Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The silk sari and the vegetarian. Life's another contradiction!

My parents' home in Chennai, for all its quiet ambiance inside, is right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city.  A metaphorical stone throw away are stores in plenty that sell two important must-have in that culture: gold jewelry and silk saris.  Of course, there is that ultimate combination of silk saris with gold lamé!

Every time I visit Chennai, I never cease to be amazed at the huge crowds at every one of those stores.  Understandable, given that every major celebration involve these two.  A wedding preparation, for instance, includes shopping for quite a few silk saris.  Typically, women wait for such occasions to drape themselves in silk saris, and men too sometimes wear silk shirts and veshtis.

But, how kosher is it for vegetarians to wear silk?

What is the connection between the two?  Let me first explain the question.

The philosophical, ethical issues related to killing animals is why people choose to be vegetarians.  (And people like me, who occasionally eat that steak or chicken, end up worrying even more about whether that "non-veg" evening was worth the kill!)

Silk, too, involves killing.

The caterpillars feed on tasty mulberry leaves and fatten themselves up so that they can spin a cocoon around themselves waiting for that magical metamorphosis into a moth.

If life is what happens when we are busily planning for it, in the case of these caterpillars, death is what happens as they are preparing for the metamorphosis.

And that death happens in a crude manner.  A systematic killing as the cocoons get dumped into boiling water.  There is an old story of how this began:
According to legend, 5,000 years ago Chinese Empress Xi Ling-Shi discovered silk when a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot cup of tea. She unraveled the strange cocoon and, wrapping the thread around her finger, soon realized what an exquisite cloth it would make. Thus the history of one of the world's most coveted fabrics began.
From that killing we derive the silk fiber that then goes through metamorphosis of various types to become the silk garments.

So, the question then remains: if a vegetarian food habit is because of concerns over killing animals, then shouldn't that same yardstick lead those vegetarian shoppers to stay away from the silk stores?  The vegetarian who might be aghast at the idea that there are places where the silkworm is a part of the cuisine will usually find it acceptable to buy silk?

Geographically, perhaps the ultimate contradiction is with the city of Kanchipuram.  With its rich religious history of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism--all the three preaching non-violence in so many ways and advocating against the killing of animals--the same city is also known for its silk saris.  The silk coming from killing caterpillars in their cocoons.

We humans are bundles of contradiction.  If we were all directed to make consistent our approaches to various aspects of life, I bet that almost all of us will give up within the first minute of our attempts given the gazillion inconsistencies that our lives are all about.


Ramesh said...

Hey - There isn't that much of a contradiction. There is a difference between eating an animal and "wearing" it. Same is the situation with wearing leather shoes.

Each man makes his peace with where on the "killing chain" he wants to be. At one end of the spectrum is the devout Jain who covers his mouth with a cloth to prevent accidentally hurting a flying insect. He wouldn't dream of wearing silk or leather. Further down are people who baulk at eating meat, but are OK with wearing an animal product. Still further down are people who are OK to eat some animals, but not others. Way further is somebody who would eat anything. Each person must make his peace with where he is.

I think your point is that the mamis are wearing silk without thinking and if they probably saw a silk extraction plant, they would stop wearing it altogether.

Sriram Khé said...

The issues are the same whether it is eating animals or wearing them: killing animals is the point of departure.
Especially with silk, I would think that a typical vegetarian would be horrified at the very idea that the cocoon is dropped into hot water. Of course, we can get into sub-discussions on whether they feel any pain. But, hey, if dropping lobsters into boiling water makes a vegetarian jittery, then they should feel the same about the silk that comes from dropping the cocoons into hot water.

I suspect that as much as the typical omnivorous human doesn't think about how that animal food got to the store, a typical Rajalakshmi also doesn't think about the origins of the silk sari.

Yes, ultimately it is all about individually making peace with all these issues. However, my suspicion is that most people do not give these even a second of their thinking time. The "peace" they have is then nothing but a blissful life out of ignorance. I suppose that is ok too.

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