Food as health, ethics, and social marker


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THE word ‘non-vegetarian’ is a peculiarly Indian usage of the English language. Unlike say, ‘chutney’ or ‘curry’ it has not been assimilated into English. Neither the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (p.1935 and p. 3554) nor the Webster Universal Dictionary (p. 943 and p. 1655) has an entry for the word under the headword ‘non’ or as an antonym for ‘vegetarianism’. This is because the literal meaning of the word implies the total absence of any vegetal element in the diet of a ‘non-vegetarian’. This absurdity is not in common usage in most Indian languages even though it is included as a headword in English-vernacular dictionaries. In Hindi, for example, a ‘non-vegetarian’ is a mamsahari, a meat-eater, and a vegetarian is a shakahari, a vegetable/plant eater (Bulcke, p. 335 and p. 631).

Despite these linguistic infirmities, the word ‘non-vegetarian’ is a significant marker in classified ads for brides and bridegrooms, peppers restaurant menus and litters our conversations. We accept this illiteracy presumably because we would be uncomfortable reading a classified ad for a ‘meat-eating’ bridegroom or bride! The discomfort is cultural; its roots lie in the belief that vegetarianism is the mark of the prefect being and those who are non-vegetarians exist outside this ‘select circle of perfection’. The ‘non’ in ‘non-vegetarian’ functions as a mark of ghettoization.

The physiology of the human being negates this belief. We are omnivores and if we were not we would not have become what we are. Unlike herbivores and carnivores, the human beings have less food restraints and thus have to invest relatively less time and energy in finding food, the most basic act of survival (Dorling Kindersley, pp. 342-344). The saving translates into leisure, one of the basic conditions for the creation of knowledge and culture. That the other omnivores on earth did not develop in the same manner and have remained practically unchanged over time does not negate the importance of this physiological condition in our evolution. The proof of the argument lies in its opposite: if we were solely plant-eaters or meat-eaters we would have never become the dominant species on earth.


In the subcontinent as elsewhere, the diet of early human beings consisted of game, fish and wild vegetal foods (Chakrabarti, pp. 87-88). Of the three sources of food the importance of meat cannot be overstated. The human being requires a protein-rich diet to get the essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body (Davidson, p. 20 and p. 584; Oxford, p. 241). Meat is not the only source of protein. But at that level of human evolution – the hunter-gatherer stage – it is the easiest available one. The meat of the animal kingdom thus played a critical role in giving us the muscular and mental prowess, and the social skills to take the great step forward – from hunting to agriculture, from taking to making food.

But for the larger part of our existence as a species ‘non-vegetarianism’ was the norm. While the domestication of wheat and other cereals in the subcontinent began in the seventh millennia BCE (Lahiri, pp. 361-368; Chakrabarti, pp. 326-329), stone artifacts, most probably used for killing, found in the Pakistani Siwaliks have been ‘securely dated’ to 1.9 million years (Allchin, p. 37). Excavations in the Indus Valley sites have yielded a wide variety of animal bones (Achaya, p. 144) and third millennium BCE texts from the Tigris-Euphrates plains speak of a meat inclusive diet (Roux, p. 9). Therefore, the development of agriculture and the emergence of the great river civilizations in India and other parts of the world did not spell the end of ‘non-vegetarianism’. However, the growth of these early agrarian civilizations pushed the majority to turn to vegetal proteins and made meat a symbol of prosperity mostly confined to the tables of a minority. This was an economic necessity primarily caused by environmental changes.

When the early human being killed an animal for food his only investment was time, skill and tools; his prey was provided by nature. In an agrarian community the animal has to be reared and a critical factor of production, land, comes into the equation. The arithmetic does not favour meat. If the land in question is suitable for either animal or crop farming the latter will be the choice because of the higher yield – whether the measurement is based on nutritional values, economic units or volumetric scales.


In fact the growing demand for arable land depletes forest cover and reduces hunting from a common human activity to an occupation of individuals or groups, and the sport of the privileged. This was especially true of those civilizations that could generate a food surplus because of favourable natural conditions and hence were marked by high population density. Therefore, meat farming had a relatively low share (and continues to do so) in the economy of the Indo-Gangetic plains, the Kaveri delta, and in the civilizations that thrived on the banks of the Mekong, the Chang Jiang-Huang He system, the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates plains, while it has played a major role in North and South America, and Australia after colonization. In both cases population density, among other factors, was (and is) a key determinant.

