Tribalism

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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Anti-Semitism, an unlikely aid to Jewish survival? Plus tales of tribalism in France, Poland

Anti-Semitism, an unlikely aid to Jewish survival? Plus tales of tribalism in France, Poland

Beneath the surface of polite conversation in the Jewish world there exists a disturbing (for me) school of thought that postulates the following: Anti-Semitism has not been all bad for Jews.

Yes, you read that right. Anti-Semitism has not been all bad for Jews because it has helped them survive as a living religious culture, one that otherwise might have disappeared via assimilation had Christians and Muslims, among whom Jews lived as minorities, been nicer about all those complicating theological details and cultural differences.

Or to put it another way, anti-Semitism forced Jews to cooperate among themselves for their physical survival, solidifying their tribal identity and encouraging them to fight to preserve their culture and faith.

I'm reluctant to embrace that proposition -- given the Holocaust, the Inquisition and the assorted pogroms and injustices Jews have endured across the centuries, and to this day. That's a heck of a price to pay for group cohesion.

Yet I can't utterly reject it; I'm too aware of the emphasis on anti-Semitism that Jewish organizations use to rally community solidarity. Yes, and to raise money.

So I wonder whether a similar dynamic is currently at play among French Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, who seem to be experiencing something of a public political revival? And not just French Christians, but also the entire backlash among more conservative religionists against globalization's massive and threatening demographic changes.

That backlash would include Indian Hindus, about whom I wrote last week, white British Christians (even if only culturally so) who backed Brexit and American evangelicals who voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump despite strong misgivings about his lifestyle and temperament.

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Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

I've been semi-detached from the dread, anger, loss, and pain that have dominated American and international headlines the past two weeks while my wife and traveled across the Iberian Peninsula's north.

But only semi.

Full detachment is impossible for me (a) because of the electronic communication devices I take with me on vacation, and obviously (b) because of my obsessive newshound personality. The former allows me and the latter impels me to keep up -- at least to some degree -- with humanity's daily dose of self-inflicted trauma.

Spain and Portugal make it even easier for me to stay connected to this irrational state of affairs thanks to their particular histories. They abound with reminders of past injustices heaped upon the region's Jews, with which I fully identity. (Click here: I posted on this at the start of my trip.)

Human history seems a litany of communal hurts we never fully overcome. Not to mention that these hurts are continually updated.

In one Portuguese town -- Viana do Castello, just south of the Spanish border -- I parked next to a stone wall defaced by graffiti. The only parts of the scrawl I could decipher were the swastikas and the word "Sion," or Zion. I doubt the full message was complementary toward Jews or Israel.

Then there was this despicable anti-American, anti-Semitic and blatantly racist cartoon circulated by Spain's United Left political party, which holds eight seats in the nation's 360-member bicameral parliament (Click here for New York Times backgrounder). It was timed to coincide with President Barak Obama's brief visit to Spain last weekend. (Spain and Portugal now offer citizenship to foreign Jews of Sephardic ancestry, meaning those who can prove their families were forced out of Iberia during the Inquisition.)

I mention my experience as a prelude to commenting on a story published by The New York Times that reported international Muslim anger at perceived insufficient Western outrage and compassion toward terror attack victims in Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey during the just completed Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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