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Vegetarianism, India’s gift to the world

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Maneka Gandhi Column

Maneka Gandhi Column

Maneka Gandhi*

I am reading an interesting book sent to me from a PFA member in Canada: The Bloodless Revolution, A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times by Tristan Stuart. What this erudite and well researched book proves again and again is that the concept of vegetarianism as a way of life was gifted to the world by India and that every philosopher who propagated it from Pythagoras onwards learnt it from our country.

Vegetarianism is such a simple concept. But the West always equated it with eating bread and water only, fasting, nut cutlets, losing huge amounts of weight, eschewing alcohol, and never telling lies…. In short, a monastic, puritanical, severe life without any joy in it. Which is why, it was seen as crazy. It took centuries of foreign visits to India for the rest of the world to realize that you could live a life of great comfort, health and laughter without killing every other species. Once people understood, many travellers carried the philosophy back to their countries. This is the story that the book attempts to tell. How wonderful that we should have taught man how to live in harmony and how truly terrible that we have strayed so far from our own way of life that today we rejoice that we are the 4th largest meat exporter in the world, the largest leather producer and one of the three countries majorly responsible for global warming by our breeding of animals for milk and meat

An interesting part of the book was a short history of the Mughal rulers of India and how they adopted Indian customs.

When the Afghan invader Mohammad bin Ghaur came to northern India in the 12th century he was given the title of mleccha, a beef eating barbarian. A pun on his name made it Gori -foreigner or enemy of cows – Go as in cow and ari as in enemy, eater of foul foods. The culture clash became serious and later Mughals realized the benefits of bowing to local dietary demands. Babar was the first Mughal to rule undivided India. Humayun, his son, was the second Mughal Emperor who ruled present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India. He lost his kingdom early to Sher Shah Suri, but with Persian aid, he eventually regained an even larger one. On the eve of his death in 1556, the Mughal Empire spanned almost one million square kilometres. His peaceful personality, patience and gentle speech earned him the title Insan-i-Kamil.

Plotting his revenge, Humayun cut down on his use of opium, renounced alcohol, and even became a vegetarian for a year in order to purify himself for his conquest. When he returned in 1556, he learned about Hindu customs, especially regarding meat. He shunned beef in sympathy for his Hindu subjects.

His son, the emperor Akbar was immensely impressed with Jainism, specially the part about ahimsa. He issued edicts throughout his reign forbidding the killing of animals and fish and discouraging meat eating for upto six months of the year. He renounced hunting, abstained from eating meat most of the year, and officially limited the days on which animals could be slaughtered. Such legislation had not been seen since Emperor Ashok’s rock edicts of the 3rd century. His official chronicler Abu’l Fazl ‘Allami writes in the Ain-I-Akbari, ” His majesty has a great dis-inclination for flesh and he frequently says Providence has prepared a variety of food for man, but through ignorance and gluttony, none seem to have an eye for the beauty inherent in the prevention of cruelty, he destroys living creatures, and makes his body a tomb for beasts. If I were not a king, I would leave off eating flesh at once and now it is my intention to quit it by degrees.” Akbar‘s favourite food was Khichri (rice and lentils) with curd and it was made every day. Akbar went to remark “Blood is the principal of life. To avoid eating thereof is to honour life.” Indologist and biographer of Akbar, Vincent Smith notes: “Akbar’s action in abstaining almost wholly from meat and in issuing stringent prohibitions, resembling those of Asoka, restricting to the narrowest limit the destruction of animal life, certainly was taken in obedience to the doctrine of his Jaina teachers.” Akbar wrote and promulgated his Divine Faith (Din-I-Ilahi) that suggested a rational and ethical mysticism .The goal was union of the soul with God, and the ethics called for giving charity, sparing animals, permitting widows to remarry, and prohibiting child marriage, incest and forced sati. Beef was forbidden. Akbar declared firmans (royal decrees) banning the killing of animals during the four month Jain festivals of Paryusana and Mahavir Jayanti. During a hunt in 1578, Akbar experienced divine revelations: his attendants told him that “the beasts of the forest had with a tongueless tongue imparted divine secrets to him… he in thanksgiving for this great boon set free many thousands of animals. Active men made endeavour that no one should touch the feather of a finch and that they should allow all the animals to depart according to their habit.” Akbar’s son and successor Jehangir praised his father publicly for doing without meat for nine months of the year calling his vegetarian food “Sufi food”. Jehangir issued his own firmans continuing the practice. Jehangir continued Akbar’s abstention, and even added Thursday for fasting. In 1618 he went against all the mores of his times and took a vow to stop hunting and “to injure no living thing with my own hand.” One of Akbar and Jehangir’s favourite imperial icons was the image of the wolf and the lion in peaceful company with the lamb and the ox.

Shah Jehan came to power in 1628 and while little is known about his diet, he had his throne in Red Fort, Delhi embellished with semi precious stones depicting Orpheus charming animals with his music. How strange that he should choose Greek mythology’s pre eminent vegetarian!

Shah Jehan’s son Aurangzeb ascended the throne in 1658 and is known for his strict adherence to Islamic practices and his distaste for local religion. Few people know that he became a strict vegetarian eating “nothing that has enjoyed life.” He ate only vegetables and sweetmeats.  He drank water from Ganga river, ate Khichri, and bread made from Jowar and Bajra. During Aurangzeb’s reign, the imperial kitchens developed a ‘Khichri Alamgiri’ named after Aurangzeb himself. .Read the book and see India’s glorious heritage. Anyone can be violent. It takes true wisdom to be non violent.

About the author: Maneka Gandhi is a parliamentarian and animal welfare movement leader in India. You may contact her at gandhim@nic.in

 

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  • G. Srinivasan

    Kudos to a person who has the courage to stem the inculcated feelings and practices of thousands of years. It is the only way the world can progress in the future if holistic phenomena is accepted as real. It is. It is mathematically proved.

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