International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India


Vegetarianism in Tamil Literature
T. P. MEENAKSHI SUNDARAN
(Chief Professor of Tamil, Presidency College, Madras)

Ahimsa is the ruling principle of Indian life from the very earliest times. Though expressed in a negative form as "non-injury," or "non-violence," it is a positive outlook on life born of a 'sensitiveness of mind which shudders instinctively at the sight of innocent suffering and therefore, in its developed stage, refuses, at any cost, to cause any injury to other living beings. This blossoms ultimately into universal love.

Tolkappiyar speaks of this ever-widening mystery of personality - its development and perfection into Universal Personality, soaked through and through with Universal Love - Love which is born of no narrow or fettering kinship. It is no mere condescending Humanism; it is universal sympathy with all living beings. This is the spirit of those noble souls who, claiming and feeling universal relationship with all beings, refuse to be cribbed, cabined, and confined within the lightless narrow darkness of petty relationship. It is not a renunciation of the family tie - who ever forgot his Mother? - but a real spreading out or glowing perfection of the Divine spark of love imbedded in every heart. The words "arulotu punarnta akarei " - the widening wedded to universal love " (a widening which takes you far far away from your old limits), as differentiated from " Kaamam niitta paal" (the renunciation of passions) are really significant.

This positive spiritual attitude is easily explained to the common man in a negative way as "ahimsa" and hence this way of denoting it. Tiruvalluvar speaks of this as "kollaamai" or "non-killing." In his view of things any injury is tantamount to killing - a tearing away of so many living cells, even when intended as a mental pain.

But this "non-killing" is differentiated by him from Vegetarianism. This is also explained in a negative way, as the man not eating animal food "pulaal unnaamai." Tiruvalluvar always proceeds from the known to the unknown even at the risk of being misunderstood as a realist and a pragmatist. "Do as you will be done by." This, indeed. is a golden rule for philosophy - realistic and idealistic, and it is the starting-point of all his varied approaches. "How call one be the Master of 'arul' or universal love," he asks, "if one fattens his flesh on the flesh of other dumb beasts?" The use of the non-rational noun "piritu" suggests that the flesh can fatten the flesh and not the rational or human aspects.

To this, non-vegetarians may retort: "I do not myself kill and therefore my universal love does not suffer any diminution." But Tiruvalluvar is there even before them, anticipating this with his relentless reply: ''People slaughter the beasts, because they have to be killed (for the non-vegetarian's desire), Can otherwise, price alone bring forth the flesh?" Thus he proceeds.

An emphasis on or glorification of vegetarianism as a fundamental philosophy was probably the precious contribution of Jainism to Indian thought. This has been accepted by all schools of Indian thought at least as an ideal. Even the erstwhile adherents of Vedic Sacrifice became converts to Vegetarianism, more aggressive and more intolerant, as is always the case with new converts. "To save a single life, even if it be of the lowliest kind is more glorious and of greater moment than a thousand sacrifices of all grandeur."So sang Manu and Tiruvalluvar.

It is important to note that this became also the ideal of statecraft as reflected first in the folklore and later in the sacred puranas. Even the hungry tiger, in the land of a true King, refuses to pounce on the meek lamb nearby, but both drink of the same stream of' love and life, Thus dreamt the common people and the great poets. The Sangam people made a tradition of the story of Cipi, the great Cola King who, they believed, gave up every iota of his flesh as feast to a hawk for saving a simple dove which took refuge with him from the clutches of that bird of prey. Katiyaluur Urattiran Kannanaar of the Sangam age, in describing Kaavirippuum Pattinam or the great city of the Colaas, speaks of the fish in the tumultuous company of the every-increasing number of their kith and kin, playing in the shallow waters almost on the courtyard of the fishermanfolk and of the beasts of food crowding around the huts of the erstwhile mutton vendors, all without any thought of the ancient enmity. This is the glowing picture of the idealized success of Vegetarianism in the very midst of flesh-eaters and drunkards.

Tolkaappiyanar, the Sangam poet and Tiruvalluvar are by tradition considered to be of the golden age of the ancient Tamils. Perhaps the twin epics, Cilappatikaaram, the story of Kannaki and Kovalan, and Manimekalai, the story of the anchorite daughter of Kovalan came at the end of this period, or, according to some, succeeded that glorious period. The hero of Cilappatikaaram partakes of the loving food of vegetables at the hands of his beloved, before he goes to be slaughtered by a suicidal world of passions, treachery, and all that is opposed to the universal love. This suggests a significant contrast of universal import.

In Manimekalai a Buddhist epic, there occurs the episode of Saatuvan, a shipwrecked merchant reaching the shores of a Cannibal island, He speaks their language and that brings him nearer to their hearts. Their Chief offers him amongst other things a feast of flesh. The merchant, a Buddhist. explains in the most unobtrusive way even to these cannibals his philosophy, descending to their level of experience and thought. They accept the Buddhist way of life and its avoidance of the five great sins, but they ask the question of questions of their life : "How are we to live if not on flesh?" For there was no other food for them. To this dire necessity of life he makes a grudging concession and suggests living on only such animals as are not killed by them but die naturally or by accident. One cannot bring out the beauty and the philosophic depth of this episode, even in translation, much less in a bare reference like this.

