A three-part attempt to get to the heart of a matter that splits society into two opposing camps

At the risk of giving equine lovers offence, I flog a dead horse

Of late, an old and bitter debate has been raked up in these parts, thanks to the ruckus raised over an MoA (Serbithang) staff’s off-the-cuff (and so not thought through) ‘in-country slaughterhouse’ remark to the media.  That statement, for one thing, set a secular cat among the monastic pigeons.  The government stepped in, in a bootless damage control effort that may have even backfired, with its own foot-in-mouth euphemistic ‘meat processing plant’ comment.

Almost smothered in the heat and dust of the ensuing storm were the roots of an existential concern, angst, if you will, faced by Bhutanese society today.

Some of the hot button core value queries that so grip folks as to cleave them completely are listed below, in order of fundamental to functional:

Should a mostly Buddhist people be eating meat in the first place?

Would a pure vegetarian diet be adequate to meet nutritional needs?

In the current scenario, who is more culpable in the slaughter of beast and bird: the butcher or the buyer?

Given ground realities (massive imports of flesh and fowl and the vast drain on INR), would it not be more feasible and less phoney to meet the huge demand for meat from within the country?

This essay will try to clear the air of the fog of cant that tends to drop like a pall on this topic, and do so without fear or favour.  In the course of the piece, we shall plumb the depths of the subject’s prehistoric roots, religious slants and societal mores, plus of course its dietary considerations.

At the end of these divers probes, one hopes to be left with a lucid view of the murky topic, shorn of all bias and false notion.

The way of all flesh (with apologies to Samuel Butler, the iconoclastic Victorian-era English author)

MAN has been a flesh-eater – or, to be precise, an omnivore – for as long as he’s been around, right from those primitive times when our ancestors dwelt in caves.

To digress, three less apparent readings we may draw from that primal era are:

First: since, by and large, the male was hunter and the female gatherer, it would seem that man has ever since been as partial to meat as woman is to veggies.  These dietary bents, though not across the board or a hard-and-fast rule, co-exist, as you may have noticed, among the sexes to this very day.  There is, though, I add in haste, no scientific basis to this sudden fancy of mine; it’s just a stray thought off the top of my head.

Second – and in this I stand on surer ground – our taste for the flesh and bones of our fellow sentient beings may have drawn the wolf into our fold, via campsite refuse, and driven this wild critter into its sheep’s clothing, in the guise of ‘man’s best friend’, the familiar domesticated dog, stray and pet alike.

The third and a no less curious legacy of our antediluvian leaning towards meat – raw at first, roasted later, once man mastered fire – is to be found in children.  There is a theory doing the rounds in psychiatric circles that the play-actions of our very young, in a déjà vu sort of way, mimic the Homo sapiens lifestyle in their dawn as a species.  Think of hide-and-seek, playing house and peekaboo, for starters.

It’s like a reliving of an ancestral trait, one might say.

This premise may explain why kids (little boys, in the main) are so mad about meat; I know I used to be – couldn’t countenance a meal without entrails on my plate!  Which is also why the McDonalds and KFCs of this world count on these mini munchers as their mainstay customers.

So, there’s no getting away from the fact that meat eating has been embedded deep in our psyche.  It’s an age-old hangover that we can as much shake off as the DNA in our genes.  Still, when push comes to shove, abstention is doable, absolutely, as the Jains and their animal-lover ilk in our midst are living proof of.  All said and done, the urge to eat meat is as deep-seated in us as our genetic code.  You might say we’re hard-wired that way.

How religion digested non-vegetarianism and made it righteous

MEAT eating was assimilated and rationalised at the very onset by most world religions under the pretext of animal or blood sacrifices to a supreme deity.  From the wholesale slaughter of fowl by Bon and voodoo practitioners to the slit throats and slow deaths of sheep, goats and cattle as per kosher/halal demands, man’s penchant for flesh now got to wear a mantle of respectability, with the blessings of the religious establishment, who might have had a vested interest in the practice, and kind of made a living out of the custom.

From the celestial seal of approval by God on Adam, the first man, that all creation (read birds and beasts) was his to do with as he pleased, to the vision of St Peter, the first Pope, of a spread made up of every form of flesh laid out before him, the intake of meat made a seamless transition from its godless past to present practice by divine sanction, as if it were.

So who’s going to argue against that? 

The more beast-friendly oriental philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism too justified the partaking of flesh for their own varied, if rational, reasons.  The proscription of beef by Hindus is of relatively recent vintage, as there is clear evidence of cow slaughter and the devouring of its flesh in Vedic times.  While Buddhists allowed meat on the humanitarian ground that the poor could do with all the nutrition they could scrounge, and to proscribe its intake would be to deprive these less endowed of a cheap and accessible source of nutrients.

Possibly the sole exception to the religious rule, which as good as condones this feeding frenzy, is the aforementioned doctrine of Jainism, which abjures the killing of all creatures, right down to microscopic germs and bacteria.  A blanket ban, that, some might say, to push for such an extreme form of practice, which is both impractical, and may even be deemed to be off the wall.

Next Week: Debunking the myth that vegetables cannot meet our nutritional needs

Contributed by  John Chirmal