According to an Indian tale, tea was a divine creation of the Buddha himself. During a pilgrimage to China, the Buddha was said to have taken a vow to meditate without rest for nine years. But, after some time, he dozed off. Upon awakening, he was said to have torn off his eyelids and thrown them to the ground out of frustration. Supposedly, the eyelids took root and germinated into plants that sprouted leaves with an eyelid shape. He then chewed the leaves of this plant, and his fatigue vanished. The plant, of course, was said to be the first tea plant, which he carried with him to China.

Of  course there is no evidence Buddha went to China or lost his eyelids.

We are appalled by violence, the ancient Indian sages all harm, pain itself a partial death. Killing any life was considered sinful, and yet, in their pursuit of perfection they recognised death results even from the eating of plants.

While violence can he committed personally, it can also be instigated or aided, or it could be condoned by observing it without protest.

Jains have long believed that ploughing the soil is harmful since numerous living creatures are killed or disturbed in the process. To live we must kill. So Hindu rituals are intended to show respect, honour and gratitude for the foods or resources we use.  The prayers before meals offered in Islam and other Abrahamic faiths have a similar intent.

The contradiction is seen when Indian cities sterilize stray dogs, rather than put them down, but allow people to go hungry. Add to this caste or communal violence, the dowry deaths and rape of woman, it seems there are many examples of violence to our fellow man.

Or, behind the cloak of economic progress, world over companies can appear innocent of the violence their policies perpetrate on peoples dehumanized by distance. Unlike the farmer praying before killing his goat, or the farmer grateful for the harvest he now reaps, large scale production has distanced us from the beauty of the land.

"Assam" Wikimedia Commons

“Assam” Wikimedia Commons

But violence even in a cup of tea?

There is great beauty in the many tea traditions world over. A love of tea my critique is not of the beauty of the drink of the gods. I simply ask to step back and see problems both past and present.

Consider the street chai wallah, poor he steadily boils the tea to extract maximum flavor. This increases the teas content of harmful tannin. Always boiled with sugar and milk, the high propensity of insulin dependence found in India is exacerbated as daily sugar replaces traditional jiggery that was once only served for honoured guests or as prasad, or shared communal offering.

 First, lets step back and consider the economic history of tea.

 “The success of the Western economic system is claimed by its defenders to be the least coercive means of creating wealth and allocating resources” wrote Winin Pereira in  Asking the Earth .“Such extravagant claims could never have been made to credulous Western peoples, had it not been for the extreme brutality with which colonial empires were pressed into its service in the early industrial period. “

Most of us are aware of the abuses during colonial times.   But let’s remember that the modern economic system, as Lucille Brockway reminds us, was and continues to be, the exploitation of periphery economies controlled in Britain’s case from the Royal Botanical gardens and Kew. For example, it was the Botanist Joseph Banks that pushed for the colonization of Australia.

 Then there is the distance of economic decisions.

‘By its appeal to universal laws, whether economic or natural this truly violent system has sought to exculpate itself from the barbarities it has inflicted upon the earth and its peoples. These barbarities were said to be the consequences of impersonal rules of supply and demand, market forces, the necessities of profit and a loss” writes Pereira  “Those rich individuals and social groups who benefited from the impoverishment of others, have sought to absolve themselves from responsibility for the fate, both of the pauperised of the earth, and of the planet itself. “

This myth continues in post colonial times. Harm continues to animals and the tribal Adivasis dependant on land continue.

Jungles have been submerged by dams in the Narmada Valley and the Bodhghat. Of course,  water is needed. However, the banished tribal’s were given inferior land – if they are given anything at all-and then are quickly forgotten, which historian Ramachandra Guha called “disgraceful”.

The supposed benefits of these projects of irrigation for food and cash crops, power generation for industry and agriculture, water for domestic and industrial use and increased employment.

Instead, the failure to recycle water used for industry or cash crops means dams must be built for food crop of the common people and the cycle of violence continues.

“The continuous encroachment by the state on people’s inherent rights produces a corresponding increase in the use of force. This is seen especially in the case of Adivasi’s and minorities who are driven to desperation because the environment on which they depend is being destroyed” (Periera: 170).

It is no wonder Tribal’s demand autonomy to preserve their habitat.

“Harm is done when people are forced to flee rural areas because they have no food, water or employment there, and then are compelled to stay in slums from which they are frequently evicted.”

