By Gananath Obeyesekere –
In an article in the Sunday Island of June 2 entitled “Political Watch” there is reference to Buddhist fanatics on the streets. I have no sympathy whatsoever towards fanatic monks as well as religious fanatics of whatever brand. Nor do I want to justify the suicidal response of the monk Bohowatte Indraratana who in committing self-immolation performed an act that fundamentally violates the Buddhist doctrine of non-hurt or ahimsa. Nevertheless it is important to recognize the sources of the monk’s actions even as we disagree with his gruesome strategy.
We know that female self-immolation or sati was occasionally practiced in parts of Hindu India and that the woman who commits sati at her husband’s funeral is supposed to achieve some kind of deification or salvific status. This model as far as we know has not been adopted by any monk in the long history of Buddhism until we come into modern times when monk immolation, whether in Vietnam or in contemporary Tibet, constituted a political protest against US or Chinese imperialism and political repression.
While any kind of self-violence is against the letter and spirit of Buddhist doctrine I have some sympathy with the Tibetan monks pushed to the wall and impelled to commit a form of sati. Yet I doubt that any self-respecting Tibetan would designate such actions as nirvanic or that of a Bodhisattva. We also know that in Sri Lanka at least suicide by ordinary lay-folk can take terribly violent forms and Bowatte Indrarathana’s act seems to me an extreme example of this suicidal propensity.
Nonetheless we all know that there is an underlying deadly agenda in this monk’s act of suicide. It is like that of the other fanatics mentioned by your “Political Watch,” an anti-Muslim thrust owing to the perception that Muslims are the real beef eaters. The trouble with Bhikkhu Indraratana is that he lived in a period when middle and upper class Buddhists have become fully addicted to meat eating but Political Watch seems to equate beef consumption with other forms of non-vegetarian foods. I want to emphasize that irrespective of the actions of fanatical monks, beef has been a tabooed food throughout the long history of Buddhism. Therefore the contemporary addiction to horribly unhealthy foods such as Macdonald’s should not blind us to the historical and ethical problems underlying the taboo on eating beef, a taboo that is widespread even today among ordinary Sinhala people in our villages. It is the larger implication of this taboo and the issue of vegetarianism in the Buddha’s time and that I now want to examine here, not the issue of monkish lunacies.
Let me start out with your correspondent’s complaint that the Buddha did not agree with Devadatta who it is said proclaimed an extreme ethic asceticism that included vegetarianism. Devadatta apparently followed another contemporary model, namely Jainism where extreme asceticism and body mortification was conjoined with a strict vegetarian dietary, sometimes even extending to certain vegetables that were considered to be “alive.” As we know the Buddha criticized this Jaina model but some of Devadatta’s rules, such as wearing discarded rags had gone into mainline Buddhism groups known as pansukulikas (rag wearers) and a remnant of that practice still persists in our Buddhist ritual of the pansukula dana, where the monk is given a cloth that is, in theory at least, wrapped in the corpse.
However, it requires a bizarre stretch of imagination to say that the Buddha encouraged meat eating and was a “non-vegetarian.” As with Jainism the Buddhists also believed in the doctrine of ahimsa or non-hurt such that killing any animal was considered ethically wrong and productive of bad karma. But if the animal had died a natural or accidental death then it seems it would be okay to eat its flesh, implying clearly that it is the ethics of ahimsa, not the ethics of vegetarianism that is at issue here.
Unfortunately this early stance of the Buddha produced a loophole in the history of Buddhist thought creating a space for those who kill animals — professional hunters, Väddas, low castes, and later Muslims — who then supply the tabooed food to pious Buddhists. Nevertheless, meat eating in the Kandyan areas was a rarity. As Knox points out even after 150 years of foreign influence in this region ordinary folk were quite satisfied with rice and some salt combined with many, many types of herbs and other forest products. I can vouch for the fact that ordinary people in the Uva-Vellassa area that I am familiar with ate large quantities of leaves and greens with their meals and of course whatever small amounts of fish, dried fish and meats (generally game) that were available. Beef and pork were considered impure substances to be shunned.