Though the development of agriculture and dairy farming lays the material basis for evolving a philosophy of vegetarianism, it does not emerge like Minerva either fully armoured or with a singularity of purpose. More than a philosophy, what we have in Hindu India is a debate on diet continued over centuries, reflecting the concerns of each particular age, marked with inconsistencies and contradictions, and often centering on food as a social marker.


In India the earliest references to diet are found in the four sections of the Vedas – the Samhita, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanisads. The nature of food is discussed in the Taittiriya Upanisad. It says: ‘From food created things are born./ By food, when born, do they grow up./It both is eaten and eats things./ Because of that it called food’ (Radhakrishnan and Moore, p. 59). The concept of food, as that which is eaten and also eats, indicates a living being, and to that extent is inclusive enough to be labelled ‘non-vegetarian’. Whether this interpretation is absolutely correct or not can be left to scholars of Vedic Sanskrit. There is, however, other evidence, both literal and linguistic, that indicates the high favour enjoyed by ‘non-vegetarian’ food, especially beef, in Vedic India. In the Satapatha Brahmana, the sage Yajnavalkya peremptorily ends a debate on the question of eating beef with a matter of fact statement: ‘I for one eat it provided it is tender’ (Walker, I, p. 278). In fact among all meat, beef was ranked the highest. Hence one of the words for ‘guest’ was goghna, ‘one for whom a cow is killed.’ Panini, the great grammarian, derived the word from the root ‘go’, meaning cow (Monier-Williams, II, p. 364). The sacrifice was an important aspect of Vedic religious practice and ritual killing of animals – cow, ox, horse, goat and ram – was intrinsic to it. In the sacrifice called sulagava, a young ox was impaled and cooked on a spit and the participants ate the meat after making an offering to Rudra (Walker, I, pp. 49-50).


It is in the Dharmasutras and Dharmasastras (dated circa 600 BCE onwards by P.V. Kane) that we find the critical shift from food that ‘is eaten and eats things’ to food as a social marker, as signs of stigma and status. This movement from the commonsensical to the canonical is marked with inconsistencies and contradictions. There seems to be no basic list of dos and don’ts that is later added on to or embellished. Instead, what we have are many voices in different time periods. But what is interesting is that per se there is no overriding ban on the consumption of meat, including beef. On the other hand, the cow and the bull are declared to be both holy (as an offering to ancestors) and edible. Manu, the most well-known and oft-cited lawgiver, holds that while the desire to eat meat is ‘natural’, it is better to avoid it because the meat-eater in this world will be eaten likewise in the next. The dire warning, in essence religious, is teased out of a derivative meaning of ‘mamsa/mans’, the Sanskrit word for meat (Banerji, pp. 263-268).

The other notable text that deals with dietary rules and regulations, and culinary descriptions is the Mahabharata. The epic says that King Rantideva, a descendant of Bharata, the founder of the Bharata-varsha, ‘employed 200,000 cooks in his palace to cook everyday 2,000 head of cattle and other animals’; the menu for Draupadi’s wedding included the meat of buffalo, goat, deer, and fowl; and that the Pandavas offered meat as a mark of great hospitality to the Brahmin priests who visited them (Walker, I, p. 142). These descriptions, decidedly ‘non-vegetarian’ in flavour, are by and large in contradiction to the main exposition on dietary rules and regulations contained elsewhere in the epic. The first occurs in the twelfth book, the Santi-parva, and forms a part of the Bhishma’s discourse on kingship and righteous living given to Yudhishthira. To the latter’s question, ‘What food is clean and what unclean?’ Bhishma’s reply, among other things, cites Vyasa’s ban on the ‘brahmanas’ eating the flesh of the bull and duck (Ganguli, III, p. 76).

The discourse continues in the next book, the Anusasana-parva, and includes an exposition of taboos, ‘table manners’, health instructions, hygiene, and a classification of food that should not be eaten. The prohibitory list includes ‘the flesh of goats and kine’, ‘all food that is forbidden in ritual acts’, and the ‘flesh of animals not slain in sacrifices’ (Ganguli, IV, p. 202). In sum, selective slaughter for consumption and sacrifice is permissible.


