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The Elusive 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.      …

*D N Jha, a professor and chair at the department of history, Delhi University, is author of ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’


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