How Tradition Shapes Food Moralities Among Youth

Dr Shagufa Kapadia is Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the MS University of Baroda. For Indic Academy's CIS programme, her topic was 'Food moralities and influences among the youth of urban Gujarat'.

Dr Kapadia's summarizes, "We Are What We Eat”: Social-Religious and Moral Underpinnings of Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Food


दीपो भक्षयते ध्वान्तं कज्जलं च प्रसूयते |

यदन्नं भक्षयेन्नित्यं जायते तादृशी प्रजा ||

dIpo bhakShayate dhvAntam kajjalam cha prasUyate |

yadannam bhakShayennityam jAyate tAdRishI prajA ||

[Lamp eats darkness and produces [black] soot!

What food (quality) [one] eats daily, so will [one] produce]

"vRiddha-chANakya" (वृद्ध-चाणक्य)

What are your main areas of interest in human development and are there pathways to study Sociology through an Indic lens as you have done in the case of adolescence?

My interest and inclination toward exploring Indic cultural lens to understand human development germinated when I was an undergraduate student. I remember a course on adolescence and how studying western theories that depicted adolescence as a stage of turmoil left me rather confused, as this perspective did not coordinate with my everyday experience. This dissonance led me to lean toward research and writing that questioned “received” knowledge, and offered perspectives and concepts that resonated with the Indian culture.

Whereas there is excellent scholarship in the West, we are now acutely cognizant of the fact that human development is best understood from one’s own cultural perspective. My primary interest has thus evolved toward understanding human development and behavior from a ‘cultural psychology’ perspective that emphasizes the ‘culture-mind-behavior’ interface, meaning that culture shapes people and it is also shaped by people.

The Indic lens can be applied to any field of study; provided we as researchers and educators are willing to engage in the dialectic of unlearning and relearning, deal with knowledge that appears messy (unlike the familiar neat binaries à la West), and have the courage to create our own paradigms and frameworks.

How does one undertake broad based research as you have done in the case of vegetarianism and socio-religious rituals? Has modernisation loosened the impact of community and culture and prioritised individual will, as you state in your article: Issues of Trust and Distrust in issues of eating among Urban Middle-Class Youth of India?

Cultures are dynamic; cultures interact with context which is also dynamic, thereby leading to social change. Cultural continuities and discontinuities are thus evinced in all aspects of human and societal mentalities and behavior.

The Information Age is constantly inundating us with news, data, facts and figures, reports and what have you. We are continually asking ourselves who and what can we trust? Trust is inherent to human development, and unfortunately, today more than ever before there seems to be a deficit of trust.  Questions of trust also apply to food as we are confronted with infinite choices and persistent messages, which are often overwhelming and contradictory. Youth and children are especially vulnerable to this scenario.  Many of their food choices are guided by external influences. For example, as revealed in my inquiry into social-religious reasoning underlying vegetarianism, several young individuals are becoming conscious about fitness and frequent gyms where personal trainers are often known to advise them to eat diet that is rich in protein, as this is not adequately available from plant-based foods.

At the same time, as the inquiry reveals, youth continue to be guided by Indic cultural-religious principles in their reasoning regarding food choices, for example, how according to the Indic dharma wastage of food is akin to disrespecting food (anna ka anadar) and God, or that food is to be treated as prasad – a gift from God.   One thus observes a mélange of tradition and modernity in food choices in the effort to create an adaptable fit with the changing context. In such a context, we need to encourage young individuals to develop mindfulness about the implications of food and eating choices on self, society and the larger environment. Indic Knowledge Systems (IKS) offer many principles and concepts that would make this possible.

What are the broad trends that you have observed in your study of young populations in terms of the impact of culture on them today?

One discerning and increasingly visible development in the present context is young people’s articulation of individual choice, which resembles the Western idea of individual autonomy. I think we need to take cognizance of this aspect and accept that young people are living in a world that is rather different from the one in which we adults grew up. Their orientations and attitudes are bound to change in response to the changing context.

Whereas cultures are dynamic, they are also resistant and resilient, thereby enabling each culture to create its own indigenous “avatar” in adapting to change. This was clearly evident in my research with adolescents who tried to balance individual autonomy with the core Indian values of interdependence and connection. A more recent inquiry into hopes and aspirations of youth from low-income contexts has revealed that young men and women tend to lean on core Indic values to meet life challenges. In our study we used stories from the Mahabharata to illustrate for instance, the futility of insatiable desire (example of Yayati). The study demonstrated that the Indic framework of Purushartha ChatushtayaDharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha, functions as an apt framework for positive youth development as it enables young individuals to maintain equilibrium in everyday life.

Even today the sociology and psychology texts being studied in Indian universities, even in premier healthcare institutions, are from the West. Do we have up to date, comparable academic textbooks being published in India, which crystallise our ancient wisdom as well as use modern tools of reference?

Let me acknowledge that Indian scholarly writing has made immense progress and we have much rich material on understanding human development from our own cultural perspective. I agree that we need to produce more textbooks for teaching and I am aware that this too is under way. In academic writing about our ancient wisdom, we need to ensure that the style of writing speaks to students with clarity, simplicity and humility. We also need to be introspective in adopting a critical eye toward our cultural systems or concepts that may not resonate well with the changing context.

In general, we as educators need to cultivate a critical outlook toward existing knowledge, continue to evaluate its relevance to the Indian cultural context, and strive to work with culturally rooted concepts and frameworks.

One of the most common issues among teens today is mental health, and hormonal health, both in the West and now in India. How does research such as yours help to understand and find solutions to modern day problems.

Social change is sine qua non, however, what is significant about the present times is the rapid pace of change which poses innumerable challenges. Although strongly persuasive in their influence, parents and family are no longer the exclusive socializing agents. Several other agencies and factors also intervene in shaping their teens’ lives.

Given the complexity of the context, there are no quick fix solutions to the problems that teens today experience. However, we may ponder over some aspects that have potential to enable healthy development in teens and youth.

In the first instance, we need to recognize, reinforce and focus on the positives - the strengths that teens and youth have. The central idea is to shift from a ‘problem-focused’ to a ‘strengths-based’ perspective in understanding and working with young individuals.

What I have observed in my research and work with teens/adolescents, is that very often it is the caretakers – parents – who are anxious and insecure, and this in turn transfers to the children. Often, we as adults give ambiguous messages which our teens find difficult to decode. I think that in many instances it is parents/adults who need to be coached to turn inward and critically appraise one’s one attitudes and values, and how these impinge upon their teens.

Young individuals today wish to exercise their individual choice, especially in matters that concern their own lives. As adults we need to accept this and rather than imposing our wishes and aspirations, work on ourselves to become more flexible.

The “Madhyama Marg” works best in this context – balancing authority with an adaptable democratic stance.  My research has shown that although adolescents seek autonomy, they equally value relatedness with parents and family. As adults, we need to assume the roles of ‘guardian’, ‘guide’, ‘’disciplinarian and ‘friend’ as synchronously as possible.

From the early years, we need to educate our children to develop critical thinking, self-regulation (sanyam) and patience (sabar) so that they are able to assess and process the advantages and drawbacks of multiple contextual influences. Overall, we need to adopt what in cross-cultural psychology is termed as the ‘emic’ or insider’s perspective. For this, it is necessary that we LISTEN with empathy and compassion to our teens, their interpretations, their stories, and make every effort to understand them from their own perspective and standpoint.

Video Excerpt of the Interview