A Gnostic's Notebook

Vedic Food for Thought

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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Eating red meat and reading the Bhagavat Gita

“Red earth, red ants, the shleshmataka and poison must not be consumed by brahmanas.  Brahmanas must also not eat fish that are without scales, frogs and four-footed aquatic animals, with the exception of turtles.”  Shleshmataka is a medicinal plant, its botanical name is Cordia Myxa.  The fruit is edible and is used in Ayurveda preparations.  It is full of vitamins.  Shleshmataka is also believed to help in growth of hair.  There are more than 12,000 types of ants and most of them are edible, or so I think.  The bit I have just quoted is from the Mahabharata.  If you remember the Mahabharata, Bhishma has been brought down and is lying down on a bed of arrows, waiting for the right time to die.  At that time, he instructs Yudhishthira, in sections known as Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva.  That quote is from Shanti Parva.           

Other texts, such as the Manu Samhita, also have injunctions about what should be eaten.  Such injunctions are usually laid down for brahmanas.  5.5 of Manu Samhita tells us brahmanas must not eat लशुनं गृञ्जनं चैव पलाण्डुं कवकानि च.  लशुन is garlic, गृञ्जन is also a kind of onion or garlic, sometimes translated as leek (it also means turnip, but that’s probably not what is being prohibited), पलाण्डु  is onion and कवक is a mushroom.  5.11 tells us क्रव्यादाशकुनान्सर्वान्तथाग्रामनिवासिनः.  शकुन is a bird and the adjective क्रव्याद qualifies this as a carnivorous or predatory bird.  So all such birds should not be eaten, nor should one eat birds that dwell in villages.  Several birds are prohibited by name.  Among these are टिट्टिभ (water-hen), कलविङ्क (sparrow),  प्लव (some kind of aquatic bird), हंस (goose/swan), चक्र (the ruddy-goose/brahmani duck), कुक्कुट (fowl that live in villages), सारस (crane/stork/heron), दात्यूह (cuckoo/gallinule), शुक (parrot), सारिक (salika/mynah), कोयष्टि (lapwing), बक (heron/crane), बलाका (crane), काकोल (raven) and खञ्जरीटक (wagtail). Other birds are also prohibited, though by their behaviour, rather than by their name.  For example, you shouldn’t eat birds that feed by striking with their beaks, nor should you eat ones that are web-footed.  You shouldn’t eat ones that scratch with their talons/feet.  You shouldn’t eat ones that dive and feed on fish.  You shouldn’t eat ones that live on dried meat or flesh from slaughter-houses.  विड्वराहांश्च मत्स्यानेव च सर्वश: (5.14).  The first part of this prohibits the eating of a tame or village-pig, wild ones are fine.  But you must not eat any kind of fish either.   Only a few kinds of fish are permitted.   You are allowed to eat the meat of porcupines, hedgehogs, lizards, rhinos, tortoises and rabbits/hares.  You are also allowed to eat the flesh of animals that have 5-claws/nails and those that have teeth on one jaw (with the exception of camels, which are taboo) (5.18).           

The Bhagavad Gita (17.8-10) also has some things to say on food.

आयुः सत्व बल आरोग्य प्रीति विवर्द्दनाः। रस्याः स्निग्द्धा: स्थिरा हृध्या आहाराःसात्विक प्रियाः॥ कट् अम्ल लवण अत्युष्ण तीक्ष्ण रूक्ष विदाहिनः। आहाराराजस स्येष्टा दुःख शोकामय प्रदाः||  यातयामं गतरसं पूति पर्युषितं च यतु |उच्छिष्टं अपि च आमेध्यं भोजनं तामस प्रियम्॥  

For present purposes, the “Bhagvad Gita As It Is” translation will do. “Foods in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one's existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such nourishing foods are sweet, juicy, fattening and palatable. Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, pungent, dry and hot, are liked by people in the modes of passion. Such foods cause pain, distress, and disease. Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed and unclean, is food liked by people in the mode of ignorance.”  One can understand this.  But why should a brahmana be allowed to eat green or black ants, but not red ants?  In case you don’t know, in some parts of the world, the green ant (the weaver ant) is a prized delicacy, sometimes in the form of a larva.  For Thailand, try this paper on ant farming.  You will find stuff from Latin America too.  The next time you go to Mexico, try escamole/escamole. Why should shleshmataka not be eaten?  Is it because it helps in the growth of hair and brahmanas’ possessing hair wasn’t a desirable physical attribute?  What about the prohibition on specific kinds of birds, animals or fish?          

