The Humane Myth of Ahimsa

“We could worship even animals but would not tolerate fellow humans to sit beside us.” Bhagat Singh, freedom fighter, in Issue of Untouchability, 1928.

“Do not keep contact with those who feed ants with sugar, but kill men by prohibiting them to drink water.” Babasaheb Ambedkar, chief architect of Constitution of India and social reformer, in What Path to Salvation? 1936.

We all want to align ourselves with what is good and kind, and we are only too willing to buy in to stories that reinforce our self-perception as ethical and humane. Myriad companies employ the strategy of “humane-washing” in an effort to capitalize on these instincts. Humane-washing is a way in which companies attempt to convince consumers that their products are less cruelly sourced than those of their competitors. A familiar example would be the label “cage-free eggs,” which might be accompanied by images of chickens living free in lush, idyllic pastures. To the contrary, “cage-free” often still results in thousands upon thousands of birds being crammed together in large warehouses; they’re just not kept in individual cages. The warehouse, in turn, serves as a sort of “mass cage.” In the entirety of their short lives, these chickens will never see a pasture.

Similar myths are propagated around “happy cows” in dairy production, deliberately obscuring the mechanics of the dairy industry— which include forced insemination, early culling of male calves, and a variety of other abhorrent practices about which we would prefer not to know. As long as we can be convinced that our milk or eggs are “humane,” we need not pursue the matter further. 

Kindness to animals can be used as a tactic in signaling a moral character in general.  In fact, Israel has been engaged in a more comprehensive “vegan-washing” in order to bolster its image as a just and peace-loving country. Along with other emerging social movements of interest to millennials, specific campaigns have been undertaken to promote Israel as a paradise for vegan living. Much has been made of the vegan options offered to the soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces, including vegan leather boots. Palestinian activists have of course pointed out the irony of compassionate vegan options when the state is occupying their land. They point out that Israel is one of the biggest consumers of animal foods in the world, and that proportion of vegans in Palestine is reported to be twice that of Israel.

In many ways, India’s famed vegetarian diet and promotion of “ahimsa” as a fundamental tenet of Hinduism has a flavor of humane-washing to it. Along with other spiritual practices and the prominence of MK Gandhi, much of the animal rights movement outside of India (and even within it) holds up Hinduism as a model of nonviolence and compassionate care. Leaders of animal rights organizations in the USA sign off their emails with “ahimsa,” name their organizations “Aum,” and are often pictured with its Sanskrit symbol or Mr. Gandhi displayed prominently behind them. However, when we look beyond the surface, we see that “ahimsa” is actually a humane hoax, a deliberate campaign of humane-washing that hides violence against other humans as well as animals. The academician Pratap Mehta stated that “The centrality of ahimsa in the Indian tradition was not a description of our non-violent history. Quite the contrary, it was a testament to the centrality of violence…. the discourse on ahimsa was more a sign of violence inherent in [our] society.”

The humane hoax of ahimsa is a little like Israel’s vegan-washing campaign, only hundreds of years older. Only a minority (about 30%) of Indians practice vegetarianism, and these are predominantly the privileged castes. Dietary habits are one of the most blatant caste markers today, both in India and in the diaspora. If the rest of the world thinks of India as a “vegetarian nation,” it is only because members of its privileged castes— who have had a public voice denied to those of lower castes— are vegetarian, and the privileged minority have been eager to represent India.

The priestly caste of Hinduism is called Brahmin, and the original precursor to what later became Hinduism was known as Brahminism. Scriptural sources indicate that both meat consumption and animal sacrifices were part of religious practices during early Brahminism (1500 BCE)— and that, at a later point, privileged castes (particularly Brahmins) switched to a vegetarian diet. Who were the Brahmins? Why did they establish a sacrificial culture, and why did they later eschew it for vegetarianism?

Various sources (including linguistic and genomic evidence) indicate that the Vedas were composed by “Brahmins”— identified in this case not as people indigenous to the subcontinent but as migrants from the Steppe grasslands of central Asia who began to settle in northern India 3,500 years ago.  The evidence suggests that the Steppe migrants imposed both sacrificial culture and the caste system on the indigenous peoples, who then began to rebel against both practices. Buddhism, the main opponent to Brahminical ideology, speaks against the injustice and irrationality of both the caste system and ritual animal sacrifice. In an attempt to overthrow the advancing threat of Buddhism, Brahmins decided to eschew meat in order to claim the moral high ground, as well as spiritual and bodily purity.

