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

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One Man’s Beef

One man's beef…

Pankaj Mishra finds the roots of post-Partition conflict in DN Jha's account of India's sacred cows, The Myth of the Holy Cow [SOURCE]

The Myth of the Holy Cow

by DN Jha

183pp, Verso, £16

Shortly before he died, at the age of 101, the Anglo-Bengali scholar and polemicist Nirad Chaudhuri received the leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, LK Advani, at his home in Oxford. The Hindu nationalists, who recently presided in Gujarat over India's worst-ever anti-Muslim pogrom, had been pleased by some of Chaudhuri's offhand denunciations of the medieval Muslim invaders of India.

They probably hoped that India's most distinguished intellectual exile would do more for their fascistic cause, but they hadn't fully reckoned with Chaudhuri, who interrogated Advani about his knowledge of India. He was still full of scorn when I saw him weeks later. "These wretched BJP types," he told me, "they call themselves cultural nationalists, speak of an ancient Hindu ethos, yet do not know Sanskrit, know nothing of their own history. Such barbarous people!"

The sayings and beliefs of religious fundamentalists are often taken at face value. As fervent believers, they seem not to have any truck with rational politics. But it is important to realise how pathetically little they know about the religious and spiritual traditions that supposedly inform their political beliefs; and how the superior morality they noisily lay claim to is important to them only so far as it can give legitimacy to resolutely unspiritual ambitions to capture state power in their native countries. This marks most of the fundamentalists as inescapably modern: people quite like us.

The middle-class Hindu nationalists of India are no different. Their agenda – a militaristic nation-state with a culturally homogeneous population of Hindus – resembles not so much anything in the Bhagavad-Gita as it does the nation- and empire-building projects of 19th-century Europe.

They redefine many of their preferred aspects of Indian tradition and culture, and present them as eternal and immutable, interrupted only by alien Muslims and other unclean foreigners. They fear the kind of scholarship that reveals that Indian tradition, like all other traditions, is a man-made thing, vulnerable to endless change, revision, and appropriation.

The education minister in the present Indian government, a promoter of astrology and something called "Vedic Mathematics", recently compared India's most distinguished intellectuals to terrorists. And now DN Jha, a respected historian of ancient India, is under attack for daring to examine the myth of the sacred cow.

His book was turned down by its original publishers in Delhi, who were afraid of provoking the Hindu fanatics who have recently been seen vandalising art exhibitions and burning books. One extremist even sentenced Jha to death in a fatwa – plainly a venerable Hindu tradition, this.

It may be hard at first to figure out what the fuss is about. Certainly, Jha did not set out to provoke. His main thesis – that beef-eating was not unknown to Indians of the pre-Muslim period – is neither new nor startling.

Visitors to India are often baffled by the wide berth given to even those very emaciated and diseased cows that seem to exist for no other purpose than to slow down the traffic on some of the world's most dangerous roads. But the cow wasn't sacred to the nomads and pastoralists from Central Asia who settled North India in the second millennium BC and created the high Brahminical culture of what we now know as Hinduism.

These Indians slaughtered cattle for both food and the elaborate sacrificial rituals prescribed by the Vedas, the first and the holiest Indian scriptures. After they settled down and turned to agriculture, they put a slightly higher value upon the cow: it produced milk, ghee, yoghurt and manure and could be used for ploughing and transport as well.

Indian religion and philosophy after the Vedas rejected the ritual killing of animals. This may have also served to protect the cow. But beef eating was still not considered a sin. It is often casually referred to in the earliest Buddhist texts. The great Indian emperor Ashoka, who instituted non-violence as state policy in the third century BC, did not ban the slaughter of cattle.

It is only in the early medieval period that the eating of beef became a taboo, if only for upper-caste Hindus. But the cow was far from holy. It is significant that no cow-goddesses, or temples to cows, feature in India's anarchically all-inclusive polytheisms.

Jha elaborates on how variously the ancient Indians saw their cattle; and he does so, if not with a graceful prose-style, then with an impressive range of textual evidence.

