“Vegetarianism, simply put, is not so much about a mythical golden age in the past but about the present and the future. Even if the world’s majority is still not vegetarian, the truth is that the future of the world depends on recognising and reducing our violent footprint on nature. … And the fact that some meat may have been a part of some people’s diets in India in the past does not mean that those advocating vegetarianism today are eccentric or Hindutva extremists. … Vegetarianism isn’t a fad, but a fundamental challenge to accepted notions about life, pain, and death.” – Prof Vamsee Juluri
There seems to be quite a mix-up in terms of the sort of liberal values we are choosing to speak for in India of late. It is one thing (and a good thing, naturally) to speak up for one’s right to love and marry people of their choice across religions, castes, or nationalities, and to worship gods of their choice (or not worship at all).
But to speak blindly against vegetarianism without a drop of remorse for our continuing “right” to massacre millions of fearful, howling, and shrieking cows, sheep, pigs, and birds in the name of the majority, is not the same thing at all. Even if recent reports about housing societies or temple towns enforcing vegetarianism within their legal limits might seem to critics like nothing more than growing intolerance in Indian society, there is more than a question of tolerating lifestyle differences at stake here. Vegetarianism isn’t a fad, but a fundamental challenge to accepted notions about life, pain, and death.
An argument was made recently by Mukul Dube also suffers from this sort of ignorance. We do not see one word of consideration from him for what vegetarianism, from ancient times to the present, has fundamentally been about, which is the moral imperative to spare a fellow living being from pain and death. For him, vegetarians are at best “harmless eccentrics”, while the majority of people in India, and the world, are presumably, “normal”. Apart from perpetuating the smugly secure tactic of presuming a majority is always right (a presumption which otherwise finds stiff questioning these days when it comes to the topic of “Hindu majoritarianism”), Dube’s argument also seems to be profoundly unaware of the rich intellectual history of vegetarianism in India and across the world.
As Tristram Stuart’s important study, The Bloodless Revolution shows us, the “discovery” by early modern Western thinkers that human beings could actually survive without eating the flesh of animals was an incredibly startling one to them. Stuart shows us how it wasn’t just eccentrics, but some of the most important philosophers and scientists of the day, including Descartes and Newton, who grappled with the moral challenges posed to their assumptions and worldviews by Indian vegetarianism. Some of them agreed with it, while others went on to argue differently. Descartes’ followers tried to “scientifically” prove that animals are mere objects that cannot feel pain and did so by beating dogs to death in the town square. (On that note, I wonder what Dube would say about the poor dogs in China being trussed up and skinned and slaughtered, would a “majority” of people in China supporting it make that acceptable?)
One lesson from Stuart’s intellectual history (also see Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant Eating Animals) is that we cannot assume our present beliefs about meat-eating are natural, universal and eternal. There is a history to them. While some meat may have been part of the diet for many people in India even before the colonial encounter, we cannot be oblivious to the ways in which colonial Eurocentric ideas about diet, race, and evolution influenced Indian and especially elite Indian thinking about the issue. For example, Mahatma Gandhi was himself somewhat of a believer in the idea that meat-eating was a way up the political order in his early days until his encounter with vegetarianism in London affected his thought profoundly.
In post colonial India too, vegetarianism was widely considered an embarrassing impediment to enter into the westernised elite and intellectual circles. I can still recall my aunt tricking me into eating chicken sandwiches when I was six years old, and then telling me to stop being old-fashioned and silly like my parents when I felt bad about it. Today, thanks to growing awareness about animal rights and global warming, as well as a renewed interest in Hindu thought among the global middle classes, there is less of a tendency among Indian vegetarians to feel ashamed about their choice. Vegetarianism is clearly understood by many as a conscious rejection of society’s present standards of acceptable violence against nature for pleasure.
Vegetarianism, simply put, is not so much about a mythical golden age in the past but about the present and the future. Even if the world’s majority is still not vegetarian, the truth is that the future of the world depends on recognising and reducing our violent footprint on nature. The mass violence of a global consumer society that depletes forests, ocean life, and even the air we breathe today is very different from the blowpipe or bow and arrow of some prehistoric hunter. The mass propaganda of a global media system that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars each year into advertising burgers is different from simple beliefs about sacrifice and taboo that existed in the past to permit and regulate animal slaughter. And the fact that some meat may have been a part of some people’s diets in India in the past does not mean that those advocating vegetarianism today are eccentric or Hindutva extremists.
Vegetarianism may well be the beginning of a new “normal”—and on the contrary, it is the medieval Eurocentric superstition about animals not feeling pain (or being put here on earth by God for us to dominate and ravage them), which had gone global, “scientific”, and even “progressive” in the South Asian context that people need to start feeling embarrassed about. – DailyO, 18 May 2015
» Prof Vamsee Juluri’s research interest is in the globalization of media audiences with an emphasis on Indian television and cinema, mythology, religion, violence and Gandhian philosophy. He is the author of four books.