Learning From India's 'Non-vegetarians Cheat and Lie' Textbook Controversy

What is the difference between the sound of a squeaking door and the cries of a dog being beaten and stabbed?

If there is any difference at all, if there is even the slightest difference in how you would, as a human being, react to the cries of pain of a living being as compared to the sound of friction from a mere appliance in moderate neglect, you are probably very different from the enlightened students of philosophy who followed the great Rene Descartes himself.

Descartes, one of the founding figures of modern thought, perhaps even the father of reason and science, was known to have cut open his own dog to prove a point: that animals have no feelings, that they are mere machines, and it is therefore, quite all right to eat them. His followers demonstrated his thesis by experimentally beating their dogs, all the while insisting that their cries were mere mechanical noises. Their insistence, naturally, was also supported by their righteous mockery of anyone who disagreed with them, anyone who showed the slightest sign of pity.

If that seems bizarre, we need to consider something seemingly very different from the present.

Last week, the media in India reported a sensational discovery: a children's textbook entitled New Healthway actually claimed that meat-eaters have a tendency to "cheat, lie, forget promises, and commit sex-crimes." Naturally, this news sparked a torrent of outrage and ridicule in the Indian media, and has been duly noted in a "news of the weird" sort of tone by various parts of the international news media as well. What could be more indicative of a nation's backwardness, after all, than a curriculum which attributed crime and depravity to dietary choice? Commentators on Indian television denounced the low standards of the nation's schoolbooks, and expressed their grave concern about what the children were being taught about other people. The book's publisher, the venerable S. Chand and Company, issued a statement expressing deep regret (it laid the responsibility on the book's author, a retired principal named David Poddar), and duly withdrew the book. It also clarified that the book had not been prescribed as required reading by the federal board of education, nor had it been in widespread use in schools either (less than 1500 copies had been sold). While the pseudo-science and social prejudices that this book contained may have deserved the criticism they have got, one has to ask, especially since news of the book's impact may have been greatly exaggerated, if the reaction to the book conceals a deeper and wider bias in our media culture than we might have ever noticed. The most effective biases and prejudices, after all, are the ones that never even get called out, for they just seem normal.

And one thing that was apparent in the reaction to this book from the media was how normal the ridicule seemed; and how normal it has become that virtually every occasion that vegetarianism makes it to the news, there is something bizarre, eccentric, or tragic surrounding it. It is a popular media narrative now; vegetarianism is eccentric. And in Indian media discourses, it seems even more pronounced: Vegetarianism is retrograde, superstitious, and, backward. When the word "vegetarian" appears in headlines, the implication almost every time is negative. It is meant to be an insult. The first time in my life I heard "vegetarian" used that way was by Captain Haddock in the Tin Tin comics. That was Captain Haddock, and therefore excusable. That was comedy. In India though, a normative sort of non-vegetarianism has become a substitute for real social critique, and inevitably, a distraction from the more serious issues that one might address in a debate about food, violence, and humanity.

That the debate on vegetarianism in India (or at least the English-language debate in India, I might clarify), is so skewed is especially ironic, since it was their encounter with Indian vegetarianism that so provoked the early European thinkers. As Tristram Stuart writes in The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India, the idea that human beings could survive without ever eating meat was a profoundly shocking one to the great minds of Europe (even leading some to beat up animals to prove they weren't machines, as we read earlier). The enlightenment -- that period of history that the whole world now looks up to as the moment when humanity leaped from ages of dark ignorance and religious superstition to a bold new future of science and progress -- was not merely about debates about what goes around what in the heavens, but really about the nature of life, and living too. Priests, doctors, scientists, philosophers, poets, and artists, including some of the great and ever-immortalized ones, grappled with the question of vegetarianism. Some of them embraced it as a radical, liberating ideal: One could live a life without having to kill animals for food. They even reinterpreted biblical themes about Eden to recast the Fall as not so much about an apple as perhaps another, more gruesome act of "forbidden" food consumption (interestingly, this is one of the ideas that is mentioned explicitly in the controversial Indian textbook as well).

Others resisted this shock to their common sense vehemently, and instead sought to promote the idea that vegetarianism was just one more example of superstition from the benighted Hindoo; perhaps anticipating the argument that it was nothing a good dose of colonization couldn't fix. At the core of this idea, of course, was the accusation that Hindus were vegetarian because they believed in reincarnation. It has remained a persistent and popular myth in the Western world. At best, it makes for ice-breakers in social situations when Indians and Americans eat together on college campuses. I have even been told on occasion that I may have passed on the local cuisine because the wrappers from McDonald's or Burger King might actually be holding the remains of my reincarnated late grand-uncle or aunt. It was said affectionately, so I never took it any other way. But the myth persists, and it is inaccurate; it was known to be inaccurate even in the days of early European travelers to India, and yet it remains one of the most widespread instances of others presuming to know us better than ourselves. The truth, of course, is that Indian vegetarianism has little to do with the fear of accidentally ingesting an ancestor. It is about knowing what pain is, and not causing it. It is about ahimsa.

