You Are What You Eat: Sacred Animals and Forbidden Foods

Supriya Ambwani on the social ramifications of religious practice in India, where cow veneration can be a potential tool of discrimination.
Photo by specialoperations
Photo by specialoperations

“A branch of [a] peepal tree is cut and religious feelings of the Hindus are injured. A corner of a paper idol, tazia, of the idol-breaker Mohammedans is broken, and ‘Allah’ gets enraged, who cannot be satisfied with anything less than the blood of the infidel Hindus. Man ought to be attached more importance than the animals and yet, here in India, they break each other’s heads in the name of ‘sacred animals’…”

These were the words of Bhagat Singh, one of India’s greatest revolutionaries. India is a secular democracy, but the fervent religiosity of its citizens is often violent and divisive. The absence of religious criticism hasexacerbated this problem. Archaic laws exist under which one can be arrested for speaking out against any aspect of a religion. There is little public dialogue on the subject for fear of offendingreligious devotees. Ignorance is rampant.

It’s no wonder, then, that fundamentalist religions continue to thrive in this atmosphere. But injustices can’t be stopped until they are aired publicly. In this case, dirty laundry shouldn’t be hidden.

The cow is an obvious manifestation of this religious ignorance in India. As a member of a predominantly Hindu community, I chose to attack the modern Hindu veneration of cows, although this isn’t the only  socially’ forbidden food in India.Muslims who eat pork and Jains who eat onions are told that they aren’t true believers. But I refuse to believe that one’s devotion can be measured by one’s dietary preferences. One’s dedication cannot be determined by the number of times one prays, the amount of money one pays to a religious organization, or the number of fasts one keeps. In religions dominated by authoritarian old men, arbitrary dictates like this give certain people undue powers to dismiss others’ personal beliefs. Eating a cow or a pig or an onion does not make one an immoral person. Dictating another’s life makes one an immoral person.

Certain communities have been marginalized over the last few centuries, apparently due to their affinity for bovine meat. ?But? Periyar E.V. Ramasami wrote, “No one has ever told you the real reason for your low and degraded status because they realize that if you were to know, you would pounce on them and tear them to pieces; which is why they concocted stories about God, religion and custom…”.

Periyar was one of the most outspoken and respected critics of the subjugation inherent in Indian society. When he was alive, the historically ostracized Dalit community of India was denied basic rights, the effects of which can still be felt. A common justification for their degraded status is the fact that they eat beef.

Some modern Dalit activists celebrate this dietary preference as a way to break out of oppressive casteism. In April 2012, a group of Dalits from Osmania University in Hyderabad organized a Beef Eating Festival. The violent outcry that followed led to the stabbing of a student. The Dalit students were protesting food fascism; the “upper-caste” students who attacked them claimed to be “protecting Indian culture.”

An essay celebrating the Beef Festival was published on the website Dalit Nation. “Beef is the food of Dalits…each delicious morsel we ate was a body blow to the regressive Vedic culture and Brahminism. The day is not far away when the grass-eating Brahmins will also start eating beef just like their Vedic ancestors did.”

In a poignant documentary, Stir.Fry.Simmer, Vani Subramanian recorded people speaking about the discrimination that beef-eaters continue to face in many societies. According to the documentary, cow-sacredness was promoted under the guise of nationalism to remove the constitutionally recognised “scheduled” castes, tribes, and other backward classes from the mainstream. It has largely succeeded.

In the film, a man quoted the Naga Memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929: “We have no social affinities with the Hindus or Mussalmans. We are looked down upon by the one for our beef and the other for our pork and by both for our want in education”. The Nagas, just like the Dalits, claim that they were ostracised because of the food they ate.

Other non-beef-eating communities are marginalized because of other aspects of their diets. The Musahar community of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in North India is a case in point. It feasts on protein-rich rats. It’s also one of the most economically backward communities of India. The Musahars are denied basic rights, apparently justifiedby a mythological talecondemning them as rat catchers.

holy cowTheir economic and social backwardness doesn’t grant them the means to eat full, nutritious meals regularly. That’s why they often hunt rats, luring them out of their holes in the fields where the Musahars work as labour. Rats are a good, cheap source of protein. But because of social stigma, many Musahars have given up eating rats. Is one source of food really that inferior to another?

Times are changing; India is changing faster. Discrimination on the basis of caste is increasingly rare in urban societies. Beef is available in many restaurants in metropolitan India. The rural areas tell a different story, but economic growth is rewriting that tale too.

Fewer people blindly accept religious ordinances. Perhaps this will lead to a new era in independent India, one in which people aren’t shunned because of the food they eat. In a country in which millions of people sleep hungry, we should promote, not demote, cheaper alternatives to “socially acceptable”nutritious food. Why shouldn’t a person have the right to eat a pig or a cow or a rat if she has access to it and wishes to eat it?

Hinduism has always prided itself on being a lifestyle, not a religion. Moreover, it has snubbed its nose at the other major religions of the world, all of which rely on rulebooks to define their beliefs. Are modern Hindus not going the same way as those they eschew? Shouldn’t they fight to preserve the religious criticism that formed the premise of India’s sceptical society?

Oh, and full disclosure: I’m vegetarian.

Supriya Ambwani

Supriya Ambwani

An antithiest and a Hindu... or a Hindu and an antitheist?

One comment

  1. Sugandha Srivastav says:

    This is slightly misinformed. Cow meat was labelled sacred for quite a sound economic reason – I.e. it is more sustainable to keep a cow alive and consume its milk than kill it for one-time flesh consumption. In a place with rampant poverty, hunger issues would be exacerbated if bovine meat were to be used for one-off consumption rather than sustainable, long run milk consumption.

    Also, in general, you present a rather retrogressive picture of this religion. While some points are certainly true, you must acknowledge that within the Baghvad Gita one of the greatest debates about vegetarianism versus meat consumption takes place. The beauty is that both viewpoints are presented in this text and then, it is ultimately up to the reader to decide which side they want to be on. I think this is a vital point to acknowledge.

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