On Hindus who eat beef

Far be it for me to judge anyone’s right to eat or not eat something. There is a vast list of things I find unpalatable, and I too have apologies as to why I eat what I eat. For example, as much as I love most varieties of fish, I feel guilty when I devour any species threatened due to unsustainable fishing. On a much broader scale, I have deep issues with the ethics of killing any animal, even for food, which I have not been able to been come to terms with yet.

But I will leave that discussion for another day, for today I wish to dwell upon Hinduism and the consumption of beef.  In my travels in North America and Europe, I have come across many fellow travellers who identify as Hindus and are uncomfortable with the fact that they eat beef, which of course, according to prevailing custom is verboten. In India at least, they are less likely to get judged for eating venison than for eating beef, even though deer are about the same size as cattle with similar reactions to pain and misery. The difference is of course that cows are holy, while deer are not. Ironically, in India there is hardly any creature that treated as poorly as we treat our bovine beasts of burden!

Relishing flesh that is taboo (and yet enjoyable) with religious expectations can lead to an uneasy reconciliation. Fortunately, the indefatigable human psyche excels at rationalization and I have been told that the sin of eating beef in foreign lands is minimal for various reasons. One person told me that it was fine to eat beef, since he didn’t kill the cow. He did not explain why he felt compelled to provide this apologetic logic for only cows. Another commented that only Indian cows were holy and because American cows weren’t they could be eaten without loss of piety. To accentuate the point, this person pointed out “that the skinny Indian cow with the sensitive large eyes gave him a religious experience, while the American breed of Angus cattle made him crave a juicy cheeseburger.”

We all have our own explanations, but it takes a hero with courage of conviction to stand up for what he or she believes is morally just. One of my favorite books,  Ramtanu Lahiri o Tatkalin Bongosomaj (English translation: Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer : a history of the renaissance in Bengal) , tells the story of Ramtanu Lahiri, a stalwart who lived during the Bengal Renaissance of the early eighteen century. The book written by Pandit Shivnath Shastri, which I read during college, recounts the social upheavals of the time such as the abolition of sati (bride burning), the legalization of Hindu widow-marriage, and the reform of familial and educational rights accorded to women. It is perhaps, one of the finest historical biographies ever written in Bangla, and if I may be permitted to use a cliché, a true labor of love on the part of the author. I recently came across a splendid translation of Shastri’s magnum opus by Sir Roper Lethbridge of Oxford University which was published in 1907.

Here is my favorite passage from the entire book. The passage describes the zeal for reform of a section of students of Hindu College (pp 82-83):

War was thus declared between the orthodox and the reformers among the students of the Hindu College; and the question of religion was threshed out, not only in the college, but also within their own homes. Old grandmothers were shocked to hear their grandsons vilifying the gods; and fathers were dismayed to find that their sons, expected to offer cakes and balls of over-boiled rice to their ancestors’ manes, had turned traitors to their ancient faith. There are many instances on record in which guardians, failing to gain their wards over by argument or persuasion, had recourse to bitter persecution; and the latter had often to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. In these family dissensions the young Bengali never lost his temper, but had often recourse to tricks showing how sprightly and humorous he was. Peari Chand Mitra, in his Life of David Hare refers to the many shifts to which some of the students were put. He says: “Many a Brahman lad who had lost faith in the idols, and refused to worship them, was often thrust into the room of the tutelary god of the family, and left there with the hope that his obstinacy would soon yield to the august and awe-inspiring presence of the deity.  “But far from that being the case, the young student would utilize the period of his incarceration by reciting selected portions from Homer’s Iliad. Some there were again whose aversion to the orthodox Hindu was so great, and whose desire to make themselves merry at his expense so strong, that, whenever they met a snanshuddh Brahmin with the sacerdotal mark on his forehead, they danced round him, bawling in his ears, “We eat beef. Listen, we eat beef.”

I will admit that when I first read the passage, the audacity appealed to my rebellious nature. Now, what appeals to me most is that even in 1829 there were a select group of Hindus who were not willing to accept religious customs because it had been passed down to them. Many of these Hindus were ostracized by their families and faced grievous bodily injury.

One can argue that their energy could have been used for other enterprises, or that they failed in their attempt to change the general view of the populace. But through their simple acts of defiance, they made it a lot easier for many of us to get away with questioning the prevailing customs of our own generation.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

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11 thoughts on “On Hindus who eat beef

  1. I’m usually the one to leave very long comments, but suffice to say that your post was informative, interesting & more important, foreshadows the advent of an even more interesting post on ethics of eating animals – something I have thought quite a bit about. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Ketan.

      I will wind up writing something on the ethics of animal eating, but for now please do take a look at Madhusudan’s monumental comment covering many of the bases below.

      Take care,
      Anirban

  2. Excellent. Now you’ve given me another book to add to my unwieldy and ever growing to-read list! Thanks!! 🙂

    As a beef-eating Brahmin (Beefeater Brahmin? that works too…) I actually seldom have qualms about eating cows. Of course I only started eating beef upon coming to the US, so it must be those American cows enticing me with their juicy flanks! Having grown up vegetarian, and discovered carnivory only late in college, and after discovering evolutionary biology and atheism too, I had long passed the stage of rebellion against my fairly orthodox upbringing to have any pangs of conscience by the time a slice of cow hit my dinner plate.