In other words, their reason for adopting vegetarianism was to ostracize others as “untouchable” and not compassion or desire for ahimsa. This is clearly explained by Dr. Ambedkar, India’s preeminent social reformer, in his book Who Were the Untouchables? (1948) and followed up by Dr Ilaiah Shepherd in the essay “Freedom to Eat” (Caravan India, 2019).[1] To quote Dr. Pratap Mehta again, “Behind the solicitude for the cow lay a visceral hate for beef eaters, as if the very gentleness towards the cow was merely a sublimated form of cruelty towards others.”  In addition, the scriptures are also very revealing with respect to how different human communities were ranked in relation to each other— and, most importantly for this context, how they were ranked in relation to other animals. In other words, certain communities were first degraded and banished, then further vilified for eating the only foods available to them, in an endless cycle of ritual humiliation. In the current day, the formerly “untouchable” are called “Dalit,” they number between 200 and 300 million and are among most oppressed people in India and the world.

Even if we choose to disregard the history of vegetarianism as described by Dr. Ambedkar and others, we know beyond any doubt that meat- and beef-eating is associated with the majority oppressed caste population (which includes Muslims as well as the caste oppressed), and it is very much denigrated in the present day by the oppressor castes. The tensions continue to play out as the current ruling party in India, the BJP, has applied stringent cow slaughter bans over progressively more and more Indian states. The BJP is the political wing of the fascist Hindu nationalist organization, the RSS, which proposes to impose Brahminical values on the people of India. Cow slaughter ban might look like ahimsa to outsiders, but actually the consequences of the ban are to further marginalize and criminalize Dalits, Muslims and other groups.  Over the last several years, the incidents of “cow vigilantism” have increased, where dozens of marginalized people have been killed and hundreds injured in mob violence upon the suspicion of eating beef or trading in cattle. Perpetrators of violence are punished by the government reluctantly, if at all.  

Not only are humans being harmed, but also neither cows nor buffalos are truly protected by the beef ban. India remains one of the top exporters worldwide of both cow and buffalo beef. There are many legal loopholes that allow animals to be slaughtered despite the beef ban. While small butcher shops run by the marginalized have been targeted and shut down, large slaughter plants continue to function. Recent reporting by The Caravan India indicates that oppressor Hindu castes (specifically Brahmins) are in charge of the surreptitious transport and selling of cows into slaughter. Taken together, the evidence indicates that the tenet of nonviolence undergirding Hindu vegetarianism is merely a “humane hoax” that hides violence towards animals— including humans. The beef ban and related vigilantism underscore the throughline of our history: using professed nonviolence towards nonhumans to oppress and brutalize other humans.

Many characteristics of humane-washing can be found in both modern US marketing campaigns and Brahminical vegetarianism. Let’s consider some of them.

The basic characteristic of the humane hoax is the manipulation of language to obscure the truth. The humane myth is essentially an example of doublethink: to have some intimation of the truth, but also to believe a carefully constructed lie that is its opposite. By definition, it uses language that obscures and even reverses the actual meaning of words. “Humane slaughter” is an oxymoron, as there is nothing humane about the involuntary and premature death of an animal. A product in the US can be “Certified Humane” but still allow many types of confinement and mutilation. “Cage-free” and “free-range” mean intense confinement; “happy cows” mean confinement, forced insemination and separation from new-born calves.

Cruelty, in other words, is termed as its opposite, kindness. In the same way, Hindu scriptures also contrived to turn himsa into ahimsa. While switching from animal sacrifices in the early Vedic scriptures to “ahimsa” branding, intermediate scriptures reinterpreted ritual killing as non-harm: “Manu asserts that animals were created for the sake of sacrifice, a that on ritual occasions is non-killing and injury as enjoined by the Veda is known to be non-injury.” The scripture goes on to add that Vedic sacrifices were not only not harmful, but a benefit that accrued to both the animals being sacrificed and the persons who are carrying out the sacrifice.

The second characteristic of the humane hoax is that is promulgated by groups or organizations who are otherwise predicated on the well-being of animals. The Humane Society of the United States, the most well-funded advocacy organization for animals in the US, is a major player in the humane hoax arena. HSUS (and similar organizations) often strike deals with the animal-killing industry and promotes its “happy meat.” By carefully crafting a brand founded on animal protection, the HSUS not only provides cover for the use and abuse of animals but also profits from it.

