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Beef Eating: Strangulating History

By Ram Puniyani

The Hindu
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 Traditions.

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.

Not tenable

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 of beef.

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 Buddhism

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 and nail.


Prof. Ram Puniyani is a member of EKTA (Committee for Communal Amity), Mumbai . This article was first published on 14 August, 2001 in
The Hindu