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ADDENDUM dated 27/9/13. Gandhi did not agree with violence against Muslims for cow slaughter (as indicated in this compilation by Puniyani). He did believe in protection of the cow. This is confirmed by a commentator who provided me with this citation:

Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so ling as there are Hindus to protect the cow…… Hindus will be judged not by their TILAKS, not by the correct chanting of MANTRAS, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules, but their ability to protect the cow. (YI, 6-10-1921, p. 36) [Source]

Cow on Indian Political Chessboard E-Digest Compiled by Ram Puniyani

Preface 2

Cow and the Elusive Hindu Identity 2

(2) Commissar Sadhvi’s Cow Agenda by Ram Puniyani 13

(3) The Dilemma of Cow Slaughter in India By Anshul Kumar Pandey 16



(4) Hindutva Politics and The Holy Cow: The politics of the holy cow By Manoj Joshi 20

(5) ‘Holy’ Cow And ‘Unholy’ Dalit by S. Anand 23

(6) Holy Cow! Who Moved My Meat by Divya Rajagopal, 34

(7) Cow in Contemporary Political Chessboard Ram Puniyani 36

(8) Cow’s Urine as Medicine: Faith’s leap into blind Alleys Ram Puniyani 38

(9) Using the cow by Javed Anand  40

(10) Tribute to the holy cow by By Jawed Naqvi 42

(11) What a hypocrisy, gau mata! Assault on food habits by A.J.Philip 45

(12) M.P.: Path Way to Hindu Rashtra by Ram Puniyani 49

(13) Interview with D.N. Jha: ‘A political tool’ by AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA 50


Cow slaughter, beef eating have been being brought up on regular basis by communal forces. This issue is used to browbeat the Muslim minorities in particular. Time and over again this issue in the form of inciting communal violence, inciting anti dalit killings, inciting the killing of someone in the trade of cow selling is targeted. The issue is now being used more often as a divisive communal agenda and the aim of this is very clear. It is a political tool in the hands of communal forces.

There are very rigorously researched papers proving that cow was consumed extensively in ancient Vedic period. In India, the consumption of beef is more than that of goat mutton or chicken. Many an Indian communities are eating beef. The latest law in M.P. is the worst in the line of the impositions by state. This law empowers the police to arrest any body suspected to be carrying, storing or eating beef.

This E Digest is a compilation of major essays, articles and interviews on the theme. The aim of this E Digest is to bring together all the amiable material on the topic.

Ram Puniyani

Cow and the Elusive Hindu Identity

D. .N. Jha

An average Indian of today rooted in what appears to him as his traditional Hindu religious heritage carries the load of the misconception that his ancestors, especially the Vedic âryans, attached great importance to the cow on account of its inherent ‘sacredness’. The ‘sacred’ cow has come to be considered a symbol of community identity of the Hindus whose cultural tradition is often imagined as threatened by the Muslims who are thought of as beefeaters. The sanctity of the cow has, therefore, been announced with the flourish of trumpets and has been wrongly traced back to the Vedas, which are supposedly of divine origin and fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom. In other words, some sections of Indian society have traced back the concept of ‘holy’ cow to the very period when it was sacrificed and its flesh was eaten.