None of these texts is ‘history’ in a strict sense but we can still use them to understand the ‘social assumptions’ of the age (Thapar, p. 100). First, though Hindu texts do not proscribe ‘non-vegetarian’ food except to prescribe certain restrictions (and beef is not always included in this list), the inconsistencies and contradictions on the issue clearly indicate that it was a lively debate. Second, the debate, often centred on taboos and the question of ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean’ food, was in essence an attempt at differentiating people by using food as a social marker. Third, the ‘non-vegetarian’ question in early Hinduism was not posed primarily in ethical terms. The most famous debate on the right and wrong of killing an animal in Vedic literature was not over the question of ahimsa, but whether blood sacrifice (or any other sacrifice) is effective. Yajnavalkya who was partial to ‘tender beef’ raised doubts about the efficacy of the sacrifice except to make the priests rich (Walker, II, p. 612).


With the advent of the Buddha, the criticism of sacrifices in general and the killing of animals in particular sharpened. Contrary to common belief Buddhism does not place any great store on vegetarianism either as a path to salvation or a way of life. The Amagandha Sutta says, ‘neither abstinence from fish or flesh… will cleanse a man not free from delusions’ (Davids, p. 131). Vegetarianism in fact is one among the various austerities (practised by religious recluses) that are criticized as useless for salvation unless the Eight Principles of the Middle Path are practised. The dietary practice in Buddhist-majority countries shows that vegetarianism is not a religious requirement for a lay Buddhist. On the other hand monks, nuns and devout followers practice it without making it as the raison d’etre of their faith. The Buddhist approach to diet – both by monks and lay people – is by and large eminently practical (Davidson, p. 955; Auboyer, p. 219).

Jainism, on the other hand, has a very rigorous position on diet. It is strictly vegetarian and in its orthodox form extends the definition of non-vegetal to all produce that grow beneath the earth. Much more than brahminical Hinduism, it is Jainism that elevates vegetarianism to an unadulterated ethical position. To the Jain all life is sacred, hence even the root of a plant should not be eaten because it is essential to its life. With the act of cultivation barred to them by their faith, commerce became the natural economic venue for the Jains.


The impact of Buddhism and Jainism on the Hindu dietary code was significant. The Brahmin tracing his genealogy to sages and priests who were practitioners of animal sacrifice embraced vegetarianism and made it a cardinal article of faith. So closely has this link been forged that today we find it difficult to associate ‘non-vegetarianism’ with a Brahmin despite the textual evidence to the contrary. Sankara, who later led the Hindu ‘counter-reformation’, took over so many Buddhist concepts that he was denigrated as a prachchanna-Bauddha (crypto-Buddhist) by the orthodoxy. Among the changes he brought forward was the substitution of gourds for animals in sacrifices.

Much before Sankara, vegetarianism got royal sanction and followers within the establishment with the incorporation of Buddhism as a state ideology by Asoka. But as said earlier, Buddhism does not have a rigid stand on diet. Hence even Asoka did not impose a blanket ban on slaughter for the royal table; instead he limited the number that were killed from ‘several thousand’ each day to ‘only three’ and that too not every day (Auboyer, p. 275).

Centuries after the end of his empire, Asoka’s interdiction of animal food, unlike his edicts on responsibilities and rights, continued to retain an influence: in many of the Hindu monarchies that emerged in different regions of the land the kings ‘were more or less vegetarian’ (Auboyer, p. 275). In most cases the kings were not from the Kshatriyas and the throne was a prize that any adventurer could seize, provided he was legitimized through brahminical rituals (Thapar, p. 150). The price paid by the ‘new-born Kshattriya’ for this process of sanskritisation was to uphold the brahminical worldview, including, vegetarianism. This was especially true in the South where Jainism was the more dominant faith compared to Buddhism (Sastri, pp. 394-395).

In some cases the taboos that are debated have a clear economic justification. The attempt to prohibit cow slaughter made sense in a community that had to mainly depend upon dairy products for its protein requirements. On this question too there is no general agreement and it is only by 300 CE that the prohibition on cow slaughter begins to approximate a religious rule (Banerji, p. 267).


