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Role of religion in food

ZUBIN D’SOUZA

Icome from a long and proud line of people who bear the D’souza family name. I have no clue what we are proud about because whenever we have a family gathering, I somehow always get the feeling that we managed to get all the nose-picking, snot eating, mentally challenged Neanderthal-like humanoids on the planet in one place and they just happen to be related to us.

Anyway, coming back to the family name that I am so proud about, we either have an ancestor somewhere up the genetic stream who was a Portuguese Catholic or were we Hindus who converted to Christianity around 400 years ago.

Either way, doesn’t make a difference to the story unfolding, but when I told my red-meat-devouring, vegetation-allergic family that I would be going vegan, they all took it like it was a personal affront to the religion and the family that I was brought up in.

The very fact that I would give up poultry, seafood, pork and beef seemed like abhorrence to them. They worried for my health, they worried for my sanity and most of all; they really worried about what they would serve me when I joined them for meals!

Why? Well, for a large section of the population (and historians would agree with them in a slightly different light) the eating of beef and pork was an important badge of showing that you were a god-fearing Catholic! Although, the Catholic Church and the Pope would support me in my dietary decisions, my Goan Catholic family had other views on the matter.

When the Portuguese landed on Goan shores (for God and country!) they took the tasks at hand very seriously. They made sure that they created enough revenue to fill the coffers back in Portugal and wanted a large section of the population converted.

Now the first part was easy – collecting gold and taxes and sending a ton of silver back is always easy. How do you monitor if the subjugated population readily accepts the new god that you have proposed? You devise a test to ensure that the conversion has passed and this is exactly what they did!

The Portuguese ensured that the new converts ate food that included beef and pork, which were taboo to Hindus and Muslims respectively; this cemented the fact that the new entrant into the religion continued on their new course because they felt that they had committed sacrilege and that there was no turning back. That is the very method by which these meats in particular became such an important part of the diet of this particular section of society.

But the dealings with human diet and God do not end just here. There are a lot of religious denominations and religions who have used their theology as a tool to get people to toe the line and follow a particular diet.

When the Israelites roamed the desert in search of the Promised Land for forty years, there are Biblical accounts that mention that they were told to shun bats, lizards and pork. Now, historians claim that combining pig with bats and lizards made it easier for the population at that time to comprehend the relationship and think of the pig as an unclean animal. What was really at stake here was that the pork flesh with its high fat content and lack of sanitary storage at those times made it a dangerous meat to eat for those traversing through the desert. With the penchant of pork and high fat content causing dehydration and several other illnesses in an arid desert, there was no real way of ensuring the population followed the diktats except by invoking divine intervention.

I think that the general theme has always been that if you wanted a population to toe a certain line then you probably had to involve the gods. This has been done by kings across dynasties to cement their rule and the same was done when you want the people in your kingdom to have good health.

I am sure it would not always be possible to convert large swathes of general public into vegetarians – but tell them that they will be reborn in the form of the same animal they consumed and the perspective changes.

I believe that it would be difficult to impose a detox diet on everyone. So, a couple of days are made auspicious to invoke prayers from a certain deity and we abstain from certain foods in honour of those gods and voila, you have just had your detox minus all the fuss.

The origin of cooking is that food was first cooked to appease the gods and burnt sacrificial offerings were made. We starved or fasted to appease the gods as well and ensure that we were not at the receiving end of their wrath. The only common thread running through all these demarcated days is that the auspicious moments to undertake a fast or feat were set to coincide with periods of time or weather where eating anything contrary would be detrimental to health.

The rules were made by us, by humans, for us to live a fuller and healthier life.

It is truly sad when fundamentalists do not understand this. They find logic in taking a human life when the person is suspected of killing an animal they hold to be sacred!

When will we ever learn? I know, I have learnt my lesson. I support our environment and am now proudly vegan!

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