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.