Recently, I got roundly chastised for wanting to talk about veganism in a general group for all people interested in a more general ‘veggie’ lifestyle. This person makes a valid point that I might intimidate a ‘reducetarian’ audience, but they also make certain assumptions about me. They call me an elitist vegan.
“And coming into this group only to feel inadequate for the changes they are starting to make, but have not reached the apparent gold standard of vegan — do you think they will stick around? Do you think they will feel empowered or bewildered? I do not see how your attitude of elitist veganism can do anything but make them afraid to keep treading into this veg pond with us.
I am going to assume you are a Brahmin. And South Indian. I assume this as you are Indian and mentioned lifelong vegetarian diet for cultural reasons.”
This is really making me think about how people might view my veganism. It’s true that I come from a vegetarian culture, but can merely mentioning that make me seem like I am being elitist? Even as very young child, I had internalized the idea that all animal foods (other than bovine milk and honey) are disgusting and cruel, and I wanted no part of it. When we emigrated to the west, I initially had some trepidation about eating chicken eggs, but I adjusted by thinking of it as a dare and as an effort toward assimilation. Other than that, vegetarianism, not eating meat, has been natural and essential for me.
My understanding of why we do not eat meat in our Hindu culture was always more about the impure or ‘defiling’ quality of meat than about any ethical consideration about exploiting other animals. The flesh from cows, pigs, chickens and fish is disgusting. It bleeds, it rots, and it smells bad. Why would anyone want to eat it anyway? The ‘other people’ who eat meat were people of other religions, but also the so-called ‘lower’ caste Hindus. “So these folks, they defile themselves, and they also kill mercilessly for their food. But that’s not us, we are purer, and as it happens, kinder too.”
A South Indian Brahmin inheritance is about a multitude of rules and regulations about what is proper to eat, wear, say and do. But another, thinly veiled aspect of this culture is that these practices are meant to elevate us above other people. As the assigned priestly caste, Brahmins are the teachers who are dedicated to attaining the highest spiritual knowledge. So vegetarianism was and is a form of elitism and exclusivity, a method of bolstering superiority. It is worth a mention that another name for caste is ‘varna’ or skin color, attesting to the fact that caste divisions were at least partly drawn along racial lines.
As I have lived my adult life in the UK and US, the caste discrimination that was part of my inheritance was not foremost on my mind. Nevertheless, food habits die hard and vegetarianism was part of my identity. As a vegetarian I was subject to willful blindness in the SAME way as meat eaters. If I thought about it at all, I defended my actions with a variety of inconsistent justifications. I relished my yogurt, cheese and ice cream, never wondering how milk could be so plentiful. If the thought ever surfaced that there is something wrong here, I quickly rationalized it away by noting that at least I wasn’t killing animals. I disdained the meat aisle, but I was fine using things made from leather. No holiday or ceremony could be celebrated without ostentatious silk saris. I even worked with lab animals for several years as a researcher, but that was for science, and my vegetarianism was just about a cultural habit anyway.
What happens when someone who is born into a Brahmin culture goes ethical vegan? If people, whether Hindu or not, thought Brahmins were elitist and supercilious, is it any wonder that they think I have become vegan to be even more overbearing? People immediately view my veganism more in terms of purity rather than for what it is, ethical concern about other animals.
Some people of the same ancestry as me have assimilated fully into the western meat-eating lifestyle. For them, it is like a fashion, like wearing jeans and listening to hip hop. One such person said to me that they feel ‘ok’ about it, that they have come to terms with being a non-vegetarian, in the sense that they are willing to forego traditions for the sake of assimilation, convenience, and taste. These people are thinking in terms of what meat-eating does for their image and self-image. It is quite likely that these young people also think that I am reprimanding them for not upholding the purity of our vegetarian ancestry. I am at pains to clarify that it is not about us, but about the other animals that we exploit. I am not sure that I make my point to them. Perhaps they do not grasp that someone like me can be so passionately concerned about the other ‘lowly’ animals.
If some people think it was easy for me to go vegan (and it was), others think it a monumental accomplishment to live without dairy. The person who reprimanded me earlier, a white American, pointed out that I need to be more sympathetic to Americans attempting to become vegan :
“However being raised in India, a place with the highest population of vegetarians in the world, with cuisine that caters to veg diets. To go vegan is giving up yogurt, milk and ghee, which I am not downplaying. However in the US, the food choices are meat centric. To change the way eaters of the SAD eat to a vegan diet is a journey that takes time. You must change your palate completely. It is more than subbing soy yogurt in your curd rice”
For me, once I understood that cows were not here for us, it was easy to stop eating dairy, even without substitutes. But it’s not going to be that easy for other Indians, who might find it harder to extricate themselves from the complex way in which cows and their milk are woven into our way of life.