The popular Eighteen Books of Moral Epigrams, called Patinenkil-k-kanukku, perhaps, with the exception of Tirukkural, probably belongs to the subsequent period of Kalabhra Interregnum and Pallava Rule. The Jain way of life has become the accepted universal way of life of the literary world, especially with reference to food habits. This is the glorious achievement of the literary leadership of the Jains of that age. "Why should the stomach of man, the finest cream of creation, become the graveyard of the dumb animals" - that reveals this trend. The revolution wrought by the Divine Philosophy, thanks to the Nayanmars and Alwaars even amongst the common folk reveals a society believing in vegetarianism, and adding milk and honey to make up any deficiency. The food is a divine offering and is relished as God's grace, emphasizing in another way the great truth: "Man does not live by bread alone." This attitude purified and spiritualized the very food taken and naturally led to Vegetarianism. Today the Hindus speak of non-vegetarian dishes as "foreign food," even those who are addicted to meat-eating.

The Saints work for a universal brotherhood of all living beings of all times and climes in the spiritual democracy of Divine Love. To this end. they do not disdain to rely on the philosophy of the prevalent folklore with its belief in the elephant and the cow, the pig and the crane, the snake and the mouse, the spider and the ant formerly not a modern Zoo but a spiritual family of Divine Service. The struggle for existence - the horrid war of marauders red in tooth and nail - disappears except as an allegory of this spiritual war against sinful thoughts, or is at least sublimated as a, spiritual evolution of Love and Light. The epics of this age, first Jain in origin but later Hindu in conception and elaboration, reveal this Universal Vision as their permanent background.

In this period Tamil gave rise also to a curious kind of epic, depicting the debates of the warring creeds and their victory in such tournaments of words, as a story of epic grandeur. One such work has come down to us in Nilakesi - a Jain work. There in the chapter on the debate with the Buddhists, who, as already hinted, tolerate non-vegetarianism as a concession to the weakness of human taste and to the necessities of nature, the Jain Victor attacks even this principle of concession and establishes the unalloyed principle of strict Vegetarianism. But one need not go here into the subtleties of this debate, made bitter by a scurrilous attack on the Buddhists. A Commentary came to be written by another Jain Saint in the palmy days of Vijayanagar rule in the fourteenth century. The Saivnite maths came into existence thereafter, emphasizing this vegetarianism. A wonderful development has been achieved. Saivism today in the ordinary parlance, especially at the dinner-table, does not mean the principles of Saiva Siddhants or any other philosophy. It has gained a wider and more universal significance in coming to denote Vegetarianism to the Saivaite, the Vaishnavaite, the Buddhist, or the Jain, the Christian or the Muslim. It is the realization of the loving presence of God in every living being as His Temple and from this point of view, meat-eating becomes worse than cannibalism. The Saivaites can be legitimately proud of this consummation. The only danger is that this may degrade into a priggish pretension and vain glory of a habit which they have inherited without any cultivation of their hearts or minds.

The never-to-be forgotten Empire of Vijayanagar passed away as a forgotten Empire. The seventeenth century saw the birth of "Kolaimaruttal," the Refusal or Prohibition of Slaughter," a book by Santalinga, the great mystic Poet-Philosopher of Universalism. Perhaps the age in which the Westerners and the Muslims not wedded to vegetarianism gave a fresh lease of life to the other habits of food, demanding the delivery of a message so worded as to appeal to the people of those days - simple but yet going straight to the heart. At the end of that century or in the beginning of the eighteenth century came Citambara Swami and Kolaimaruttu lives oven today, thanks to the Commentary by this great master of Tamil prose. He has collected therein the various telling quotations on Vegetarianism, some in the form of the very speeches of the dumb beasts, some ironical and witty, some pitiful and heart-rending.

The nineteenth century, the age of Ram Mohan Roy, Sri Ramakrishas, and Dayananda, produced one great Seer in the South - the Saint Ramalinga, the Apostle of Universal Religion, the greatest poet of the age. He was a poet as distinguished from other great contemporary Saints of India. Love was the essence of his religion and the principle of life. Therefore, to him, Vegetarianism was its concrete expression - "aanma neya orumai-p-paatu" - a beautiful phrase indeed - the oneness of spiritual affinity of souls or living beings that is the inner truth of Vegetarianism. Jiva Karunya or the pure love of living beings draws Siva Karuna or the grace of God. His Jiva Karunai Vilakkam is a masterly exposition of this philosophy in his inimitable prose full of spiritual flavour and emotional glow.

In the beginning of the twentieth century there came another Saint - Paampan Swami, who in his erudite essay on 'Jiva yatana Vyasam" or "Cruelty to Living Beings" gave a summary exposition of the philosophy of Vegetarianism from the point of view of the orthodoxy of the world. He answers there a series of questions raised. Though scaring away the common man by its learning and style, this essay is great for its logical analysis and definiteness.

The West has by this time produced not only apostles of Vegetarianism, but also scientific expositions of this way of life, but there it often did not signify any religious philosophy: it became a scientific attitude, shorn of its religious and philosophical implications. Even materialists chose the Vegetarian way. This was a development probably unknown to Tamil land. Maraimalai Atikal who came under the influence of all that was the best in the West, made the western scientific explanations, especially those of medical experts, his own and proclaimed in his unique prose of extreme sweetness the greatness of "Saiva unavu" or vegetarian food in this modern way. Tiru-Vika, the great master of modern dynamic prose bridged the yawning gulf between eastern and western thought through his writings, realizing early that Vegetarianism was more than a mere culinary habit or matter of taste. To him it was the Gandhian philosophy of life, the quintessence of Universal Religion, which he chose to call by the ancient name of Saivism. the really scientific way of modern life. He gave this as one of his messages in all that he wrote and spoke, from the point of view of both the East and the West. This was his great service to the Tamil country, especially in view of the wave of a few free-lances individually justifying their hankering after spiced meat. As a great orator, poet, prose-writer and philosopher, as an editor, labour-leader a politician, he was a power of strength for Vegetarianism, Nature-Cure, and the Universal Religion of Love.