Saturday, May 31, 2008

Vegetarianism and story of a rationalist

The practice of killing an animal or a bird just because its flesh tastes better than vegetables is morally inexcusable. You have to see goats being slaughtered in Calcutta’s Kali temple or the throat of birds being slit at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati and your stomach will churn in disgust. You will swear never to eat meat again. Whether it is halal or jhatka: taking life is butchery, not sacrifice. Nevertheless, the vast majority of peoples round the globe are meat-eaters. Vegetarians and vegans (those who refuse to consume animal products like egg, milk, butter, cream and honey) are eloquent about the harmful effects of having a non-vegetarian diet. But they have to face a few awkward facts. Let me spell them out.

Vegetarianism is not in the order of nature. Apart from ruminants like cattle, sheep, goats, deer, horses or donkeys, which eat grass and elephants, which eat leaves, all other species of animals, whether they be canines (of the dog family, such as wolves, foxes, jackals and the like) or felines, (like cats, tigers, lions or leopards) live by eating ruminants. Every other creature in the food chain, such as birds, reptiles, insects and fish, lives off eating each other. This is the ‘tooth and claw’ pattern of survival ordained by nature. It is nature’s way of controlling over-breeding among animals.

About 90 per cent of the human population are flesh-eaters. There are regions where no vegetables can be grown and people live entirely on meat or fish. Humankind eats a baffling variety of life: cattle, birds, pigs, deer, rats, dogs, monkeys, snakes, fish, frogs and insects. Some religious communities are selective non-vegetarians. For instance, Muslims would not eat pig flesh, Hindus and Sikhs do not eat beef.

It is often maintained by vegetarians that their diet is healthier than the non-vegetarians’. The argument is not sustainable. Meat and fish are easier to digest than many vegetables. The ideal balanced diet is a mixture of meat and fish, with vegetables like beans, tomatoes, peas or potatoes.

Meat-eaters are sturdier than vegetarians. They manage to live longer. Vegetarians often say that the strongest creature in the animal kingdom is not the lion, the designated king of beasts, and a notorious non-vegetarian, but the elephant, which lives on foliage. Perhaps a fitting answer to this asinine argument would be that even the mighty pachyderm is tamed to obey a mahout, who sits on its head and prods it with a stick to make it kneel, stand up or raise its trunk. But no man has yet sat on a lion and ordered it to do his bidding. If he tried, he would soon find himself in the lion’s belly.

Hocus pocus

On February 16, 1980 there was a total solar eclipse over Bombay. The Bhattys happened to be living in one of the suburbs. As the day darkened into night, Margaret Bhatty went out to do her daily shopping. Her neighbours shouted at her from their windows, warning her of the dire consequences that might follow her venturing out while the eclipse was on. They asked her to stay indoors and observe a fast, as they were doing.

Margaret ignored their warnings but could not buy anything, as all shops were closed. Life in the metroplis had come to a standstill. But she ate a hearty meal. Nothing happened to her. Solar eclipses occur at different places all over the globe at different times of the year. People usually treat them as an astronomic phenomenon without fussing about them. Only Indians succumb to irrational superstitions.

Margaret Bhatty now lives in a village close to Nagpur. She has made it her life’s mission to debunk belief in the occult and so-called miracles. She has analysed them scientifically and put her findings together in a slender book, Fraud, Fakery and Flim-flam. How Sai Baba produces bibhuti or sacred ash by simply rubbing his fingers is explained. There is an acid preparation; if put on the fingers and rubbed, it produces ash. I have seen magicians do it. How did Maharishi Mahesh Yogi levitate himself or fly in the air? There was a hidden prop under his bottom that escaped the eyes and cameras. He claimed to be able to fly but actually flew by plane like everybody else. When a Christian priest claimed he could light candles by prayer and a sadhu claimed that he could kindle a fire by meditating on a heap of firewood, she analysed the chemicals in the candles and the firewood and found them combustible. Bhatty has also helped to de-publicize vaastu. Every modern architect takes care of natural phenomenon, like the movements of the sun and winds, while designing a building. But there is nothing scientific about vaastu. Some years ago, the entrance to the BJP headquarters in Delhi was changed as per advice tendered by a vaastu pandit. The party lost in the next election.

Bhatty’s book is not as well-produced or marketed as it should be but it deserves the attention of our superstition-ridden masses.

Chronological order