Such prohibitions are specific to industry societies and reflect a socio-economic cum cultural cum historical context.  (Even the Bhagavad Gita is smriti, not shruti).  Take a proposition that is often heard.  Humans don’t generally eat carnivores (except among fish), but prefer herbivores, and the reason for that is health.  Or alternatively, there is a smell in the flesh of carnivores.  Therefore, eat herbivores. I doubt it is that simple.  Societies evolve and dietary patterns change.  When humans were hunters and gatherers, we probably ate carnivores when we could get hold of them.  It is just that there were many more herbivores around and they were easier to kill.  Humans then moved on to agriculture and animal husbandry, domesticating animals.  Logically, herbivores will be easier to raise and herd than carnivores.  One can think of it in terms of energy required to obtain food.  The higher up the food chain one goes, the more inefficient it becomes.  That’s the reason plants and vegetables are superior to flesh and herbivore flesh is superior to carnivore flesh.  Why should we read more into norms that have evolved in a specific stage of human society and civilisation? 

But if you read Manu Samhita or other texts, you will also find another injunction.  Eating wild boar is acceptable, but not domesticated pigs.  Eating wild cocks is fine, but not domesticated fowl.  When Rama was exiled to the forest, in Valmiki Ramayana, there are descriptions of his having killed a variety of wild animals for food, not just deer.  The standard and expected answer is that domesticated pigs and fowls eat filth.  Wild ones are cleaner and healthier.  But are we imposing today’s images of village pigs feeding on filth to norms that evolved thousands of years ago?  Wild animals are healthier for a different reason too.  They have less fat.  A goat’s meat is healthier than a sheep’s.  A goat is a browsing animal.  A sheep is a grazing animal.  Grazing animals accumulate fat, bad for humans.  When friends visit us, a lot of them say, “I don’t eat red meat.”  There is a technical definition of red meat, depending on values of a protein named myoglobin.  There are plenty of health warnings that link consumption of red meat to heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and high cholesterol.  These warnings are based on studies.  If you scrutinise those studies, you will find they aren’t about all forms of red meat.  As I have just said, red meat isn’t a homogenous category.  The studies are mostly about processed red meat.  The health effects of red meat depend on fat content, processing and preparation.  A wild goat, boar or deer that is active doesn’t accumulate fat the way a domesticated animal does.  Some people prefer the domesticated animal because its high fat content offers better taste.  However, the wild one is healthier meat.

I think there is an even more important reason for the preference for the wild, one that is relatively unexplored because not enough work has been done on the notion of बली (a sacrificial offering).  Here is a quote from Roberto Calasso’s Ardor, which bases itself extensively on the Shatapatha Brahmana.  “Two stages that divide the history of humanity over thousands of years, agriculture occupying by far the smaller part.  But it would be enough to say that people lived in an initial phase with animals (killing them and being killed by them) and in a later phase on animals (through their domestication).”  Destiny determines both life and death.  If it is a wild animal, I have to hunt and kill it.  In the process, I may also be killed.  Both killer and killed are determined by destiny.  That’s the way life is.  But when it becomes a domesticated animal, there is no longer any uncertainty about the killer and the killed.  Human beings artificially distort the cycle of life and death.  On a visit to a temple, we saw goats, garlanded, with vermilion marks on their foreheads, being led to the sacrificial post for slaughter.  Down the years, this sight has disgusted many.  When my wife asked a priest, he shrugged philosophically and replied, “It is the goat’s destiny.”  That’s not quite true, not if we go back to the roots of the notion of बली. There is no need to quote the Sanskrit unnecessarily.  3.10 of Bhagavad Gita, as translated in Bhagvad Gita As It Is”, states, “In the beginning of creation, the Lord of all creatures sent forth generations of men and demigods , along with sacrifices for Vishnu, and blessed them by saying, “Be though happy by this yajna (sacrifice) because its performance will bestow upon you all desirable things.”  (The words demigods and Vishnu don’t occur in the Sanskrit.)

But I have digressed a lot.  As I said in the last piece too, the fetish over food and diet is misleading.  (In an earlier piece, I mentioned Vishvamitra’s story also.)  Our goal is to slice away the external and the transient and focus on the internal and the permanent.