In the same way, being predicated on ahimsa, anything that a Brahmin does is automatically cleared of any suspicion. In recent times, having a Brahmin surname and identity has provided useful cover when smuggling cows to sell to slaughter. In the Caravan article on Hindu cattle-smuggling networks, Rajesh Prakash narrates:

“…the social worker… explained why Brahmins had an advantage when it came to transporting cattle. “It’s only the Brahmin caste that can come and go with the cow anywhere,” he said. “He will neither be caught nor killed in the name of cow protection, nor will the police arrest him. If a Brahmin is taking a cow to sell it for slaughter and someone stops him on the basis of suspicion, he can make an excuse that the cow has come as a donation from some village and he is taking it to some other village.”

The humane hoax offers exceptions for cruelty if they are supposed to serve some greater purpose that is vaguely but reverentially described. Authors like Michael Pollan talk about the intelligence and moral virtue of animals even as they relish hunting and eating them because it satisfies some delirious, quasi-spiritual concept of the Circle of Life. Some of the mystical language in the Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, may come right out of the Rig Veda or the Upanishads. For instance, Pollan writes, “Sun-soil-oak-pig-human: There it was, one of the food chains that have sustained life on earth for a million years made visible in a single frame, one uncluttered and most beautiful example of what is.”

In the Vedic literature, sacrificial rituals were undertaken to impose order on the universe. Even the creation of the cosmos was through sacrifice of Purusa, the primordial being, which gave existence to the four castes as well as the rest of creation. It says, “It was Purusa, born in the beginning, which they sprinkled on the sacred grass as a sacrifice.” The Upanishads, considered the most supreme and lofty of the Hindu scriptures, begins with comparing the sacrificial horse to the parts and processes of the material universe.

In the current day, a reworking of the humane myth certifies the cow (“gho”) as the “divine mother” to allow us to consume dairy despite the inherent exploitation.

“To the Hindus, the cow is sacred because it represents life and fertility. On account of the manifold usefulness of the cow, India has conferred a religious role upon the cow, having raised her to the status of a goddess, mother to one and all and an object of worship. In the appellation gho-mata, mata (mother) is more attached to cow than any other goddess in Indian mythology.

Owing to this reverential labeling, the cow becomes the most abused animal in the subcontinent. Even though Brahminism has eschewed meat sacrifices, it has adopted the use of dairy products in religious ceremonies— which is no less cruel. Cow’s milk, ghee, and yogurt are routinely used in temple ceremonies in copious quantities.[2] Because of the slaughter ban, dairy farmers who would normally sell “spent” dairy cows to slaughter are forced to set them free to roam because they cannot afford to feed them. These cows wander onto busy streets and fields where they suffer abuse. One of the most insidious and uniquely Indian form of abuse is “acid attacks,”  where stray cows are severely burned in an attempt to protect crops. 

In the Western animal rights community, we hold up Indian vegetarianism as a beacon of hope for animal protection. However, when we look beneath the surface, it appears that Hindu “ahimsa” is actually a humane hoax, because it was originally intended to marginalize human communities; that it continues to do so under the cow slaughter ban; and that, ultimately, it does not really protect animals. “Ahimsa,” like “cage-free eggs” or “happy meat,” is just another humane-washing term, intended to distract us from the underlying violence against sentient beings, humans and other animals alike. We do not do the animal rights movement any favors by continuing to adhere to this hypocrisy. The people oppressed by the professed “ahimsa” number in the hundreds of millions, and they are only too aware of the duplicity. They hold in contempt the bogus value ahimsa, which claims to protect animals at their expense.

As the animal rights movement continues to claim “ahimsa” as its slogan, the people who have been oppressed by it increasingly see the movement as hollow, superficial, and misguided. As freedom fighter Bhagat Singh as has said, we need to look behind the reason why Hindus worship nonhuman animals, but won’t let a fellow human sit next to them. As Dr. Ambedkar has said, we need to understand why Hindus have fed ants sugar while they deny Dalits drinking water. Ultimately, the animal rights movement needs the support of all humans, not just the privileged ones; and it is not going to get it with humane-washing terms that are used to alienate and degrade humans.

[1] See also Jotiba Phule’s 1885 book “Gulamgiri” (Slavery) for a similar account.

[2] * Dr Kancha Ilaiah has termed these wasteful practices  “anti-surplus generation mechanisms” – a way to prevent accumulation of surplus keeping the oppressed masses hungry and engaged in perpetual food production.