Since the Bràhmanical injunctions against beef eating led to the veneration of cow in the medieval period, it tended to become a political instrument at the hand of rulers. The Mughal emperors (e.g. Babar, Akbar, Jahagir and Aurangzeb etc), thus imposed a restricted ban on cow slaughter to accommodate the Jaina or Bràhmanical feeling of respect for the cow. Similarly Shivaji, sometimes viewed as an incarnation of God who descended on earth for the deliverance of the cow and brahman, is described as proclaiming: We are Hindus and the rightful lords of the realm. It is not proper for us to witness cow slaughter and the oppression of brahmanas. But the cow became a tool of mass political mobilisation when the organised Hindu cow protection movement, beginning with the Sikh Kuka (or Namdhari) sect in the Punjab around 1870 and later strengthened by the foundation of the first Gorakshini Sabha in 1882 by Dayanananda Saraswati, made this animal a symbol to unite a wide ranging people, challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter and provoked a series of serious communal riots in the 1880s and 1890s. Although attitudes to cow killing had been hardening even earlier, there was undoubtedly a Bdramatic intensification of the cow protection movement when in 1888 the North-Western Provinces High Court decreed that a cow was not a sacred object. Not surprisingly cow slaughter very often became the pretext of many Hindu-Muslim riots, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. The killing of the kine emerged again and again as a troublesome issue on the Indian political scene throughout the twentieth century and has become a rallying point for communalists in India. The veneration of this animal has been converted into a symbol of communal identity of the Hindus and the obscurantist and fundamentalist forces obdurately refuse to appreciate that the sacred cow was not always all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Bràhmanical and non- Bràhmanical traditions and that its flesh, along with other varieties of meat, was quite often a part of the haute cuisine in early India. Although the Shin, Muslims of Dardistan in Pakistan, look on the cow as other Muslims do the pig, avoid direct contact with cows, refuse to drink cow’s milk or use cow dung as fuel and reject beef as food, the self-styled custodians of non-existent ‘monolithic’ Hinduism assert that the practice of beef eating was first introduced in India by the followers of Islam who came from outside and are foreigners in this country, little realising that their Vedic ancestors were also foreigners who ate the flesh of the cow and various other animals. Fanaticism getting precedence over fact, it is not surprising that the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Samgha, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and their numerous outfits have a national ban on cow slaughter on their agenda. So high-geared has been the propaganda about abstention from beef eating as a characteristic trait of modern day ‘Hinduism’ that when the RSS tried to claim Sikhs as Hindus, it led to a vehement opposition from them and one of the Sikh youth leaders proposed, Why not slaughter a cow and serve beef in a gurudwara langar?

The response of historical scholarship to the communal perception of Indian food culture, however, has been sober and scholars have drawn attention to the textual evidence of beef eating which, in fact, begins to be available from the oldest Indian religious text Rgveda, supposedly of divine origin. H.H. Wilson, writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, had asserted that the sacrifice of the horse or of the cow, the gomedha or ashvamedha, appears to have been common in the earliest periods of the Hindu ritual---a view convincingly put forth by Rajendra Lal Mitra whose article on the subject formed a chapter of his book The Indo-Aryans published in 1891. In 1894 William Crooke, a British civil servant, collected an impressive amount of ethnographic data on popular Indian religious beliefs and practices in his two-volume work and devoted one whole chapter to the respect shown to animals including the cow. Later in 1912, he published an informative piece on the sanctity of cow in India. But he also drew attention to the old practice of eating beef and its survival in his own times. In 1927, L.L. Sunadara Ram made a strong case for cow protection for which he sought justification from the scriptures of different religions including Hinduism. However he did not deny that the Vedic people ate beef, though he blamed the Muslims for cow slaughter. Later in the early forties P. V. Kane in his five-volume monumental work History of Dharmashàstra referred to Vedic and early Dharmashàstric passages which speak of cow killing and beef eating. Similarly, Laxman Shastri Joshi, a Sanskritist of unquestionable scholarship, drew attention to the Dharmashàstra works, which unequivocally support the prevalence of the practice of flesh eating including beef eating in early India and H.D. Sankalia reinforced the scholarly view on the basis of both literary and archaeological evidence. While the contribution of the scholars mentioned above cannot be minimized, the limitation of their work lies in the fact that they have referred to isolated bits of information on beef, concentrating mainly on the Vedic texts without treating those as part of a flesh-eating tradition prevalent in India. But as will be shown in the sequel there is sufficient Indian textual evidence of cattle killing and beef eating widely dispersed over time so as to indicate its continuity for a long time in the Bràhmanical society and to suggest that the idea of cow’s supposed sanctity/holiness does not tie up with practices prevalent in Indian society.


