Ecology politics and culture

The origin of religious ideas can often be traced to the costs/benefits of ecological processes, as anthropologist Marvin Harris has so elegantly done for a variety of cultural food taboos, including those for the pig in the Middle East and the cow in the Indian subcontinent. The imposition of supernatural taboos by a human culture on animal flesh may be the consequence of a deteriorating cost-benefit ratio for the use of a particular species by the community. Several thousand years ago, as human populations increased, production intensified, and natural resources (including forest cover) declined in the semiarid Middle East, the ecological costs of rearing pigs (a moisture-loving creature) gradually became a threat to the entire subsistence system in the region. As ancient cultures and religions responded to this ecological challenge of producing pork, the pig taboo was a recurring theme across a wide zone of pastoral nomadism, from North Africa through the Middle East into Central Asia. Not only the ancient Israelites, but also, before them, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians developed a distinct prejudice against the consumption of pork during the second millennium b.c. The rise of Islam during the seventh century a.d. further reinforced this process of imposing food taboos. The Islamic priesthood incorporated into the Koran the divine dicta of the Levitical priests of the Israelites.

The origin of the sacred cow in the Indian subcontinent may have an even more complex cost-benefit ecological consideration. The early Aryan immigrants were pastoral-agriculturalists who seemed commonly to consume beef. Several scholars observe that the Vedic texts up to the first millennium b.c. have ample references to consumption of beef by the Aryans, including by the Brahmans or priests. After an extended period of ambivalence toward beef consumption, a taboo on slaughter of cows and oxen and eating their flesh was firmly established in Hindu India by the middle of the first millennium a.d. This period saw the spread of Aryan settlements over the Indo-Gangetic basin, intensification of production, a virtual disappearance of natural forests, and a population explosion.

Not only did the rearing of cattle for meat become more ecologically difficult, but also the link with agriculture of cattle as draft animals was more firmly established. Agriculture itself was at the mercy of the vagaries of the monsoon. During years of drought, the temptation to slaughter cattle for consumption would have been strong, but cattle were more useful alive than dead. When the rains came, the oxen were needed to plough the fields. Cows were needed for milk, dung, and the production of more oxen and cows. Thus, it may have been adaptive for a farmer to take a longer-term view of the costs/ benefits of keeping cattle as opposed to slaughtering them for short-term gain. This inextricable link between cattle and agriculture may have been at the root of the anti-cow-slaughter and anti-beef-consumption sentiments that spread through ancient India.

Explanations for the taboo on elephant flesh and the deification of the species may also be sought in the interactions of culture, the sociopolitical milieu, and ecological processes of ancient India. Among the ruins of the Harap-pan culture are found the burned bones of several animals whose flesh was presumably consumed at that time. Bones of elephants are also found here, suggesting that the species may have been consumed, even if only rarely, by people of the Harappan culture. Elephants were certainly hunted and their meat consumed by hill tribes in southern India up to at least the fifth or sixth century a.d., as seen from descriptions in the Sangam literature of the Tamils. On the other hand, the taboo on elephant meat in northern India probably arose much earlier and may have been contemporaneous with the general spread of vegetarianism.

When the Aryan immigrants reached the subcontinent, it is certain that elephant flesh was never really a part of their diet. The elephant never existed in the region of Central Asia from where the Aryans migrated, and they would have become familiar with the animal only after reaching the vicinity of the Indus Valley. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the early Aryans shunned the flesh of elephant once they encountered the species and other cultures that consumed it, especially as the Aryans ate a variety of other animals. The elephant was widespread and abundant and, as the Aryans pushed into the fertile Gangetic plains, would potentially have been a source of meat.

As the Aryan populations and settlements grew, the forests of the Indo-Gangetic tract, and along with it the elephant, gradually retreated. The rise of republics and kingdoms and the growing use of elephants in armies, however, would have created a sustained demand for the supply of elephants from wild populations. Historically, elephants never bred too well in captivity, and thus a steady supply from the wild was needed to maintain or increase the captive stocks. As discussed, the Mauryan Empire maintained a large stock of elephants. The prescription in the Arthasastra that sanctuaries should be set up along the periphery of the kingdom for the protection of elephants, and the death penalty imposed on those killing an elephant, implies that a depletion of wild populations had already occurred on a local scale. The demographic traits of elephants are such that their sustainable harvest, even through capture of any sizable proportion of the wild population, is rarely feasible (see chapter 7). Harvest of Asian elephants at a rate exceeding 1.5%-2.0% of the population annually would have resulted in their depletion. The large elephant armies in ancient India certainly suggest higher rates of capture. These Mauryan prescriptions on protection were presumably to ensure a steady supply of elephants for the king's army.

Thus, a taboo on the killing of elephants (presumably for meat) may have been in force since the early Mauryan times. This was further strengthened during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta. Ashoka became a Buddhist, and in his famous edicts, he declared that "no living being may be slaughtered for sacrifice" and, by inference, for consumption.

We can thus speculate that, as the elephant was increasingly used by the Aryans as a beast of burden in the colonization of northern India and, more important, deployed in their armies, the elephant at some stage became more useful alive than dead. The Aryan chieftains and kings, perhaps on the advice of the Brahman priests, may have imposed a taboo on the killing of the elephant and consumption of its flesh.

