Monday, March 4, 2013

Beef? No Thanks.. For Now...

When I am out eating with my American friends, it is quite often that they end up ordering vegetarian food; the more informed ones wouldn't go all vegetarian, but would stay off the beef. A question has always stayed within me; since when did we stop eating beef and start being Hindu with respect to the faith that we follow.

When Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French jeweler, traveled to India for buying precious stones, he found it difficult to maintain his cuisine. He found that in large villages governed by Muslim governors, it was possible to find sheep, fowl and pigeons for sale; but in the ones populated with Hindu merchants, or Baniyas, those stores were limited. Pietro della Valle had grumbled, “I found much trouble in reference to my diet … as these Indians are extremely fastidious in edibles, there is neither flesh nor fish to be had amongst them; one must be contented only with Rice, Butter, or Milk, and other such inanimate things.”(Tavernier, Travels, I; Valle, The Travels, p. 294.) Tavernier and Valle would have been happy today with the fine dining options available.

For the Hindus of sixteenth - seventeenth century, there was a taboo associated with the consumption of beef. Beef consumption was considered vile and vulgar. It was regarded as a low thing. But this had not always been the case. The ancient Ayurvedic documents discussed the qualities of beef. They also warned of it's difficult to digest nature. Beef broth was considered a medicine for emaciation and was suggested as a diet to people with active lifestyle.(Chattopadhyaya, Tradition of Rationalist Medicine in Ancient India: Case for a Critical Analysis of the Caraka-saṃhitā, pp. 212-213) Cattle was also apparently used as sacrifice to the Gods.(Jha, The Myth of Holy Cow). The use of cattle meat reduced over the centuries; India was transforming into an agrarian economy, cows and bulls were increasingly being used as drought animals and farmers were reluctant to slaughter them. Another reason for the slow but steady deviation from meat eating was the emergence of Buddhism. 

The courtly cuisine of the then Hindu kings of tenth to twelfth century wasn't devoid of meat. But that comes in some later post.

Historically we haven't been non-beef eaters. We ate beef and used it in rituals. But the beauty of Hinduism lies in its plasticity. With time, economy and new beliefs, we did get rid of eating something that had some better use. The clever brahmins made it into a taboo thus enforcing the apparent need into a belief.

The question today is if we still need this taboo. I say no, and the brand of Hinduism I follow can do without it (others are entitled to their own opinions). Over the centuries, we may get over this one and would add new ones. Being too rigid isn't being Hindu; hope that transcends into our culinary culture and hope that culinary culture brings forth newer and more delectable ways for us to express ourselves.

Note: The text above is my own interpretation of history and every single person has his/her right to interpret in his/her own way. But it is not intended to hurt anyone's fragile sentiments.