It is good to have all the relevant facts in one book. But, perhaps, Jha would have better engaged the general reader had he explained in greater detail why upper-caste Hindus have been more passionate about the cow in the last century and a half than at any other time in India's history. Or, as DD Kosambi put it in his Ancient India (1965), why "a modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism, whereas Vedic Brahmins had fattened upon a steady diet of sacrificed beef".

The answer lies in the 19th century, when many newly emergent middle-class Hindus began to see the cow as an important symbol of a glorious tradition defiled by Muslim rule over India. For these Hindus, the cause for banning cow-slaughter became a badge of identity, part of their quest for political power in post-colonial India. Educated Muslims felt excluded from, even scorned by, these Hindu notions of the Indian past; and they developed their own separatist fantasies.

The newly invented traditions helped create two antagonistic political elites, defined primarily by religion, and eventually led to the disastrous partition of India. The nationalist myths are now incarnated by the two nuclear-armed nation-states of India and Pakistan.

DN Jha is their most recent victim; but probably no one has suffered more from them than the poor holy cow that, bereft of a clear economic or religious role, slowly dwindles on Indian roads, until the day it is run over, when it receives the final kindness of being allowed to bleed to death.

· Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics (Picador)

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Extracts from D.N.Jha’s Myth of the Holy Cow. [And download it free – an external link]

[ADDENDUM: I've found a free download for this book: Download it from here]. 


(Source: here)

(concluding chapter of DN Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow)

Several points emerge from our limited survey of the textual evidence, mostly drawn from Brahmanical sources drawn from the Rgveda onwards. In the first place, it is clear that the early Aryans, who migrated to India from outside, brought along with them certain cultural elements. After their migration into the Indian subcontinent pastoralism, nomadism and animal sacrifice remained characteristic features of their lives for several centuries until sedentary field agriculture became the mainstay of their livelihood. Animal sacrifices were very common, the most important of them being the famous asvamedha and rajasuya. These and several other major sacrifices involved the killing of animals including cattle, which constituted the chief form of the wealth of the early Aryans. Not surprisingly, they prayed for cattle and sacrificed them to propitiate their gods. The Vedic gods had no marked dietary preferences. Milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats and sheep were their usual food, though some of them seem to have had their special preferences. Indra had a special liking for bulls. Agni was not a tippler like Indra, but was fond of the flesh of horses, bulls and cows. The toothless Pusan, the guardian of the roads, ate mush as a Hobson’s choice. Soma was the name of an intoxicant but, equally important, of a god, and killing animals (including cattle) for him was basic to most of the Rgvedic yajnas. The Maruts and the asvins were also offered cows. The Vedas mention about 250 animals out of which at least 50 were deemed fit for sacrifice, by implication for divine as well as human consumption. The Taittiriya Brahmana categorically tells us: Verily the cow is food(atho annam vai gauh) and Yajnavalkya‘s insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known. Although there is reason to believe that a brahmana’s cow may not have been killed, that is no index of its inherent sanctity in the Vedic period or even later.

The subsequent Brahmanical texts (e.g. Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras) provide ample evidence of the eating of flesh including beef. Domestic rites and rituals associated with agricultural and other activities involved the killing of cattle. The ceremonial welcome of guests (sometimes known as arghya but generally as madhuparka) consisted not only of a meal of a mixture of curds and honey but also of the flesh of a cow or bull. Early lawgivers go to the extent of making meat mandatory in the madhuparka — an injunction more or less dittoed by several later legal texts. The sacred thread ceremony for its part was not all that sacred; for it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide.

The slaughter of animals formed an important component of the cult of the dead in the Vedic texts. The thick fat of the cow was used to cover the corpse and a bull was burnt along with it to enable the departed to ride in the nether world. Funerary rites include the feeding of brahmanas after the prescribed period and quite often the flesh of the cow or ox was offered to the dead. The textual prescriptions indicate the degree of satisfaction obtained by the ancestors’ souls according to the animal offered — cow meat could keep them content for at least a year! The Vedic and the post-Vedic texts often mention the killing of animals including the kine in the ritual context. There was, therefore, a relationship between the sacrifice and sustenance. But this does not necessarily mean that different types of meat were eaten only if offered in sacrifice. Archaeological evidence, in fact, suggests non-ritual killing of cattle. This is indicative of the fact that beef and other animal flesh formed part of the dietary culture of people and that edible flesh was not always ritually consecrated.

