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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

Mainstream should promote Scholarship and Analysis over Unexamined Judgements

Saturday 24 September 2016


The headline “Why Vegetarianism is Anti-National” [by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd in Mainstream (August 27, 2016) pp.11-13] is catchy. If the intent of the article was to incite visceral reaction, it served its purpose. But if the object of the article was to appeal to reason, especially at a time when the Hindutva madness has descended upon the country, it fell flat. Let me try by touching on some aspects of the article.

The article says: “A nation’s strength is dependent on the knowledge potential of the young people, more than the physical energy that the ‘yoga school’ is talking about.” In the India I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, no non-parochial primary, middle or high school included yoga in its curriculum. Yoga was thought to lean towards Hinduism, a feature that made it objectionable for inclusion in a secular system of education. Here in the United States, where I am based for nearly 25 years, I observe yoga being aggressively included in the curriculum by secular schools across the country. Yoga, as any scholar would know, owes it origin principally to the Sankya and Sraman philosophical schools of Indian thought—both of which reject the idea of a creator, God. Its wholesale exclusion in post-independence India from education on the unexamined theory of identification with Hinduism made us, several generations of Indians, deprived of deep and sublime secrets of a good life, which secrets go well beyond “physical energy” that Mr Shepherd makes reference to. Indeed, yoga has more to do with the “knowledge potential of the young” that Mr Shepherd says India needs more than “physical energy” because yoga appears to train the mind even as it does the body that carries it.

He then goes on to say: “...in India, mostly the Brahmin, Baniyas and Jains (who are also Baniyas) eat several varieties of vegetarian curries...” Jains are not automatically “Baniyas”. Indeed, all their 24 fordmakes (“Tirthankars”) were Kshatriyas and the adherents to the path shown by them came from all sections of the society, including Kshatriyas like me whose forefathers were warriors, even as many of them migrated to commerce in peace times. He adds: “Even if they are not fed with egg, meat, beef, their body and mind growth would not suffer much.” (emphasis added) The idea that vegetarians suffer because they are vegetarians has no evidentiary basis. Indeed, Jains credit the vegetarian diet to the birth of agriculture which made it redundant to kill in order to live healthy. Unsurprisingly, traditional vegetarians have developed sophisticated know-how on how to stay healthy in mind and body. Some say that even prior to the invention of agriculture, most of our human ancestors were principally vegetarians. See, for instance, the following recent article in the Scientific American, among many others: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/human-ancestors-were-nearly-all-vegeta-rians/ Among animals, the strongest (elephant), fastest (horse or deer), and most productive (cattle and other livestock) are vegetarians.

The article contains an endless series of judg-mental statements, some of which can be considered offensive. Castigating certain propon-ents of vegetarian food choices, it says: “They never studied the impact of these campaigns in a country of superstition, idol worship and Brahminism.” Characterising India in such terms appears misplaced. If the author has a problem with idol worship, for instance, as he is entitled to have and express, he might consider a different subject for his article. But the connection to vegetarianism is at best remote, and at worst profoundly jaundiced. He goes on: “The Hindu food culture’s role must be under-stood in comparison with Chinese, Japanese and Euro-American food cultures, their economic strength and intellectual power. India, as of now, cannot match them in any discoverable knowledge.” The sentence is a piece with the rest of the article in implying that vegetarianism is responsible for India’s lack of economic strength, intellectual power, discoverable knowledge, mental and physical energy, weakness, defeat from Middle Easterners and Europeans. According to the author, vegetarianism will “surrender this country to more energetic, more imaginative and more creative forces”. Food choices the world over have come about as a result of a complex interplay of ecology, environment and culture. India, for instance, has been blessed with an ecology, terrain and climate more suited to agriculture than those living in Middle Eastern deserts. It seems logical that those in the deserts would probably not survive if they were vegetarians. In short, it is wild to make judgments about food choices without considering many aspects.

Having said that, it goes without saying that Mr Shepherd is perfectly entitled to his views, but one hopes Mainstream promotes scholarship and analysis over unexamined judgments. Mainstream perhaps wants to make sure that minority points of views are heard. But India is comprised of many minorities and one hopes Mainstream is mindful that its readers also seek from Mainstream a scientific and secular temper grounded in analysis, scholarship and reason. Even as Hindutva is reprehensible, judgmental views are equally so.

Finally, the same issue of Mainstream also contains another article that seeks to assail the forces of Hindutva (“Antiquity of Bhaaarata”). Prof D.N. Jha would also do well to consult Jaina literature. Jains believe that the first “chakravarti” of modern times was Bhaarata, the son of Rishabh, the first Tirthankar. The name of India comes from his name, they believe. In Jaina literature, he will also find answers to some of the other issues he raises.

Jaipat Singh Jain

New York