There are many myths and addictions around dairy in my group. Such as, human babies and children must drink cow’s milk to grow; that yogurt is an essential element in our cuisine; that the cow is our mother, and that bovine milk is the food of the gods, and we must use it in our religious ceremonies.
Once I became a vegan, I also found that some parts of western veganism don’t make much sense. For instance, consider the term “carnism.” Coined by Dr. Melanie Joy, carnism is described as an invisible belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals. Vegetarians, who don’t eat meat, but use other animals in practically every other way, are not exactly carnists, but clearly they are not vegan either. Actually I feel quite left out that Dr. Joy did not include vegetarians as carnists, because we fully belong there. She might however have strategic reasons for this omission. Dr. Joy’s thinking is that the notion of speciesism is too far a gulf for most people, but carnism, the eating of animals, might be something everyone can grasp. If ‘speciesism’ is too difficult, and ‘carnism’ is useless in my case, then what can I use to reveal invisible belief systems in my own culture? (Perhaps Will Tuttle’s concept of herderism is a new gleam of possibility).
I recently did a little bit of research around why we do not eat meat in my culture. We don’t know for sure, but there are some theories. At one point, the priestly Brahmins were responsible for overseeing animal sacrifices. They partook in the cow and bullock meat as much as or more than anyone else. Then Buddhism emerged on the scene and developed a strong following at least partly because it rejected animal sacrifice in spiritual practice. Because cows are useful in an agricultural society, people embraced the notion that their precious livestock would not need to be killed to appease the gods. So, in order to supersede Buddhism, Brahmins had to not only stop performing animal sacrifice, but cease the eating of animals altogether.
“[Brahmins] wanted to oust the Buddhists from the place of honour and respect which they had acquired in the minds of the masses by their opposition to the killing of the cow for sacrificial purposes. To achieve their purpose the Brahmins had to adopt the usual tactics of a reckless adventurer. It is to beat extremism with extremism. It is the strategy which all rightists use to overcome the leftists. The only way to beat the Buddhists was to go a step further and be vegetarians.”
Not only did the Brahmins decide to become vegetarians, they also declared the cow sacred. So this decree reserved the top social rung to the Brahmins; then the next rung for the non-Brahmins, who did not eat cow flesh, but were allowed to eat other animals; then finally, the lowest caste, the untouchables, who ate all meat including beef.
There is new crop of cookbooks about caste-based cuisine from India. Much of the impetus for these books is the fear that we will lose our heritage to modernization and westernization. But notably, these books only highlight the cuisine of the higher castes. The cooking of the Dalits, the ‘untouchables’ is not documented. The Dalits make up much of the desperately poor swathes of the Indian population. Their heritage is the cuisine that using ingredients that were cheap or free, and included the rejects from the upper castes — dead cows and offal. Dalit writer Kancha Ilaiah bemoans that Dalits are denied the right to be proud of their traditions. She says, “We cannot celebrate our food; we cannot hold, say, a beef festival to celebrate our beef dishes.”
As a vegan now I recoil from this statement. But this is not about maintaining the caste system, I object to the slaughtering of animals. I would protest a beef festival. How will someone like Kanchi see me — like the Brahmin oppressor who will shame her food choices, or the vegan who wants to spare all life? Even if we try to erase the effects of Brahminism and related privileges from our lives, it is not that easy to do. Even when I am myself oblivious, other Hindus can tell where I am from, what my language is, and what my caste is, pretty much just from my name. Others can tell from the way I speak Tamil, perhaps the way I wear my clothes, a variety of cues that even I don’t know about.
“…if you are a Brahmin there is no way out there for you to deny the privilege that comes with it. You may deny your identity, remove your surname, and associate yourself with less privileged. Deny all the caste rules including endogamy. But the fact is that even if you forget the fact that you are a Brahmin the society around you will be always conscious of the fact that you are a Brahmin.”
Whatever oppressive system I have unwittingly been a part of, I hope to be no longer a part of it. I hope that others see my veganism as concern for beings that feel, that are sentient, which includes other humans also. If I have internalized any feeling of superiority or hierarchy, I also apologize for that. I look forward to divesting myself of it, because the pressure to be superior is also a heavy burden, although clearly not as heavy as the weight on those who are oppressed.
Note added July 14, 2019. People have been pointing out to me that Kancha Ilaiah is not a woman but a man. Since I wrote this, I have read a lot Dr Ilaiah’s books, but at the point of writing, I had no idea who they were. So I am keeping it the way I wrote it, although now I am much more aware of who Kancha Ilaiah is.