The early Aryans came to India as a semi-nomadic people with a dominantly pastoral economy, in which cattle rearing played an important role and agriculture occupied a secondary place. They inherited their pastoral economy from their Indo-European past, which showed up prominently in different aspects of their life including their religious beliefs and practices. Like pastoralism, they brought from outside the practice of animal or cattle sacrifice, widely prevalent among the early Aryans. It has been suggested on the basis of linguistic and archaeological evidence that the practice of cattle sacrifice of the Vedic period, called pashubandha, can be traced in the chronologically earlier steppe cultures of Eastern Europe. Nearer home in ancient Iran through which the eastern branch of Indo-Europeans migrated to India, the Avesta bears ample testimony of animal sacrifice and the Vedic term yaja (= sacrifice) occurs as yasna in this text. It speaks of the sacrifice of 100 oxen and 1000 small cattle, in addition to that of 100 horses, 10,000 sheep or goats and 1000 camels just as the Vedic texts frequently refer to the sacrifice of cattle, horses, sheep, goats and pigs, etc.

The Rigveda frequently refers to the cooking of the flesh of the ox for offering to gods, especially Indra, the greatest of the Vedic gods. At one place he is stated to have said: they cook for me 15 plus twenty oxen. At other places he is said to have eaten the flesh of bulls, of one or of a hundred buffaloes or 300 buffaloes roasted by Agni or a thousand buffaloes. Second in importance to Indra is Agni who has some 200 hymns to himself in the Rigveda. Born of the mythic parents, Dyaus and Pçthivã, the god Agni, unlike the licentious Indra, drank Soma moderately, his main food being ghee. Protector of all men, he is, nevertheless, described in the Rigveda as ‘one whose food is the ox and the barren cow’. There is indeed nothing in the text to indicate his aversion to the flesh of the cattle and other animals. On the contrary, horses (ashva), bulls (çshabha), oxen (ukshan), barren (?) cows (vashà) and rams (mesha) were sacrificed for him. In a passage dealing with the disposal of the dead, clear reference is made to the burning of a goat which is the share of Agni, and to the use of the flesh of the cow to protect the body against the flame. Third in order of importance was the god Soma whose name is derived from a plant which was the source of a heady drink. It has been suggested that the fundamental and typical Vedic sacrifices are those of Soma in which the killing of animals including cattle played a crucial role. There was not much variation in the menu of the Rigvedic gods. Milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats and sheep were their usual food, though some of them had apparently their preferences. Indra, for example, had a special liking for bulls and the guardian of the roads, Pusan, being devoid of teeth, ate mush as a Hobson’s choice

The later Vedic texts provide detailed descriptions of sacrifices and frequently refer to ritual cattle slaughter and the Gopatha Bràhmana alone mentions twenty-one yajas, though all of them may not have involved animal killing. A bull (vçshabha) was sacrificed to Indra, a dappled cow to the Maruts and a copper coloured cow to the Ashvins. A cow was also sacrificed to Mitra and Varuna. In most of the public sacrifices (e.g. ashvamedha, ràjasåya and the vàjapeya) flesh of various types of animals, especially that of the cow/ox/bull was required. The agnyàdheya, which was a preparatory rite preceding all public sacrifices, required a cow to be killed. In the ashvamedha (horse sacrifice), the most important of the Vedic public sacrifices first referred to in the Rigveda and discussed in the Bràhmanas, more than 600 animals (including the wild ones like boars) and birds were killed and its finale was marked by the sacrifice of 21 sterile cows. The gosava (cow sacrifice) was an important component of the ràjasåya and vàjapeya sacrifices and in the latter, the atapatha Bràhmana tells us, a sterile spotted cow was offered to Maruts. Similarly a sterile cow was sacrificed in the agnishtoma just as the immolation of seventeen dwarf heifers under three was an important element in the pacashàradãyasava (darshapårnamàsa). The killing of animals including cattle (pashu) figures in several other yajas including càturmàsya, sautràmani, and independent animal sacrifice called pashubandha or niruóhapashubandha, which was also an important component of many sacrifices. The Taittirãya Bràhmana, thus, unambiguously refers to the sacrificial killing of the cow which is verily food (atho annam vai gauþ), and praises Agastya for his sacrifice of a hundred bulls. That the flesh of the sacrificial victim was meant for human consumption is clear from passages, which discuss the mode of cutting up the immolated animal and the distribution of its flesh by the samitàça who kills the victim by strangulation. There is thus evidence to show that the flesh of the sacrificed cattle was consumed by various categories of people.