Then add the sense of social dislocation as Westernization diminishes the value of people who retain traditional practices and cultures and the unconcern shown by  governments  toward  industrial pollution and hazardous wastes.

 “Gandhi showed how most people condemn the violence of the State but also benefit from it, and that makes them guilty too. The moral burden of violence cannot be transferred onto others simply by not participating directly in State action. Merely watching harm being committed without taking action to prevent it also makes us violent.”

 … and the violence of tea?

Chai Wallah Bhopal Sector 8

Chai Wallah Bhopal Sector 8

The initial addiction of imported tea from China was so intense it caused foreign exchange crisis. Indian farmers were forced to grow opium instead of food, exported to China resulting in the Opium War.

Millions of Chinese became addicted to opium merely for the sake of “the cup that cheers”.

Away from the carefree spirit essential for the traditional Chinese art of Tea, (and aside from the fact that Assam has its own species of the camellia),  illegally stolen from China would be planted in India denuded of jungles for that purpose.

But when the First World War made tea export to risky, the British distributed free packets at India railway stations cleverly addicting a new market of local Indians.

Tea is mentioned in the Indian epic of the Ramayana, but then seems to have disappeared. Now the tea crop in India in 1989-90 was 760 million kilograms, grown on about 400,000 hectares of plantation, 475 million kilograms was used locally, and the rest is exported in ply boxes again adding to deforestation (Periera, 171).

There are between 1 to 1.5 million to  tea pickers abysmally paid, but at least they have cheap tea.

But then the Asia Monitor Resource Centre reported the dark side of India’s economic growth:

Due to malnutrition people started falling sick, in the last five years more than 200 people have died on this (Tea) estate alone.’
‘They do not have any rice, they are hungry and they have to work on empty stomach- so they fall ill and die. All of them died due to hunger and malnutrition. This is how my husband died, he worked without enough food and he died because the tea garden was shut down.

Tea pluckers, who are almost exclusively women, work six days a week from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. They have an hour for lunch which they bring with them, or to go home to eat, if working in a nearby tea field. Men mainly work as field supervisors, carry out weeding and spraying, or work in the tea factory. Tea workers’ wages are set by tripartite negotiations between the government, employer associations, and trade unions.

Their social status has ensured that their plight has been continuously ignored for generations. These workers have very low literacy rates and non-availability of any other livelihood in the region ensures that the children of the plantation workers are left with no other option than to work on the plantations under abysmal conditions. There is no escape from the vicious circle of the highest level of exploitation. The plantation workers also do not enjoy even basic amenities like safe drinking water, and often workers suffer from diarrhoea, cholera and other waterborne diseases. Malaria and tuberculosis are also rampant. The infant mortality rate is much higher than the national average. It is estimated that only one percent of the workers is active after attaining the age of 60.’ 

Then irrigated sugar cane farms with political clout further divert water from farmers employing migrant workers low wages who have even had to buy water. Much of the water has been diverted to water guzzling city folk disconnected from the land.

The milk in Indian chai probably comes from cross breed cows, supplied under patent further taking currency out of India.

“Not all people can afford tea” writes Periera. “For those who cannot, tea then becomes a symbol of luxury for which they must strive. Many, particularly in rural areas, drink tea only to show that they can do so, even though they cannot really afford it. “

As a lover of tea, I ask myself what decisions can I, and my fellow tea drinkers, do to encourage multinational companies to reduce their harm to man and environment?

Whether Indian Hindu or Muslim, or Chinese Chinese Daoist or Confucian,  gratitude for nature is taught.

Can we enhance traditional tea picking methods? Or is that impractical? Can we bring back to the votaries that made tea an art? Can we honour the rustling through leafy branches of camelia that sing our connection to the earth?

 A friend from Yueh presented me
With tender leaves of Yen-Hsi tea,
For which I chose a kettle
Of ivory-mounted gold,
A mixing-bowl of snow-white earth.
With its clear bright froth and fragrance,
It was like the nectar of Immortals.
The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind—
The whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit
Like purifying showers of rain.
A third and I was one with the Immortals—
What need now for austerities
To purge our human sorrows?
Worldly people, by going in for wine,
Sadly deceive themselves.
For now I know the Way of Tea is real.
Who but Tan Ch’iu could find it?

~Chiao-Jen (The Way of Tea)