Rama Ganesan lived in Chennai until the age of 10, when she emigrated to the UK with her family. She then moved to the US in her twenties with her spouse. She received her BA from University of Oxford, a PhD from the University of Wales, and an MBA from the University of Arizona. She has two grown children, a dog and two cat companions. After reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, Rama began to explore the philosophy of animal rights and veganism. Over time this developed into an interest in the common roots of oppression of both humans and animals. She can be found on Instagram and Medium.

Research Finds Gender Bias in Self-Reported Meat Consumption

Woman Eating Meat

New research confirms that women downplay their flesh consumption. Gender roles strongly influence our attitudes and behaviors…and this includes what we eat and how we eat it.

Caring about Nonhuman Animals is “for girls.” Women are socialized to be empathetic to other animals, while men are socialized to have instrumental, non-caring relationships with other animals.

For women and men, gender is something that is performed. Eating animals or not eating them is part of that performance. Not only do women eat less flesh than men, they also underreport their actual consumption. This is because femininity requires that women consume less flesh, and women feel pressured to conform to that feminine ideal.

The gender binary aggravates this, pushing women to care about animals (and not eat them) and pushing men to not care about animals (and eat a lot of them). This binary stretches and distorts the behavior of men and women. Performing gender according to this exaggerated binary helps to reinforce the perceived natural differences between women and men. This not only erases the existence of nonconforming persons, but it also supports patriarchal dominance.

What does this mean for activists? First, women are clearly the “low hanging fruit” in terms of outreach, as they are more receptive to anti-speciesist campaigning because of their gendered socialization. It also means that men will be a tougher audience as they must overcome both human and male supremacist ideologies on their path to veganism. According to the research, simply making mention of a PETA video was enough to induce the guilt and denial response from women, but men had no such reaction.


Thank you to Carol J. Adams for bringing attention to this story.

Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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Celebrating a Racist, Abusive Sheriff is Not Vegan

Pamela Anderson and Joe Arpaio inspect bags full of vegetarian meals that are being packed into boxes. A Hispanic inmate in the foreground smiles.

By Prison Isn’t Vegan

PETA and their celebrity spokesperson Pamela Anderson made headlines this week by traveling to Pheonix to promote Sheriff Joe Arpaio. For those that don’t know, “Sheriff Joe” has been widely criticized for racial profiling of Latinos, racist discrimination against inmates, abuse of power, illegal arrests and deplorable conditions in jail, including numerous wrongful deaths under his watch.  This criticism has come from traditional human rights organizations like Amnesty International and ACLU, along with the New York Times (who called him “America’s Worst Sheriff“) and the U.S. Department of Justice who sued him for “intentionally and systematically discriminating against Latinos.”

So why exactly did Pamela and PETA decide to showcase “Sheriff Joe?” Because he serves vegetarian food to the inmates at Maricopa County Jail.

Sheriff Joe and Pamela Anderson

PETA is trying to spin it as a way to protect animals and promote health, but it’s clear Arpaio’s decision to serve vegetarian food is because it’s cheaper. In attempt to save money, “Sheriff Joe” has moved toward only serving two meals a day,charging inmates for their own meals, serving green bologna and has cut out salt, sugar and condiments from meals.

Examples of Arpaio’s abusive treatment of inmates are too extensive to list here (including “Tent City” in 135 degree heat, use of chain-gangs, and many others). While Arpaio’s specific form of racist abuse makes PETA and Anderson’s gesture of support particularly egregious, support for any jail or prison is problematic for an organization promoting veganism from an animal rights perspective.

Veganism rooted in a desire to liberate all animals from captivity and exploitation is inconsistent with supporting prisons. Prisons encage and exploit human animals.

This is particularly true in the context of the prison-industrial complex. Inmates (human animals) are held in captivity and forced to work against their will, while others profit from this captivity and forced labor. Arpaio’s use of chain-gangs is an excellent example of this. Inmates are forced to work in order to get out of lockdown. They do not get paid, providing free labor to the County. If another species were exploited for the financial benefit of humans, animal rights organizations would actively oppose it (as they should). It would be easy to imagine PETA criticizing animal “chain-gangs” given their opposition to animal-based industries and their position on chaining dogs.

A likely response will be that the people in prisons did something to be there, unlike animals on farms or at zoos. As part of the press release, Pamela Anderson said “I believe people can be rehabilitated from the inside out. Jails are full of people wanting to change, to make amends, to learn healthier habits and understand compassion and empathy.”

