- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2010

Silk is second nature to the Indian woman who dreams of that red sari she’ll wear on her wedding day.

Yet, the way that silk is produced has energized Hindus, some of whom are saying it’s far more honoring to their faith to use more humane alternatives, such as nylon, polyester and rayon.

I stumbled across this debate after seeing the article “The Magic of Silk: At What Cost?” in a recent issue of “Hinduism Today” magazine.

Sericulture, or silk production, in China goes back more than 5,000 years. China is the world’s largest silk-producing country, accounting for 71 percent of total world production, and India is the world’s largest silk consumer.

Silk comes from tiny eggs laid by female silk moths that hatch into larvae that feed on chopped mulberry leaves. These silkworms secrete from salivary glands a viscous fluid that hardens into a filament on contact with air. Spinning around in figure eights, the worms cocoon themselves with a single filament that can measure up to 300 feet long.

Before the worm can hatch, the cocoon is dropped into boiling water. That’s where the rub is. The magazine estimates 50,000 cocoons are needed to make one sari; a lot of little insect deaths for the sake of beauty.

The article included comments from other Hindus deploring the use of silk and opting for a simpler lifestyle along the principle of “ahimsa” or nonviolence.

“Anyone who has ever seen worms startle when their dark homes are uncovered must acknowledge that worms are sensate — they produce endorphins and have a physical response to pain,” wrote one, quoting from PETA.org.

For the tender of conscience, there is a specialty material called “ahimsa silk” from cocoons collected after the moths have emerged. But even that variety has its problems, as fake versions have cropped up and there’s no way to certify ahimsa products that do no violence to the silk moth or larva.

“The process by which silk is made is not known to lots of people,” said Suhag Shukla, managing director for the Hindu American Foundation in Kensington, Md. “People do wear leather shoes, they still wear silk, but there is an effort to decrease the footprint in animal products.”

Hindus are more concerned, she added, about what they eat than what they wear. The best example is “varakh,” which are the thin slivers of silver and gold that decorate traditional Indian sweets. To manufacture them requires the killing of a cow or ox for its intestines, which are used like cheesecloth to prepare the silver for consumption.

Concerns about this industry, for which a half-million cows were being killed per year in India, prompted Indian Airlines to cut varakh-decorated sweets from its menus.

Not everyone thinks these concerns are burning issues.

“It’s an age-old argument,” Shyam Tiwari of the World Hindu Council of America told me. “Even while we’re breathing, we’re killing germs.”

But one grateful letter writer to Hinduism Today said the piece validated her decision not to wear silk.

“It is like a life saver,” wrote Atlanta resident Jutikadevi Sivaraja, “an external validation of what I learned from my mother, who always chose cotton over silk and talked to me from a very early age about the cruelty in silk production.”

*Contact Julia Duin at [email protected]

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