By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl is our brilliant young India correspondent. He is a keen student of global humanist history and democratic politics. In this article he traces the long history of meat-eating in India and he condemns the violence of so-called 'cow vigilantes'. He believes we should be free to decide what to eat.
Eating food is a basic need for every human being. Some religions have dietary rules, such as Halal slaughter methods and the ban on pork for Muslims, the prohibition of meat for Hindu Brahmins, Karnataka Lingayats, and Jains, and the choice of a vegan diet during Lent for Indian Christians. Adherents of these religions should be allowed to practice these dietary restrictions within their own households, without imposing them on others in society. Taking the United Kingdom as an example, a highly diverse country, one can find various foods available in grocery stores, where people are free to buy whatever they prefer, as long as they respect each other's lifestyles and personal boundaries.
Meat-eating in Hindu scriptures
Religious factors play a significant role in dietary practices, particularly in Hinduism which encompasses different and sometimes contradictory opinions. Hinduism has numerous religious scriptures, including the ancient Vedas, followed by Manu Dharma Shastra, and later texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, among others. For instance, there are more than five versions of the Ramayana with up to three hundred textual conflicts. Hindu fundamentalists often rephrase translations or dismiss them as nonsense or incorrect. Chapter five of the Manu Smriti mentions rules about consuming certain types of meat. Here are two examples:
Beasts and birds recommended (for consumption) may be slain by Brahmanas for sacrifices, and in order to feed those whom they are bound to maintain. (5.22)
One may eat meat when it has been sprinkled with water, while mantras are recited, when Brahmanas desire (one’s doing it), when one is engaged (in the performance of a rite) according to the law, and when one’s life is in danger. (5.27)
Verses in the original version of the epic poem Ramayana by the sage Valmiki show that Rama was a meat-eater. For example, in the second section of the poem Rama is portrayed as planning to offer ‘jellied meat’ in his worship of the goddess (Ayodhya Kanda 52:89). In the third section of the poem, Rama's wife Sita tells us that he hunts stags, mongooses, and wild boars for meat (Aranya Kanda 47:23). The seventh and final section of the poem describes Rama offering Sita delicious honey, wine, meat, and fruits upon their return to the kingdom after the war with Ravana (Uttara Kanda 42:19).
These references to meat consumption in Hindu scriptures pose a challenge for those who consider Rama a hero and a source of inspiration, particularly for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar (a collective term used to refer to a family of Hindu nationalist organisations). Their usual response is either to reject the translations or to find alternative interpretations. Interestingly, the version of the Ramayana popularized in movies, comics, cartoons and soap operas is the one written by Tulsidas, a 16th century Brahmin, whereas the original version was written by Valmiki, who belonged to the fisherman caste. Scholars and historians generally place Valmiki's existence somewhere between the 4th and 1st centuries BCE. Consequently, the Ramayana has been heavily influenced and detached from its original form, being heavily ‘Brahmanised’.
'Between 2014 and 2021, there were 103 recorded human sacrifices in India.'
Animal sacrifices are mentioned in the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. For example, Atharva Veda 9.4.18 states that all gods support the Brahman who offers a bull in sacrifice. Rig Veda mentions the Ashvamedha Yagna, a ritual performed in ancient Vedic culture which involved the sacrifice of a horse. Additionally, human sacrifices were performed by Brahmins and Kshatriyas to gain prestige and prosperity, to ward off sins, and to fulfil desires. These practices are prescribed in the Apastamba Dharma Sastras, belonging to the Yajurveda School. This text even mentions that individuals from lower castes could be sacrificed to please the gods. Shockingly, between 2014 and 2021, there were 103 recorded human sacrifices in India, including a horrific case of a 10-year-old boy sacrificed by his own parents.
The Buddha and meat eating
The Buddha (also known as Siddhartha Gautama), an influential spiritual teacher and the founder of Buddhism believed to have lived in ancient India during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE is sometimes considered to belong to Hinduism by Hindu priests. As a monk, the Buddha accepted food regardless of taste and type, including vegetables and meat. According to legend, his last meal was pig meat with boiled vegetables. The Buddha never forced any food habits on his disciples or associates. He only objected to sacrifices made in the name of serving or pleasing God, and to hunting animals for sport. He did not object to eating animals, as he considered human beings as part of nature and saw meat eating as a natural instinct.
After the Buddha's death and the conversion of Ashoka to Buddhism (Ashoka the Great was an ancient Indian emperor who ruled over the Maurya Empire circa 268-232 BCE), people in the Indian subcontinent began to move away from animal sacrifices. Many Hindus started incorporating Buddhist principles into their practices and vegetarianism became more prevalent among the elite classes.
For a long time, the Buddha was seen as evil in Hindu mythology. However, from the 6th century CE to the 11th century CE, he was incorporated into Hinduism. He was claimed to be another incarnation of Vishnu in some mythologies. Buddhist teachings became more popular during this time.
According to Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (2021) by Tony Joseph, India started domesticating buffaloes and consuming them during the Indus Valley Civilization (circa 2600-1900 BCE). It might be shocking for Indian vegetarians to learn that their early ancestors consumed meat and even other humans. Later on, Islamic rulers introduced meat dishes like biryani and kebabs.