Cattle and other animals were killed not only in public sacrifices but also in ordinary and domestic rites of daily life. The later Vedic and post- Vedic texts mention many rites and rituals associated with agricultural and other activities and, in at least some of them, the killing of animals including cattle was de rigueur. Among the rites relating to agriculture, which tended to become stable from the later Vedic period onwards, mention may be made of the shålagava (sacrifice of “the ox on the spit”). In this sacrifice a spit-ox was killed for Rudra; its tail and skin etc were thrown into the fire and its blood was poured out on the kusha or darbha grass for the snakes.

An interesting rite repeatedly mentioned in the texts from the later Vedic period onwards is the one relating to the reception of guests and is called arghya, or more popularly, madhuparka. The killing of the kine to honour guests seems to have been prevalent from earlier times. The Rigveda mentions the word atithinãr, which has been interpreted as ‘cows fit for guests’, and refers to a Vedic hero, Atithigva, whose name literally means slaying cows for guests. The cow was also killed on festive occasions like marriage. A Rgvedic passage, for instance, refers to the slaughter of a cow on the occasion of marriage and, later, in the Aitareya Bràhmana, we are told, that if the ruler of men comes as a guest or any one else deserving of honour comes, people kill a bull or a cow. It was performed in honour of special guests, namely the teacher, the priest, a snàtaka, father-in-law, paternal and maternal uncles, a friend and a king. Their reception not only included the offering of a mixture of curds and honey (whence the term madhuparka was derived) but, more importantly, of a cow which was either immolated or let loose according to their wishes, though in no case the rite was performed without beef or flesh-meat. Several Gçhyasåtras describe madhuparka both independently as well as part of the marriage ceremonies in which cow was slain more than once in honour of guests. In subsequent times Pànini, therefore, uses the term goghna for a guest.

The Gçhyasåtras also attest to the use of the hide of the bull or the cow in domestic rituals like the simantonnayana (lit. parting of the hair of the woman upwards) ceremony performed in the fourth month of pregnancy and the upanayana (investiture ceremony preceding the beginning of one’s studenthood) implying cattle killing. Cattle, in fact, seem to have been killed even on what would appear to be a flimsy ground to many of us. Thus if one were eager to have a learned son with a long life he could find solution in the Upanishadic precept which permitted such a person to eat a mess of veal or beef or of other flesh with rice and ghee, though six months after the birth the child itself could be fed on the flesh of birds (e.g., bhàradvàjã, tittira, kçkasà etc) and fish.

The practice of cattle killing was also intimately connected with the cult of the dead, which occupies considerable space in the Vedic as well as post-Vedic texts. One of the several Rigvedic passages relating to cremation, for example, refers to the use of the skin and the thick fat of the cow to cover the dead body and the Atharvaveda at one place speaks of a bull presumably being burnt along with the dead to ride with in the next world. The Gçhyasåtras, elaborately describing the funerary procedure, provide ample evidence of cattle killing at the time of cremation and of the practice of distributing different limbs of the animal on those of the corpse. The cremation was followed by several rites performed in honour of the Manes, variously mentioned as pitçryaja, mahàpitçryaja and ashtakà in the Vedic passages and as some other types of shràddha discussed in the post-Vedic texts, especially the Gçhyasåtras. The central point of these rites was that the Manes were to be well fed and this could be possible only if beef was offered to them. Therefore apart from other animals, cows and / or bulls were slain in shràddhas, though the degree of satisfaction they derived from the shràddhas seems to have varied sometimes according to the animal offered. However not everything depended on their choice and preference for beef was generally unquestioned. After all, the shràddha, apart from being a ritual to please the ancestors, was also a feast for the community members, especially the bràhmans, whose preference for beef is clearly indicated in the texts. There were several other occasions when cattle were slaughtered for community. One of them was the gavàmayana, a sessional sacrifice, performed by the bràhmans, culminating in an extravagant bacchanal frolicsome festival, mahàvrata. Similarly the gçhamedha was some kind of a lavish communal feast in which an unspecified number of cows were slain not in the strict ritual manner but in the crude and profane manner.