The issue of non-hurt and vegetarianism brings us to a key feature of both Buddhist rebirth and karmic ethics that has been near totally ignored in recent times. One must remember that rebirth theories were found in other societies also and in such societies you have the associated idea that human beings could be born as animals (even insects as with the Inuit [Eskimo]). This means that humans and animals share a common humanity such that human beings could be born as animals and animals as humans. A powerful expression of this idea that all living beings, including animals and humans, belong to a common “species sentience” is found in Pythagorean rebirth ethics, beautifully expressed in the rebirth theories of the Greek philosopher Empedocles, probably a contemporary of the Buddha, who spoke against the meat eating practices of mainline Greeks, including their much valued consumption of beef.
Empedocles’ assumption is that because humans and animals share a common species sentience, that is, they belong to one interconnected order, eating an animal is in reality eating a member of one’s own species and tantamount to endo-cannibalism. Thus in his conception the animal sacrificed by mainline Greeks could be one’s kin in a previous existence. Empedocles condemns this common Greek practice thus: “The father will lift up his dear son in a changed form, and, blind fool, as he prays he will slay him. … In the same way the son seizes father, and children their mother, and having bereaved them of life devour the flesh of those they love.”
Into this popular idea of rebirth as species sentience the Buddha adds another crucial ethical dimension, that of karma, which all of us are familiar with and in that context killing animals becomes a heinous “sin” (papa karma). This means that meat eating in pre-modern times had to be associated with animals that died by accident or by professional hunters. This whole system of rules and norms are upset in our modern bourgeois economy where animals are killed (especially pigs and chicken) in huge quantities and with impunity. And as far as cattle are concerned Muslims in following their own rules eat the flesh of the “cow” and sell it to modern day Buddhists who have no compunction in eating it. It is no accident that the Buddhist self-immolating monk is also hitting not only at those who eat beef but also at the Muslims who sell it. Why they do not castigate bourgeois Buddhists who eat “cow beef” or why they exempt Macdonald’s remain a puzzle to me! Maybe it is because hamburgers, being beef patties, do not resemble beef.
We have yet to answer your correspondent’s query, why “only cattle and not pigs, goats or chickens”? The answer is not too far to seek because right through the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere too) eating beef was not only prohibited but, except for the lowest of the low, viewed as a crime. Of course we are familiar with similar injunctions in Hindu India and in Nepal until recent times where killing a cow was a capital crime. But why Sri Lanka? We have to recognize that Buddhists not only have faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha but on the level of practical religion they also believe in the Hindu based guardian gods such as Vishnu, Saman, Kataragama and Pattini. All our sandesa poetry, mostly composed by Buddhist monks, celebrates the worship of these deities and implores their assistance and benevolence in the practical affairs of state.
No Buddhist would dare eat meat at the Kataragama premises; and beef could not even be countenanced anywhere near the sacred precincts. More significant is that in much of Sri Lankan history, at least from the time of Parakrambahu II (1236-1270) kings supported Vishnu worship with lavish endowments, especially at the great shrine for this deity in Devinuvara (Devundara), made memorable by Ibn Battuta’s fabulous description of this place. It will be unthinkable for any Buddhist to eat beef given the enormous charisma of these originally Hindu based deities. Thus I know of no Buddhist king ever countenancing the eating of beef.
In the reign of Vimaladharmasuriya I a Dutch sailor in the Spilbergen Embassy of 1602 makes the obvious response that Buddhists “are not allowed to eat bull’s or cow’s or buffalo meat nor can they drink any wine.” There is not the slightest doubt that the taboo on beef was fully known, implemented and observed right through history among Buddhists, until the time of the British conquest. As for pork a different set of values seem to operate: pork was unthinkable owing to the public perception among Buddhists that the pig was a filthy creature although no such qualms appeared in the case of wild boar, apparently perceived as a “clean” animal. Pigs were rarely raised in the Kandyan kingdom and it is a pity that Muslims who despise pork do not receive well deserved praise for this particular culinary avoidance.