If the ritualisation of the cow is an example of economics coming to the aid of religion, the elevation of the chicken tells another story. In the Manusmriti the domestic pig and fowl are regarded as scavengers and therefore prohibited as food (Achaya, p. 41). In the pre-Aryan South this ban was not observed (Kanakasabhai, p. 125), and in the North certainly by the time of the Delhi Sultanate or even earlier the chicken was on the table. Today it is the most common of all table meats with 60 per cent coming from poultry farms, and the intensive farming, in turn, has opened a Pandora’s box of pestilence. The social approval given to the ‘unclean’ chicken is both a function of economics and the ‘natural’ desire of a people for meat in a land without a thriving animal food economy.

The early debate on diet was not solely confined to ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean’ food. In the Vedas there is an approach to food as health, as a nutrient. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the recommended diet for a couple desirous of a male child is rice cooked with beef and ghee (Walker, I, p. 278). In order to shape the character of a baby, different types of meat was added as an ingredient in the first solid food given to it (Auboyer, p. 164). Though much of this is in the nature of dicta, by the time the ayurvedic texts of Charaka and Susruta are composed there is an elaborate understanding of the medicinal values of different types of meat. Contrary to current belief ayurveda does not mean herbal treatment; the pharmacopoeia and methods of treatment uses animal and mineral products.

The inordinate caste value placed on vegetal food through the concepts of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is the foundation of Hindu vegetarianism. The ethical issue is secondary except in times of great social upheaval as witnessed during the rise of Jainism and Vaishanavism, and in our times the ‘coming of Gandhi’. The secondary position of the ethical question is exemplified in the treatment of fish as food.


Archeological evidence from the Harappan sites indicates that fishing was practised (Ratnagar, p. 67). But in the early Hindu texts the question whether fish can be eaten does not get a straight answer. The Manusmriti prohibits fish in general but allows some ‘clean’ varieties to be used in rituals. It is unclear whether the participants can partake of the offering (Banerji, p. 268). On the other hand, the Mahabharata only prohibits fish without scales (Ganguli, III, p. 76). The reality on the ground is that many Hindus who regard themselves as vegetarians eat fish.

If vegetarianism was an ethical stance then this is a contradiction because fish are living creatures. The dilemma does not rise in Hinduism because fish are treated as vegetables. The evidence lies in linguistic usage. What is called in English the ‘bone’ of a fish becomes in Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam, the ‘thorn’ of a fish. The word for thorn in all these languages can be used both in the context of describing a rose bush or a rohu with the tagging of the appropriate noun (Monier-Williams, I, p. 272 and p. 801; Bulcke, p. 191 and p. 564).


On the other hand, Mundari spoken by the early inhabitants of India contains over two score words to describe various activities related to fishing. In Mundari fish have bones, not thorns (Bhaduri, p. 80). Though Sanskrit and Dravidian languages have absorbed many food words from Mundari (Achaya, p. 166) they have retained the thorn rather than the bone for the fish. The logic of this is unclear but the implication is profound: the strange linguistic usage clouds any ethical debate on the right and wrong of eating fish and shifts the discussion onto whether it is a ‘clean’ food.

The view that fish do not have life certainly helped to meet nutritional requirements and satisfy what Manu recognized as the ‘natural desire’ of people for ‘non-vegetarian’ food. The depth of this desire can be gauged from the fact that ‘only about 20 per cent of the Indian communities are vegetarian’ (Singh, p. 95). In a Hindu majority country this gives the lie to the proposition that Hinduism is synonymous with vegetarianism and that ‘non-vegetarianism’ is an aberration. The word ‘non-vegetarian’ is an illiteracy that encapsulates the stigmatization inherent in a debate increasingly centred upon food as a social marker, rather than food as health and food as ethics. Far from being a supposedly degraded way of life for those outside the ‘select circle of perfection’, ‘non-vegetarianism’ is an affirmation by the vast majority that they are human. The ‘non’ in ‘non-vegetarian’ is a condemnation of the human condition.


* Author of The Essential Kerala Cookbook, Penguin, 2003.



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