Evidently then, judging by the copious textual references—not to mention the massive archaeological evidence, there is little doubt that the early Aryans in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent and their successors in the middle Gangetic valley slaughtered animals and cattle including the cow whose flesh they ate with great relish. Although flesh eating was forbidden for a Vedic teacher during the months between upàkarma and utsarjana, according to a Dharmasåtra text the flesh of cows and bulls was pure and may be eaten. Not surprisingly, beef was the favourite food of the much respected sage from Mithila, Yàjavalkya, who is said to have made the well-known statement that he would continue to eat the flesh of cows and oxen so long as it was tender (amsala), though his obdurate position may also imply that already in his time an opinion against beef eating was gaining ground.

Despite all this, it has been argued that the cow was described as aghnya (unslayable) in the Vedic texts. The term aghnya/aghnyà (lit. not to be slain) has been used at four places in the ègveda and the Atharvaveda as a masculine noun equivalent to bull or ox and 42 times with a feminine ending to mean a cow. Attention has also been drawn to the use of words for cow as epithet or in simile and metaphor with reference to entities of highest religious significance, though these occurrences do not indicate their primary sense with reference to the actual animal. Neither of the two types of evidence adduced in favour of the sacredness of the Vedic cow, indicates the basically unslayable character of cows. On the contrary the references seem to emphasize their economic value. When slaughtered they provided food to the people and their priests and the atapatha Bràhmana states unambiguously that meat is the best kind of food. When milked the cows gave additional nourishment not only through milk but also through a variety of dairy products, which formed part of human diet as well as of the Vedic sacrificial oblation (havis). They produced oxen, which were used as draught animals. The cattle hide was used in a variety of ways. The bowstring (jya) was made of a thong of cowhide - a practice that may have continued in later times. The different parts of the chariot were tied together with leather straps, which were also needed for binding the arrow to the shaft. The goad for driving the animals was made of cow’s skin or tail. Leather strings were used not only for making snares but also a kind of musical instrument called godhà. The utility and importance of the cattle therefore inspired warriors to fight wars (gavishti) for them and it is likely that part of the cattle stock of the vanquished tribes was killed in course of the raids. All this goes against the popular notion of the inviolability of the cow throughout the Vedic period and proves that it was certainly killed for sacrifice (yaja) and food as well as for other requirements, notwithstanding some Atharvavedic passages, which have been interpreted as a strong voice of protest against the slaughter of the cow.

It seems likely, however, that the cow belonging to the bràhman came to acquire a certain degree of inviolability. It is known that the cow was an ideally preferred form of dakshinà (sacrificial fee) given to the bràhman priest. There are many references to the Vedic bràhman’s interest in his dakshinà (the good milch cow), and to the dire consequences that will befall one who withholds it or injures or misappropriates it and the corresponding benefit accruing to him who bestows it. The special importance attached to the bràhman’s cow, however, cannot be stretched to argue that the Vedic cow was inherently sacrosanct and unslayable, though in the later Vedic period we see the Upanishads questioning the efficacy of animal sacrifice as a means of achieving self realization,, reading new meanings in the sacrifices, and propounding the notion of ahimsà, even if some of them continued to betray a friendly attitude to the sacrificial cult.

Although the Vedic and subsequent texts present divergent perceptions of ritual butchery of animals including the cattle, the general Upanishadic idea of its futility gained in strength and may have culminated in the doctrine of ahimsà, which is the defining trait of Buddhism and Jainism. These two religions, as is well known, forcefully challenged the Vedic sacrificial slaughter of animals including the cattle and paved way for the emergence of stable agrarian settlements, state society and other related developments, though the undermining of Bràhmanical world of sacrifice did not lead to the total disappearance of the cattle flesh or other meat types from the Indian dietary menu. Gautama Buddha, despite his vehement opposition of the Vedic animal sacrifice, was not averse to eating of meat. He is known to have eaten beef and pork and the texts amply indicate that flesh meat very well suited the Buddhist palate. Ashoka, whose compassion for animals is undeniable, allowed certain specified animals to be killed for his kitchen. In fact, neither Asoka’s list of animals exempted from slaughter nor the Arthashàstra of Kautilya specifically mentions cow as unslayable. The cattle were killed for food throughout the Mauryan period. Like Buddhism, Jainism also enthusiastically took up cudgels for non-violence but it did not develop the sacred cow concept.


