Should Hindus be vegetarian? When Tagore confronted the orthodoxy on ‘Hindu food’

in Article
Published on: 25 March 2021

Amiya P. Sen

Amiya P. Sen is retired professor of modern Indian history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and Fellow, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Oxford.

Over a hundred years back, intellectuals in India were debating the same issues we are now—what comprises ‘Hindu food’? Does it include meat or not? And does the controlled suppression of one’s natural instincts through abstinence lead to spiritual progress? We explore this controversial subject through the words of Rabindranath Tagore, Chandranath Basu and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. (In Pic: A group of men beheading a goat; Photo courtesy: Cherishsantosh/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1888, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) composed a poem titled ‘Parityakta’ (‘The abandoned’) expressing some anguish at the way hopes of a social and intellectual regeneration—once palpable in nineteenth century Bengal—were being blighted by blatantly reactionary moods. Even though this represented a reaction to certain colonialist excesses: racial slurs, bureaucratic repression, and the slighting of Hindu social life and culture, Tagore considered this to be an unfortunate backtracking among educated Hindus. Just as he opposed the institution of early marriages, Tagore did not also think that spiritual advancement necessarily followed from observing strict dietary rules.

At the time, the man who most emphatically made such claims was the gifted Bengali writer and critic, Chandranath Basu (1844–1910), a man who contributed towards a new albeit prejudiced reading of Hindu mythology and religion. Basu was perhaps the first to also popularise the term ‘Hindutva’, by which, however, he meant ‘Hinduness’ and not some culturally exclusionary, political ideology such as the Hindu Right was to subsequently invent and advocate. Over the years, Basu progressively emerged as the most effective spokesperson of Hindu conservatism and this drew him into extended controversy with the more liberal Hindus who were dismayed at the way certain antiquated and culturally insular views were fast encroaching upon those considered progressive and cosmopolitan.

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Between 1891 and 1892, Basu authored two successive articles titled ‘Hindu Ahaar’ (‘Hindu Food’) in which he tried to draw public attention to ways in which dietary habits had an important bearing on both mental composure and physical well-being. Here his plea was that, as with other matters governing the daily life of the Hindu, food and drink too had to conform to certain dharmic prescriptions. His first argument here was that dietary restrictions traditionally recommended for Hindus were neither irrational nor did they follow from the machinations of a self-seeking class of Brahman priests and scholars.


A group of men beheading a goat, Photo: Wellcome Library, London
Fig. 1. A group of men beheading a goat (Courtesy: Wellcome Library, London, via

In as much as the choice of food and drink had a bearing on our mental attitudes and physical strength or endurance, this also contributed to our spiritual advancement—since by its very definition, spirituality was dependent on following dharmic ways of life. A propitious diet thus fulfilled the two vital functions associated with food: bodily nourishment and developing the innate spiritual qualities in man. Basu elaborated upon this by adding that it was not so much what one ate that mattered as the manner in which it was eaten but, even more importantly, our attitude towards the act of eating itself. His essay emphatically critiques greed and gluttony. Exercising the right choices in matters of food and drink, therefore, was equally a mechanism of self-restraint or self-control that set apart man from the beast.

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Understandably, Basu’s preference was for vegetarianism compared to the habitual partaking of fish and flesh, and he tried supporting his argument with observations drawn from animal behaviour. Carnivorous animals were by nature cruel, aggressive and ferocious. They were not gregarious, refused to be domesticated and had a shorter life span.

Tagore’s rejoinder to Basu’s essays came in quick time, and basically, he challenged the premise that the controlled suppression of one’s natural instincts (pravritti) through withdrawal and abstinence (nivritti) could, ipso facto, lead to spiritual progress. He also contested the argument to the effect that the Brahmin in early India who was essentially vegetarian by habit, enjoyed greater longevity compared to the libertine, contemporary youth who made no scruples about food or drink. In disputing Basu, Tagore used a two-fold critique. First, he alluded to the research by Indologist Rajendralal Mitra[1] to prove that the early Brahmins too had fattened on beef. Second, if early Indians had a longer life span this could be attributed to the fact that they were relatively free of the anxieties and severe duress that modern youth had been subjected to in a colonial environment. In hindsight, Tagore’s point about the beef-eating Brahmin was somewhat misplaced since Basu was prepared to recommend a diet of beef or other forms of flesh if this was indeed required for a man on medical grounds, and by vegetarianism, he did not mean a diet completely free of animal food. This brings to mind an essay by the novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay from the 1880s[2] that, quite scandalously, shows a pious Vaishnava mendicant feeding on mutton curry and hoping to be next treated to some chicken broth cooked by a Muslim!

In the 1880s, Chattopadhyay was himself among the Hindu conservatives who had significantly revised their earlier opinion on social and religious issues affecting the Hindus. He was also a pioneer in the field of a neo-Vaishnava revival in modern Bengal, and his essay as that of Basu only goes to show that there was an interesting differentiation within the Hindu conservative camp when it came to determining the daily life of the modern Hindu. As it turns out, Basu and Tagore were men who otherwise admired each other and in hindsight, it would be reasonable to argue that but for the fact of Tagore’s suspecting a darker, more ominous shadow working behind the life and labours of Basu, he might have hesitated to cross swords with his fellow writer. While a reasoned conservatism and cultural self-defence was acceptable to the poet, he insisted upon driving a wedge between revivalist postures and the reactionary.

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[1] Rajendralal Mitra, ‘Beef in Ancient India’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1872.

[2] Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, ‘Gourdas Babajir Bhikkhar Jhuli (The begging bowl of Gourdas Babaji)’, Prochar, January 1885.