Recently, I was called for a panel discussion on a national channel. As expected, it turned out to be more of a shouting match than a civilised debate. I was amazed to find a fellow panelist adamant that the floods in Kerala happened due to the food habits of the people of the state. My question about why floods don’t happen in countries outside India where beef is a staple diet was shouted down.
I am a vegetarian, and it is a loaded moniker in Indian English. It conveys many things. As far as diet goes, it means I am a lacto-vegetarian who has no qualms drinking milk and consuming milk products, may consume egg indirectly through cakes but frown on consuming it as an omelette. The term also conveys curious connotations in Indian society. There are many things that is left unsaid by the term vegetarian but carry more power and privilege than anyone not familiar with India can imagine.
A simple dietary choice would bracket me in one caste. Unlike some of my friends with differing dietary habits and religious beliefs, I find it surprisingly easy to get a rented accommodation in most cities I move to. I also find derision in some elite circles for my supposedly conservative and old-fashioned attitude of not consuming meat and liquor. I deserve neither, but these are laughably minor inconveniences of a privileged upper-middle-class man. No one has so far barged into my kitchen to see what I eat before lynching me.
Vegetarianism is unnatural. It is a privilege of choice which is not affordable to everyone. A hungry man can’t choose his food. He eats what he can afford. A country with more than one third of malnourished people in the world doesn’t have the luxury of forgoing any food. Before Buddha and Mahavira, all evidence prove that Indians attached no value to vegetarianism or teetotalism. Ancient scriptures have many references about meat-eating habits of ancient Indians including beef, which was often considered a delicacy. Sura and soma pana, or ritual consumption of alcohol and intoxicants, was the mark of a civilised man of those days.
There are odd voices against such himsa in ritual sacrifices in scriptures, but such voices gained strength only after Buddha. It was the compassion of Mahavira and Buddha that propagated vegetarianism in our country. It is an epoch in the world history, for at least who had the luxury of choice, to voluntarily give up the pleasure of meat and liquor. The ritual sacrifices were modified to become non-violent. One must note that it was the elite of a prosperous civilisation that took the turn to vegetarianism. One can see the same fad happening in the prosperous West where the elite are choosing to forgo meat. And like the first converts of Buddha’s India, these people in the modern West are moved by compassion when they turn vegan.
Ideally, India should have been leading this wave of kindness. Unfortunately, in India, vegetarianism is now closely associated with caste pride. What was originally an act of compassion, became a political tool for dominant classes. Vegetarianism became the symbol of purity and caste superiority. Segregation happened as per dietary choices and rigidified caste system, though, until recent times, there was no violence in the name of dietary habits. Every community had its own dietary choices, but the choice of one community was not imposed on another by force, even at the height of caste oppression.
The community I was born in was vegetarian for many generations, but by the time I grew up, thanks to the wave of rationalism that was sweeping Kerala, many had given up vegetarianism. As a child, I wanted to taste chicken. I could have done that in any of my friends’ home, but I told my mother about my wish. She requested a neighbour to give me a rooster, a live one at that. I was asked to feed it for a few days. I was happy to do so and soon it became a pet. She said she will cook it when I can kill it, something which I was unable to do.
It is so difficult to take a life knowingly. She was teaching me a lesson in compassion without being self-righteous, without filling me with notions of purity or caste superiority. She didn’t talk about ‘our noble way of life’ versus ‘them’. She didn’t quote ancient scriptures to dissuade me. She imbibed in me a lesson in the true Indian way.
The usual counter arguments against vegan lifestyle are all logical. One can’t or needn’t win an argument against anyone on dietary choices. The change must happen owing to compassion. It can’t be brought by lynching people, flaunting imaginary caste superiority or screaming about ‘sanskar’ in the most uncultured fashion on television. One way to perhaps arouse compassion is to do yourself a favour when you feel like having a chicken kebab or a mutton biryani next time. For once, feed the chicken or lamb for a few days and then kill it with your hands. Look at its eyes a moment before you slit its throat. If you can do it with no pangs in your heart, enjoy your food.
What modern meat industry has done is to remove the painful part of butchering from you and packaged the pleasure for you to enjoy. What Indian meat industry has done is to refuse the minimal kindness that the industry in the West show in their abattoirs. What Indian caste system has done is to butcher the idea of ahimsa with despicable arguments about purity. What rebels against such superiority claims have done is to impose more cruelty on mute creatures to score a point. From empathy to indifference to hatred, India’s journey from glory to stagnation to putrefaction has begun. A dose of kindness may perhaps halt the descent.
Author, columnist, speaker