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A Bloody Rebellion And The Bloodless Revolution

April 2007
A Bloody Rebellion And The Bloodless Revolution

India's Sepoy Rebellion, whose 150th anniversary falls in May this year, and Indian vegetarianism would seem to have nothing in common. Yet there is a distinct connection. The Enfield rifles introduced by the British Raj came with gunpowder cartridges that had cow and pig fat. Indian soldiers, many of them devout Hindus and Muslims, were outraged when they realized the cartridges had to be bitten before use. This was one primary reason, among others, to trigger what became known as the Great Indian Mutiny (by British historians) or the First War of Independence (by Indian revisionists). William Dalrymple, in his recent The Last Mughal – The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, calls it the Uprising, which he describes as "the most serious armed act of resistance to Western imperialism ever to be mounted anywhere in the world." There were numerous casualties on both sides, and far-reaching consequences after the bloody conflict ended. The British became stronger and remained in power in India for the next 90 years.

Tristram Stuart's The Bloodless Revolution, which came out this year, tells a different kind of story. As the subtitle indicates, it's a cultural history of vegetarianism from 1600 to modern times. India, given its long vegetarian tradition, has had a major influence; in fact, the British edition of Stuart's book has the following subtitle: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India. "Europe's encounter with Indian vegetarianism had a massive impact well beyond the radical fringe," Stuart writes in the introduction. "A thriving trade in travel literature inflamed the eager inquiries of serious philosophers and fuelled the curiosity of a wide popular audience. The travelers themselves tended to ridicule Indian vegetarianism as absurd soft-heartedness, but many readers saw in the Indian system a powerful and appealing moral code." It's a system that supports the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence), whose best-known Indian practitioner in the last century was Mahatma Gandhi, a strict vegetarian. In the West, George Bernard Shaw was one of the most famous vegetarians in the 20th century; Adolf Hitler, on the other hand, was surely the most infamous.���

In our era, a preoccupation with health is a major reason for the growth of vegetarianism, especially in the West. America, for instance, has long been known for its carnivorous diet; but close to 6 million residents are wholly vegetarian. That number may seem unimpressive when compared to India, where the number of vegetarians reaches 220 million. There is, however, wide interest and a growing awareness of its benefits. One study points out that as high as 40 percent of the U.S. population is flexitarian – a word that the American Dialect Society picked in 2003 as the most useful. Flexitarians are non-vegetarians who opt for vegetarian meals every now and then.

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