The taboo on elephant meat may have arisen as an independent tradition, but eventually was incorporated into the more general spread of vegetarianism, especially the shunning of beef, in the subcontinent. This was obviously a gradual process that spanned several hundred years. Passages in many of the later Vedic texts show inconsistencies, indicating ambivalence toward consumption of animal flesh. The large-scale animal sacrifices, sponsored by the Aryan chieftains and performed by the Brahman priests, and the feasts at which meat was distributed to the common people were fewer by the middle of the first millennium b.c. The expanding human population and ecological pressures would have made it very difficult for the chieftains and priests to cater to the demands of the people at large for sacrificial meat. Thus, meat eating seems to have largely become a monopoly of the elite—the rulers and the priests. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, both with considerable emphasis on not killing any creature, would have posed a challenge to this meat-eating elite of Aryan society. The eventual shunning of meat by the Brahmans and other upper castes and the doctrine of ahimsa (nonviolence) may have been a response to this challenge in order to keep the people within the Hindu fold.

Societies outside the Aryan pale, as in southern India, would have continued to consume elephant meat for much longer. It is difficult to say precisely when this practice ceased virtually all over the subcontinent, but this could have been around the seventh or the eighth century a.d., when the worship of Ganesha became established in the south. The Arab traveler and scholar Alberuni recorded during the middle of the eleventh century that the prohibition on killing of animals "applies in particular to Brahmins, because they are guardians of the religion. ... It is allowed to kill certain animals [by other castes] . . . those which are forbidden are cows, horses, mules, asses, camels, elephants" (Sachau 2002, pp. 559-560). In short, there was universal prohibition on killing of useful animals.

The shunning of elephant meat was roughly contemporaneous with the evolution of the elephant-headed deity. Explanations for the eventual emergence of Ganesha may also be sought in the ecological milieu of ancient India, particularly the conflict between elephants and people for space and resources. Consider the following steps in the evolution of Ganesha. Originally, an elephant-related deity was probably the totem of one or more Dravidian tribes and seems to have been associated with primitive, agrarian rites. In earlier times, the elephant deity was propitiated to avoid personal ills. The vighna-related epithets make it clear that there was a malevolent side to this deity, who was the creator of obstacles. Later, the deity was transformed into the now-familiar benevolent Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. The symbols associated with Ganesha—the sugarcane, the radish, the bowl of sweet cakes—are predominantly agricultural and related to food. Interestingly, the early Chinese texts, most of which were originally written by Indian monks, refer to Ganesha as Vinayaka, an obstacle who must be driven away or removed.

Even prior to the arrival of the Aryans, the small, agricultural societies in the subcontinent would have faced a threat from elephants that ravaged crop fields or even killed people. The elephant was thus to be feared and an elephant spirit or deity to be appeased to avoid personal misfortune. As the Aryans spread into the Indo-Gangetic basin, this conflict with elephants would have intensified. The clearing of forests for settlement and agriculture and the fragmentation of remaining habitats would have increasingly brought the still-abundant wild elephant population into crop fields. The Gajasastra, ancient elephant lore (sixth or fifth century b.c.) attributed to the sage Palkapya who lived in eastern India, alludes to the ravages caused by the elephant to agriculture in the kingdom of Anga (in present-day Bihar State). The Aryans would have incorporated some of the tribal deities into Vedic traditions, a recurring theme in the evolution of Hindu worship. Undoubtedly, an elephant deity, still retaining its basic malevolent character, would have been part of these traditions.

At the same time, the capture of elephants for deployment in the armies of the Aryan rulers and the clearing of habitat for settlement would have eliminated wild elephant populations over large tracts of the Indo-Gangetic basin. While people living along the periphery (the cultivation-forest boundary) of such tracts or in the outer plains and hill forests would still have confronted the elephant in their daily lives, those living toward the center of these cultivated tracts would have been safe from its depredations. For the latter, the elite of society, it was no longer necessary to consider the elephant as an evil force. Rather, the very opposite would have been true. The elephant, an indispensable beast of burden and a war machine par excellence, was a very positive force.

Historians of religion have been puzzled by the transformation of a malevolent Vinayaka into the benevolent Ganesha. G. S. Ghurye (1962) merely observed that "such transformations inhere in the very nature of religio-magical beliefs" (p. 61) and further that "this last problem [i.e., transformation] defies a perfectly rational and reasonable explanation" (p. 57). It is easy to see that, for the chieftains and kings, the priests and intellectuals, and the farmers cultivating lands free from the threat of depredations (in short, the elite of Aryan society), there was every reason to transform a malevolent deity to a benevolent one. Even though there was a distinct attempt to stress the humble origins of Ganesha, presumably to make the deity more acceptable to the common people, G. S. Ghurye rightly observes that the worship of Ganesha first rose among the elite and was only grudgingly accepted by the commoners, who presumably would still have confronted the wild elephant in their lives.

This differing religiocultural perception of the elephant could potentially have set the stage for social conflict in ancient India. This can be compared with the more contemporary conflicts over the elephant, for instance, between the southern African and eastern African views on elephant management, the internecine conflicts in many African countries between the perceptions of "natives" and "expatriates" over elephant conservation, or even in modern India between villagers and urban-based conservationists (see chapter 9). How then was a potential conflict solved in ancient India?

We can only speculate that the demand for war elephants by the Aryan rulers would have created sufficient economic incentives for the more marginal sections of society, the shifting cultivators and hunter-gatherers who lived among the elephants. As is true even today, these communities would have possessed the skills of capturing, training, and handling elephants. Perhaps a compromise formula was worked out between the two parties. Rather than confront the economically and militarily more powerful Aryan elite, the forest tribes perhaps stopped killing elephants for meat and instead captured them for their rulers' armies. Whatever the interplay of social, economic, political, and religious factors in ancient India, it is a historical fact that, by about 1,200 years ago, the elephant had risen to the status of an important god, and a universal taboo on its killing and consumption was firmly established across the sub-continent. Only certain tribes of the Northeast, who remained outside the influence of mainstream Aryan culture, have continued to this day to consume elephant flesh.

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