The first Indian ruler to suggest punishment for non-vegetarianism was not Hindu
These words in the opening epigraph to this chapter, about a royal’s food of choice, were spoken in the course of an encounter between the future Buddha and his parents. The king, his father, had been offered a ‘kara’ leaf to eat by the future Buddha, since it was what made up his diet. The king refused it because, as he pointed out, he was used to tastier fare. The reaction of the mother to her son’s diet, by contrast, was fairly typical of a subcontinental mother who, eyes full of tears, understood her son’s hardships because she saw the humble fare on which he subsisted. Culinary asceticism appears via her sorrow as a sign of her son’s impending Buddhahood. It also tells us that in ancient India what was thought pleasing to the palate depended upon whether it was appropriate fare for the sort of life the individual was likely to live, or was forced to live by virtue of his social status.
We also learn from this story about the rich and painstakingly cooked food eaten by the political elite. Elaborate food preparations graced kingly tables and gargantuan feasts were commonplace. The ‘feastly tales’ in the Mahabharata should seem particularly tempting for carnivores because in one of them Yudhishthira, the embodiment of Hindu virtue and honesty, feeds ten thousand Brahmans with pork and venison alongside preparations of milk and rice mixed with ghee and honey, fruits and roots. Food abundance signified largesse and power. Food for what has been described as a picnic is described thus:
Certainly enough here to give pause to modern advocates of vegetarianism who speciously invoke ancient Hindu literature in defence of their vegetarian preferences.
Court recipes from Mesopotamia, the earliest to survive, emphasize the painstaking nature of food preparation, describing browning flesh of fowl before boiling these in water thickened with blood and adding flavourings of turnip and leek. Cooking in different ways to cause the elite mouth to water was common enough across the ancient world.
In India, this tradition continued much beyond ancient times. From a twelfth century text – the Manasollasa, by a monarch called Someshwara III – we learn that apart from liver (which was apparently carved to look like betel nuts), roasted tortoise, seasoned fish, and fried crabs left those at high tables smacking their lips. While the book’s chapter on ‘Annabhoga’ provides recipes for idli, dosai, and vadai, it is much more enthusiastic about non-vegetarian preparations.
But there was one ruler whose food preferences were unlike any of the examples from mythological and living royalty described above. Ashoka, the third emperor of the Maurya dynasty who reigned in the third century BCE, was an early advocate of vegetarianism and devoted to the cause of reversing what had till then been eagerly desired by the general palate. Not for him the pulao of meat and rice of the king in the epigraph. And the extravaganza of the Mahabharata picnic – in which vast quantities of meat were cooked – would have sorely tempted Ashoka, for all his belief in non-violence, to decapitate every last picnicker. After moving to Buddhism, a faith associated with compassion for all life, Ashoka set in motion an administrative and propaganda process to reduce the consumption of meat.
Ashoka spent a great deal of time thinking through his ideas against treating animals as food, and these can be found in his rock edicts. Not only were no living beings to be slaughtered for religious sacrifices, a sea change was sought against slaughtering ‘for the sake of curry’ in the royal kitchen. Where previously some hundred thousand creatures were killed daily, now only three were allowed to be killed, and even these three, Ashoka resolved, would at some point be spared the cooking pot. The regulation of hunting, fishing, and culling was vigorously pushed. Vegetarianism came to be enunciated as part of an exceptionally humane vision which did not consider as either natural or desirable a species hierarchy favouring human beings. Among Ashoka’s later edicts is one which protects a massive range of animals, and this edict is specifically solicitous about animals during their breeding season. The emperor asks people not to kill pregnant and lactating she-goats, ewes, and sows, and attempts to restrict the castrating and branding of animals. In relation to his views on food, there seems little doubt that Ashoka comes across as utterly extraordinary.
Did this extraordinary vision lead to a change in the food habits of the emperor’s subjects? It is clear that Ashoka’s intent was taken seriously by his officers. An epigraph in Maharashtra recording the command of one such officer prohibits the capture and slaughter of animals. Punishments are specified for those who dare disobey him.
Notwithstanding the long arm of the law, the settlements of historic India that have been excavated do not suggest any reduced consumption of meat over Ashoka’s reign. Several hundred thousand bone fragments dating to this period suggest that regular meat-eating carried on. The overwhelming preference was in fact for cattle and buffalo meat, followed by that of the sheep and the goat. The animals eaten included wild cattle, deer, pigs, cranes, and peafowl.
Meat-eating, it is clear, cannot be stopped by diktat. The hunter-gatherers of the world before and simultaneous with urban civilization depended on meat and, as we saw, spent considerable time and energy illustrating the hunt. Ancient Hindu belief and practice show sacrificial offerings of goats, oxen, rams, and horses. The merit so obtained is extolled in the Mahabharata: ‘… animals killed in sacrifices to the accompaniment of Vedic mantras went to heaven and it [the epic] narrates the story of king Rantideva in whose sacrifices two thousand animals and cows were killed every day.’ Some scriptures frowned on or had misgivings about these. In the Satapatha Brahmana, an ancient Indian religious text that forms part of the Vedic corpus and is full of fine detail about sacrificial ritual, the eater of meat is said to be eaten in his next birth by the animal killed.
Regardless of these occasional scriptural impediments, the general picture is one of a populace not just carnivorous but eagerly so. It is entirely understandable that Ashoka’s dicta were not just ignored but may have spurred resentment against an over-interfering ruler. Reason enough to think that Ashoka was the first, and perhaps the last, ancient Indian monarch who attempted to alter culinary practices in his palace and among the subjects of his large empire.
Food is integral to images of ancient India. Within the material culture that has survived, the garbage of everyday life found at archaeological sites revolves around the production and consumption of food – tons of broken and discarded pottery, chewed and charred animal bones, sundry cereals and seeds of fruits and implements used in producing and processing food. Such artefacts are now studied through scientific techniques that can indicate whether stone tools were used to cut meat or wild grass, and whether grinding stones mashed mangoes or cereals. Technology has enabled us to study fine-grained images of eating habits. Unfortunately, some of the less-than-savoury stuff – the half-digested contents of the stomachs of ancient Indians – has not endured in India as it has in other parts of the world. In the case of the Lindlow man of Cheshire in England, for instance, we know he consumed charred bran before he died. Coprolites (that is, fossilized potty) also provide direct evidence of what humans ate. These constitute an important repository in many museums (the largest collection of which is in the South Florida Museum in the US). Unluckily, ancient dried potty remnants do not last in tropical regions, a cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth among archaeologists and coprophiliacs in South Asia. Still, the remnants of households, even when lacking in coprolites, offer us much food for thought.
[Excerpted from the chapter 'Food']
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