Beefeaters

In a manner of speaking, the murder of Akhlaq for allegedly eating beef is just another stop in the long journey of Cow Protection movement in India. It’s the success of the campaign that Hindutva movement has been orchestrating for a long time, to show that the Indian landscape has always been kind to cow and has always protected cattle.

Surprisingly, even a large number of Hindus who look at this incident as attack against individual freedom believe that Cow Protection is inherent and uninterrupted part of the history of Hinduism.

But what’s the fact?

Ancient India has never had much qualms about eating beef. All the Vedic tribes, including Brahmins, ate beef. In the times of Rig Veda, cows, along with various other animals, were sacrificed at the altar. The meat of those sacrificed animals was cooked and eaten. Yet Rig Veda approached cow with some unique concern, especially because their ability to give milk. But cows past their milching age could be slaughtered and eaten.

It is recommended that when a guest arrives at home, one should slaughter a cow and feed him. It is also recommended that the meat be first offered to gods Mitra, Varuna or Marut before humans can eat them. Panini, who had compiled the first grammar text for Sanskrit, suggests a word ‘Gognya’, to refer to the guest, the word literally meaning ‘he for whom the cow is killed.’ Dharma Sutra, the third century text, too contains such references. Even the archaeological evidences of cattle bones excavated from normal habitats contain certain cut marks that indicate that they were slaughtered for meat.

Some of the latter texts begin to profess against eating beef. This change of mind-set is especially visible in Mahabharata where the status of cow is shown to be elevated.

Scholars infer that this change could have occurred due to Brahmin’s elevation in the social strata. Obviously if cow is going up in the social ladder, Brahmins too must climb up proportionately, shouldn’t they? This is also evidenced in the fact that other caste-Hindus who aspire to reach nearer to Brahmins’ stature try to emulate them, such as wearing the sacred thread and also shunning beef. This phenomenon can be see even today that the people of the oppressed caste and those nearer them still eat beef and as the ladder goes up, people in the ‘higher’ levels don’t.

And this is not the first time someone was killed for allegedly eating beef. The bitter question of beef-eating was responsible for quite a few Hindu-Muslim skirmishes during the pre-Independence years. One of the reasons for Muslims shying away from Gandhi’s charm was his affinity towards the cow-protection project. Bisham Sahni’s novel Tamas, based on the events surrounding partition, depicts some the meat-triggered communal violence. Even as recently as 2002, several Dalits had been killed for skinning a cow. A few days after that massacre, nearly 80 Dalits in that village had left Hinduism and converted to other religions.

Dwij Narayan Jha’s book The Myth of Holy Cow is a scholarly work that explores the habit of beef eating in the ancient India. He received death threats for writing this book, and the controversy surrounding the book was likened with Salman Rushdie’s controversy then. There were cases filed in the courts demanding that the book be banned.

Therefore, to conclude, the thought that Hindus have always been unanimously against cow slaughter is as banal as the ‘fact’ that the Vedic tribes rode motor cars. Ancient India ate beef heartily and as the centuries went by the habit began to erode mainly due to a certain community’s craving for the elevated social status. Today, it’s just the mark of one’s slot in the caste hierarchy. Of course, it is also one of the powerful weapons for Hindutva to create Hindu-Muslim enmity. Sadly, what was just a propaganda a while ago has now turned into a national agenda. And many Hindus are falling for this myth. And India seems to be fast tracking its journey to become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’.

References:

1. Dhwijendhira Narayana Jha: The Myth of the Holy Cow

 



2. Romila Thapar: Readings in Early Indian History

 


3. Wendy Doniger: On Hinduism