Beef was widely eaten in ancient Hindu India – conclusive proofs, as assessed by Sanjeev Sabhlok


J.Kuruvachira [Source]
For many Hindus, cow is a symbol of their religius identity. It stands for fertility and the bounty of nature, and a mother symbol revered across sectarian boundaries. Hence the taboo on cow slaughter is one of the unifying factors of Hinduism and it is greatly helping Hindu revivalism in contemporary times. In fact, Hindutva has espoused taboo on cow slaughter as a national issue and it wants to include cow protection as one of the fundamental rights so that it becomes a constitutional obligation on the part of the states to take measures to abolish the practice of cow slaughter.
The orthodox Hindu goes so far as to say that the purificatory ritual of prayaschitra includes partaking of the five elements of the cow: milk, curd, clarified butter (ghee), dung and urine. It has been reported that, in one of the Northern states of India, a businessman has been distributing purified cow urine and ark (a mixture of milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung) claiming that they have medicinal properties (India Today,21 May 2003, 12).
The taboo on cow slaughter is one of the pillars of the Hindutva ideology. According to M.S.Golwalkar, a Hindutva ideologue, cow slaughter in India began with foreign domination. The Muslims started it and the Britishers continued it (M.S.Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, 496). In the past, several futile attempts have been made by proponents of Hindutva to pass a law to ban the slaughter of co ws at the national level. In the NCERT school textbook for Class VI (2002) we read: “Among the animals the cow was given the most important and sacred place. Injuring or killing of cow was prohibited in the Vedic period. The cow was called Aghnya (is not to be killed or injured). Vedas prescribe punishment for injuring or killing cow by expulsion from the kingdom or by death penalty, as the case may be”(Social Sciences Textbook for Class VI, 89.).
Cow slaughter: politicisation of a religious issue 
As already stated, the taboo on cow slaughter is accepted by most orthodox Hindus as an intrinsic element of their religion, and anyone who is not observing this taboo is ipso facto an untouchable. The insistence on the ban on cow slaughter at the national level is a typical case of politicisation of a religious issue. The cow protection movement is an important strategy used by the Hindutva to mobilise the masses. The proponents of Hindutva today manipulate the figure of the cow as the symbol of Hindu identity. In the 1966-1967, the RSS used it to build up votes for the Jan Sangh. The slogan during the Jana Sangh election campaign was: ‘vote Jana Sangh to protect the cow’.
Cow protection societies were a common phenomenon in modern times. Dayananda Saraswati, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and even Mahatma Gandhi stood for cow protection (Y.Ambroise, “Hindutva’s Real Agenda and Strategies”, 82). Golwalkar considered cow as ‘mother’ and the emblem of Hindu devotion and protested against its slaughter (M.S.Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, 59,232,363). Article 48 of the Constitution (part of Directive principles) requires that the states take steps to preserve and improve the breeds and prohibit the slaughter of cows and calves. This mandate is clubbed together with provisions for improving agriculture. Between 1994 and 2000 five unsuccessful attempts have been made to ban cow slaughter in India. But many states are embarrassed to make a ‘religious’ issue a political one. Generally a new legislation normally comes to meet a pressing need or to rectify some legal loopholes. However, in the case of cow protection it is not the case (The Telegraph, 26 March 2003, 12). Besides, many secularists argue that a central ban on cow slaughter would be succumbing to Hindu religious fundamentalism.
Hindutva and the politics of cow slaughter
In post-modern India, the efforts at cow protection have taken many forms. In August 2003 another attempt had been made to introduce a bill in Parliament to ban cow slaughter. But the Government was forced to defer on it (The Hindu, 22 August, 2003, 1). There is a Hindutva lobby spearheaded by the RSS trying to ban factory produced fertiliser and substitute it with cow dung and cow urine (India Today, 23 October, 2000, 38). The VHP demanded declaring cow as the national animal, cow slaughter an non-bailable offence that could incur life imprisonment and even a death sentence, and create a separate ministry to ensure cow protection (The Telegraph, 24 February 2003, 6). The VHP’s senior leader Giriraj Kishore declared that the life of cows was more previous than Dalits’ (The Telegraph, 1 January 2003, 1). In November 2002 at Jhajjar, a Jat dominated town in Gurgaon district of Haryana, five Dalits were killed for allegedly skinning a ‘live’ cow. But later on the post-mortem confirmed that it was a dead cow (The Week, 3 November 2002, 77). Ashok Singhal said: “Hindus are nearly a hundred crore, but they are unable to prevent the killing of cows and that too to feed just about 12 per cent of minorities”(Organiser, 23 March 2003, 10.). In February 2003 A.B.Vajpayee, the present Prime Minister of India, declared in Himachal Pradesh that he would prefer to die rather than eat beef (Organiser, 2 March 2003, 9). He also indicated that export of beef is already banned and that soon cow slaughter would end throughout the country (The Telegraph, 21 February 2003, 6). Recently the Sankaracharya of Jyotispithadeshwar demanded a complete ban on cow slaughter (The Hindu, 1 June 2003, 3).
Cow was not inviolable in Vedic times
But the theory that the in Vedic times there was no cow slaughter is historically inaccurate. Although cow was revered and treated as sacred, it was also offered as food to guests and persons of high status (R.Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India, 115). Besides, in ancient times non-violence (ahimsa) was central focus of Jainism and Buddhism and not of other religious sects, and sacrifice of animals was essential to the Vedic religion (R.Thapar, Cultural Pasts, 868). According to Kunkum Roy, the claim that injuring or killing of cow was prohibited and the Vedas prescribe punishment for injuring or killing cow by expulsion may not be accurate. The Vedic text (which by the definition of the NCERT textbook includes the Veda, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads) are not prescriptive. Hence, they do not mention punishment for violations of norms. This was introduced much later in the shastric literature. In addition, there are plenty of archaeological evidence from a number of sites, including Hastianapura, to suggest that cattle were slaughtered for meat in ancient India (K.Roy, “What happened to Confucianism?, 69). B.Walker says: “The cow is spoken of in the Rig-Veda as aghnya, ‘not-slayable’, but this prohibition was chiefly directed against the killing of the milch-cow, and did not preclude the slaughter of bulls and cows for a variety of religious and communal reasons” (B.Walker, Hindu World, I,255).
