VegHist Ep 8: Contacts. Indian Sufism, Bhakti, Akbar, Portuguese Christianity, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism; with Sanjukta Gupta; in Agra, Delhi, and London

When conquerors who profess Islam or Christianity rule over Indian vegetarians, the conversations about food ethics go both ways.

Episode 8: Contacts

Ian discovers the ecstatic dancing and singing shared by Sufis and Hindus – including westerners singing Hare Krishna in London’s main shopping street. In Delhi, he finds out about the inquisition that started with European antisemitism and ended with Indians being forced to eat beef.

And in the royal city of Agra, he visits a shrine built to commemorate a conversation about religion and vegetarianism between a Jain saint and the Mughal emperor Akbar. He uncovers the fascinating story of this heretic emperor who advocated vegetarianism.

At the halfway point of this 15-part history of vegetarianism, the traditions of East and West come together. From hereon, it’s all one story.

Play or download (52MB MP3 37min) (via iTunes) or read transcript.



The Italian and Portuguese sources used the word “gentoo” (related to “gentile”, but from the perspective of Christians). Here I variously translated it as “Hindu” or “Infidel”, but I’m wishing I’d translated it as “pagan”.

Special Bonus for Australian Listeners

Andrea Corsali’s letter is famous for more than casually implying that Leonardo da Vinci was vegetarian. He was the first person to draw the constellation of the Southern Cross, which is part of the Australian flag. There is a copy of the letter (ironically on animal skin) in the State Library of New South Wales.

Untranslated Vegetarian History

I tried to find readings from some of the Sufis mentioned early in the show. But their words do not seem to be published in the vernacular, let alone in translation.

So again, I’ll leave these footnotes here in the hope that scholarly specialists will one day come across them!

Hamid ud-Din Nagori’s commitment to animals is mentioned on p221 of Sururu’s Sudur, which is in the Habibganj collection at Aligarh University.

Nuru’d-Din’s admission that he considered meat-eating cruelty despite it being allowed under Shari’a is in the Asraru’l-Abrar (“The Secrets of the Pious”) by Dawud Mishkati (ff. 236a-b), published 1654. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.

Kabir, Sikhs, and Vegetarianism

There’s a well-worn debate about vegetarianism amongst Sikhs, including a seventeenth century account that the early Gurus (in the early sixteenth century) were vegetarian. There are arguments over whether particular verses condemn meat-eating, or just the ritual killings of Muslims and Hindus.

Some of the strongest lines against eating animals seem to come from the poet Kabir. (He may have inspired the first Sikh guru, and the Sikh scriptures include his poetry.)

But even Kabir’s rhetoric is open to interpretation; much of it seems directed at particular kinds of slaughter. It seems reasonable to assume he was vegetarian, but it’s not absolutely explicit (either in the poetry, or in my script). For example, there is one line of the Bījak quoted in Religious Vegetarianism from Hesiod to the Dalai Llama that seems to advocate vegetarianism, but I had no reasons to choose their translation of “You should not eat fishes or flesh over what grows in the fields” over the very different “You eat animals and fish as if they grew in the fields“. I’m grateful to Brianne Donaldson and Susan Brill for that discussion.

The original Hindi text is online, should anyone wish to discuss the translation in the comments.

The non-vegetarian interpretation of the Kabir lines in the show would be to claim that throat-cutting was about Islamic ritual slaughter, rather than killing in general. But Kabir obviously isn’t suggesting a different way of killing; he’s suggesting kichri.

(“Kichri” is the name of the dish of rice and beans. Its seasoning of salt was described as “amrit”, literally “un-death”, which after talking to a helpful Sikh vegan I rendered as “bloodless salt”.)

With time, I could have delved into Sikh vegetarianism more. As it happens, the oldest marathon runner in the world is a Sikh vegetarian who (like me) lives in East London. I didn’t go into detail in part because I couldn’t find a consistent strand that goes back to the sixteenth century; the movements towards vegetarianism within Sikhism are informed by its own sense of self-discipline, the conversation with the other religious traditions of India, and the basic principle of compassion.

Emperor Jahangir

Jahangir is Akbar’s son and successor. He kept lurking at the fringe of the story, barely doing enough to be properly featured.

Most interestingly, there’s his complex relationship with Akbar.

He ordered the murder of Akbar’s vizier (who described the Hall of Worship in this episode). His guilt over this might be a driver of his own dalliance with vegetarianism (see Findly). Which might be why he wrote so admiringly of the Rishis (also in the episode).

He also ordered the death of the Sikh leader Guru Arjan, which pushed the Sikhs into becoming the martial religion we know today.

Geek Reference of the Month

“Ferengi” / “Farang” is the word for foreigner throughout Asia – not just in Hindi (and Tamil, which is what the Jesuit Roberto de Nobilis spoke with locals) – but in Persian and Thai and Chinese as well. It derives from “Franks”, which became the Arab name for Western Europeans back when Charlemagne’s Frankish empire was its main power.

For most westerners, though, it was familiar for another reason. Writers chose the Asian word as the name of an acquisitive species in Star Trek who would rival the East India Companies for greed.


Archive Qawaali and Sikh Temple audio CC-BY Vintage Sense and Casa Asia, respectively.

The theme music is by Robb Masters. The actors were Sandeep Garcha, Selva Rasalingham, and Jeremy Hancock.

This episode is sponsored by Kickstarter backer Jaysee Costa.


A bar over a vowel (“ā”) lengthens it.

I particularly recommend the chapter of Rizvi that deals with the interactions with Bakhtis – it’s on the Internet Archive.

Bramly, Serge. 1994. Leonardo: The Artist and the Man. London; New York: Penguin Books.
Truschke, Audrey Angeline. 2012. “Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court.”
Jhaverī, Kr̥shṇalāla Mohanalāla. 1928. Imperial Farmans, A.D. 1577 to A.D. 1805, Granted to the Ancestors of His Holiness the Tikayat Maharaj. India: publisher not identified.
Jain, Shalin. 2012. “Interaction of the ‘Lords’: The Jain Community and the Mughal Royalty under Akbar.” Socialscientist Social Scientist 40 (3–4): 33–57.
Findly, Ellison B. 1987. “Jahāngīr’s Vow of Non-Violence.” Jameroriesoci Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (2): 245–56.
Malcolm, John. 1824. A Memoir of Central India 2. 2. London.
Rezavi, S. A. N. 2008. “Religious Disputations and Imperial Ideology: The Purpose and Location of Akbar’s Ibadatkhana.” Studies in History 24 (2): 195–209.
ʻAzīz Aḥmad. 1964. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ahmad, Imtiaz, and Helmut Reifeld, eds. 2004. Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation, and Conflict. New Delhi: Social Science Press.
Rizvi, Saiyid Athar Abbas. 1978. A History of Sufism in India. Vol. 1. 2 vols. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Saraiva, António José, and H. P. Salomon. 2001. The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536 - 1765. Leiden: Brill.
O’Hanlon, Rosalind, D. A Washbrook, and St. Antony’s College (University of Oxford), eds. 2011. Religious Cultures in Early Modern India: New Perspectives. New Delhi: Routledge.

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

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