Knox mentions that goats and chicken were well known to Kandyans and probably sold to Christians and foreigners who were aplenty in the Kandyan court and countryside. All this implies that our current culinary preferences entailed a consumption revolution unprecedented in Buddhist history or for that matter in any pre-colonial history. As far as “wine” and illegal brews are concerned, our new preferences boggle the mind because, in the near absence of female and Muslim consumption of these substances, Sinhala and Tamil males in my guesstimate are the largest per capita consumers of alcohol in the world. And here also our Muslim brothers deserve some praise and in this case at least we should surely emulate them, unless they also eventually succumb to the new preferences.
One of the striking features of Sri Lankan Buddhism is that kings did consume meat but in interesting circumstances. In India Kshatriya kings and Mogul rulers in general enjoyed hunting, not just for meat’s sake but also for sport’s sake. But Sri Lankan kings did not. They mostly shunned domestic animals but often ate the flesh of selected wild animals (dada mas), the ideal food being venison. But rarely did they hunt animals, at least not publicly. Animals were supplied by professional hunters to the royal palace. What is happening here is that kings, who were fully aware of public prejudices, simply did not want to be associated with the killing of animals.
The most remarkable exception is Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). The Culavamsa clearly tells us that “the Ruler was wont to follow the chase” quite unlike most Buddhist kings. “Now the King with the chief Mahesi [Lilavati], with ministers and retainers went hunting” and because there was much game, “the whole forest [was] surrounded by hunters with spears in their hands and nets and caused them to make a noise here and there,” a typical scene of Indian kings at the hunt.
I know of no example in Buddhist history in Sri Lanka where meat eating was actively enjoined by kings whether they ate it or not as part of their cuisine. On the contrary one must assume that some pious kings either protected animals or desisted from consuming meat products. There was at least one king who insisted by royal fiat that animals should not be killed. Amandagamani (79-89 CE), the Pujavaliya tells us, proclaimed by drum the prohibition on killing animals and helped all living creatures to live meritorious lives. The almost identical sentence is repeated both in the Rajavaliya and in the Vanni Rajavaliya with a slight qualification in the latter which specifically spells out the meaning of “living creatures” as fish and land animals (diyehi godehi mas). This seems to be collaborated in the Mahavamsa chapter 35: “On the whole island the ruler of men commanded not to kill [animals].”
It is easy to demonstrate the large scale eating of cattle, including buffalos, to colonial times where invading armies had to be fed on meat and given arrack also in large quantities. Dutch and British accounts document this pattern of mass animal killing and arrack consumption in great detail, including the forcible capture of cattle. Nevertheless once we move into the low country eating of beef and pork and the consumption of alcohol had become legitimate practices among the Sinhala Catholics. The legitimization and acceptance of these practices among the generality of educated or bourgeois Sinhala Buddhists was primarily due to British rule. Anagarika Dharmapala had already noted this propensity in his writings, especially in the Sinhala Dharmapala Lipi (“Dharmapala Letters”) by the first decade of the 20th century where he squarely foists the blame on the British and degenerate Sinhalas (“beef eating slaves”) for the loss of Sri Lankan nationhood (apa jatiya näti veema) and then urges the Sinhala Buddhist youth not to eat beef and pork and consume alcohol (harak mas, Uru mas kama athära matpän paanaya athära).
While on the one hand he castigates the Muslims for their meat eating habits, he also admires them (as well as the Hindus) for their abstemiousness: “Look at the Muslims, do they consume alcohol? Look at the Tamils do they eat pork and beef?” Unhappily our sad modernity has proved that as far as meat and beef and alcohol are concerned, Dharmapala has lost the battle. And there is little chance that he can ever win the war.