Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Meat/Beef eating and Dharma

I am a member of a particular mailing list which had discussions on how Mecca/Medina were Hindu temples of a bygone era. The proof given was not rigorous but something that seemed to be made up. One thing led to another and we had a discussion on whether beef was eaten during the vedic times or not. At a certain point, I was especially irritated when someone mentioned that "if a person eats beef, he ceases to be Hindu". That got me writing this post.

To make things clear, I have been a strict lacto-vegetarian all my life and I have no intention of changing that.

I, for one, will not be bothered if it is conclusively shown that people in vedic times ate beef. I won't be bothered even if it were shown that beef was never eaten. My contention is simply that sanAtana dharma won't be affected if it is shown either way and one will not cease to be a Hindu just because he/she ate beef. karma will accumulate and bad health will also result - but I am not going there.

What constitutes Dharma externally has changed over the ages. Beef eating for instance did not make it adharma in the vedic ages. But after the middle ages (circa 12th century CE, I think) and islamic invasion, beef eating and cow slaughter began to be considered adharma. It could also be the case that in our pastoral culture, the cow came to be regarded very highly and so could not be killed. Whatever the reason that made it adharma, it seems to be the case that beef eating existed during vedic times.

There is one particular proof to show that BhavabhUti, one of Samskrit's greatest poets, mentions sage VasiShTha eating beef. The sage actually requests for some tender meat of a young calf as his teeth were getting old. This proof in itself is quite significant. Because, why would BhavabhUti show vasiShTha eating beef? Did he have a blatant agenda like DN Jha (author of the much maligned book on beef eating in the vedas) who is a known leftist? As chroniclers of a particular era, poets and dramatists provide great contribution to history. How else can we see dharma in action if we can't have stories of people that actually followed it? It is from that perspective that I gave this example. And if BhavabhUti has given an example, it has considerable weight and needs our attention.

I say, "if a Hindu in a bygone era ate beef, so be it". I personally may or may not want to do that. But the thing to know is that it won't affect Dharma mainly because Dharma, though having external representations, is mainly mental, intellectual and spiritual.

I have a question to people who read this. Who is a better person ? A beef eating Dalai Lama or an especially harmful vegetarian? So what I am trying to say is even though meat eating is considered rAjasika and generally considered a bad habit, a meat eater may show better concern towards his fellow beings than a vegetarian because of his adherence to dharma. Who was more virtuous ? The brAhmaNa kaushika or the butcher dharmavyAdha?

Of course, eating meat constantly may cause a rAjasika mind to develop. Also eating meat causes more harm to the environment than not eating it. But these are different arguments from whether a person ate meat in the past. For example - it is the way of Eskimos to eat fish. Can you expect them to eat anything else? Are they worse people because they eat fish? I am sure Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ate fish and so did Swami Vivekananda. So, are they worse than a south Indian vegetarian brahmin who spent his life criticising non-vegetarians?

Someone also mentioned that there was no meat eating in the vedas. To them I can say - strive to be better informed. There have been yajnas where the fat (vapa) from a pashu has been used. The people who conduct the yajna have to partake some meat (not a great amount - but some). Such yajnas have happened even recently. And please don't give me the Kaliyuga answer. The concept of yugas as a means to perform or not perform some actions are, in my opinion, mere arthavAda. I am with the mImAMskas on this - "na chAnIdRshaM jagat kadAchit" - which means "the world (or more specifically its inhabitants) was never different from the current world". But that needs a separate post.

Anyway, modern Hindus, especially those heavily influenced by the RSS/VHP, become very touchy when such issues are discussed. (Note: I am sympathetic to RSS/VHP but they have to understand that sanAtana Dharma is not a monolithic religion like Islam) I say to them, your Dharma is indeed greater than these petty concerns. Why do you even worry about this? Do you, instead, perform all your daily duties - social and spiritual? For example, if somebody calls himself a brahmin, he has to perform sandhyAvandanaM thrice a day at the minimum. That will be his dharma. Of course there are vishESha dharmas, but it is left to the individuals to identify those. Do these people do their regular dharma? Are they honest? I will call someone a better Hindu if he/she performs these activities than go out and shout one's throat hoarse over an event that has been sensationalized.

So, should we just sit at home doing our individual activities without going to the aid of our dharma? Should we practise unconditional ahimsA like Gandhi?

My answer is a loud NO! Our dharma advocates ahimsA - but not pacifism. Krishna told Arjuna - "yudhyasva vigatajvaraH". He addressed Arjuna as "parantapa" (scorcher of foes). But those become vishESha dharmas. For instance, vasiShTha ate the meat of a dog from a chaNDAla as the former was starving. He made prAyashchitta after that. At that point dehadhAraNa (sustenance of life in the body) was more important than anything else. So, if push comes to shove, it will be expected of everybody to contribute in a similar manner. Our conscience is the decision maker. That is the final court of appeal.

One thing I have noticed is that Dharma comes in hierarchies. For example, suppose a person sees his criminal son committing a gruesome murder and is unable to prevent it. His citizen-dharma asks him to turn him over to the police whereas the dharma of a father calls for his child's protection. In this case, the citizen's dharma is more important than that of a father and so, exhorts him to send his son to jail. This is decided by the person's buddhi. But it isn't simple all the time. For example, Krishna says in the gItA - "svadharme nidhanaM shreyaH paradharmo bhayAvahaH". - "It is better to die performing one's duty than doing someone else's which is more dangerous". But what is our svadharma? Is it static all the time? Does it change? In my opinion - all the time. For example, a man can be son, father, husband, teacher, soldier, citizen, human being - all at the same time. What dharma to follow at what time is the question. This for anybody (at least myself) is difficult to answer. But once dharma is followed it brings us long lasting happiness and satisfaction. At no point of time will a dhArmika be ashamed of one's action. That, in my opinion, is how to identify dharma.

So is it still OK to sit back when people are denigrating our deities?

No! Denigrating deities like Ganesha and Shiva by the likes of Wendy and her students should definitely be not tolerated and should be protested. We should strive to educate them and fight their malicious intentions. But don't lose track of your path by helping some one else on the way.

But if somebody shows conclusively (this is also left for us to decide) that a sage ate beef a while ago, it should not be our problem. If modern RSS/VHP Hindus are so touchy about this, they should know that they are betraying the diverse character of the Hindu society that they claim to represent. In fact, by being very touchy and protesting about these things, we have unfortunately become the enemy we love to hate.

Hinduism is not a monolithic religion like Islam or Christianity. There are hundreds of denominations, millions of deities and thousands of gurus. How do you choose what sanAtana dharma is from these? Vedas can be claimed to be the bedrock of Hinduism and yet you have tAntric people claiming that their Agamas are higher than the vedas. Are they not Hindus? Of course they are. And this is what people tend to forget when they try to make a monolithic religion out of Hinduism.

I hope I have made myself clear in where I stand on this. I should write more on this to give form to my thoughts. I will post references from the veda when I get the chance.

|| iti sham ||


neelanjana said...


I read this post today. Very nicely written.


nIlagrIva said...

Thanks for the comment.

This is a 2 year old post. I felt it was long winding; talking about so many things.

I'm glad you liked it.


Anonymous said...


Nice post. But don't you think that prohibiting hindu's from eating only beef was a little narrow approach and it should have in general included all meats...just a thought.