Saturday, January 27, 2024



An abiding love for mythology can never be a bad thing and yet, somehow, we seem to have found a way to take something wonderful, toss it into the blender with faux Hindutva dogma, distort it past all recognition and use it to serve vested interests keen on divisive politics.

How did it come to this?

 For starters, everybody, it seems, is an expert after glancing through a book or two and listening with half-an-ear to granny’s tales, speed – reading a lengthy Whatsapp forward or having returned from a session with the friendly neighbourhood storyteller who likes to expound at length on Puranic lore while high on bhang. Considering themselves scholars who know everything there is to know about the veritable sea of obscure, oftentimes, contradictory facts that constitutes Indian mythology, uber-patriotic pests feel free to clump together and lynch or abuse those who are not infected with whatever it is that has turned their brains to mush and hearts to lead.

Nobody is exempt from the excesses of these modern-day rakshasas, but the so-called ‘evil eaters' of meat in general and beef in particular have been targeted with tragic results. While there is no denying that the cow is revered in Indian mythology, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that meat—any meat—was consumed with relish by the ancients, including the Brahmins. In fact, there is a tale from the Periya Puranam, which reveals how Shiva paid a visit to his devotee, Siruthondar, in disguise as a poor but haughty Brahmin and insisted that he must be served non-vegetarian (maamsam) cuisine. Being a poor man, who could not afford to buy any food let alone meat, the great man, slew his son, made his wife cook the choicest cuts and serve it. For this act of faith, which in this day and age would be considered to be the foulest kind of murder (rightly so), he received an express pass to partake of the vaunted delights of heaven and remains revered as one among the 63 Nyanmars. 

Sage Agastya, similarly, according to a tale from the Mahabharata, was a gourmand with a partiality for meat, and consumed the demon Vatapi, with great gusto. This rakshasa had a weird fetish for taking on the form of a goat, which his brother Ilvala would chop up and serve with misleading generosity to the Brahmins, some of whom would regularly bully their way into homes demanding 'maamsam' meals uncaring whether their unwilling hosts had the means to serve up such lavish feasts featuring meat as the main course. As for the rakshasa brothers hellbent on teaching the Brahmins a lesson, once the mutton had been greedily consumed, Vatapi would tear his way out from the entrails of the gluttonous Brahmins killing them instantly. They carried on this murderous sport for many years, till Agastya, famed for his iron constitution and superior powers of digestion put paid to their serial killer ways and prompted his fellow Brahmins to re-examine their dietary preferences.

 In fact, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that it was not till after the Bhakti movement believed to have taken place in Medieval times which saw a large-scale reformation and revival of Hinduism, that Brahmins adopted vegetarianism as a way of life. Prior to that it was the Jains and Buddhists who endorsed vegetarianism in the interests of upholding the rights of all living creatures, although by that logic plants should also be spared in this writer's opinion and we should all learn to subsist on love and not - so - fresh air.

 Chew on that for a bit before forming erroneous notions about how best to enforce the glories of a distant past that may or may not have even existed!

 If cannibalism in the case of Siruthondar and Agastya was not exactly frowned upon back in the day, then couldn’t there be a remote possibility that more than a few of the ancients especially revered beings born into the Kshatriya race had a partiality for meat? And surely, it is probable our famously compassionate gods would have partaken of the non - vegetarian fare offered to them in worship mainly because they cannot possibly be the jerks their extremist devotees clearly are?

 Recently, a furore was raised over the question of whether Rama ate meat. As a Kshatriyan Prince, it would appear to be in the affirmative. The warlike caste’s preferred pastime was hunting and since waste was the only thing that was considered a criminal offense in those days, it goes without saying that slain game was cleaned, cooked, consumed with the hide, claws, horns and every bit of the carcass stripped for parts to make sure that nothing went to waste. When Rama, Lakshmana and in a later age, the Pandavas, were sent into exile, they were allowed to take only their weapons and a basket into the forest so that they could live off the land using their skill as hunter gatherers. And it goes without saying that meat was part of their diet. However, insisting that the Princes subsisted solely on fruits, roots, nuts and berries which may have been included in their meals but not limited to it is pushing the limits of credibility. For all we know, even the fabled Akshaya Patra gifted to Yudhishtra by Surya, the Sun God might have produced a dish to delight the tastebuds of the true carnivore!

Some scholars point to a verse in Valmiki Ramayana where it is suggested that Rama took an oath with his mother, Kausalya, bearing witness that he would not touch meat for the duration of his exile. This is hardly definitive proof of anything because Valmiki’s Ramayana was never ever set in stone. Originally, narrated orally, the epic was verbally handed down for generations before written texts as we know it today emerged. The narrative must surely have undergone many changes over the eons in keeping with ever changing norms and codes of conduct, that are inevitable with the passing of the ages. Therefore, insisting that there is only one authentic version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, preserved exactly the same as when it emerged from his lips, disregarding the many regional texts and folk tales based on the Ramayana is an inaccurate as well as fanatical, extremist way of looking at things, bereft of the spirit of tolerance, compassion and acceptance that is one of the most beautiful aspects of Hinduism.

Surely, the gods in all their infinite wisdom would not see it fit to abuse, mistreat, or condemn to the thousand hells of Yama those among their mortal offspring who consume meat or live life as they see fit? Would they condone the senseless violence, hatred, intolerance and killing that is carried out in their name? I should certainly hope not.

Ultimately, anybody who knows anything at all about mythology will tell you that it is a constantly shifting narrative that is metamorphosing even as this is being written, and 100 years hence will be unrecognisable from what we know of it today. Therefore, it would be lovely if people stopped using mythology, religion, morality, or any of the flimsy excuses being bandied about for their insupportable and unconscionable behaviour that is a disgrace to this nation.


P.S: I have written many versions of this over the years. This piece contains bits and pieces from older ones (links below) and I have added inputs based on current issues, which is mostly more of the same old crap.

 When Mythology is Misused and Misunderstood

Vegetarianism does not Equal Virtue


Tomichan Matheikal said...

Glad you articulated this so well. But it will cut no ice with the contemporary nationalists who, as you say, are know-alls.

Anuja Chandramouli said...

Thank you and I agree that extremists charged up on nationalistic pride will refuse to engage in a reasonable discussion. Even so, these things need to be written and talked about. There is no reason not to give up on good sense even in the face of overwhelming nonsense.