to you that some people may actually get disturbed by the killing of animals. Your understanding goes like this: If a person of my intellectual caliber does not get upset by killing animals, it means there cannot be anything good about shunning violence.

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  19. Anonymous:
    Probably it never occurred to you that some people may actually get disturbed by the killing of animals.

    And those people are not covered under the topic under discussion.

    If conscientious preferences alone make vegetarians, then vegetarianism cannot be strictly along caste lines. It should be more universal.

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  20. I have tried to consolidate my views on all your 5 posts of rejection of rationality here.

    Firstly, its real sad that majority of our population has been blind to rationality from many centuries. But yes, we do have our Vedas that are said to be based on scientific observations (I haven’t read them myself, but many intellectuals have who say they are indeed scientific - and I haven taken their word; including Carl Sagan, who in his Cosmos has beautifully summed up the astronomical history of mankind and includes ancient Indian scriptures as evidences along with many other civilization's texts – I would also like to make clear that I mention Carl Sagan’s opinion as worthy not because he is from the “west” but because he was a noted scientist famous for his science books). I don't consider taking pride in one's ancient culture bad.

    I think the issue is, where and how in history was this kind of thinking or the Vedic legacy lost?
    One reason could be its inapproachability to common man due to the complicated language (Sanskrit was spoken and read by only some elite few) and complexity of thought. Some of the elite few would have tried to preach and spread the message but knowingly or unknowingly misinterpreted/skewed facts vs. opinions during the process. Some could have deliberately attached religious tags with practices to make masses understand and follow the point. The rulers could have observed that people are generally God-fearing and would do what is told whole heartedly if everything is associated with religion and God – and it got filtered down generations in a completely twisted form – in the form of rites and rituals. Starting of Sati/Johar could have been the act of one fanatic maniac female absolutely in blind love with her man and found suicide a better idea than widowhood; and then was martyrized so much that it became a ritual. This was an unfavorable hypothetical analysis – a favorable one could be about vegetarianism, where some intellectuals found its advantages and coupled it with religion to make it a generally acceptable practice. Just a thought – and I am not at all suggesting that this is what actually happened or the “west” is spiritually imitating or following us. But there is no denying that our ancient culture did have traces of science and rationality.

    Today the agenda/manifesto of our political parties also includes religion and related stuff. Our leaders want us to remain blind about facts and glamorize religion. This could have begun centuries ago and since we did not embrace the “Age of Enlightenment”, we have remained ignorant on the whole.

    My point is it is not about “west” or “east” or their religion or our religion or their science or our science. Yes, there are cultural differences which are bound to come and have evolved as huge rifts because of different geographies, climates and historical circumstances.

    Masses everywhere are the same. Its not that people of the “west” are not superstitious - the number 13 is a prime example – there is no 13th floor in some hotels in the “west” – where is their rationality now? Isn’t the floor numbered 14th actually 13th then? Or is this their shedding of “excess rationality”? Its not that they don’t use phrases like “Fingers crossed” or “Touch wood” or “Thank God” or words like jinx, voodoo, taboo – they do, sometimes more than we do – I know because I get to interact with a few almost every day. Superstition in itself is irrational, not that ‘we’ or ‘they’ are ‘more’ or ‘less’ irrational. It has to be got rid of. Everywhere. In our country specially because its our country and we want it to improve.

    Rulers and the way of they rule is different. It’s a shame that ours are still using religion and “ritualistic Hinduism” is being promoted. I think the “west” learnt this the hard way during holocaust and American civil war (racism should also not be the basis of any rule). And have moved on to other ways of uniting people and making them pay taxes, like promoting and advertising science (NASA and its missions); their role as international policemen, etc. Its high time we learnt it too.

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  21. I am taking the liberty to post the above comment on my blog (under Rationality, Religion and India). Hope you don't mind.

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  22. problem with sujai is: he studies a sample size of about 100 people and generalises it to a population of 1.1 billion.

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  23. This is what Manu has to say about eating meat:

    Chapter 5 Verse 56
    There is no sin in eating meat, in (drinking) spirituous liquor, and in carnal intercourse, for that is the natural way of created beings, but abstention brings great rewards.


    What rewards he does not tell us. But the point is that even the Manusmrti (which is supposed to be the law giver) does not ban eating meat. In fact he tells which meat is allowed, which will be quite exotic by today's standards

    Chapter 5 Verse 16 says this:

    The porcupine, the hedgehog, the iguana, the rhinoceros, the tortoise, and the hare they declare to be eatable ; likewise those (domestic animals) that have teeth in one jaw only, excepting camels.

    And in the entire text there is no specific ban on beef eating. So all people who promote vegetarianism in name of religion are taking you for a ride.

    Jha's book The Myth of the Holy Cow makes it amply clear, that meat eating was prevalent in India before the Muslims came, in Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as well.

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