Does Food Have a Religion?

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Coming to terms with culinary Hinduism

FOOD IS CENTRAL to the ancient Vedic texts. The creation hymn of the Rigveda (10.90.4) divides all things into those that eat and those that do not eat (or are the eaten). ‘Food and eaters of food, that’s all there is’ (Satapatha Brahmana It is part of every rite of passage—thread ceremony, weddings, sixtieth birthdays, funerals, death anniversaries, and so on. Food links the ascetic, the sadhu, with common folk through the ritual of begging for alms and the subsequent giving and receiving of food. What one is permitted to eat and with whom, how much one should eat, from whom one can accept food, how food is to be prepared, and when one can eat are all central everyday questions governing the hierarchy of the caste system, appearing in the legal literature of the dharmasastra. Since about 80 per cent of Indians are Hindus, the question that comes to mind is this: is there a Hindu way of engaging with food?

In 1976,anthropologist RS Khare wrote a monograph entitled Culture and Reality. In the introduction, he says that his initial impulse had been to write about food among Hindus; he wanted to conduct a cultural analysis on how eating practices were reconciled with what people said and what their ideology suggested. But he realised two things: the vast diversity of the subject, and the discrepancy between ‘what people say they do and what they actually do on the one hand, and what they think about this discrepancy and how they relate it to their system of ideology on the other.’ So Khare decided to focus on the cultural taxonomy of how Hindus handled food in some North Indian states. Here are his observations about the general attributes of a Hindu way of dealing with food.

First, the Hindu ‘food cycle’ is neither regional nor caste specific; it involves ritual, social, economic, medical and nutritional elements. These are interconnected: what you eat determines what you are, defines what you will be, demarcates your social position and your spiritual aspirations. Second, the production and consumption of food among Hindus is ultimately kept subservient to divine forces—a characteristic, he says, that is consistent with the Hindu conception of human affairs in general. Third, the Hindu system takes the production of food for granted and focuses more on the consumption of food. This means that there is no collective effort in producing food and in the distribution and consumption. Individuals (and small groups) transact food in relation to individuals, not to a collective. This translates into a weak shared moral code, which he says, might explain why the Hindu is ‘harsh and unyielding as a grain dealer, although he may be found generously engaged in conducting annadanam (a gift of grain) on an auspicious occasion.’

However, as Sanskritist Patrick Olivelle points out, it is hard to say that there is a single food ideology that can be termed Hindu and remains constant across time, region and sects. This is something we, in the 21st century, can agree on. Take the production of food. In recent years, particularly in the metropolis, there has been a shift in the way citizens deal with the production of food. More than any other era, we are connected to the global world through the revolution in telecommunications. Social media (YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Email, Facebook, WhatsApp and so on) has created pathways to connect friends and strangers from different cultures, nationalities and ethnicities. There are hundreds of millions of mobile phone users in India. So, it is not surprising that ideas about the production of food too have diffused between continents. The emphasis on organic food, urban gardening, terrace and balcony kitchen gardens are all part of this movement. For instance, Bangalore’s horticultural department is promoting kitchen gardening in urban areas; about 10 per cent of the terraces in Bangalore have such gardens. The demand for organic produce is from the professional middle-class (with incomes between $4,000-$20,000 per year), but it is still not as high as in the West. So in this context, Khare’s observation about the low emphasis on the production of food in the Hindu mode of thinking is still relevant.

Olivelle highlights a counterpoint to Khare’s reification of ‘Hindu’ in the article by Brian K Smith (1991): ‘Eaters, Food and Social Hierarchy in Ancient India: A dietary guide to a revolution in values’. The Vedic classification of reality into eaters and food, Smith argues, is a practical observation about the dog-eat-dog world, about the power inequalities between the big fish and the small fry. Vedic rituals were about winning this war by becoming the big fish rather than the eaten. Brahmins eat all those below them, while Kshatriyas eat the common folk, Vaisyas, but they may not eat Brahmins. Smith sees the changes in the food metaphors (the emphasis on purity, for example, rather than power) and the rise of vegetarianism at the end of the Vedic period (500 BCE) with the simultaneous emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, as the start of the rise in importance of asceticism.

