Food habits can, and should, change for the better

With laws recently passed in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana, this brings to 20, out of 29, the number of states in India that completely ban cow slaughter.

With the population of India being over 80 percent Hindu and so largely non-beef eating, the beef ban has led to debates in the Indian media, especially television, described by one writer as a ‘carnival of adversarial inanities, sententious sermons and barefaced untruths.’

Besides, there is both confusion and controversy, given that India is also the second-largest exporter of beef in the world after Brazil, amounting to 1.89 million metric tons in 2012-2013. However, this is where the catch lies: the beef exported was derived largely from herds of the native water buffalo Bubalus bubalis. In India it is known as ‘buff’ and doesn’t count as forbidden flesh, whereas it counts as beef for the United States Department of Agriculture and the global meat industry. The new laws apply only to Indian cows and bulls, mostly of the Bos taurus indicus subspecies, which are not ‘buff.’

It is generally known that Hindus do not eat beef, and that this practice goes back to antiquity. However, several years ago a book written by an academic sociologist at the University of Delhi, Dr Jha, stirred controversy about whether Hindus ate beef in Ancient India – and his own conclusion was that they did. The question that arises is therefore: Did Hindus eat beef in ancient India?

Even if they did, there is such a thing as evolving practice – practice changing for the better and adapting to changing circumstances over time. This is the concept embodied in the Vedic concept of smriti – which refers to the social, cultural and religious practices and customs which vary with the age and the given context of the times. They are therefore not immutable, and coexist side-by-side with the core principles of existence whence they are derived, those that were ‘revealed’ to or ‘heard’ by maharishis – the sruti, which is timeless and universal (re smriti: local and time-bound). So there is no contradiction, as practice does not alter the core concepts enshrined in the Vedanta, which refers to framework and content of Vedic spiritual knowledge guiding the Hindu way of life.

Thus, even if Dr Jha’s conclusion were true, so what? Beef-eating or rather, absence of beef-eating, is not a defining characteristic of sruti. Sruti is untouched by matters which pertain to the domain of smriti, and thus at the core Hinduism remains stable.

However, even if they did eat beef, the fact that at some stage they stopped doing so and made the non-eating of beef an important aspect of the Hindu way of life is itself a confirmation that they adhered to the dynamic smriti principle of adapting to a changing context. So the issue is not whether beef-eating was allowed. More importantly, it is: what were the circumstances that led to stopping the eating of beef and making this an important part of the dharma?

Possible reasons for why the practice of beef eating was stopped

Cow milk as complete food: Babies fed on their mother’s milk are usually weaned on to cow’s (or buffalo’s) milk. As the human newborn is totally dependent on the mother’s milk to remain alive, in other words the mother is not only the procreator of the baby but its sustainer through her milk, so the cow is symbolically a mother to the human. Whatever is one’s concept of God or worship, nobody can deny that mothers are worthy of the highest worship.

At a time when, in ancient days at the beginnings of human civilization/settlements, there were probably not as many vegetables grown as is the case now, cow milk provided a complete food. Cow milk as such is recommended as a source of protein and calcium amongst other things. Besides, it can be converted into butter and paneer (cheese); also, the whey is used in cooking, and ghee (clarified butter) is made from the milk and used for cooking purposes as well as for medicinal purposes.

Use of cowdung: It not only has some antiseptic properties but it is also used for plastering of walls and floors. When the plaster dries, there is a mildly aromatic smell which is in fact rather pleasant. The excrement of no other animal has similar properties allowing its use in human habitation.

Cowdung is of course widely used as manure. Further, dried cowdung cakes are used as fuel, and these days biogas as well is produced from the dung.

Leather: When the cow dies, the hide is available as leather for multiple uses.

In agriculture: The cow is used in agriculture to this day for tilling the land, and as a means of transport, re: the bullock-cart.

For all these eminently valid and plausible reasons, at some point in the development of Hindu civilization the cow may have been elevated to the status of a sacred symbol, presumably so that humans would not get addicted to the taste and therefore consumption of its flesh. This would have led to killing of cows on a large scale, and therefore possibly the extinction of the then developing civilization.

However, I must add here that the way that modern Hindus treat the cow in India is absolutely appalling. Allowing them to roam freely, in cities in particular, and shoving them here and there is not only a cruelty but a denial of the symbolic respect which they deserve. Hindus, of all people, should give serious thought to and find the means to deal with stray cows, giving them a decent treatment when alive, and disposing of them properly when they die.

Alternatively, the reasons for avoiding beef-eating in the modern context may be considered as follows:

Spiritual – animal flesh in general is not sattvic (inducing pure and peaceful qualities) food.

Nutritional – there are equivalent, and as tasty, sources of protein.

Medical – Beef is red meat and a rich source of purines and pyrimidines, the breakdown products which convert into uric acid, responsible for micro-crystalline joint disease, notably gout.

Further, red meat is rich in cholesterol too, a substance responsible for much of cardiovascular disease and which may aggravate existing diabetes.

Worldwide statistics show that consumption of predominantly red meat, especially the processed variety, is associated with the highest incidences of cancer of the large intestine and rectum because of the carcinogenic breakdown products that are released. Their harmful effects are enhanced by the prolonged contact with the intestinal lining owing to the known constipating effect of a meat-based diet.

Need for rational approach and constructive debate

All cultures and religions have their own views, or prejudices, about meat-eating and what meats to eat or not to eat. Given that these practices were recommended or established in ancient times, when there was no proper, that is, scientific knowledge about so many things including meat, it goes without saying that any discussion on these matters must perforce factor in the scientific dimension – otherwise we will keep on peddling our pet prejudices.

However, there is also an affective aspect to this issue. It is best illustrated by the reply of an Englishman when he was asked what was his view about Hindus not eating beef. He said: ‘The Hindu does not eat beef for the same reason that I as an Englishman would never think of eating my dog! Period.’

The dog is considered to be man’s most faithful companion, and similarly has the cow been a most useful — and thus revered – companion for Hindus since time immemorial.

Simple logic. This is the reason that I soon tire of listening to the debates on Indian TV; they simply became shouting matches devoid of any commonsense or balance. There is enough historical, cultural and now scientifically validated rationale for choosing meats other than beef, especially in India. The rest of the world can do whatever they like, and assume the responsibility and consequences – global warming among other things.

But from the broadest perspective – if we are prepared to shed religious demagogy – it should be clear that the most compelling reason for avoiding red meat is for the protection of our health. If that is not good enough, then nothing else will.


* Published in print edition on 11 April  2015

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