But there are two things to consider about this:

First, PETA and Pamela went to a jail, not a prison. There’s a difference. The majority of people in jail are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted and are presumed innocent in our society. Those in jail are people awaiting trial who could not afford to post bail. So overwhelmingly, the people in Maricopa Jail and county jails like it are poor and working-class people who have not been convicted of any crime. The small percentage who are in jail after a conviction have been convicted of misdemeanors – lesser crimes including traffic violations, vandalism, minor drug possession, etc.

Second, incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate. The disconnect in the analysis of some animal rights activists is striking when comparing anti-social behavior among humans and non-human animals.  One example is Tilikum, the Orca held at SeaWorld who has killed three different trainers. The animal rights perspective has been to look at the trauma Tilikum suffered by being captured and held in captivity. No animal rights organization or activist would claim that the appropriate response is to continue to hold him in captivity in order to “rehabilitate” him.

Image of orca in aquarium

Similarly, animal activists embrace a thoughtful, nuanced and empathetic approach toward problematic behavior in dogs. (Something I’m familiar with from fostering and adopting rescued dogs). In addressing dog behavior, animal advocates encourage looking to the socialization, history and experiences of each individual animal: What in their background causes them to behave (or misbehave) in a particular way and how can you deal with the underlying cause? No dog trainer would suggest that locking a dog in a cage for years would be an effective way to get a dog to end their bad behavior. (Note that PETA takes a strong position against using dog crates) Yet PETA and other animal welfare organizations perpetuate the myth that caging humans leads to “rehabilitation.”

Embracing a radical social analysis means challenging and critiquing all societal assumption. And supporting liberation of all living things means freeing all humans from the cages of prisons.


This essay was originally published by on April 14, 2015.


Editor’s Note:

Sarah K. Woodcock of The Abolitionist Vegan Society argues that veganism is a practice that refers specifically to Nonhuman Animals. While supporting racial profiling and the imprisonment of humans is certainly inconsistent with the social justice ethic that undergirds veganism, veganism is an ethical position that directly and exclusively represents nonhuman animals.

Masculinity, Music, and Animal Rights: Vegetarian Billy Corgan Slammed by CNN

Corgan poses on the cover of PAWS with two black cats

Gender politics in Nonhuman Animal rights continue to be a major impediment to the movement’s growth, not only because of the harm done to targeted female audiences and female advocates, but also due to the feminization of pro-animal sentiment. Caring about other animals is not considered acceptable for men. This gender norm maintains patriarchal power in delegitimizing vegan claimsmaking and normalizing male rule. It also acts as a serious impediment to growth because men who associate with Nonhuman Animal rights are heavily stigmatized as effeminate. In a patriarchy, femininity is always a bad thing. For this reason, we often see elite-run patriarchal media spaces engaged in maintaining these gender boundaries.

The summer issue of PAWS Chicago Magazine, a publication for Chicago’s largest no-kill humane organization, features vegetarian rock music legend Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Lending his celebrity status to raise awareness to Nonhuman Animal rights might be seen as charitable and ethical . . . if it were not for his contradicting gender identity. In a recent episode of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, well-known American journalist Anderson Cooper took aim at Corgan’s support for the welfare group, suggesting that he may be mentally ill or immoral. Cooper’s point was that Corgan was misusing his rockstar status by posing with kitties.  Presumably, he should be doing more “manly” things like eating “meat,” screaming into a microphone, crowdsurfing, and setting guitars on fire.

Considering that alternative rock is a hypermasculine space, I think there is a very gendered nature to Cooper’s attack on Corgan. When Cooper states, “Maybe he’s being ironic, or maybe when the cool rock stars start doing less rock starry things, it kind of makes us face our own morality,” he implies that caring about other animals is too feminine for rock. The only way Corgan’s support could work would be if he was doing so sarcastically. Cooper frames his attack as Corgan “selling out,” but PAWS is quite obviously a non-profit, not a commercial enterprise. This isn’t about selling out; this is about challenging gender norms. Although Cooper is an openly gay journalist and likely recognizes the problems associated with these socially constructed norms, he nevertheless appears to be using his class and gender privilege to police gender performance.

Corgan’s response to Cooper (via Twitter):

I realize you’re too busy being a globalist shill to know the difference, but there are those of us who do as we like

Corgan posing with dog for PAWS magazine

Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and is a member of the Research Advisory Council of The Vegan Society. She has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute and has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Environmental Values, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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