July 10, 2013
Beef eating in the Hindu Tradition by Rohini Bakshi
Copied here for my record.
Beef eating in the Hindu Tradition
(From my blog: http://dharma-karma-prayashchitta.blogspot.com/)
Ask any Hindu to respond spontaneously to this question: What are the two most holy things in your religion? Chances are the first two responses will be ‘the Vedas’ and ‘the Cow’. Conflated, these two have been used for years (centuries!) to feed a Hindu abhorrence toward beef eating. How often I’ve heard it said – “Of course the cow is sacred – it says so in the Hindu scriptures. It says so in the Vedas!” The Vedas. Which 99.99% of Hindus haven’t read. We have no clue what they contain. At best we may be able to name them and tell you which is the oldest, since we learnt that in Ancient Indian History at school.
This article aims to correct the misconception that beef eating should be taboo based on what the scriptures supposedly say. I respect a Hindu’s right not to eat beef, or any meat for that matter. But to quote the scriptures in support of this belief is quite ridiculous. To prove my point, I will refer to a variety of ancient Hindu sources including the Samhit?s (oldest portions of the Vedas), the Br?hma?as (Vedic texts which lay down the rules for the Vedic sacrifice) and the Dharma-sutr?s, (post Vedic texts which continue to be the bedrock of orthodox Hindu belief.)
Early Vedic Period
The cow was undoubtedly very important, indeed sacred to Vedic Indians. But not in the way we most of us imagine. It was the ?rya's sustenance, his wealth, his most prized possession. Not surprisingly, it was therefore the best offering to his gods in sacrifice. The laity, as well the priests who conducted the sacrifice partook of the left over (ucchi??a) of the ceremony. In fact in the words of Dr. B.R Ambedkar, “For the brahmin, everyday was a beef-stake day.” (From his 1948 work “The Untouchables…)
That the ?rya of the ?g Veda ate beef and meat is clear from the text itself. The killing of cows for guests was so wide-spread that go-ghna (killer of cows) became a synomym of atithi (guest). RV X.68.3 mentions a hero called Atithigva*, which means literally ‘slaying cows for guests’. Madhuparka, an offering for special guests mentioned first in the Jaimin?ya-Upani?ad-Br?hma?a was not just curd and honey as the name might suggest, but a cow was immolated or let loose as part of the welcome. Either way, in no case was Madhuparka complete without beef or some other meat. Perhaps there were exhortations to limit the killing, reflected in the response of Yajñavalka, a renowned ancient ??i who said “I for one eat it (beef) provided it is tender.” The Taittireya Samhit? tells us how to cut up the animal and gives an idea of the distribution of its flesh (TS 6.3.10. 2-6).
?g Vedic Indians fed their gods their own favourite foods – milk, butter, ghee, barley, goats and sheep. But Indra, their mightiest god, destroyer of enemy strongholds, preferred the flesh of the bull. Sometimes he ate one, sometimes fifteen, twenty, a hundred, 300 bulls. Even a thousand buffaloes.1 Agni was not so particular. He mostly liked ghee, but was not averse to horses, bulls, oxen, cows and rams. (RV X.91.14). The third most important god was Soma, and in the Soma sacrifice including cows as bali (victim) was crucial. It was the Soma sacrifice that went on to become the defining practice that demarcated ?rya from an?rya.2
Late Vedic Period
The Gopatha Br?hma?a describes 21 types of yajñas (sacrifices), the most important of which included animal sacrifice. The offering varied depending on which god was being propitiated. Bulls were sacrificed to Indra, dappled cows to the Maruts, a copper coloured cow to the A?vins, a regular one to Mitra-Varu?a. The A?vamedha, the R?jas?ya, and the V?japeya yajñas all included animal sacrifice in large numbers, including cows and bulls. In theA?vamedha for instance, more than 600 animals were killed, and its finalé was the sacrifice of 21 cows. In fact an independent yajña is actually called pa?ubandha, pa?u meaning animal (Gopatha Br?hma?a 1.5.7)
There isn’t space to go into the detail of even the main yajña here, but this extract from the ?atapatha Br?hma?a should give you an idea. This is from the Sautr?ma?i rite, which is said to replenish the sacrificer: “He (the priest) consecrates him (the sacrificer) by sprinkling him with the fat gravy of the sacrificial animals, for the gravy of the animals means excellence … But that gravy is also the highest kind of food: with the highest kind of food he thus sprinkles him. There are hoof-cups (of gravy) for on hoofs cattle support themselves: he thus causes him to obtain such a support…”3
While this excerpt raises the question of how the fat was extracted, it doesn’t prove that the priests and the sacrificer actually ate the remains of the sacrificial animal. For this we turn to animal sacrifice in the Soma ceremony. We join the sacrificer’s wife and the adhvaryu priest after the animal has been"quietened" : “They turn the victim over so it lies on its back … the animal is then cut and when the omentum is pulled out it is heated on the cooking fire … then after the basting of the heart of the animal with clotted ghee … then portions are made from various parts of the body …” (?B 3.8.2-4)4. ?B 126.96.36.199 specifies that some portions of the sacrificial animal must not be eaten e.g.the head, but there is no objection to eating other parts of the animal.
Post Vedic Period
Let us now turn to the Dharma-sutr?s which were normative texts whose core audience was the Brahmin male. There are a lot of them, so rather than bore you, I'll quote briefly from the best known of them all – Manu. Ch 5 of his law code deals with rules for food.6 "To perform sacrifices Brahmins may kill sanctioned animals and birds, as also to feed their dependants … for at the ancient sacrifices of seers and the Soma offerings … the sacrificial cakes were prepared with the meat of permitted animals and birds." (5.22-23) “He may eat meat when it is sacrificially consecrated, at the behest of Brahmins, when he is ritually commissioned according to rule…” (5.27). And “There is no fault in eating meat … that is the natural activity of creatures.” (5.56). Undoubtedly the same chapter also argues for not eating meat and the rewards thereof, but I focus on the portion which continues the Br?hma?ical tradition in order to prove that beef/meat eating was extant in the post Vedic period.
Evidently at some stage, the practices mentioned fell into disuse, and Hindus came to abstain from meat, from beef in particular. How that came about is another blog post altogether… To reiterate the purpose of this article however, – if you’re a Hindu and you don’t eat meat, particularly beef, because of a religious sentiment, I respect that completely. But to those who say they are doing it because the Hindu scriptures censure it, I urge you to read the aforementioned texts and decide for yourself.
*The Myth of the Holy Cow, D.N Jha, Navayana Publication, 2009. I have depended heavily on this book for references. I have not footnoted them in the interest of flow. If you want specifics, write in and I’ll email you.
1 RV X.86.14, XX.28.3, X.27.2, and VI.17.11
2 Dr. Ted Proferes, SOAS lecture, October 2011
3 ?B 188.8.131.52-13 The ?atapatha Br?hma?a, tr. ulius Eggeling, Sacred Books of the East, Vol 4, ed., Max Mueller4
4“Animal Sacrifice in the Br?hma?atexts”, Ganesh Umakant Thite, Numen Vol 17 (Aug 1970) pgs 143-158
5The Law Code of Manu, tr. Patrick Olivelle, Oxford World Classics, 2004