October 06, 2015

India: Big ban and whimpers - Of cabbages, cows and carnivorous tastes (Ashok Sanjay Guha)

The Telegraph - 6 October 2015

Big ban and whimpers - Of cabbages, cows and carnivorous tastes
Ashok Sanjay Guha

The plethora of bans on meat and animal slaughter raises an interesting question: why are so many Indians vegetarian? The Western perception of India as a vegetarian nation is of course highly exaggerated. Only 40 per cent of us are vegetarians by preference (as against economic necessity) and this includes 9 per cent who eat eggs. The majority of Indians - and even a majority of Hindus - are not enamoured of a vegetarian diet. This should surprise no one. Man is a passionately carnivorous species with India's 31-40 per cent being the isolated exception that proves the rule.

As is well-known, thinly populated regions typically support hunter-gatherer societies or pastoral nomads. The diet of such societies is per force based on animal protein, both meat and milk. This has been man's way of life for at least 90 per cent of his time on this earth. Evolution over this immense span of years has moulded his inborn tastes accordingly - which is why the vast majority of mankind - with the exception of 40 per cent of Indians - are emphatically non-vegetarian by preference.

Over the last 10,000 years, this equilibrium between population density, means of livelihood, diet and food preference was disrupted by population growth. As numbers increased beyond what hunting or pastoralism could support, man invented agriculture. The calorie yield per acre of settled agriculture far exceeded those of hunting or pastoralism and so sustained a very much denser population. What it could not change in a mere 10,000 years was man's innate preference for meat: that would have required another 2,00,000 years or 6,000 generations of evolutionary adaptation to a vegetarian diet. Meanwhile, man's passion for meat remains intact worldwide including in India with its 60 per cent of non-vegetarians.

Even so, India's 40 per cent is a figure many times higher than the fraction of vegetarians in any other nation on earth. Does India's exceptionalism in this regard yield a superior medical outcome as the proponents of vegetarianism assert? Far from it. Leave aside malnutrition and its attendant ills, explicable perhaps by our poverty. Even in the maladies of affluence, in obesity and its consequences, in cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, Indians yield pride of place to no one.

There is no medical explanation of India's uniqueness in the scale of its vegetarianism. What, one may wonder, in the Indian environment has produced a dietary outcome so utterly at variance with that of the rest of the world? What in particular accounts for our aversion to beef and cow-slaughter, an aversion far more profound and widespread than vegetarianism in general?

It has been argued that population growth, the expansion of agriculture and the consequent shift to a largely carbohydrate diet (in spite of a strong preference for meat) were self-reinforcing cumulative processes. More carbohydrates relative to protein produced more body fat, accelerating puberty in women and reducing infertile periods during lactation. This meant higher fertility, accelerating population growth with its attendant consequences in a vicious cycle. However, this happened to all societies that adopted agriculture as their basic means of livelihood - and it did not lead elsewhere to a sanctification of cattle and a taboo on their consumption.

The key to the puzzle of our sacred cows is the unique variability of our monsoons. The variance of total rainfall and of its distribution over the season is higher in India than anywhere else in the world. Our exceptionally fickle rain-gods condemn us to frequent and quite unpredictable droughts and, given our dependence on agriculture, to consequent famines - especially in ages when primitive transport made transfer of food from surplus to deficit regions nearly impossible.

Famine breeds myopia. The instinct of immediate self-preservation drowns out all thought for the morrow. A famished farm family's hunger pangs, reinforced by the innate human passion for meat, constitute an irresistible temptation to eat the farmyard cattle, ensuring survival today but only at the expense of the future. Next year, the rainfall may be plentiful, but the farmer will starve since he cannot plough his land or convey his crop to the market. A religious prohibition on cow slaughter and a taboo on beef may avert this disaster. A firm belief that cow-slaughter is akin to matricide and that the guilty will be reborn as cattle destined for the butcher's knife may well counter man's carnivorous instincts; the farmer may then endure his hunger and ride out the famine while saving his livestock for better days.

But if the bans reflect the ecology of monsoon agriculture, they cannot have preceded the decline of pastoralism and the adoption of settled agriculture. And indeed they did not. The Rig Veda (RV 10.86, 13-14) quotes Indra in the Vrskapi hymn: "Wealthy Vrsakapayi... Indra will eat thy bulls... Fifteen in number, then, for me a score of bullocks they prepare, And I devour the fat thereof: they fill my belly full with food," - hardly the language of the committed vegetarian, certainly not of someone averse to killing and eating cattle. Swami Vivekananda, contrasting ancient Hinduism with contemporary practice, asserts, "There was a time when without eating beef no Brahmin could remain a Brahmin; when a king, a hermit or a great man visited, the best bullock was killed in his honour." As agriculture expanded, contrary voices began to be heard, injunctions against beef appear in the texts, but mass sacrifices, the ritual killing and eating of large numbers of animals, including cattle, continued. So much so indeed that the Buddhist scripture Digha Nikaya speaks of the Brahmin Kutadanta who had prepared a sacrifice of 700 bulls, 700 heifers, 700 steers, 700 goats and 700 rams but was eventually dissuaded by the Buddha from this enormous carnage. So popular were these events that the passionate vegetarian, Manu, had to specifically exclude sacrificial meat (including beef) from his list of prohibitions; the Arthasastra refers to bulls intended for general slaughter while restricting the killing of milch cows and calves to sacrificial occasions; even the emperor Ashoka could ban animal slaughter only on a few sacred days - and had to exempt slaughter of cows (though not of breeding bulls) from this ban. As for that other great sage and law-giver, Yajnavalkya, the Hindu ambivalence about beef is well-illustrated by the Satpatha Brahman which addresses possibly the best known injunctions against beef-eating to him: his response to this diatribe - "I eat only really tender beef."

Only as population multiplied, as famines became more frequent and as scarcity of pasture accelerated the rise in prices of bullocks for ploughing and haulage and of milk and dairy produce did vegetarianism and the tenets against cow-slaughter begin to be taken seriously. And Buddhism and Jainism led this movement, not Hinduism. Religion was not the driving force anyway but economics and ecology - though religious beliefs were exploited to lend the movement credibility. Buddhism was evicted from India, but the principles it developed in the Indian environment were appropriated by a significant section of Hindu society - while the greater world that Buddhism conquered outside India in East, Southeast and Central Asia remained virtually immune.

The bans owe little to ancient Hindu tradition. Dev Indra would have been persona non grata in Devendra Fadnavis's Maharashtra. And Yajnavalkya? As a historical person, an undeniably Hindu sage with a passion for tender beef, he would have represented a most disconcerting presence, a ghostly reminder of Hinduism's carnivorous past, an immemorial nightmare come to haunt a chief minister whose childhood dream was a ban on cow-slaughter.

The author is Professor Emeritus, JNU