Despite the Upanishadic, Buddhist and Jaina advocacy of ahimsà, the practice of ritual and random killing of animals including the cattle continued in the post-Mauryan centuries. The law book of Manu (200 BC-AD 200), which is the most representative of the legal texts and has much to say on the lawful and forbidden food, and, like the earlier law books, mentions the animals whose flesh could be eaten. Manu’s list includes the porcupine, hedgehog, iguana, rhinoceros, tortoise and the hare and all those domestic animals having teeth in one jaw only, the only exception being the camel, and, it is significant that the cow is not excluded from the list of edible animals. Manu asserts that animals were created for the sake of sacrifice, that killing on ritual occasions is non-killing and injury (himsà) as enjoined by the Veda (vedavihitahimsà) is known to be non-injury. In the section dealing with rules for times of distress, Manu recalls the legendary examples of the most virtuous bràhmans of the days of yore who ate ox-meat and dog-meat to escape death from starvation (X.105-9). Since Manu does not mention beef eating as taboo one can infer that he did not treat cow as sacrosanct---in fact the killing of cow and other cattle on ritual occasions (madhuparka, shràddha etc), according to his commentator Medhàtithi (9th century), was in keeping with the Vedic and post- Vedic practice.

Yàjavalkya (AD 100-300), like Manu, discusses the rules regarding lawful and forbidden food. Although his treatment of the subject is less detailed, he does not differ radically from him. Yàjavalkya mentions the specific animals (deer, sheep, goat, boar, rhinoceros etc) and birds (e.g. partridge) whose flesh could satisfy the Manes According to him a student, teacher, king, close friend and son-in-law should be offered arghya every year and a priest should be offered madhuparka on all ritual occasions. He further enjoins that a learned bràhman (shrotriya) should be welcomed with a big ox or goat (mahoksham và mahàjam và shrotriyàyopakalpayet) delicious food and sweet words. The lawgivers generally accept as lawful all those sacrifices, which, according to them, have Vedic sanction. The sacrificial slaughter of animals and domesticated bovines, as we have seen, was a Vedic practice and therefore may have been fairly common among the Bràhmanical circles during the early Christian centuries and even well into the later half of the first millennium AD. It would be, however, unrealistic to assume that the dharmic precept of restricting animal slaughter to ritual occasions was always taken seriously either by bràhmans for whom the legal injunctions were meant or by other sections of society. It is not surprising, therefore, that Bçhaspati (AD 300-500), while discussing the importance of local customs, says that in Madhyadesha the artisans eat cows (madhyadeshe karmakaràþ shilpinashca gavàsinaþ).

The evidence from the epics is unambiguous. Most of the characters in the Mahàbhàrata are meat eaters, but what is more, it makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered everyday, their flesh, along with grains, being distributed among the bràhmans (III.208.8-9). Similarly the Ràmàyana of Vàlmãki makes frequent reference to the killing of animals including the cow for sacrifice as well as food. Ràma was born after his father Dasharatha performed a big sacrifice involving the slaughter of a large number of animals declared edible by the Dharmashàstras, which sanction ritual killing of the kine. Sãtà, while crossing the Yamunà, assures her that she would worship her with thousand cows and a hundred jars of wine when Ràma accomplishes his vow. Her fondness for deer meat drives her husband crazy enough to kill Màrãca, a deer in disguise. Bharadvàja welcomes Ràma by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour. The evidence of the Sanskrit epics finds support from the earliest Buddhist Tamil epic, Manimekalai (6th century AD?) which relates the story of one âpputiran (lit. the son of a cow) who tried to rescue a cow from the bràhmans eager to kill it for sacrifice and food.

