Do the Vedas ban the entry of dogs into homes? We are a pure vegetarian family, can we our golden retriever only a vegetarian diet? Is it possible to make vegetarian food for dogs that fulfils their dietary requirements? Do such questions bother you? If you are the proud owner of a vegetarian dog, do you think your pet is calm and peaceful because it is a vegetarian. If such thinking is inspired because of godman Jaggi Vasudev’s plea for vegetarianism, you need some sociological insights.

It was at a veterinary clinic in Athani taluka of Karnataka’s Belagavi district that I first encountered a family that wanted to raise their puppy as a vegetarian. A father (engineer) and daughter (BSc), the Hiremaths (caste) had just added a Labrador retriever puppy to their family. They were at the clinic for general advice and vaccination.

As they got the puppy vaccinated, the daughter asked what the puppy should be fed and told the doctor that the family ate pure vegetarian food and that they planned to raise the dog as a vegetarian. The doctor looked at them with some surprise but did not try to convince them otherwise. Milk and bread would work for now and packed vegetarian food for dogs was always available, he said.

It is common knowledge in veterinarian science that dogs are omnivores and a balanced diet for them will need to have meat. The doctor did not want to contest the belief of the vegetarian family and I suppose that would have involved a lot of his time and patience.

If you are one such owner of a (vegetarian) dog, first of all, congratulations on embracing a pet with so much compassion. If you come from a family that has been pure-vegetarian for ages, you are part of a revolution as dogs in these families were considered lowly as “untouchables” – not to be allowed inside the house and never to gain the respect and love that was reserved for the pure cow.

You should not be surprised if politicians or religious leaders compare some social groups or women with dogs because such ideas do have some religious sanctity. Below is some text from the Laws of Manu on lowly creatures, including the dog:

“Neither a ‘Fierce’ Untouchable, nor a pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, or an impotent man should be watching the priests dine. [240] Whatever any of these looks upon at an offering into the fire, a gift- giving ceremony, a feast, or an offering for the gods or ancestors goes wrong. [241] The pig destroys (the offerings) by sniffing them, the cock with the flapping of his wings, the dog by letting his gaze fall upon them, and a low-class person by his very touch.”

Not surprisingly, in 2015, Union Minister of State VK Singh had stoked a controversy with his remarks on the murder of two scheduled caste children, saying the Central government cannot be held responsible if someone stones “a dog”.

Women in “pure” and privileged families are considered untouchables temporally during their menstrual cycles and such wisdom on their temporal impurity is drawn from religious texts.

In 2020, Krushnaswarup Dasji of the Swaminarayan Temple in Gujarat said in his sermon, “Menstruating women who cook food for their husbands will take birth as dogs in their next life while men consuming food prepared by women having periods will be reborn as bullocks, as per religious texts.”

Different from the Vedas in several respects, the Manusmrti does however make our hierarchical worldview firmer and clearer. However, the Manusmrti cannot have the last word. there could be texts that reserve a better place for dogs. One could read Bibek Debroy’s Sarama and her Children: The Dog in Indian Myth (Penguin 2008) for such a line.

However, for our purpose and to enable more thinking on the ethical dilemmas of raising a vegetarian dog, the Manusmrti remains important.

Vegetarianism is a cultural and religious imposition on “pure” and privileged castes. It is not an ethical choice but part of dharma that degrades meat eaters to low status. Vegetarianism in India, unlike veganism, is not driven by compassion for animals.

I have previously explained how Indian vegetarianism is not veganism (vegans, in addition to being vegetarians, also abstain from animal products) and it is not necessarily driven by any care for animals.

Instead, non-vegetarian food (and non-vegetarian people) generate disgust among vegetarians in India – a peculiar feeling that calls for distance, both social and physical, from non-vegetarian food and non-vegetarian people. The idea of purity attached to vegetarian food tells us about the ideology of caste and not compassion.

Contrary to the obsession with purity and caste-centered vegetarianism, contemporary urbane love for the dog defies several traditional hierarchies and even ideas of intimacy. Such love for dogs and cats is inspired by new individualism and urbanism across cultures and societies.

In cities, as families become tinier, we seek companionship in pets and they become part of our sociality. Not all states appreciate such hyper-individualism that makes dogs part of families. In Iran for instance, dogs are animals are considered impure in Islamic tradition. In the eyes of the current regime of Iran dogs have become a symbol of the “Westernisation” and the state has even banned import of pet food .

The contemporary urban love for dogs in our form of urbanism is not all free flowing and compassionate. For instance, there is almost a class system in dog preference and a study showed that 62% among the upper-class and upper middle-class prefer a pedigree or purebred dog instead of the local stray dogs – almost creating a caste system among dogs.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters.

The idea of raising a vegetarian dog is a regressive idea, similar to the backlash in cities like that of Ahmedabad against the sale of non-vegetarian food on the streets. Vegetarianism is a contested ideology in India and even now, most continue to eat meat.

There is little doubt over the fact that animal sacrifice and meat consumption was allowed in the Vedas. A most recent educating scholarship on the matter of animal sacrifice in Cedic traditions and its Buddhist critique is Hyoung Seok Ham’s PhD thesis (University of Michigan 2016) titled, “Buddhist Critiques of the Veda and Vedic Sacrifice: A Study of Bhāviveka’s Mīmāṃsā Chapter of the Madhyamakahṛdayakārikā and Tarkajvālā”.

Vegetarianism is a major part of our culture and socialisation, like arranged same-caste marriages and the practice of dowry. It is not necessarily an ethical or non-violent core.

The idea of raising a vegetarian dog is a violent idea of civilising a dog into something that it is not meant to be. Denying dogs meat-based food is associated with the compulsive privileged caste obsession with purity.

In cities, we cannot keep cows inside our homes and the dog is a pragmatic choice. A vegetarian dog, however, is a paradox to be solved not celebrated. It may be necessary, therefore, to serve dogs meat-based food even if you are a pure vegetarian – a sign of compassion and urban cosmopolitanism.

Suryakant Waghmore is professor of Sociology at IIT-B, visiting scholar at CESDIP Paris and Fellow, New India Foundation. His Twitter handle is @Suryakant_Waghm.