If so, this is a very interesting development in two ways. First, it is a conceptual shift within Hinduism from associating meat-eating with power, to equating eating plants and grains with purity (though arguably power continues to pervade the issue). Second, the shift to vegetarianism and the importance given to asceticism is contrary to the move in other parts of the world, such as in Western philosophical writings (Nietzsche, Kant), where it is meat that provides strength and power.

The concept of a Hindu mode of engaging with food helps us understand the assumptions underpinning calls for vegetarianism in India. In November 2014, an organisation associated with the RSS sent a letter to the Central Government that only vegetarian food be served to students in IIT, and this letter along with 20 others, was forwarded to the IITs by the Government, which asked them to consider separate eating areas. The letter was written by SK Jain, a trader and an RSS member from Madhya Pradesh, who said that eating non-vegetarian food was part of the West’s influence on India. ‘Non-vegetarian food is not part of Indian culture...children who eat non-vegetarian food have saddened their parents by their ‘tamasic’ (inertia-inducing) behaviour. They are deviating from the Indian value system because food has a direct correlation with their thoughts.’ Several of these statements are factually incorrect. Beef was consumed in Vedic times, and later too by Brahmins. An ancient medical text dating from 5 BCE, the Charaka Samhita, has a verse in a chapter on food: ‘the flesh of cows, buffaloes and hogs, should not be eaten daily’; and the author recommends beef for pregnant women to strengthen the foetus. The Brahmana of the Yajur Veda list different ceremonies which require the meat of cattle for their performance, and the type of cattle to be sacrificed (a red cow to Rudra, a barren cow to Vishnu and Varuna, and so on). In Food and Drinks in Ancient India, R Mitra points out that the only restriction on a pious Hindu while purchasing meat was that he had to offer a portion of it, after dressing it, to the gods, guests, or beggars, which sufficed to accomplish a yagna. The mischievous killing of cattle is included among secondary offences, and expiation for it is comparatively slight as compared to the heinous crime of killing a Brahmin.

Notwithstanding these inaccuracies, the letter is interesting in two ways: it demonstrates Khare’s ‘Hindu style of thinking’; and it highlights the conceptual element of seeing food in terms of the principles it represents: for example, meat produces inertia in children.

A Hindu mode of thinking, Khare points out, recognises reality (or practice) as an integral part of thought, but also makes actual (external) existence of objects only an extension of the primary conceptual principles. So a physically existing substance like food is conceived only in terms of the major principles (or meanings) it represents and its external physical existence is not given any independent validity. For instance, in prasaadam, the thought is concerned only with divine grace (kripa); in anna daan, it is the thought of the daan (the giving) that commands other characteristics; and in cow dung, it is the representation of the divine principle through parts and products of the sacred cow that is in focus.

But as we saw earlier, there isn’t just one Hindu mode of thinking about food. The association between a food concept (vegetarian) and a value system (Indian) by the Hindu Right organisations collides with ancient practices of non-vegetarianism and the continuing ideas held by a majority of Indians. A 1993 study by the Anthropological Survey of India revealed that 88 per cent of Indians are non-vegetarian. A 2006 survey by CSDS revealed that only 31 per cent of Indians are vegetarian (and only 21 per cent for families where all members are vegetarian). In fact, 8 per cent of the Christians surveyed were vegetarian. A National Statistical Sample survey on household consumption in 100,000 households in 2011-12 shows that as people get richer, they consume more meat, fish, eggs and nutrient-rich food. The consumption of meat and fish has risen from 1 kg per capita in 2004 to 2.5 kg per capita in 2014, and is expected to almost double in 2023.

More recently, The Hindu newspaper banned the entry of ‘non-veg’ lunches to its canteen. These clashes of value systems within Hinduism are not new, but the entry of globalisation through technological connections may be a game changer. The only thing we can be sure of is that whatever emerges will be part of the Hindu mode of thinking about food.