Vegetarianism is not about the past but about the present and the future – Vamsee Juluri

Celebrity Vegetarians

Prof Vamsee Juluri“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

Liberal ValuesThere 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.

Tristram StuartAs 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?)

Jonathan Safran FoerOne 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.

If you can't stand watching it being produced, you shouldn't be eating it.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.

Jonathan Safran Foer Quote

5 Responses

  1. Good content but blog is cluttered and clumsy with needless pictures, like a children’s storybook… silly layout makes it difficult to read.

  2. Hamburger

    Bacon, burgers and sausages are a cancer risk, say world health chiefs: Processed meats added to list of substances most likely to cause disease alongside cigarettes and asbestos. Fresh red meat is also due to join WHO ‘encyclopaedia of carcinogens’. Mail Online – By FIONA MACRAE and STEPHEN WRIGHT FOR THE DAILY MAIL – 22 October 2015

    — Rulings will send shock waves through farming and fast food industries

    — Could lead to new dietary guidelines and warning labels on bacon packs

    — Mounting concern that meat fuels disease that kills 150,000 a year in UK

    Bacon, burgers and sausages are as big a cancer threat as cigarettes, global health chiefs are to rule.

    The World Health Organisation is to list processed meat among the most cancer-causing substances, alongside arsenic and asbestos.

    Fresh red meat is also due to join the ‘encyclopaedia of carcinogens’ and is likely to be ranked as only slightly less dangerous than the preserved products.

    The rulings, revealed to the Mail by a well-placed source, will send shock waves through the farming industry and the fast food sector.

    They could also lead to new dietary guidelines and warning labels on packs of bacon.

    The classifications, by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, come amid mounting concern that meat fuels the disease which claims more than 150,000 lives a year in the UK.

    Links to bowel cancer, Britain’s second biggest cancer killer, are particularly strong, with estimations that half of cases could be prevented by healthier lifestyles.

    The Department of Health’s scientific advisers recently concluded that red and processed meat ‘probably’ increase the odds of bowel cancer.

    But the WHO is expected to go further by saying processed meat causes cancer.

    The decision, due on Monday, follows a meeting of scientists from ten nations, including the UK, who reviewed all available evidence.

    They are believed to have agreed processed meat is ‘carcinogenic to humans’, the highest of five possible rankings, shared with alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes.

    Processed meat is made by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemicals.

    Examples are ham, bacon, pastrami and salami, as well as hot dogs and some sausages. Burgers are also expected to be included.

    Red meat is expected to be one rung below, ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’.

    Meat in general contains high concentrations of fat and it is thought the compound that gives meat its red colour may damage the bowel lining.

    Processed meat has previously been blamed for one in 30 deaths and is seen as dangerous because preserving techniques can raise levels of cancer-causing chemicals.

    It is estimated that if intake was cut to 20g a day—a rasher of bacon a day or an English breakfast once a week—almost 20,000 early deaths would be prevented in the UK each year.

    Any advice to cut, or avoid, processed meat will be welcomed by cancer charities.

    But it could have huge repercussions for the meat industry, which will be mindful that sugar sales fell last year after the WHO issued a warning on overconsumption.

    The beef sector makes £2.8 billion for the economy and provides 440,000 jobs in England.

    Betsy Booren, of the North American Meat Institute, said recently: ‘If they determine that red and processed meat causes cancer—and I think they will—that moniker will stick … It could take decades and billions of dollars to change that.’

    The industry says red meat is rich in protein, a good source of vitamins, iron and zinc, and a key part of a balanced diet.

    Professor Richard Knox, a former Institute of Cancer Research expert, said ‘most cancer deaths will not be due to bowel cancer and even fewer linked to meat consumption’.

    Government guidelines on red meat, given in 2011, recommend adults eat no more than 70g a day.

    The World Cancer Research Fund recommends avoiding processed meat altogether.

  3. Very nicely puit together.The future is in jeopardy if we dont act now.There is a nice documentary “Cowspiracy” along the same lines.

    • Thanks, Meenakshi!

      About The Film

      Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is a groundbreaking feature-length environmental documentary following intrepid filmmaker Kip Andersen as he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today – and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.

      Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill. Yet it goes on, almost entirely unchallenged.

      As Andersen approaches leaders in the environmental movement, he increasingly uncovers what appears to be an intentional refusal to discuss the issue of animal agriculture, while industry whistleblowers and watchdogs warn him of the risks to his freedom and even his life if he dares to persist.

      As eye-opening as Blackfish and as inspiring as An Inconvenient Truth, this shocking yet humorous documentary reveals the absolutely devastating environmental impact large-scale factory farming has on our planet, and offers a path to global sustainability for a growing population. Read more here …

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