Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. ~George Orwell
The Rāmāyana is the world’s second longest poetic composition, after another Hindu epic, the Mahābhārata. The mythological epic poem narrates the journey of Rāma, a righteous prince (with divine qualities, in most renditions and interpretations), considered the epitome of morality and conduct. The basic story is well-known and widely-circulated, thanks in part to Ramlila (the traditional performance artform of skits narrating parts or whole of the story which are quite common all over urban and rural India) and an extremely popular abridged TV adaptation. Nonetheless, very, very few people actually read the original Sanskrit scripture attributed to the legendary poet Valmiki. The Rāmacaritmānasa by the 16th century poet Tulasīdās, also known as the Tulasī Rāmāyana is much more popular, primarily as it is written in a vernacular dialect of Hindi rather than Sanskrit, and hence is more accessible to the layfolk.
Another Hindu text, the prescriptive treatise Manusmriti codifies behavioural norms based on values as celibacy, fidelity, teetotalism, abstinence, austerity, abnegation, discipline, and observance of social order, duties and obligations. Filial Piety, Brahmanism, Patriarchy, and a rigid enforcement of the hereditary caste segregation characterise the text.
Under the incumbent right-wing regime, instances of these ethos being unilaterally imposed, are becoming alarmingly prevalent. The impositions range from prohibiting non-vegetarian food, even eggs, from government-provided meals for impoverished children, bids to forbid serving meat at government-organised functions, and excessive stress being lain on promoting vegetarianism as a lifestyle, to frequent and prolonged force-shutting down of meat-vending shops during key Hindu festivals and holy months. The ruling party also has an inconsistent, paradoxical aversion towards alcohol. Last year, there was quite a brouhaha over the free meals being served to poor children being exclusively vegetarian.
However, for these unanimous champions of Rāmarājya (Rāma’s Utopian Rule), a careful read of the Rāmāyana might prove disillusioning.
Some excerpts from the Vālmīki Rāmāyana are presented as follows, alongside English translations (BHUSANA, unless otherwise mentioned) :
1. caturdaśa hi varṣāṇi vatsyāmi vijane vane।
“Abstaining from eating meat like hermits and living on honey, fruits and roots, I am to live in the solitary forest for fourteen years.”
The self-explanatory line is stated by Rām when he commits himself towards his 14-year forest exile.
Commentator Sivasahay notes that the word “Amiṣa”, in this context, means “object of relish”, rather than “meat” per se. He suggests it to be a generic synecdoche.
2. surāghaṭasahasreṇa māṃsabhūtaudanena ca।
yakṣye tvāṃ prayatā devi purīṃ punarupāgatā।।2.52.89।।
“O Devi after my return to Ayodhya purified by my austerities, I shall worship you by offering a thousand pots of nectar and food in the form of meat.”
This is stated by Sita as a prostration towards the deified, pious Ganga River, pledging myriad offerings, including meat, in lieu of Rama’s safe return from his exile. As a sidenote, traditional meat-based Hindu religious offerings are historically ubiquitous in India.
Further, in his commentary, Amruta Kataka writes “They killed a spotted deer and a black deer, as they were very hungry. They just roasted it in fire and ate it. They were not brahmins and so, were not prohibited. Besides, they offered it first to the gods before they ate the flesh.”
3. aiṇeyaṃ māṃsamāhṛtya śālāṃ yakṣyāmahe vayam।
kartavyaṃ vāstuśamanaṃ saumitre cirajīvibhiḥ।।2.56.22।।
“O Lakshmana those who intend to live for long (in this hut), should pacify the deity presiding over here. Therefore, we shall bring the venison of a black antelope and make necessary offerings.”
mṛgaṃ hatvā”naya kṣipraṃ lakṣmaṇeha śubhekṣaṇa।
kartavya śśāstradṛṣṭo hi vidhirdharmamanusmara।।2.56.23।।
“Slay an antelope and bring it here quickly. O Lakshmana The rites as prescribed by the scriptures will have to be carried out. You may recollect that tradition.”