Even if we leave aside the references to the therapeutic use of beef in early Indian medical literature, the continuity of the tradition of eating flesh including that of the cattle 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, Bhavabhåti (AD 700) refers to two instances of guest reception, which included the killing of a heifer. Ràjashekhara (10th century) mentions the practice of killing an ox or a goat in honour of a guest and Somadeva (11th century) narrates the story of seven bràhman boys who ate a cow. In the 12th century rãharsha mentions a variety of non-vegetarian delicacies served at a dazzling marriage feast and refers to two interesting instances of cow killing, though in the same century the Càlukya king Someshvara indicates his preference for pork, which, despite the lawgivers’ abhorrence for it, continued to be sacrificed and eaten by non-Muslims in India.


The above references, albeit limited in number, indicate that the ancient practice of killing the kine for food continued till about at least the 12th --13th century, there is considerable literary evidence to show that even when the practice of eating beef was strongly discouraged by Brahmans and fast falling into desuetude, its memory was preserved in later texts. For example, Jayaratha, a Kashmirian commentator (twelfth century) of the Tantràloka of Abhinavagupta cites the Vãràvalã Tantra to say that the ancient çsis ate both beef and human flesh. Evidence of this kind is also available from the commentaries on the kàvya literature and the earlier Dharmashàstra texts. Among the commentators on the secular literature, Cànóupanóita (late 13th century) from Gujarat, Narahari (14th century) from Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, and Mallinàtha (14th-15th century), who is associated with the king Devaràya II of Vidyànagara (Vijayanagara), clearly indicate that, in earlier times, the cow was done to death for rituals and hence for food. As late as the 18th century Ghanashyàma, a minister of a Tanjore ruler, states that the killing of cow in honour of a guest was the ancient rule.

Similarly the authors of Dharmashàstra commentaries and religious digests from the 9th century onwards keep alive the memory of the archaic practice of beef eating and some of them even go so far as to permit eating beef in specific circumstances. For example, Medhàtithi (9th century), probably a Kashmirian bràhman, says that a bull or ox was killed in honour of a ruler or any one deserving to be honoured and unambiguously allows eating the flesh of cow (govyajamàmsam) on ritual occasions. Several other writers of exegetical works seem to lend support to this view, though some times indirectly. Vishvaråpa (9th century), a bràhman from Malwa and probably a pupil of aïkara, Vijàneshvara (11th century), who may have lived not far from Kalyana in modern Karnataka, Haradatta (12th century), also a southerner (dakshinàtya), Lakshmãdhara (12th century), a minister of the Gahaówala king, Hemàdri (late 13th century), a minister of the Yàdavas of Devagiri, Narasimha/ Nçsimha (14th century), possibly from southern India, and Mitra Mishra (17th century) from Gopàcala (Gwalior) support the practice of killing a cow on occasions like guest-reception and shràddha in ancient times. As recently as the early 20th century, Madana Upàdhyàya from Mithila refers to the ritual slaughter of milch cattle in the days of yore. Thus even when the Dharmashàstra commentators view cow killing with disfavour, they generally admit that it was an ancient practice and that it was to be avoided in the kali age, though there is reason to believe that beef eating continued among the Tantric circles.


While there is massive evidence of beef eating until very late, there is much in the normative texts to indicate that the bràhmans began to discourage it from about the middle of the first millennium AD when the Indian society began to be gradually feudalized leading to major socio-cultural transformation. This phase of transition, first described in the epic and Purànic passages as kaliyuga, saw many changes and modification in social norms and customs. The Bràhmanical religious texts now begin to speak of many earlier practices as forbidden in the kaliyuga --- practices which came to be known as kalivarjyas. While the number of kalivarjyas swelled up over time, most of the relevant texts mention cow killing as forbidden in the kali. 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 slaughter and beef eating with the proliferating number of untouchable castes. It is, however, interesting that they consider the killing of cow as no more than minor behavioural aberrations like cleaning one’s teeth with one’s fingers and eating only salt or soil. None of the prescriptive texts enumerate cow killing as a major offence (mahàpàtaka) and they provide easy escape routes by laying down expiatory procedures for intentional as well as inadvertent killing of the cow. This may imply that cattle killing may not have been uncommon in society and the atonements were prescribed merely to discourage eating of cattle flesh. To what extent the Dharmashàstric injunctions were effective, however, remains a matter of speculation; for the possibility of at least some members eating beef on the sly cannot be ruled out.


