Politics of food: Practice, not texts, determines Hinduism

It seems that the marginalized castes in Indian society have accepted the hegemony of the upper castes in many cultural matters, including that of food consumption

Vegetarianism in India is a largely an upper caste practice and many of the marginalized castes eat meat as part of their diet. Photos: iStock

The notion of India as a ‘Hindu nation’ is something that will be resisted but Hinduism (on its own) is not a faith that can impose tenets.

Wisdom has it that it is not a religion but a ‘way of life’, but it is not even a single way of life. The term ‘Hindu’ refers to a space and it was used first to denote a people by outsiders. It is only the religions with exclusive identities — like the Judeo-Christian ones —that made those outside their fold define themselves as ‘Hindu’. In fact, in the 19th century, reformist Hinduism, like the Brahmo Samaj, tried to incorporate elements from Christianity into it. If Hindu practices vary widely across different groups, the inconsistencies should not be seen as an occasion for wit (as Wendy Doniger does) but a matter of pride — since it came out of millennia of social negotiations.

With the Hindu identity becoming more important among those who call themselves Hindus, there is evidently a need for Hinduism to be inclusive. Those like the Adivasis, once outside it, need to be accommodated. By all logic, what is called Hinduism today in India is an amalgam of Vedic practices and pre-Vedic ones once associated with the Harappan civilizations as well as those of invaders without an exclusive identity (like the Kushans, Sakas) incorporated into it. There are also the practices of the North-East where a different migration from Burma took place in ancient times.

An instance of accommodation that Hinduism came out of would be the making of the Buddha an avatar of Vishnu; Hinduism accommodates not because it is tolerant (i.e., that tolerance is one of its tenets) but because it defeats definition. Any attempt to distil an ‘essence’ out of Hinduism in effect becomes the hegemony of one group within it striving for control, and the hegemony is usually that of the upper castes.

Who is a true Hindu?

If Hinduism is a set of practices rather than a faith that imposes the practices, it makes little sense to search its texts to determine what is ‘true Hinduism’, i.e. ‘what the religion prescribes’. An instance could be teaching the Bhagavad Gita compulsorily in schools because it is ‘an essential component of Hinduism’.

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A couple of years ago, a section of the Lingayats in Karnataka sought to demarcate themselves as ‘non-Hindus’ and that was resisted by Hindu nationalists. But the fact remains that the Lingayats do not concede that either the Gita or the Vedas are ‘essential’ to their sect, which draws from the teachings of a 12th-century social reformer Basaveshwara. If they have to be kept within the Hindu fold, the Gita cannot be imposed. It is important that the imposition of any text will be contrary not only to ‘secularism’ but also, ironically, to making India a ‘Hindu nation’ since the Hindu identity must include groups like the Lingayats. And, if there are 33 million gods in Hinduism, all of them cannot be officially named and sanctioned.

This brings us to the issue of food; whether certain kinds of food can be prevented from being eaten in a ‘Hindu nation’ because it is ‘un-Hindu’. We must once again reiterate the argument already made that since there is no ‘authoritative text’ unifying all people who are taken to be Hindu today, we need not even look to any text for guidance but only at the practices prevailing. Whatever is practiced among any sizeable segment of people deemed to be Hindu within the populace is legitimate Hindu practice. The very fact that there are large areas in India where no laws pertaining to the killing of cows have been enforced by the ruling party means that consuming beef by people – Hindu or otherwise — is considered legitimate. Vegetarianism in India is largely an upper-caste practice and many of the marginalised castes eat meat as part of their diet. Beef is one of the cheapest meats available and we may presume that it is widely eaten by the poor of every religion.

If there is a move to stop beef from being eaten, it is not a conflict between Hindus and non-Hindus, but between beef-eaters and non-beef-eaters, with Hindus probably being a fair segment in the latter category. Any restrictive practices in food consumption will not only affect non-Hindus but also Hindus. There are accounts in ancient texts like the epics that beef was ceremonially eaten on occasions. But I am not invoking them —since I have argued that what is present in Hindu texts is not relevant to practice —if all people who are deemed Hindu in India should have their traditions respected. Only practice can determine what is ‘Hindu’.

Food habits and caste

‘Hindu unity’ presumes that one section of Hindus will not impose their sentiments on the others. Mandating restrictions on food consumption within India with religion as the argument, is widely seen as a move by Hindu nationalists. But, it should logically have had the consequence of dividing Hindus into jati (caste) lines — since food habits are associated with caste. Political groups have relied on caste affiliations, which means that restrictive practices in food consumption — like meatless days on religious occasions — should have also invited the ire of political groups with Hindu followings and not only seen as a Hindu-Muslim conflict.

A question that could be asked is why political groups with (say) Dalit members have not taken a stand on food; why they have not attacked it for being upper caste hegemony – which it is. The only answer that suggests itself is that the marginalized castes in Indian society have accepted the hegemony of the upper castes in many cultural matters, including that food consumption. Even if their own practices differ from them, they still hesitate to make that admission publicly. The term ‘Brahminical’ is widely but loosely used today; but food habits do seem a ‘Brahminical’ imposition.

(MK Raghavendra is the author of The Hindu Nation: A Reconciliation with Modernity, Bloomsbury, 2021)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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