The idea of ahimsa seems to have made its first appearance in the Upanisadic thought and literature. There is no doubt that Gautama Buddha and Mahavira vehemently challenged the efficacy of the Vedic animal sacrifice, although a general aversion to beef and other kinds of animal flesh is not borne out by Buddhist and Jaina texts. Despite the fact that the Buddha espoused the cause of ahimsa, he is said to have died after eating a meal of pork (sukaramaddava). Asoka’s compassion for animals is undeniable, though cattle were killed for food during the Mauryan period as is evident from the Arthasastra of Kautilya and Asoka’s own list of animals exempt from slaughter, which, significantly, does not include the cow. The Buddhists in India and outside continued to eat various types of meat including beef even in later times, often inviting unsavoury criticism from the Jainas. In Lahul, for example, Buddhists eat beef, albeit secretly, and in Tibet they eat cows, sheep, pigs and yak.

Like Buddhism, Jainism also questioned the efficacy of animal sacrifice and enthusiastically took up the cause of non-violence. But meat eating was so common in Vedic and post-Vedic times that even Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, is said to have eaten poultry. Perhaps the early Jainas were no strict vegetarians. A great Jaina logician of the eighth century tells us that monks did not have objection to eating flesh or fish given to them by the laity. In spite of all this, there is no doubt that meat became a strong taboo among the followers of Jainism. Its canonical and non-canonical literature provides overwhelming evidence on the subject. The inflexibility of the Jaina attitude is deeply rooted in the basic tenets of Jaina philosophy, which, at least in theory, is impartial in its respect for all forms of life without according any special status to the cow. Thus, although both Buddhism, and, to a greater extent, Jainism contributed to the growth of ahimsa doctrine, neither seems to have developed the sacred cow concept independently.

Despite the Upanisadic, Buddhist and Jaina advocacy of ahimsa, the practice of ritual and random killing of animals including cattle continued in the post-Mauryan centuries. Although Manu (200 BC-AD 200) extols the virtue ofahimsa, he provides a list of creatures whose flesh was edible. He exempts the camel from being killed for food, but does not grant this privilege to the cow. On the contrary, he opines that animal slaughter in accordance with Vedic practice does not amount to killing, thus giving sanction to the ritual slaughter off cattle. He further recommends meat eating on occasions like madhuparka and sraddha. One may not be far from the truth if one interprets Manu’s injunctions as a justification for ritual cattle slaughter and beef eating, as indeed a later commentator does.

Next in point of time is the law book of Yajnavalkya (AD 100-300) who not only enumerates the kosher animals and fish but also states that a learned brahmana (srotriya) should be welcomed with a big ox or goat, delicious food and sweet words. That the practice of flesh eating and killing cattle for food was customary right through the Gupta period and later is sufficiently borne out by references to it found in the Puranas and the Epics. Several Puranictexts, we are told, bear testimony to the feeding of brahmanas with beef at the funeral ceremony, though some of them prohibit the killing of a cow in honour of the guest and others recommend buffalo sacrifice for the goddess atDurga PujaNavaratri, or Dasara.

The evidence from the epics is quite eloquent. Most of the characters in the Mahabharata are meat eaters.Draupadi promises to Jayadratha and his retinue that Yudhisthira would provide them with a variety of game including gayalsambara and buffalo. The Pandavas seem to have survived on meat during their exile. TheMahabharata also makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered each day, their flesh, along with grain, being distributed among the brahmanas. Similarly the Ramayanaof Valmiki makes frequent references to the killing of animals including the cow for sacrifice and for food. Ramawas born after his father Dasaratha performed a big sacrifice involving the slaughter of a large number of animals declared edible by the DharmasastrasSita, assures the Yamuna, while crossing it that she would worship the river with a thousand cows and a hundred jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow. Her fondness for deer meat drives her husband crazy enough to kill Marica, a deer in disguise. Bharadvaja welcomes Rama by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour.

