COVID-19 and its wildlife origin brings into focus a vital lesson that all religions have a place in the life of humanity. This isn’t a teaching we are familiar with, as we are more used to parochial instructions that emphasise the importance of our own faith exclusively.
Many of our beliefs in regard to meat eating are largely situational and culture-bound. Although prescribed in several religions, there are caveats that go along with meat eating. Flesh is good but not all meat, and not always.
Human beings were hunter-gatherers for 300,000 years, surviving on wild meat and wild plants. But they didn’t live apart from nature; they were a part of nature. Constantly on the move, they didn’t rear animals nor plant crops until plant-animal devastation wrought by climate change 12,000 years ago forced them to develop farming and herding.
The Bible in a very early verse (chapter one of the first book, Genesis) states the preference for greens. “Then God said, ‘I have given you every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth and every kind of fruit-bearing tree, given them to you for food’.”
There is no meat eating in the first chapter, and it is only in chapter 4 that we encounter the civilised lifestyle of farming and herding. The story gets dark here because an angry farmer, Cain, murders his younger brother Abel, a herder, who is favoured over him.
This poignant drama subtly features the conflict between herders and farmers that persists to this day in Africa.
Herders gained the high ground in West Asian societies, and the resultant push for meat consumption is acknowledged in chapter 9 where we encounter this verse – “All living creatures are yours for food; just as I gave you the plants, now I give you everything else.”
Read the verse carefully, and you will notice the reminder about greens as the basic source of nourishment.
While this verse is a meat-lover’s blank cheque, the Bible in its third book Leviticus issues a long prescription of meats that are permissible and meats that are forbidden.
Among the detestable is the bat (Leviticus 11:19).
The spotlight is on meats that are forbidden, and modern biblical research has uncovered health dangers as the cause for this switch from blank-cheque consumption to a highly regulated meat diet.
India shows a different picture as the leaning there is towards plant-based food, attesting to the primacy of farming in the subcontinent. The largest community, Hindus, stay off beef entirely.
One community, the Jains, are strict vegetarians who never touch meat of any kind. The Jain religion, which is between 2,500 and 3,000 years old, had all these centuries seemed like a curious oddity to meat lovers. Today, Jains are becoming a source of inspiration for a world ravaged by Covid-19, SARS, swine flu, bird flu, Nipah Virus, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. All these viruses originate from wildlife and livestock.
The Jains’ religious motivation is non-violence, to the extent that they avoid uprooting plants as that would kill them.
In itself, this is already a wise ecological principle. But Jains might have known way back in the distant past that the joy of meat came with a deadly price.
Covid-19 has brought home the lesson that every religion is a storehouse of knowledge acquired from past experiences, and even the smallest religion may one day prove its universal worth as conditions on Earth change.
Vegetarianism is the ancient Jain vaccine against all types of corona viruses. But its effectiveness depends on the willingness of humanity to forgo violence against animals – wild and domesticated.
Nevertheless, if you have doubts about the Jain vaccine, here’s a story from the Bible (chapter 1, book of Daniel) that may change your mind:
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (ancient Iraq) wanted some healthy smart young men brought into his service.
To keep them fit, they would get to eat royal food. Among the selected were four from Judah, but they insisted on a simple diet of vegetables and water for a trial period of 10 days.
At the end of 10 days, the four looked better and more robust than all the others who had been eating from the royal menu.
The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org