At the heart of it, I believe that those who are vegetarian in India are to a large extent that way for exactly the same reason. They do not like the idea of causing the suffering and death of a living being for the sake of a brief period of pleasure in their mouths. Yet, this simple act of refraining from a certain kind of diet out of compassion has also been caught up deeply in one of the most complex webs of social prejudices one could imagine. India's understanding of vegetarianism has been deeply entwined with practices of caste, social identity, and notions of pollution and purity. We judge each other by what we eat, and what we don't. Diet has become about identity, and identity, of course, is politics. The left and the right in India seem to have their own arguments against vegetarianism; for some on the right, ahimsa and vegetarianism are unhappy distractions from becoming a truly powerful nation, and for the left, vegetarianism is a conservative custom of the oppressive Hindu upper castes and therefore not a good thing at all (ironically, the controversial textbook's ultra-vegetarianism was not a Hindu one but a Seventh-Day Adventist one, according to the Hindu Press International, here).

What the identity issues around diet really mean in India is a deeper issue than diet alone (and a divisive one too, especially when history is invoked). Recent arguments have focused almost entirely on the past, on questions like whether ancient Indians really ate beef or didn't. Once again, such arguments miss the point that debates on vegetarianism cannot be only about religion, nation, or caste (while these factors are relevant to other discussions, the fact that identity, diet, fashion, belief, and everything else is more mixed up in India today than ever before should show us the limits of still equating caste and diet). The real question that vegetarianism poses to us is not what it signals about our position on caste or class, or even our usual concerns about what meat does to our health, (if not intelligence and moral fiber as the book says), but simply whether we are willing to countenance the cruelty to animals, birds, and fishes that a non-vegetarian diet necessitates. What meat-eating (or coffee-drinking for that matter) allegedly does to our character, as the book seems to say, is all a red herring. The only thing vegetarianism asks us philosophically is: Are you okay that something died?

I understand and I have heard the inevitable responses that follow: that animals die anyway, that even vegetables feel pain, that Hitler was a vegetarian, that if you have ever been non-vegetarian then you might as well continue since you have sinned anyway, that it's all or nothing. One is free to react in all sorts of ways, especially if one preaches vegetarianism as a direct attack on an individual's morality, as the author of the textbook seems to have done. But I believe that these personalized squabbles for and against vegetarianism, and of course, the inevitable caste and religious angles that exist around it, are inadequate to the reality that confronts us at each meal. As Jonathan Safran Foer puts it in Eating Animals, a brilliant critique of the normalization of non-vegetarianism in American culture and common sense, the question is essentially whether we have a greater right to eat an animal than the animal has a right to not suffer. When most of us would not kick, beat, hurt or kill an animal because its pain would give us no pleasure, how do we go on valuing the pleasure we get from eating its flesh over the pain we know it has gone through?

It is not a question that can be answered easily, but we need to be open to the possibility that raising it is not tantamount to perpetuating some ultra-conservative retrograde religious agenda (in the Indian context) or some ultra-radical far-out flaky fad (in the American context). Of course, there are other, relevant questions to consider about diet too. The debate in India seems to have not yet caught on to the cost of an industrial animal diet to the planet, not just to animals. We forget about the enormous environmental destruction that has taken place to produce the world's hamburgers, the forests that have been felled, the waters that have been usurped, the grain that has been diverted from humans. We forget about too many things, when we view vegetarianism as just an eccentric habit on its way out in the great march of civilization and progress; and we are yet to see an Indian equivalent to a best-seller like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation to challenge the common sense on these issues.

The mockery about an unsung textbook lesson apart, India needs a more serious discourse about what food really means, and its children deserve it more than anyone else. What we eat, and why is one of the most profound lessons one generation can give to another. While religion offers one set of traditional explanations for such choices, there is an even greater need for social knowledge, in which children get educated about the economic, political, and environmental costs of our diet. Eating is such a fundamental and universal aspect of human life that we cannot afford to have its meaning disconnected from reality, or worse, distorted deliberately from reality by a massive global fast food marketing business. Few if any children may have taken an obscure textbook's message about meat-eaters' alleged immorality seriously, but millions of children are growing up around the world listening to advertisers even more than educators or parents perhaps about fast food, junk food, and whatever else masquerades as food these days. The acclaimed Indian television show, Satyamev Jayate, marked an important beginning in drawing attention to food issues with an episode on the need for organic farming, but most of the media seems content with normalizing fast food rather than critiquing it, and what lies beyond it.

The "food" curriculum of school children needs to go far beyond the mere facts of biology and platitudes of moral science, which is all I seem to recall hearing about food when I was in school. It is easy (and desirable) to get rid of lessons that say non-vegetarians are evil. But the replacement to this cannot ignore the growing importance of food politics in general and of vegetarianism in particular. We can laugh away the unfortunate New Healthway book's suggestion that meat-eaters are violent, but we cannot ignore Jeremy Rifkin's historic study of the cattle industry, Beyond Beef, and his critique of the pseudo-evolutionary theory of diet that was used to excuse the violence of colonialism, and in particular, the cattle industry's complicity in the Native American displacement and genocide. We can dismiss the poor sociology and patronizing patriarchy in New Healthway's statements on sex and women, but we cannot look away from the devastating critiques offered by Carol J. Adams on meat industry advertising that dehumanizes and objectifies women in her book, The Pornography of Meat. And lest we think that all this is merely an elite fad and that the suffering of animals is irrelevant in the face of the suffering of human beings, let us not forget the words of Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, that "what we forget about animals we begin to forget about ourselves."

Nearly four centuries after Descartes and his contemporaries discovered Indian vegetarianism, we still seem to be confused about the difference between the plight of a living being in pain, and a door hinge in need of some oiling. That, to me, is the bigger outrage.