MS Golwalkar ate eggs—and invoked Lord Ram while doing so

26 April, 2022

The Hindu-right wing in India has often attacked non-vegetarian food and tried to forcibly close meat shops during religious festivals such as Navratri, viewing it as against their religion. Their opposition to all things non-vegetarian was on display again this Navratri, enabled this time by statements from city officials and political leaders.

In the first week of April, the mayors of east and south Delhi asked meat shops in their jurisdictions to remain closed during the nine days of Navratri. Shyam Sunder Aggarwal, the east Delhi mayor claimed that “90 per cent people do not consume non-vegetarian food,” during Navratri, while Mukesh Suryan, the south Delhi mayor said there was “no need to open meat shops” during the festival.

The proponents of such anti-meat drives, who are often part of the Hindu-right wing, would be surprised to know that their supreme leader, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, regularly consumed eggs. In fact, he had the habit of invoking Lord Ram while doing so—he would take the name of Ram when he ate an egg every morning. This may sound ludicrous, even outrageous, to Hindutva supporters, but it’s the reality of Golwalkar’s history.

In the late 1920s, Golwalkar was in Chennai doing research in fisheries after completing his post-graduation in zoology from Benaras Hindu University. It was around this time that he started eating eggs. In those days, eating eggs and other non-vegetarian food was quite uncommon in traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin families where social roles were rigid and private and public life was dominated by religious texts, rituals and caste identities.

At the time, Golwalkar presented the eating of eggs as a compulsion caused by his failing health. In a letter to his friend, he said that eating eggs caused him some amount of mental strain. Yet, in the same breadth, he went on to justify eating eggs by venturing into metaphysical debates and conjuring up references from Hindu scriptures to show how eggs were good for health and why they must, therefore, be eaten and not despised of.

The letter is part of the sixth volume of Shri Guruji Samagra, or the Collected Works of Shri Guruji, a reference to Golwalkar. Though the initial part of the letter, carrying the date and the name of the person it was addressed to, is missing, the volume mentions that Golwalkar wrote it to Baburao Tailang, his friend whom he confided in quite openly until he joined the RSS in late 1930s, after which he became extremely cautious while writing letters.

“How do I explain how unhappy I feel and how much mental agony I undergo when I eat an egg?” he wrote to his friend. Immediately afterward, he added: “On the one hand, the religious scriptures tell us ‘ahimsa parmodharmah’”—non-violence is the highest dharma—“and on the other they also reveal ‘naymatma balheenen labhyah’”—a weak body cannot realise the soul—“and ‘shareeramadhyam khalu dharmasadhanam’”—a healthy body is necessary for performing religious duty.

Golwalkar then wrote that it was because of these contradictory references in Hindu scriptures that he decided to listen to the advice of a doctor and start eating eggs. “In this mental struggle, I said to myself ‘aushadhan jaahnavi toyam, vaidyo narayano harih’”—medicine is akin to Ganga, and the medicinal man is like God. He continued, “I cannot judge whether this is a pious act or sin. Kim karma kimkarmeti kavayopyatra mohitaah’”—what is an act, who is the doer. Referring to the act of eating eggs, he added, “Then who am I to judge this act?”

Clearly, even if Golwalkar struggled with what he called mental agony, there is no disguising that he devised a spiritual solution to remove the spiritual stigma Maharashtrian Brahmins attached to eating non-vegetarian food. “Every morning I eat an egg after taking the name of Lord Ram,” he wrote in the letter.

Golwalkar also explained to his friend the context in which he started eating eggs. In the letter, he talked of an “inner conflict” lasting several days, in course of which his emotions of being a young man resisted him being pulled towards the Hindu religious philosophy of Vedanta. The mental whirlpool that it produced proved too much for him to handle. As a respite, he started smoking cigarettes, a habit that further deteriorated his health, thus creating a ground for the doctor to suggest eating eggs.

“On the one side there were powerful waves of youthful energies and on the other unmovable mountains of Vedanta—the conflict was so intense that my heart was shaken badly,” he wrote. “I was deeply upset, and this situation continued for several days. It led to high fever and severe headache. I used to talk a lot about Vedanta, but my health did not improve.” Golwalkar continued, “To comfort my heart, I started smoking. It led to bouts of cough, heaviness in the eyes, darkening of my face and overall weakness. The situation so deteriorated that the supervisor of the aquarium, who used to observe my condition daily, took me to a doctor. The body that could tolerate cough and fever in Nagpur routinely had become so weak that it could not bear this new kind of high fever now. The doctor told us that if proper care was not taken, this could lead to TB,”—Tuberculosis. “Though the information did not perturb me, yet I started taking injections to fight my sickness.” According to Golwalkar, it was at this stage that, on the advice of a doctor, he started eating eggs without fail every day.

Given the kind of efforts Golwalkar made after becoming the RSS chief to glorify his image and cover his tracks one may never be able to say with certainty as to when—or whether—he gave up eating eggs. However, it is impossible to read Golwalkar’s life history and fail to notice the hypocrisy inherent in what his followers have been doing to take the Hindu majoritarian project forward. More significantly, it is not just fringe Hindutva elements that are forcing the closure of shops selling non-vegetarian food. Even the so-called mainstream—the Bharatiya Janata Party—reeks of this hypocrisy every time it seeks to stop the distribution of boiled eggs in mid-day meals.

For instance, in late 2019, the then Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, in its bid to tackle malnutrition among children, proposed to include eggs in the mid-day meal in anganwadi centres across the state. The move made the BJP so furious that Gopal Bhargava, the leader of Opposition in the state assembly declared that the inclusion of eggs in the government’s mid-day meal might turn children into cannibals. “Our culture prohibits non-vegetarianism,” he said. “We can’t force anyone to eat [eggs]. If we teach this right from the childhood they may end up becoming cannibals when they grow up.” The state BJP was backed by the party’s central leadership. Kailash Vijayvargiya, then the national general secretary of the party, called the Madhya Pradesh government’s move an attempt to “interfere with belief and sentiments” of common people. “This would not be tolerated,” he said. “We will oppose the move of the state government.”

In 2018, Swati Narayan, a researcher with the Right to Food campaign mapped the inclusion of eggs in mid-day meals across India using government data and media reports. According to a report in the Business Standard, the map, which looked at “possible links between political ideology and the provision of eggs” in these meals, found that the BJP-ruled states were most likely to resist the popular demand to include eggs in mid-day meals. Clearly, Golwalkar’s position on eating eggs has not filtered down to his supporters and those who carry his ideology forward, in the name of protecting their religious beliefs.