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Mainstream, VOL LX No 21, New Delhi, May 14, 2022

Food for consumption or food for power assertion? Lessons from Hindu philosophical tradition | Garima Mani Tripathi

Saturday 14 May 2022


by Garima Mani Tripathi

Food is the basic necessity for human survival. However, at times, it does migrate from an individual-cultural choice to socio-political platform, plagued by controversies and divisive opinions. The recent clashes over serving of non-vegetarian food on popular Hindu festival day in a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) hostel is a terse reminder as to how even a basic necessity like food can metamorphose into an ideological agenda. However, many scholars who are engaged in opinion-building exercises on such needless controversy perhaps miss out the ‘mundane manner’ in which food has been positioned in the Hindu philosophical tradition.

JNU has been known for raising voices about macro socio-political issues along with issues related to marginalised sections of the society, using competing ideologies as tools to sharpen the arguments. Past debates have been by and large accommodative and tolerant of competing views, though the environment has become more acrimonious in recent times. Rather than engaging in debate over macro issues like ‘food for all’ and poverty eradication’, the unfortunate clashes over particular food habits and choices came at a time when there is a larger societal and public policy understanding on respecting cultural context in which food is to be consumed. In raising the bogey over food preferences, the warring parties were guilty of ignoring the pan-India fabric of JNU and its own long tradition of respecting individual and societal food preferences.

The clashes over food raises certain philosophical questions. First, why should there be a clash over a mundane issue like food? Is food a ‘means’ to individual well-being or an end in itself so as to provoke violent clashes? In rational terms, the goodness of food or otherwise is exclusively determined by its nutritional value and taste buds apart from social choices and religious practices. However, in philosophical terms, food is considered as ‘material reality’ and source of all lives and energy (prana). Second, when does food migrate from ‘commodity’ to ‘idea’? When does food become a tool for identification between ‘my food’ and ‘other’s food’? And when does it get compartmentalised into ‘pure food’ and ‘impure food’? The answer to many such binaries lie in our inadvertent progression from individual to collective consciousness that often gets dictated by power elites. Additionally, many other factors guide societal thinking such as developmental take-off, democratic arrangement of society and polity, and above all, inter-subjective dialogue and communicative understanding as suggested by political philosophers such as Habermas. Third, how do we treat food in our daily-to-day life? While most of us treat it for consumption purposes and concurrently seek ‘hedonistic pleasures’ in the process, some of us treat food as ‘symbols to assert power’, often treating it as emotional tool in guiding our social conduct. That engenders space for politics and polemics like the recent JNU clashes!

To a great extent, the resolution to above philosophical dilemmas lie in reaching out to the Hindu philosophical tradition where enough has been written about the generic importance of food, including non-vegetarian food. To begin with, the Hindu Vedic tradition was not neutral to meat-eating. There were no specified food preferences in the karma or moksha philosophy and people were free to opt for volitional food preferences, including meat-eating. However, religious challenges from Buddhism and Jainism induced animal-friendly morality along with tolerance of non-violence as important philosophical proposition, best reflected in the rise of Vaishnavism within the Hindu fold. The subsequent composition of Dharmashashtra had as many as 86 shlokas exclusively promoting vegetarianism. At the same time, it did not out rightly discard meat-eating and indeed re-enforced sacrifices through animal slaughtering. In Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna expressed his willingness to accept anything as mundane as ‘leaf and flowers’ if offered with love and devotion. This became the very propelling factor for the Vaishnava sect in due course. Even Gandhiji, a devout Vaishnavite Hindu and proponent of non-violence, promoted vegetarianism as the very core philosophy of his Hindu way of life but was equally tolerant of non-vegetarians.

It emerges from the above discourse, therefore, that food (whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian) was never a core concern in the Hindu philosophical tradition. For instance, it would be important to recall the teachings of Upanishads and Vedantic literature (under renewed emphasis in contemporary period), wherein there are five vertical levels of existence (panchkoshas) in which annamaya kosha is at the lowest level and considered to be the coarsest amongst all. Concurrently, the idea of prasada (union of food with God) also originated that was to be offered and taken in the purest sense of the term. This trend led to the distinction between ‘pure food’ and ‘impure food’ in Vaishnavite tradition. However, as per Shaktism tradition, preferred offerings to Goddess were in the form of meat and accepted back as prasada. Thus, the very journey of ‘food’ underwent many turns and twists, showing that the Hindu social order was always accommodative of both sides of food tradition and, instead, focused its energies on larger issues of peace and tranquility (sarvam shantih).

The JNU clashes seems to be a contradiction in terms since the violent clashes took place in the name of promoting vegetarianism and taking shelter in the Hindu philosophy. There is no authoritative text in the Hindu philosophical tradition that gives undue importance to such pure food vs impure food, better known as vegetarian food vs non —vegetarian food. Those who indulged in violence perhaps miss out the accommodative spirit of Hindu religious teachings that treat mundane issues like food as ‘an individual choice’ and for meeting the ‘appetitive requirements of the body’. Under no circumstances, it is allowed to regulate social fabric or become a tool for regulating power relations. Perhaps we need to revisit our ancient thought again and be accommodative and tolerant of both types of food.

(Author: Dr Garima Mani Tripathi is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in Mata Sundri College of Women, University of Delhi).

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