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