Eating meat, especially beef, was prevalent in Southern India until the arrival of Vedic culture in the region (possibly around 1500 BCE). For example, the following verses indicate meat eating and the use of animal products:
‘A drum roars in the middle of the battlefield, covered with unfinished leather. For this, two bulls were selected and made to fight. The winner's skin was used for the drum. (Purananuru 288:9, by the poet Kalathalaiyar)
‘Kill a black male goat and roast it in red flame with spices and serve big pieces of fatty meat.’ (Purananuru 364:5-6, by the poet Kookai Koliyar)
Even the mightiest kingdoms of the Chola, Cheras, Pandya, and Pallava dynasties were known for consuming a great amount of meat during feasts and royal dining. Many festivals included meat eating, such as Pongal, Bhogi, Ayudha Pooja, Vijayadashami and Onam, and some village god or goddess festivals. Vegetarianism was promulgated, however, in the classical Tamil literary work known as Tirukkural (1st century BCE or 1st century CE).
In Karnataka, a state located in the southwestern part of India, there were instances of meat eating during the kingdoms of Hoysalas, Gangas, and Chalukyas. However, after the spread of Lingayatism by Basavanna, and the influence of Jains, Vedic Brahmins, and modern Hindutva, vegetarianism became more popular.
Meat eating in India today
India is known for vegetarianism but the vegetarian population is around 23 per cent, while the majority still consumes meat. Religious Hindus tend to forbid meat on specific days as a dedication to their particular gods. According to the National Health and Family Survey of India (2019-2021), 77 per cent of Indians consume meat. Southern India has a liberal view on meat eating, with more than 90 per cent of the population consuming meat in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, which together contain 81 per cent of the population. Additionally, Eastern India and Northeastern India have a high number of meat consumers. States like West Bengal, Northeastern Indian states, certain regions of Maharashtra, Kerala, Goa, and Tamil Nadu consume beef to a considerable extent.
Moving towards Northern and Northwestern states, the percentage of meat consumers is relatively low compared to Southern India. For example, Rajasthan has a meat consumption rate of 35 per cent, Gujarat 45 per cent, and Haryana 31 per cent. These differences can be explained by geographical, cultural, and economic factors. Northern areas are covered with fertile plains and have abundant vegetarian food resources, whereas southern areas have a more diverse landscape, potentially leading to higher meat consumption. Caste systems and religious influences play a significant role in the North, where feudal lords and caste patriarchs are more prevalent, thereby influencing the adherence of common people to traditional rules. Except for Gujarat and Punjab, the states with lower meat consumption have low income levels, making it difficult for many to afford meat compared to vegetables.
Asian countries may boast about diversity but in reality there is often a great deal of intolerance. In India, the right-wing Hindu party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Modi has expressed his support for the protection and welfare of cows, which are considered sacred by many in India. A group of higher caste Hindu fundamentalists belonging to the RSS (a Hindu nationalist organization) turned into an unofficial armed mob known as ‘cow vigilantes’ or ‘cow saviours’. Primarily, these cow vigilantes are present in northern states and Karnataka. Their main objective is to inspect container trucks passing on highways under suspicion of cow smuggling and to spy on Muslims and Dalits consuming beef. Victims are beaten, sometimes to death, with little police interference. The police often ignore such lynching incidents which can, therefore, be described as state-sponsored or state-enabled terrorism.
Between 2014 and 2023, cow vigilantes killed around 45 people and injured more than 120. Unofficial sources suggest that the numbers could be higher. BBC and Deutsche Welle documentaries have revealed instances where the police force victims to withdraw complaints and accept fatalities. Few of these cow vigilantes have received punishment, as most are released from custody and praised by right-wing groups. Cow vigilantes have even received awards from the police and legislative representatives for finding and lynching suspected individuals. At times, legislative members themselves have been involved in cow vigilantism, supporting them through funding or influence to evade the law.
Human Rights Watch has condemned cow vigilantism, but the government has paid little heed to them. Modi expressed his displeasure at the killing of Dalits but not Muslims, as Dalits are an important element of his voter base. Families of victims are left with hidden scars, as their loved ones have been lost, their livelihoods taken away, and their freedom constrained.
Self-proclaimed spiritual leaders have even made claims associating meat eating with evil and criminality. Numerous studies have shown that meat-eaters are healthier both physically and mentally. Eating meat does not make a person evil. Studies have found no evidence of particular foods inducing criminality. Despite this, many spiritual leaders propagate these irrational ideas and lead their followers astray.
Meat-eating has a long history in India. When any human being is tortured or beaten to death for the sake of a mere piece of meat, it is a matter that calls for contemplation by all of humanity. It is disheartening to see people care more about cows than their fellow human beings. It is oppressive to have food consumption choices controlled by fanatical groups. If something is prohibited within a specific area for particular cultural or religious reasons that's fair enough. But outside of that designated area, people should have the freedom to consume, and enjoy with their friends, whatever foods they prefer.