Vedic Aryans ate beef
Consumption of beef was clearly prevalent among the Vedic Aryans. Romila Thapar observes that to deny, for example, that on certain occasions the Aryans ate beef and drank alcohol is to deny the evidence of both literary and archaeological sources (R.Thapar, Communalism and the Writing of Ancient Indian History, 12). K.N.Panikkar argues that, the scholarship on the subject of Aryans eating beef is abundant ― both literary and archaeological ― and it has been conclusively shown that beef was part of the food of the Aryans, particularly on ritual occasions and when entertaining important guests (K.N.Panikkar (ed.), The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism, xxxii, note 14). B. Walker says: “Several Vedic sacrifices demanded the slaughter of bulls, after which a piece of the flesh was eaten by the sacrificer. Beef in those days formed part of the regular diet of the Hindu, rishis and Brahmins excluded” (B.Walker, Hindu World, I, 255).
Cow meat came to be prohibited because cattle provided both labour and fertilizer, besides milk, in an agricultural society. Ritual recognition of the cow as a holy animal began spreading during the 6th century B.C. under the influence of Jainism. However, it was only in the brahmanical period in the early centuries of the present era that the worship of the cow took on the aspects of a basic belief in Hinduism (B.Walker, Hindu World,I,256). Some scholars even say that when Hinduism sought internal reinforcements in the wake of the Mughal invasion, the cow became a symbol of religious and cultural self-assertion. To day, as an issue, cow-protection is strong mainly in northern India, and it is one of the reasons for considering this part of India as the ‘cow belt’(T.J.S.George, The Enquire Dictionary, 419).
Taboo on cow slaughter as a myth to indoctrinate the masses
Hindutva ideologues invent many myths and they diligently employs them in order to indoctrinate the Indian masses with false notions and utopias. The belief that taboo on cow slaughter existed since Vedic times is one such myth. Myths are designed to make the Hindutva ideology reach the masses by appealing to their emotions. These myths have also the power to stimulate animal passions, diffuse hatred and awaken the villain dormant among certain groups of Indians. Everyone knows that Hindutva’s ultimate aim is the creation of a Hindu nation based on a monolithic Hindu culture, and the methodology for achieving this end is summed up by L.K. Advani who quotes with a rare knowledge of Adolf Hitler who said: “Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong’” (L.K.Advani, A Prisoner’s Scrap-Book, 66). In addition, the forms of the myths, the message they convey and the ideals they project reveal that Hinduism has vanquished intellectually and spiritually. But the realisation that the myths of the Hindutva are fabrications intended to brainwash the masses, especially the ignorant and the illiterate, for the political advantage of the upper caste Hindu elite, is already half the battle against the dubious ideology of Hindutva.
Ban on cow slaughter as a misplaced national priority
The attempt to impose a ban on cow slaughter at a national level is a clear case of the present government’s misplaced national priority. Many genuine national priorities such as, eradication of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, building up of infrastructure for health care and sanitation, removal of unemployment, caste system, untoucability, gender discrimination, corruption, etc., are sidelined and in their place protection of the ‘holy’ cow, problem of beef eating, legislation of anti-conversion bills, and the like, have been presented as major national concerns.
Can India be saved from the beef battle?
What India needs today is an enlightened public that can distinguish myth from reality, fact from fiction and national issues from sectarian ones. As long Indians continue to consider taboo on cow slaughter and ‘beef battle’ as the most important national issues, India will never rise to the heights because of the communal and the superficial nature of the so-called national issues. On the other hand, if the people of India are liberated from the narrow-minded, outdated, and sectarian ideology of Hindutva ― which for example, upholds taboo on cow slaughter as one of the major national issues ― India has a chance for progress. Hence, what India needs today is persons with rational orientation and scientific temper who have the courage to explode the myths of Hindutva and expose the falsehood it propagates. But are there Indians around who possess such a calibre? Until such people come to the fore, Hindutva will continue to fabricate more myths and utilise them to enslave and indoctrinate the illiterate, the credulous and the naïve, until a new form of slavery is fully established in India, namely, slavery to Hindutva and its many myths.
(The author is a senior lecturer in Philosophy of religion, Phenomenology of religion and Indian culture. He can be contacted at


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  1. Victoria Coleman

    Cows, nor any other animal should be eaten in India, or in any other country. I live a vegan lifestyle. I am of the Christian faith and have many Christian friends. I am irritated with all of them, and the stupid remark they all have in common; “GOD intended for us to eat meat. ” Oh yes, and the other one, “How do you get your protein?” Heaven help us!

    Since the Cow is Sacred in the Hindu religion, there should be the very strictest of punishment for harming the precious animal.

    1. sabhlok

      Thanks, you are welcome to your own vegan diet, but your desire to be VIOLENT (“STRICTEST PUNISHMENT”) is not commendable. Please try being non-violent. Not good enough to be a vegan.

      Btw, vegan diet will destroy your child’s brain – for humans have evolved as a species on animal protein – so please avoid having children and creating cretins who become a burden on society.


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