Although cow killing and beef eating gradually came to be viewed as a sin and a source of pollution from the early medieval period, the cow and its products (milk, curds, clarified butter, dung and urine) or their mixture called pacagavya had been assuming a purificatory role from much earlier times. The Vedic texts attest to the ritual use of cow’s milk and milk products, but the term pacagavya occurs for the first time in the Baudhàyana Dharmasåtra. The law books of Manu, Vishnu, Vasishtha, Yàjavalkya and those of several later lawgivers like Atri, Devala and Paràshara mention the use of the mixture of the five products of the cow for both purification and expiation. The commentaries and religious digests, most of which belong to the medieval period, abound in references to the purificatory role of the pacagavya. The underlying assumption in all these cases is that the pacagavya is pure. But several Dharmashàstra texts forbid its use by women and the lower castes. If a sådra drinks pacagavya, we are told, he goes to hell.

It is curious that the prescriptive texts, which repeatedly refer to the purificatory role of the cow, also provide much evidence of the notion of pollution and impurity associated with this animal. According to Manu (V.125) the food smelt by the cow has to be purified. Other early lawgivers like Vishnu (XXIII.38) and Yàjavalkya (I.189) also express similar views and the latter says unambiguously that while the mouth of the goat and horse is pure that of the cow is not. The notion of the impurity of the cow’s mouth, reinforced by most of the later legal texts, runs counter to the ideas about the purificatory role of the cow.

It is evident from the above that the Bràhmanical texts abound in ambiguous and contradictory statements about the cow. But despite this the Hindutva forces have been trumpeting the idea of its sacredness and unslayability as a characteristic trait of Hinduism. While the effectiveness of the Dharmashàstric injunctions remains largely a matter of speculation, the possibility of at least some members of society eating beef cannot be ruled out. As recently as the late 19th century Swami Vivekananda was alleged to have eaten beef during his stay in America, though he strongly defended his action. Similarly in early twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the hypocrisy of the orthodox Hindus who do not so much as hesitate or inquire when during illness the doctor … prescribes them beef tea. Even today the practice of eating beef is quite common among the Dalits throughout the country which is why the members of upper castes in many parts of the country view it as impure and polluting. But beef is a common dietary item in most parts of the north-eastern India where it is not considered a source of pollution. This is largely true of the southernmost state of Kerala where nearly 80% of the people including 72 Hindu communities (except the bràhmans) eat beef in preference to the expensive mutton and lamb, despite the fact that the Hindutva forces have been persuading them to go easy on it. Recent statistics of 2000 show that the meat India produces most is beef (1.44 million tones) and buffalo meat (1.42 million tones) and the per capita consumption of beef/buffalo in India is 2.8 kg, about half that of fish, but more than twice the average intake of mutton, pork and poultry. This indicates that beef eating must be quite common among meat-eaters of all religions, including the Hindus---- a fact also supported by the surveys of butchers in different parts of the country.

Needless to say, then, that the image of the cow projected by Indian textual traditions, especially the Bràhmanical- Dharmashàstric works, over the centuries is polymorphic. Its story through the millennia is full of inconsistencies and has not always been in conformity with dietary practices prevalent in society. It was killed and yet the killing was not killing. When it was not slain, mere remembering the old practice of butchery satisfied the bràhmans. Its five products including faeces and urine have been pure but its mouth has been considered impure. Yet through these incongruous attitudes and puzzling paradoxes the Indian cow has struggled its way to sanctity and its veneration is being bandied about as a characteristic trait of Hinduism though she has failed to achieve the status of a goddess and earn a temple in her honour. On the contrary it is often found bumbling between the luxurious limos of the privileged and the pushcarts carts of the poor, causing traffic snarls in Indian metros and, browsing on heaps of garbage, ranging from inedible throw-outs to the stinking carrion. Not surprisingly, the holiness of the cow is elusive--as elusive as Hindu identity itself!


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