Any time a Hindu festival is around the corner, social media is flooded with recipes and pictures of traditional ‘festive’ food. Meat is noticeably absent from these images. But Hindus do enjoy meat even on festive days. In fact, it’s a part of the prasad on some occasions. So why is it that we only see plates loaded with different vegetarian preparations and learn to associate them with festive decadence?
“By and large most Hindu tradition today, especially of the religious bent, does see a predominant vegetarianism…because these festivities are Brahmin-driven. And since the Brahmins, by and large, are vegetarian, there is a…predominance of vegetarianism,” says Dr Kurush F Dalal, archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. But that does not mean that “there is an exclusive vegetarianism.”
Cultural Hegemony Plays a Role in Perception of Food
In fact, non-vegetarian food forms an important part of various traditions within the Hindu faith. “When we pray to our kuladevi on special occasions such as weddings, we place the head of the sacrificial goat in front of her, and cook the rest. In fact, it’s also a part of our thread ceremony,” says Priyanjali Mishra, who identifies herself as Sakaldwipi Brahmin and is from Jharkhand. A rite of passage, the thread ceremony has traditionally signified the twice-born status of “high-born” Hindus.
What’s more is that meat can also form a part of prasad. So in parts of Bengal, for example, on Navami – the ninth day of Navaratri – a goat is offered as sacrifice and it becomes a part of the prasad.
“But since it’s prasad, it is cooked without onion and garlic,” says Suchana Sen, a Kayastha from Bengal. In fact, even “on Dashami, in my mother’s side of the family, which is in present-day Bangladesh, Hilsa (a freshwater fish) is cooked,” she adds. Vijayadashami or Dussehra sees the culmination of the nine-day festival signifying the victory of good over evil.
In spite of such diverse practices, how do we end up situating virtue in only one way of eating and celebrating? That’s because cultural hegemony is maintained through consent as much as through coercion. “Hegemony is sustained within society through the power of the media, community associations, and self-styled culture police…all of who regularly make public claims and representations about food practices (for example, valorisation of vegetarianism, and stigmatisation and criminalisation of beef-eating),” write Balmurli Natarajan and Suraj Jacob.
“The meat-eating taboo is essentially Vaishnavaite…Saivism has absolutely no taboo of eating meat…The Mother Goddess cult has no meat-eating taboo,” says Dr Dalal. And today, the Vaishnava sect dominates. Vaishnavas are those Hindus who worship Vishnu and his avatars such as Rama and Krishna. Because of such predominance of one sect, their practices are seen to be either the default or at the very least as superior.
Festival Food Is Special
Journalists such as Vikram Doctor and Vir Sanghvi have questioned the vegetarian and non-vegetarian binary we fall back on so often. Doctor talks about foods that make the best use of both meat and vegetables/dal and calls such food “semi-vegetarian.”
Sanghvi refers to complex dietary practices which are “pure vegetarian” at home but unabashedly “non-vegetarian” outside the home. Such an understanding of “part-time” vegetarianism can also be extended to apply to such meat-eating Hindus who abstain from non-vegetarian food during certain days of the week. Or during certain time periods of religious/ spiritual significance. Typically a time of fasting.
So while cultural hegemony is one way of understanding vegetarian practices on festive occasions, it’s also possible to look at it as a personal choice that people undertake for spiritual and religious reasons.
“There is a common trend across the world, that for festivals you eat special foods or you eat a more limited amount… it’s partly like you are purifying yourself. So, for instance, the Jews on Yom Kippur will not eat any…leavened items…It’s just a way of making festivals feel a bit more special,” says Doctor.
He sees these festival spreads as a way of celebrating “the greatest vegetarian tradition” in the world, i.e., the Indian vegetarian tradition. He finds this particularly relevant because, while vegetarianism is being weaponised in India, he finds that non-vegetarianism is also being weaponised: meat-eating is now being equated with progressive politics in India, he says.
What might make vegetarian foods special in today’s context is the easy availability of meat, especially chicken. This easy availability can be traced to the advent of commercial poultry farming in India.
Large-scale poultry farming came to India in the 1960s, making non-vegetarian food more affordable and more common.
“Till then you had to keep your own chickens to give you eggs and when they stopped giving eggs you…turned it into curry,” says Dr Dalal.
In communal celebrations and sacrifices, the animals killed used to be larger. And then this meat used to be distributed amongst everyone. This is typical of communal celebrations in parts of the country even today. In Konkan region of Maharashtra, as per nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar, at the end of the Gauri-Ganpati festival, “one of the celebratory meals is meat…where…one goat is offered to the Goddess and the whole village shares that one parcel of meat.”
According to Dr Tina Bartelmeß, Junior Professor of Food Sociology at the University of Bayreuth, while there have been studies on the role of social media in disseminating ideas about what food is desirable, its impact on actual food behaviour is unclear. What is clear, however, is that social media can shape ideas about desirable foods and that it allows participation from diverse, everyday actors. Though Dr Bartelmeß’s study focused on ideas of good nutrition, the findings about the ways in which social media operates can be extrapolated to apply to ideas of good food.
Sindhuja Shah, who belongs to the Kshatriya grouping of Sahs of Kumaon, says, “In our culture, mutton is a very big part of festivals. Weddings, Dusshera and Tika after Diwali. Mutton was never considered bad. It was prasad, after all. It is being offered to the Devi and you are eating it. In a way, you are just offering gratitude to the gods for everything.”
“Overall the idea is that food is energy. And we’re allowed to eat everything,” says Sen. Even if these images of everything might not make it to social media.