In his famous and invaluable book The East and the West, Swamiji has written many things about food and drink in our country and other countries. Although it is a long passage, if we do not quote some of it here, Swamiji’s ideas about food will remain incomplete.
‘. . . There are several controversies about certain rules, both in the ancient times and now, in modern times too. Firstly, from the ancient times till today, a great argument is on about vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Does eating meat help or harm the body? Besides, the question of whether it is right to take the life of a living being has also been a matter hotly debated over the years. One group says, “It is a sin to kill an animal for any reason,” while the other group says, “That is rubbish! Unless there is killing how will the life cycle progress?”
Even among those who follow the shastras, there is a huge commotion because the shastras themselves are contradictory. In one place it is said, do sacrifices at the yagna, while in another place it says, “never hurt living creatures”. Hindus have decided that other than at yagnas, it is a sin to kill and eat animals, yet after a sacrifice, you eat the meat with impunity!
‘. . . The modern-day Vaishnavas find themselves in a difficult spot because, as per incidents in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, their Gods Rama or Krishna seem to be happy eating meat and drinking wine! Sita Devi had vowed to offer meat, rice and a thousand jars of wine to the Ganges!
‘Western civilization is divided too. One group says eating non-vegetarian food causes all kinds of illnesses and vegetarianism is far healthier. The other group says that is all fiction; otherwise the Hindus of India would not have had any illnesses at all and the Western countries would have by now become extinct with all their illnesses. One group says that if you eat goat meat, you will have a goat’s brains and if you eat pig’s meat, you will have the brains of a pig and if you eat fish you will have the fish’s brains! The other side says, if you have a cauliflower you will have a vegetative brain, if you eat potatoes you will have potatoes for brains and if you eat rice you will have dull rice-brains! And that it is far better to have the intelligence of a live animal than that of an inert, dead vegetable.
One group says the chemical composition of rice and dal is the same as in meat. The other group mocks them, saying then the same must be there in air too—so why don’t you simply have air instead of food? One group says even on a vegetarian diet people can be healthy and work hard and long. The other group says, if that were true, then the vegetarian countries would have been stronger, but that is absolutely false. All the strongest nations of the world are those eating meat. Those who are in favour of eating vegetarian food— say, look at the Indians and Chinese—they live on a meagre diet, eating only rice and vegetables, and see how miserable they are. Japan used to be like that too, but ever since they have started to eat meat, they have completely transformed themselves.’
Swamiji has arrived at his own conclusion, which he presents to us in his book:
‘. . . After carefully evaluating all arguments and seeing all sides, I believe that the Hindu way is the best. By that I mean, the principle that people’s station in life and the work they do determine what they eat. It is true that eating meat is barbaric and eating vegetarian food is of course purer. So those who only want to practice dharma should eat vegetarian food while those who have to do hard labour and compete with all the worldly forces to steer the boat of this life should certainly eat meat. The modern Hindu, however, will listen neither to the shastras nor to any sage.
To understand Swami Vivekananda’s food, fasting, his love for cooking and his food philosophy, the two books that must be read are The East and the West and Paribrajak (The Nomad). He has made it abundantly clear to all of us that to really cook well, it is not enough to simply put the vegetables or fish and meat in the pot and place it on the fire. It is necessary to have an excellent understanding of the history of civilization and the philosophy of food!
We know that from childhood itself, Vivekananda had a keen interest in food. We also know that one of his earliest purchases of books was one on French cuisine, purchased in easy instalments. What is remarkable, however, is that his interest went beyond Hindu and Bengali food to Muslim recipes through the interests of his father, to European food and American food too, both of which he had an opportunity to personally observe and learn during the last decade of his life, an opportunity he fully utilized.
Now, instead of commenting on his writings, let us quote directly from what he has written. ‘If the food is pure, the mind will be pure; if the mind is pure, it leads to permanent self-awareness—this statement from the shastras is accepted by all communities in our country. Although Sankaracharya refers to food as anything that enters through our senses and Ramanujacharya refers to food as actual food that we eat, the unanimous understanding is that both are correct—for unless we eat nutritious food, how will our senses work effectively? It is quite certain that poor food habits will negatively impact our sense organs’ ability to absorb. This is evident to all. Everyone is aware that with a lack of food, our sight for example can be severely impaired. It is also obvious that particular foods can cause particular physical or mental issues for people. All the discriminations that we create about food in our society are also rooted in this fact, although we often forget the essentials and fight over marginal issues.
‘India has one and a half lakh soldiers. See how many out of them eat meat. The best soldiers are the Gurkhas and the Sikhs, who have never been vegetarian. The argument, however, continues. One group says that eating meat causes indigestion, while the other says that is not true at all—in fact, it is the vegetarians who always suffer from stomach problems. And just because your green leaves can help bowel movements and cause purging, do you want the whole world to eat only that? The net result of the argument though is that it has always been the meat-eaters alone who have been brave warriors, rulers, thinkers, etc.
The non-vegetarians have said that when yagnas used to be performed across the country (sacrificing animals and having everyone eat them as prasad), only then did great intellectuals emerge among Hindus. Now, in the age of ‘babajis’ there is not a single great thinker. Because of this thinking, non-vegetarians are afraid to give up on their non-vegetarianism. Even among the members of the Arya Samaj in our country, this controversy persists—one group says it is critical to eat meat, while the other says it is a great sin to eat meat. The debate continues.
‘As long as the human race follows the principle of “might is right”, we will have to continue to eat meat or discover a way to get the same nutrition through some other diet. Otherwise, the weak will get crushed under the feet of the strong! Just saying “X or Y is quite healthy and strong in spite of being a vegetarian,” is not good enough. Compare the entire class of vegetarians and non-vegetarians.’
This excerpt from ‘Vivekananda: The Feasting, Fasting Monk’ by Sankar, translated from Bengali by Malati Mukherjee, has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.