aiṇeyaṃ śrapayasvaitacchālāṃ yakṣyāmahe vayam।
tvara saumya muhūrto’yaṃ dhruvaśca divaso’pyayam।।2.56.25।।
“Cook this venison, O handsome one We will offer it to the presiding deity of this hut. Hasten, the day and time are fixed (for the rites)”
sa lakṣmaṇaḥ kṛṣṇamṛgaṃ medhyaṃ hatvā pratāpavān।
atha cikṣepa saumitrissamiddhe jātavedasi।।2.56.26।।
Then the powerful son of Sumitra killed a black antelope fit for offering, and offered it to the wellkindled fire.
The graphic and explicit mention of the antelope’s meat and its cooking continues onto further verses. They are not quoted here to prevent redundancy.
Rama, Lakshmana and Sita resided in thatched huts in the forest.
Amruta Kataka comments “Rama and Lakshmana killed a she-deer for sacrifice to the gods presiding over the newly built hut. It is no sin, no cruelty as it is a part of the prescribed rite according to the sacred texts. Even the prey sacrificed attains final beatitude.”
Mahesvar Tirtha comments “Rama clears the doubt about the blemish or sin that could arise from animal sacrifice as described by Bodhayana. It is a dharma and there is no possibility of any sin caused by violence. Since the animals that are killed for sacrifice reach higher and better worlds, slaying is a boon for them. The Vedas state that they do not die, but take a sacred path to the place of the gods. They go to a place where only the meritorious go and not the sinners. Lord Savitr (Sun-god) helps them in their journey.”
[The commentator quotes the sruti and smrti to show that Rama did not commit any sin when he got a deer killed for the rituals of house-warming.]
4. vanyairmālyaiḥ phalairmūlaiḥ pakvairmāṃsairyathāvidhi।
adbhirjapaiśca vedoktairdarbhaiśca sasamitkuśaiḥ।।2.56.34।।
tau tarpayitvā bhūtāni rāghavau saha sītayā।
tadā viviśatu śśālāṃ suśubhāṃ śubhalakṣaṇau।।2.56.35।।
“Bestowed with auspicious qualities, Rama and Lakshmana along with Sita propitiated those celestial beings with garlands of forest flowers, fruits and roots, wellcooked venison (meat of animals of deer family), water, muttering of prayers as expounded in the Vedas, faggots and kusa grass and entered that auspicious hermitage.”
5. ityuktvopāyanaṃ gṛhya matsyamāṃsamadhūni ca।
abhicakrāma bharataṃ niṣādādhipatirguhaḥ।।2.84.10।।
“Having spoken thus, Guha, lord of the nishadas, approached Bharata, taking with him fish, meat and wine as offerings.”
In the lore, Bharata is another younger brother of Rama, who loves him beyond compare. His mother, the second wife of Rama’s father, without Bharat’s knowing persuaded their father to grant Rama 14 years of exile and award the crown to her son, on the very day prior to Rama’s planned enthronement. When Bharata returns, he sets out to bring back and restore Rama to the throne. In his pursuit through the forest trail of Rama, he comes across Guha the Nishadraj, the king of an indigenous forest-dwelling tribe of hunter-gatherers. The latter is also an utmost devotee of Rama’s, and had hosted him for a while.
6. asti mūlaṃ phalañcaiva niṣādaissamupāhṛtam।
ārdraṃ ca māṃsaṃ śuṣkaṃ ca vanyaṃ coccāvacaṃ mahat।।2.84.17।।
“Here are roots, fruits and a great variety of forest produce, fresh and dried meat brought by the nishadas.”
7. samāśvasa muhūrtaṃ tu śakyaṃ vastumiha tvayā।।3.47.22।।
āgamiṣyati me bhartā vanyamādāya puṣkalam।
rurūngodhā nvarāhāṃśca hatvā’dāyā’miṣānbahūn।।3.47.23।।
“Rest here awhile. My husband will return with plenty of meat of many kinds from the forest, killing deer, alligators and wild boars.”
