Meena Khandelwal

Sacred Cows and New Environmental Realities in Rajasthan, India: Vegans, Vegetarians, and Beef-Eaters

This paper is about the perils and hopes of interdisciplinary research. In 2011, a colleague in mechanical engineering whom I’d never met, H.S. Udaykumar, approached me with a question. Concerned about rapid deforestation of the Aravalli hills in Rajasthan, India, he was trying to engineer a solar cooker that would save the forests and improve women’s lives. How, he asked, could we get these women to adopt the solar technology and stop cutting wood? Because much of the forest is being transformed into a pasture to meet the growing demand for meat and dairy products, he further concludes that the solution is veganism. Through a story of interdisciplinary collaboration, I outline the different, sometimes incompatible, approaches to meat and animal
products that dominate anthropology, feminist research, and South Asian studies. On the one hand are deeply held meanings about, for example, sacred cows that are embedded in local and national politics. On the other hand, we can chart the materiality of environmental decline and globalization. I argue that, however awkward, it is more urgent than ever to synthesize analyses of the symbolic and material, the local and global. I further suggest that attention to the collaborative process brings clarity to some of the sacred cows of our respective disciplines.

Meena Khandelwal is best known for her research on Hindu religious renunciation. This work resulted in an ethnography entitled Women in Ochre Robes (SUNY Press 2004) that focuses on the everyday lives of women initiated into sannyasa, a particularly radical variety of Hindu asceticism. Sannyasa entails the renunciation of marriage, family ties, wealth, caste, and professional status for a life of celibacy and spiritual discipline. More recently, Khandelwal has turned her attention to three ongoing projects related to transnational studies, migration and development. The first is a small project that examines South Asian-American cultural displays in the United States by examining an intercollegiate Indian dance competition. The second is major book project on US-based Indian diaspora organizations that support development projects in India. The third project is a collaboration with H.S. Udaykumar (Mechanical Engineering, University of Iowa) sparked by a chance conversation about a solar cooker project.