Though no country in the world is as strongly associated with vegetarianism as India, a number of recent studies have purported to establish that by far the greater majority of Indians are non-vegetarians. The history of vegetarianism in India begins not with the Aryans, as is commonly believed by Hindus, but in the aftermath of the introduction of Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century BCE. Though orthodox Hindus are shocked to hear it, the early Aryans were almost certainly beef-eaters. Unlike the Indus Valley people, who were agriculturists and traders, the Aryans were a pastoral people, and they slaughtered cattle as food. Neither the early Indus Valley people nor the early Aryans venerated the cow. Though the Buddha was an exponent of ahimsa, or non-violence, he was not himself a vegetarian, and it is said that his last meal contained pork. Nonetheless, given the Buddhist emphasis on ahimsa, vegetarianism received much impetus. The Buddha’s slightly older contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of the religion that would come to be known as Jainism, took the precepts of ahimsa much further, and it is the complete reverence for all forms of life that made it impossible for those who embraced Jainism to practice agriculture. The upper castes, who found members of their community deserting the "Hindu" fold for Buddhism or Jainism, increasingly came to adopt vegetarianism.

In 1977, the Marxist historian R. S. Sharma, then Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Delhi University, published his textbook Ancient India. He wrote that the ancient Aryans were beef-eaters, adding in explanation that "it is because of the prominence of pastoral life that beef-eating prevailed in Vedic times." He maintained that long after agriculture had commenced, the practice of beef-eating continued among certain classes of people, especially "artisans and agricultural labourers". Sharma had said nothing exceptional, and the weight of much Indological scholarship was behind his work; even the staunchly Hindu nationalist writer, K. M. Munshi, had once noted, without a trace of embarrassment, that "in spite of Jainism and Buddhism, fish and meat, not excluding beef, were consumed extensively by the people." Yet Sharma’s remarks were construed as conveying his advocacy of non-vegetarianism, and particularly beef-eating; and so Sharma was charged with deliberately offending the sentiments of orthodox Hindus among whom the consumption of beef cannot be contemplated. A local Hindu leader demanded the "immediate banning of Prof. R. S. Sharma’s Ancient India" for his references to beef-eating in Vedic India. While more than ably defended by professional historians and much of the print media, Professor Sharma’s supporters appear not to have understood that the anxieties his remarks had raised were not to be resolved solely by recourse to an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ history. It is often a thin line that divides Hindus from Indian Muslims, and a beef-eating Hindu, by virtue of the transgression implied in the act, can be inferred to have become akin to a Muslim. If a circumcised penis remained one of the few ways to distinguish Hindu and Muslim men during the horrendous killings accompanying the partition, the all-consuming anxiety over beef-eating is better understood. Where substantive differences are minimal, and certainly subservient to common cultural practices, symbols are the preeminent way in which differences are exaggerated in order to permit the drawing of boundaries.

It is no exaggeration to say that for some Indians, their vegetarianism is itself their dharma. Doubtless, there are many communities where the consumption of meat or fish is very common. This is true, for instance, of people living in the coastal states, such as Kerala and West Bengal, and the entire west coast of India, as well as Bengal, is renowned for its seafood dishes. Among Muslims, as well, the consumption of meat is very common, and in finer cuisines associated with Muslims, meat dishes often predominate. In north India, among Punjabis, chicken and mutton (goat-meat) dishes are relished. Nonetheless, the perception of India as a paradise for vegetarian food is not entirely mistaken, whatever the statistics and anthropology texts may have to say about this matter. There are communities, for instance Jainas and Vaishnava Hindus, where vegetarianism is strictly observed, but millions of other Indians are vegetarians as well. Even in many Indian families where meat is consumed, it is done no more frequently than one day a week, usually on a Sunday afternoon. For many other families, meat — again, usually chicken or mutton — is partaken three or four times a year, most often at weddings.

The history of vegetarianism in India, however, goes well beyond the history of specific food practices in regional communities. Vegetarianism is also a matter of sensibility, of the ethos of a culture. Orthodox Hindus and Jainas, for instance, do not use garlic or onions in their cooking, much less have raw onions in their salad. Clearly, this prohibition has no relation to the taking of life, but every relation to the properties ascribed to various foods. Certain foods are ‘hot’, others are ‘cold’; foods are also categorized according to their supposed internal propensity to excite the passions. Whatever the medicinal properties of onions and garlic, these foods are believed to be base in some respects; more significantly, both onions and garlic give out strong smells, and it is argued, not unreasonably, that consumption of these items obfuscates the richer and softer tastes and smells associated with vegetables. Similarly, it is common to find in middle class families in north and central India women who do not partake of meat, fish, or eggs, though the men in their families do so. The consumption of meat is sometimes associated with masculinity, or with the violent conduct to which men are more often prone: to eat an animal is to turn oneself into an animal as well. Though this formulation may not describe precisely the views of Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps India’s most famous exponent of vegetarianism, it is unequivocally clear that Gandhi sought to draw a close association between the practice of vegetarianism and the observance of non-violence, understood both as the renunciation of violence and positively as conduct leading to the good of others. Gandhi attached great importance to diet, and argued vigorously that vegetarianism was more conducive to a life led according to the precepts of ahimsa. In this manner, as in many others, Gandhi had tapped on to beliefs widely shared in India.

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