Sītā tells this to Rāvana, the demon-king who is deceptively disguised as a reclusive monk and is her to-be abductor. He tries to trick her into crossing the bewitched demarcation, an impregnable threshold marked by Lakshmana.
8. rāmo’tha sahasaumitrirvanaṃ gatvā sa vīryavān।।3.68.32।।
sthūlānhatvā mahārohīnanutastāra taṃ dvijam
“Then the mighty Rama, accompanied by Saumitri, got into the forest and killed a huge deer, brought it and spread it as an offering (to the dead Jatayu).”
rohimāṃsāni cotkṛtya peśīkṛtya mahāyaśāḥ।।3.68.33।।
śakunāya dadau rāmo ramye haritaśādvale।
Tearing the flesh of the deer to pieces and making them into balls, the celebrated Rama laid it on a lovely, green grassy land as offering to the bird.
This verse alludes to the fact that Rama was well-versed with dressing meat. The intuitiveness suggests habituation.
9. krośamātraṃ tato gatvā bhrātarau rāmalakṣmaṇau।
“After walking a krosa (sic) (kosa is an ancient unit of distance) into the forest on the bank of Yamuna, the two brothers killed many deer suitable for sacrifice and ate them.”
10. na māṃsaṃ rāghavo bhuṅakte na cā’pi madhu sevate।
vanyaṃ suvihitaṃ nityaṃ bhaktamaśnāti pañcamam।।5.36.41।।
“”Rama is not eating meat, nor drinking wine. He takes only the one fifth of a meal (sanctioned for an ascetic) available in the forest.”
This verse is uttered by the ape-God Hanuman, Rama’s emissary, who visits Sita in her incarceration. He narrates, hows Rama has lost his appetite, sleep and mood in her excruciatingly worrisome longing, and anxiety.
11. adhāryaṃ carma me sadbhī romāṇyasthi ca varjitam।
abhakṣyāṇi ca māṃsāni tvadvidhairdharmacāribhiḥ ||4.17.37।।
‘My skin is not fit to be worn by the virtuous, my hair and bones are also prohibited from any use. My flesh is also not at all fit to be eaten by righteous people like you
pañca pañca nakhā bhakṣyā brahmakṣatreṇa rāghava |
śalyaka śśvāvidho godhā śaśaḥ kūrmaśca pañcamaḥ ||4.17.38।।
‘O Rama brahmins and kshatriyas are permitted to eat only the five nailed animals the porcupine, the hedgehog, the alligator, the rabbit and the tortoise.
Bāli, the mighty ape was killed by Rama surreptiously from the back, from a concealed vantage point. This was seen as a departure from virtue and righteousness Rama was compelled to take, given the exceptional boons that Bāli possessed.
His statements allude to presence of a clearly delineated classification of meats: “Higher meats” as venison, peacock meat and meat of other one to three digit (toed or hooved) animals, that were prescribed for the consumption of royality, and “Forbidden Meats”, which were deemed unfit and immoral for human consumption.
As if in a final nail-in-the-coffin, even the much-criticised Manusmriti soundly affirms:
5.56. There is no sin in eating meat, in (drinking) spirituous liquor, and in carnal intercourse, for that is the natural way of created beings, but abstention brings great rewards.
This is in spite of the fact that a few verses earlier, the same chapter prohibits consumption of scarlet secretions and alliums, and whatnot, as prescribed for upper-caste men.
Perhaps, the most succinct aphorism in this regard is that the Hindu-Nationalists can take away from the text they seldom read is a statement made by Lord Rama himself: “That which man eats, is also consumed by his Gods” (2:102:30)
The author is a journalist, columnist, and writer. He has previously written in over 60 publications in 31 countries. A version of this article first appeared in Countercurrents.
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