    I do have qualms about carnivory in general sometimes, but have (I think) better rationalizations stemming from our evolutionary history – we are omnivorous apes, after all! The ethical questions therefore revolve more around the current mass-scale modes of meat production rather than eating meat per se. You’ve already mentioned the overfishing problem which has forced me to practically give up my favorite sushi and other seafood (at least whatever gets the red flag in the Seafood Watch app on my iPhone). As for terrestrial meats, what ought to worry our consciences more is not that we eat other animals, but the manner in which we nowadays raise the animals we do eat. Cramming tens of thousands of cows/hogs/chickens/turkeys on top of each other in industrial barns, birds selected to have improbably large breasts so they couldn’t even fly anyway, creating giant petridishes for the next killer flu or other zoonotic disease to evolve – that is what I balk at! That is what I consider unethical and unconscionable. But don’t you come after my free-range, grass-fed, organic burger, bro!! (I tried putting “dada” there instead of “bro”, but somehow it doesn’t quite have the same punch – is there another desi alternative?)

    I look forward to your foreshadowed post on the ethics of eating animals too, if you get around to writing it. I find Peter Singers Darwinian ethics most compelling (but not enough to make me give up my beef!) – give him a read (or listen, I think, on Point of Inquiry several years ago) if you haven’t already. The best way out of the ethical conundrum remains the one offered by Douglas Adams, the talking cows on the menu of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which had been engineered to want to be eaten – so how could you deny them their lifelong wish to end up on your plate?! Now get on that project, why don’t you, you geneticists and biotech engineers…

    • Madhusudan,

      That is an amazing response and it is a pleasure to blog knowing that there are readers such as you who read my incoherent rants.

      The post on the ethics of eating meat will come shortly, but many of my views mirror yours, and you’ve made many exceptional points very eloquently.

      When I first came across the “should we vs. shouldn’t we eat” dilemma I was in college. I was just learning about herbivores and the diastema. Our metabolism is suited for omnivory as you rightly point out. The concern, regarding how we treat animalswhich you also state, is something I started learning more about years later when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Like BongoP’o’ndit, I don’t always eat “organic” myself, but that is because much of what is advertised as organic is as industrial and unsustainable as big-sticker products. But the concern over bacterial outbreaks, incessant use of hormones, chemical, and antibiotics does concern me a lot.

      There is also another dilemma which you allude to in your comment. It is the problem in transforming an animal is to a commodity purely for consumption. Consumers want more white meat, so now we have freakish birds selected solely for consumption. It is a cruel process, but ironically, it also makes it easy to forget that the bird is a living creature. We can say, “well, it’s not a real bird. It wouldn’t survive in the wild. So I’ll treat it like raw material that sits on one end of a conveyor belt and magically gets transformed into a hot dog or a chicken nugget at the other!

      At one point, in the continuum between wild animals and animals engineered to be eaten, we will have to address this paradox. Unless of course, we can bypass that step all together and create meat on a dish or genetically-modified product like you and BongoP’o’ndit mention. Which would be a brilliant solution. 😀

      On another note, I haven’t read Peter Singers text, but will definitely do so. Looking forward to it.

      Happy Holidays!
      Anirban

  3. @bhalomanush: Nice post!

    @Madhusudan: Nice comments! Agree with a lot of what you say. For me fish is easy – since I don’t eat fish (yes, I know sacrilege for a Bong). With meat I share many of your qualms – but given how regularly I eat meat, the economics just doesn’t allow purchasing organic, grain-fed, free-range options always.

    Loved your DNA reference. If not the talking cow, cell biologists are certainly working towards growing meat in a petri dish. That should assuage everyone’s guilt.

    • Wouldn’t it be great if all of our eating habits and craves could fit in perfectly!

      🙂

      The meat in a petri dish thing has been going on for a while. In fact, your comment reminds me of an episode of “Better of Ted,” an ill-fated sitcom that mentioned lab-made meat. The episode was factually correct in many ways in that it mentioned that the current level of creating this fake meat can’t substitute for lean muscle developed by pastoral grazing.

      Take care,
      Anirban

  4. From the fountainhead springs forth the freedom to do as we choose. 🙂

    Anyway, I think all of this is a question of personal choice or preference. I claim to love animals. Yet, I eat meat. And I don’t care about how people judge me for it.

  5. I eat beef even though I am a hindu, I stay in India and come from a *brahmin* family. What is strange is, I never had an iota of regret or shame about eating beef.

    At my place, mutton is allowed (though only during ceremonies, as Kali prasad) and fish is staple. The society had no qualms about eating fish. Chicken/eggs were a strict no-no. So fish is always fine, mutton is fine on certain days and chicken is never fine. For the life of me, I could never understand this taboo against chicken. The best I could get out of people was that chickens were raised and sold by Muslims.

    what is more strange is that most of the hindus eat one or other form of meat but has a staunch opposition to beef (apart from hindus in kerala)

    My parents had already broken the chicken taboo and I guess I just broke one more taboo.

  6. Rajeev, the chicken and chicken egg aversion persisted in my part of India as well, until my father’s time. My paternal grandfather ate duck eggs but not chicken eggs.

    I am not sure why either.

  7. The tradition of not eating beef starts with the Gita and Lord Krishna. I personally do not eat beef or pork, I find it repulsive. But that’s just me personally.

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