Earlier this week, several news outlets reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan “refused to allow eggs to be included in free meals for malnourished children reportedly because of his belief in vegetarianism.” This would primarily impact low-income, tribal children whose communities do not necessarily adhere to upper-caste Hindu norms of vegetarianism. And not long ago, the Indian state of Maharashtra made it illegal to slaughter cows or sell beef.
These actions point to worrying trends in India about nutrition and food rights. Many of these actions emerge from the Hindu right, which seeks to promote vegetarianism. This is an especially dangerous idea, however, for a country in which 80 to 90 percent of the population is protein deficient. A whopping 99 percent of people in relatively rich Delhi are protein deficient, which demonstrates that the problem is not merely one of wealth, but of attitudes toward food.
In the case of eggs, there is no logic in the negative attitude towards them—as they are unfertilized—especially when compared with the positive attitude towards milk and dairy products (and honey) in Indian culture. All are equally the products of animals created without the slaughter of animals. Antiquated and unscientific notions that some foods influence the moods, morality, or personality of individuals are behind these taboos, but are derided by both modern nutritionists and many ancient Indians. And abstinence from meat is largely driven by notions of culture and purity rather than ethical reasons, as anyone who has seen the general treatment of animals in India knows.
And even among those Hindu norms, there is a large variation under the wide canopy of Hinduism. Many upper-caste Hindu communities including some Brahmin groups and the Rajputs are meat eaters, like 60 percent of all Indians: the majority. And obviously, a country as topologically diverse as India has many communities of sheepherders, goat-herders, and fishermen.
Advocating people’s right to eat whatever they want is only one aspect of solving this contentious issue. Hindus also need to change their attitude on meat. While vegetarianism can be a noble goal for sages and ascetics, it should not be advocated for the majority of the population. This is not to say India should have an industrial meat industry with all its ethical and health problems, like in the United States. Rather, meat should be consumed as a protein effective and tasty complement to vegetables and grains, like in East Asia. India’s curries, with their small portions of meat, work well with this scheme. Meat contributes to health problems in the United States but the lack of it contributes to health problems in India. These are different situations and the same scientific research cannot be applied universally to different societies.
In the great Hindu compendium of wisdom that is the Mahabharata, multiple characters are exhorted by no less than various sadhus and rishis to not renounce the pleasures of the world but to enjoy its riches and bounties in good measure for society to function smoothly. This includes, presumably, eating meat, since most of the characters were warriors and kings whose activities included hunting and fighting. And lower classes in India always ate meat for the most part. The Mahabharata also states that while vegetarianism is ideal, from the point of view of dharma, the strictures of dharma (righteousness) are flexible (or subtle) and take into account a variety of situations, and they specifically allow for the consumption of meat. Moreover, many Hindu deities eat meat and ancient Indian literature is full of references to meat-eating, though this gradually became more of a taboo over time. The great 19th century Hindu sage Swami Vivekananda advocated the consumption of meat, including beef, though this is not often mentioned by Hindu nationalists who otherwise hold him in high regard.
The intellectual basis is thus there within the Hindu tradition for meat eating, which does not necessarily need to be argued from only a secular perspective that could alienate some people on the Hindu right. This argument is not one for forcing people to eat meat if they don’t want to, but to delegitimize the taboo surrounding its consumption. A lesson here can be derived from the experienced of Japan, which until the Meiji Era also placed a strong taboo on the consumption of land animals. Like in India, this taboo was often ignored or flouted by various groups but still made the open, widespread consumption of meat difficult and somewhat secretive. Meat was often sold as “medicine.” The upper class samurai preferred to eat rice because “the warriors who had conquered the country with much shedding of human blood decided that the shedding of animal blood was beneath them.” However, to show their commitment to modernization, Japanese leaders began to promote meat after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. To encourage this, the Meiji Emperor himself publicly consumed meat (beef) on New Year’s Day in 1872, breaking a longstanding taboo and showing everyone in Japan that it was okay to do so.
Japan’s conservative, nationalist-led modernization has long been a subject of admiration in India among right-wing circles because it both changed and preserved aspects of Japanese culture on its own terms. India’s traditions too also provide allowances for the consumption of meat. Whatever or not an individual eats meat (or eggs) is no concern of the state but social taboos in India that influence policies should fade, especially as this would improve the nutrition of many Indians. Therefore, perhaps Indians should take a leaf from Japan and BJP leaders should publicly eat meat.