Eating: Strangulating History
15 August, 2003
While one must respect the sentiments
of those who worship cow and regard her as their mother, to take offence
to the objective study of history just because the facts don't suit
their political calculations is yet another sign of a society where
liberal space is being strangulated by the practitioners of communal
politics. Prof. D. N. Jha, a historian from Delhi University, had been
experiencing the nightmares of `threats to life' from anonymous callers
who were trying to prevail upon him not to go ahead with the publication
of his well researched work, Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary
As per the reports
it is a work of serious scholarship based on authentic sources in tune
with methods of scientific research in history. The book demonstrates
that contrary to the popular belief even today a large number of Indians,
the indigenous people in particular and many other communities in general,
consume beef unmindful of the dictates of the Hindutva forces.
It is too well known
to recount that these Hindutva forces confer the status of mother to
the cow. Currently 72 communities in Kerala - not all of them untouchables
- prefer beef to the expensive mutton and the Hindutva forces are trying
to prevail upon them to stop the same.
To begin with the
historian breaks the myth that Muslim rulers introduced beef eating
in India. Much before the advent of Islam in India beef had been associated
with Indian dietary practices. Also it is not at all tenable to hold
that dietary habits are a mark of community identity.
A survey of ancient
Indian scriptures, especially the Vedas, shows that amongst the nomadic,
pastoral Aryans who settled here, animal sacrifice was a dominant feature
till the emergence of settled agriculture. Cattle were the major property
during this phase and they offered the same to propitiate the gods.
Wealth was equated with the ownership of the cattle.
Many gods such as
Indra and Agni are described as having special preferences for different
types of flesh - Indra had weakness for bull's meat and Agni for bull's
and cow's. It is recorded that the Maruts and the Asvins were also offered
cows. In the Vedas there is a mention of around 250 animals out of which
at least 50 were supposed to be fit for sacrifice and consumption. In
the Mahabharata there is a mention of a king named Rantideva who achieved
great fame by distributing foodgrains and beef to Brahmins. Taittiriya
Brahman categorically tells us: `Verily the cow is food' (atho annam
via gauh) and Yajnavalkya's insistence on eating the tender (amsala)
flesh of the cow is well known. Even later Brahminical texts provide
the evidence for eating beef. Even Manusmriti did not prohibit the consumption
As a medicine
In therapeutic section
of Charak Samhita (pages 86-87) the flesh of cow is prescribed as a
medicine for various diseases. It is also prescribed for making soup.
It is emphatically advised as a cure for irregular fever, consumption,
and emaciation. The fat of the cow is recommended for debility and rheumatism.
With the rise of
agricultural economy and the massive transformation occurring in society,
changes were to be brought in in the practice of animal sacrifice also.
At that time there were ritualistic practices like animal sacrifices,
with which Brahmins were identified. Buddha attacked these practices.
There were sacrifices, which involved 500 oxen, 500 male calves, 500
female calves and 500 sheep to be tied to the sacrificial pole for slaughter.
Buddha pointed out that aswamedha, purusmedha, vajapeya sacrifices did
not produce good results. According to a story in Digha Nikaya, when
Buddha was touring Magadha, a Brahmin called Kutadanta was preparing
for a sacrifice with 700 bulls, 700 goats and 700 rams. Buddha intervened
and stopped him. His rejection of animal sacrifice and emphasis on non-injury
to animals assumed a new significance in the context of new agriculture.
The threat from
The emphasis on
non-violence by Buddha was not blind or rigid. He did taste beef and
it is well known that he died due to eating pork. Emperor Ashok after
converting to Buddhism did not turn to vegetarianism. He only restricted
the number of animals to be killed for the royal kitchen.
So where do matters
change and how did the cow become a symbol of faith and reverence to
the extent of assuming the status of `motherhood'? Over a period of
time mainly after the emergence of Buddhism or rather as an accompaniment
of the Brahminical attack on Buddhism, the practices started being looked
on with different emphasis. The threat posed by Buddhism to the Brahminical
value system was too severe. In response to low castes slipping away
from the grip of Brahminism, the battle was taken up at all the levels.
At philosophical level Sankara reasserted the supremacy of Brahminical
values, at political level King Pushyamitra Shung ensured the physical
attack on Buddhist monks, at the level of symbols King Shashank got
the Bodhi tree (where Gautama the Buddha got Enlightenment) destroyed.
One of the appeals
to the spread of Buddhism was the protection of cattle wealth, which
was needed for the agricultural economy. In a way while Brahminism `succeeded'
in banishing Buddhism from India, it had also to transform itself from
the `animal sacrifice' state to the one which could be in tune with
the times. It is here that this ideology took up the cow as a symbol
of their ideological march. But unlike Buddha whose pronouncements were
based on reason, the counteraction of Brahminical ideology took the
form of a blind faith based on assertion. So while Buddha's non-violence
was for the preservation of animal wealth for the social and compassionate
reasons the counter was based purely on symbolism. So while the followers
of Brahminical ideology accuse Buddha of `weakening' India due to his
doctrine of non-violence, he was not a cow worshipper or vegetarian
in the current Brahminical sense.
Despite the gradual
rigidification of Brahminical `cow as mother' stance, large sections
of low castes continued the practice of beef eating. The followers of
Buddhism continued to eat flesh including beef. Since Brahminism is
the dominant religious tradition, Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in
his will to his son Humayun, in deference to these notions, advised
him to respect the cow and avoid cow slaughter. With the construction
of Hindutva ideology and politics, in response to the rising Indian
national movement, the demand for ban on cow slaughter also came up.
In post-Independence India RSS repeatedly raised this issue to build
up a mass campaign but without any response to its call till the 1980s.
While one must respect
the sentiments of those who worship cow and regard her as their mother,
to take offence to the objective study of history just because the facts
don't suit their political calculations is yet another sign of a society
where liberal space is being strangulated by the practitioners of communal
politics. We have seen enough such threats and offences in recent past
- be it the opposition to films or the destruction of paintings, or
the dictates of the communalists to the young not to celebrate Valentine's
Day, etc., - and hope the democratic spirit of our Constitution holds
the forte and any threat to the democratic freedom is opposed tooth
Prof. Ram Puniyani
is a member of EKTA (Committee for Communal Amity), Mumbai . This
article was first published on 14 August, 2001 in