The morally superior position of the supposedly caste-less vegetarians in twenty-first-century urban India is more derived from an aesthetic that neatly combines Brahmanism and environmentalism than any effort towards sustainability or ecological concern.
An exceptional feature of Brahminism is its ability to distance its variants from its more pervasive self. From claiming merit to be independent of historical privilege to insisting that vegetarianism is a sustainable choice rather than a function of the casteist notions of purity and pollution, its faculty to forge consensus for supposedly caste-free liberal ideologies is disconcerting.
While the fad of being fashionably sustainable rages on, the problematic environmentalism of privileged urban India is hard to ignore. The construction of vegetarianism as an environmentally responsible lifestyle cannot be viewed in isolation but must be analysed in tandem with Brahmanism and internalised casteism.
With marginalised groups being butchered on the mere suspicion of having consumed meat (beef, in particular), the urban ‘upper’ caste eccentricity for compassionate environmentalism is flippant at best and malicious at worst. It is more important now than ever to weed out this brand of environmentalism, with casteist sections eager to capitalise on this, true environmentalism has become an unwitting ally.
Fashionable environmental activism focuses on reform at a personal level rather than a call for systemic change. This has allowed Brahmanism to conveniently position Hindu vegetarianism as an ecologically conscious practice. Through an efficient conversion of Brahminism into activism and by parading the food culture of a privileged minority as a sustainable lifestyle option, the omnipresent brahminical hegemony has extended its tentacles into the spheres of conservation, sustainability and environmentalism.
The linkage between Brahmanism and vegetarianism is not a neoteric hypothesis but is being actively investigated by academics and substantiated through research. Dietary customs were integral to the formation of the caste system and are indispensable to their propagation today.
Indian vegetarianism results from taboo and disgust towards meat and meat-eaters, rather than concern for environmentalism. A culture that wittingly submits to the antiquated and outrightly off-putting ritual consumption of gaumutra (cow urine) that chooses to discriminate the meat-eater as ‘polluted’ reflects the deep-rooted effects of casteism, internalised to the extent it is now subconscious.
The idea that Hindu vegetarianism is derived from its ideal of ahimsa (non-violence) is not justified since vegetarianism is almost exclusive to the ‘upper’ castes. At the same time, the Kshatriyas (warrior castes) are even encouraged to eat meat to do their duties. Suppose ahimsa as a tenet of Hinduism were the religious-ethical basis for vegetarianism; in that case, we still need to observe how vegetarianism is not a pan-Hindu practice. It is caste exclusive.
The Vedas do propose minimal violence towards animals, but these texts were only accessible to the Brahmins and the ‘lower’ castes were prohibited from even learning the language on the penalty of death. How then does Hinduism advocate for non-violence when it reserves its wisdom only for the privileged few?
Does it then follow that the ahimsa adhering, non-violent Brahmins are inherently more compassionate than meat-eaters? Shouldn’t one be given the chance to choose compassion?
The Dalit culinary tradition is a story of historical repression and lack of access to food. The meat was and remains unaffordable to a large majority of the Dalit people. The ‘upper’ castes restrict access and deny food to the ‘lower’ castes while simultaneously shaming them for consuming what is available. This entrapment creates a form of social exclusion that is paradoxical.
How do we define violence? Is not the caste system the worst form of violence? Brahminical hegemony is such that the very victims of this violence are presented as its worst offenders.
The ‘upper’ caste predilection for vegetarian fare must not be confused for any culturally sanctioned or traditionally encouraged love for animals but is a result of ingrained notions of purity and pollution and superiority and inferiority.
Brahminism found an unparalleled opportunity in the emerging trend of sustainable vegetarianism. By capitalising on this, the narrative of sustainable vegetarianism appears to have lent itself seamlessly to help give Brahminism its 21st-century makeover.
In contrast to Western vegetarianism, which is adopted through hard self-restraint and lifestyle changes, Hindu vegetarianism is largely ascribed at birth or adopted with intentions of upward social mobility. For example, traditionally meat-consuming families opt for vegetarian meals during occasions involving Brahmanical rituals such as weddings and house-warming ceremonies. A rise in class status enables them to observe these rituals and in doing so they inadvertently adhere to Brahmanical notions of ‘purity’ which is imperative to the success of any holy affair.
The very commonly followed norm of avoiding meat on ‘holy’ days is evidence of Hindu vegetarianism being a function of Brahminical; and not environmental concerns.
Altruism, compassion and ecological concerns are frivolous terms not brought up until they can be used to hide the casteist origins of their vegetarianism or to guilt-trip meat-eater.
Vegetarianism is fast gaining popularity among the younger population, who are keen on becoming ecologically responsible. Still, from separate plates and dining halls to the terms ‘pure-veg’ and ‘non-veg’ (which implies that vegetarianism is the default), you can dig out the deeply entrenched casteism in the politics of food.
However, for an increasingly politically aware generation with Politically Correct tastes, such blatant discrimination and social exclusion are unpalatable. The narrative of sustainable vegetarianism among already vegetarian upper-caste communities is a way to suppress the subconscious guilt while retaining caste traditions in a polished, twenty-first century ‘woke’ avatar.
The Indian chapter of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which advocates veganism and vegetarianism, has vague references to global statistics, which do not apply to the Indian social reality. Given the organisation’s reputation for grandstanding and fabrication of facts, its argument is also logically flawed since neither the Indian animal-husbandry nor the fishing industries can be compared to the mechanised ones of the West. It is also a recognised fact that meat is the basis of the nutritional security of the country. Indian society cannot survive a total shift to vegetarianism, not practically nor culturally.
PETA’s import of a vegan/vegetarian eco-conscious lifestyle without making the requisite culture appropriate adjustments is symptomatic of a privileged class, obsessed with redemption through soft non-controversial stances without questioning the overarching social hierarchy that grants them the said privilege.
The discussion around vegetarianism and environmentalism needs to be more nuanced and sensitive than it presently is. Peddling vegetarianism to the people as a sustainable lifestyle without recognising its casteist implications is an ignorance allowed only by privilege.
Brahminism’s ability to morph parts of it into liberal-progressive ideas like meritocracy and environmentalism through only a subtle tweak in its rhetoric makes it harder to distinguish casteist practices from genuine environmentalist praxis.
Imposing a minority lifestyle on the gastronomically diverse population of India, and naming its sustainability, is intentional erasure of DBA (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi) culture while claiming the moral superiority of being environmentally responsible. While the case for ethical and environmental vegetarianism rages on, caste as a factor cannot be ignored, at least in the Indian context.
Sobhana is a student of the social sciences who likes to cook and play with her cats when not mulling about politics.
B. R. Ambedkar’s Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men: An Annotated Critical Edition