Non-vegetarian dietary practices find an important place in the early Indian medical treatises, whose chronology broadly coincides with that of the law books of Manu and Yajnavalkya, the early Puranas and the two epics.CarakaSusruta and Vagbhata provide an impressive list of fish and animals and all three speak of the therapeutic uses of beef. The continuity of the tradition of eating beef is also echoed in early Indian secular literature till late times. In the Gupta period, Kalidasa alludes to the story of Rantideva who killed numerous cows every day in his kitchen. More than two centuries later, Bhavabhuti refers to two instances of guest reception, which included the killing of heifer. In the tenth century, Rajasekhara mentions the practice of killing an ox or a goat in honour of a guest. Later Sriharsa mentions a variety of non-vegetarian delicacies served at a dazzling marriage feast and refers to two interesting instances of cow killing. At that time, however, Somesvara shows clear preference for pork over other meats and does not mention beef at all.

While the above references, albeit limited in number, indicate that the ancient practice of killing the kine for food continued till about the twelfth century, there is considerable evidence in the commentaries on the Kavya literature and the earlier Dharmasastra texts to show that the Brahmanical writers retained its memory till very late times. Among the commantators on the secular literature, Candupandita from Gujarat, Narahari from Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, and Mallinatha who is associated with the king Devaraya II of Vidyanagara (Vijayanagara), clearly indicate that, in earlier times, the cow was done to death for rituals and hence for food. As late as the eighteenth century Ghanasyama, a minister for a Tanjore ruler, states that the killing of cow in honour of a guest was the ancient rule.

Similarly the authors of Dharmasastra commentaries and religious digests from the ninth century onwards keep alive the memory of the archaic practice of beef eating and some of them even go so far as to permit beef in specific circumstances. For example, Medhatithi, probably a Kashmiri brahmana, says that a bull or ox was killed in honour of a ruler or anyone deserving to be honoured, and unambiguously allows eating the flesh of cow (govyajamamsam) on ritual occasions. Several other writers of exegetical works seem to lend support to this view, though sometimes indirectly. Viswarupa of Malwa, probably a pupil of SankaraVijnanesvara who may have lived not far fromKalyana in modern Karnataka, Haradatta, also a southerner (daksinatya), Lakshmidhara, a minister of theGahadwala king HemadriNarasimha a minister of the Yadavas of Devagiri, and Mitra Misra from Gopacala(Gwalior) support the practice of killing a cow on special occasions. Thus even when the Dharmasastracommentators view cow killing with disfavour, they generally admit that it was an ancient practice but to be avoided in the kali age.

While the above evidence is indicative of the continuity of the practice of beef eating, the lawgivers had already begun to discourage it around the middle of the first millennium when society began to be gradually feudalized, leading to major socio-cultural transformation. This phase of transition, first described in the epic and puranicpassages as the kaliyuga, i.e. kalivarjyas. While the list of kalivarjyas swelled up over time, most of the relevant texts mention cow slaughter, as forbidden in the kaliyuga. According to some early medieval lawgivers a cow killer was an untouchable and one incurred sin even by talking to him. They increasingly associated cow killing and beef eating with the proliferating number of untouchable castes. It is, however, interesting that some of them consider these acts as no more than minor behavioural aberrations.

Equally interesting is the fact that almost all the prescriptive texts enumerate cow killing as a minor sin (upapataka), not a major offence (mahapataka). Moreover, the Smrti texts provide easy escape routes by laying down expiatory procedures for intentional as well as inadvertent killing of the cow. This may imply that cattle slaughter may not have been uncommon in society, and the atonements were prescribed merely to discourage eating of beef. To what extent the Dharmasastric injunctions were effective, however, remains a matter of speculation; for the possibility of at least some people eating beef on the sly cannot be ruled out. As recently as the late nineteenth century it was alleged that Swami Vivekananda ate beef during his stay in America, though he vehemently defended his action. Also, Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the hypocrisy of the orthodox Hindus who 

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