'A political tool'

Print edition : February 24, 2012

D.N. Jha: Eating of beef was de rigeur in ancient India.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A SCENE IN Bhopal. Nothing is done about the care of cows like these which are often found rummaging through heaps of garbage for food.-A.M. FARUQUI Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

Interview with D.N. Jha, historian of ancient India and the author of The Myth of the Holy Cow'. (Published in the issue dated February 12, 2012.)

IN his career spanning more than 25 years, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, an eminent historian of ancient India, has dispelled many Hindutva myths. He has used ancient Indian literary and archaeological sources to show that much of the Hindutva propaganda is based on false premises. His book The Myth of the Holy Cow shows that beef has been a part of Indian dietary habits. He has worked extensively on the material culture of ancient India and has done research on feudalism in early medieval India, a topic his mentor, the historian R.S. Sharma, had so successfully handled. In the context of the Madhya Pradesh government's decision to implement an amended Act on cow slaughter, which is termed draconian by many analysts, Jha speaks in detail about the myth of the holy' cow in Indian traditions and how the Sangh Parivar has managed to use it to communalise the country. Excerpts from an interview:

Your book The Myth of the Holy Cow' dispels the impression that Muslims introduced beef-eating in the Indian subcontinent. What were the most important sources you used to come to this conclusion?

For over a century, the sanctity of the cow in India has been a matter of more than academic debate. Hindu communalists and their fundamentalist organisations have been propagating that the killing of the cow and eating its flesh were introduced in India by the followers of Islam, and accordingly, they have stereotyped Muslims as beef-eaters. The best way to dispel this myth is to draw data from Indian religious texts to show the prevalence of beef-eating in ancient India. Accordingly, I have used evidence from Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain religious texts to show that our ancestors ate beef much before Islam came to India.

Could you give us some examples of where cows were used for consumption and for sacrifices in ancient India?

Animal sacrifice was very common in the Vedic period. In the agnadheya, which was a preparatory rite preceding all public sacrifices, a cow was required to be killed. In the asvamedha, the most important of public sacrifices, more than 600 animals and birds were killed and its finale was marked by the sacrifice of 21 cows. In the gosava, an important component of public sacrifices like the rajasuya and the vajapeya, a cow was offered to Maruts. The killing of animals, including cattle, figures in several other yajnas as well.

In the Vedic texts and the Dharmashastras, there are also references to occasions when cows were killed for consumption, and eating of beef was de rigeur. One later Vedic text unambiguously tells us that verily the cow is food, and another refers to the sage Yajnavalkya's stubborn insistence on eating the tender flesh of the cow. The reception of a guest, according to Vedic and post-Vedic normative texts, required the killing of a cow in his honour. Textual evidence also indicates that Brahmins were fed the flesh of the cow in funerary rites. I have indicated only a small portion of evidence, but ancient Indian texts provide copious references to the killing of the cow for sacrifice and sustenance.

You have used a lot of ancient Indian sources to elaborate on this point. But have there been other Hindu sources or literature in medieval India and modern India that elaborate on the material use of the cow?

There is considerable evidence of the continuity of the beef-eating tradition in post-Vedic times. Manusmriti (200 B.C.-A.D. 200), the most influential of the Dharmashastra texts, recalls the legendary examples of the most virtuous Brahmins who ate ox-meat and dog-meat to escape starvation. The Smriti of Yajnavalkya (A.D. 100-300) laid down that a learned Brahmin (shrotrya) should be welcomed with a big ox or goat. It may be recalled that most of the characters in the Mahabharata are meat-eaters, and not surprisingly, it refers to King Rantideva in whose kitchen 2,000 cows were butchered every day and their flesh, along with grains, was distributed among Brahmins.

The sage Bharadvaja is said to have welcomed Rama by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour. What is found in religious or Dharmashastric texts is also reflected in secular literature. Early Indian medical treatises speak of the therapeutic use of beef, and several authors of literary works (Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Rajashekhara and Shriharsha, to name only a few) refer to the eating of beef.

How did the myth of the cow's holiness come into existence in the Hindu psyche? Are there incidents or periods in Indian history that establish the cow's holiness as opposed to its material use in ancient India? Were there parallel narratives in ancient India that saw the cow as a religious and holy symbol of Hinduism?

It is often held by some scholars that the Vedic cow was sacred. Such an assertion is based on the occurrence of the word aghnya (meaning, not to be slain) in the Atharvaveda. However, it has been convincingly proved that if the Vedic cow was at all inviolable, it was so only when it belonged to a Brahmin who received cows as a sacrificial fee ( dakshina). Buddhism and Jainism opposed animal sacrifice and the killing of cattle. But even their canonical works do not refer to the cow as a sacred animal.

The sacred-cow concept developed much later. Lawgivers began to discourage beef-eating around the middle of the first millennium when Indian society began to be gradually feudalised, leading to a major socio-cultural transformation. This phase of transition, first described in the epic and Puranic passages as Kaliyuga, saw many changes and modifications in social norms and customs. Brahminical religious texts now began to speak of many earlier practices as forbidden in the Kaliyuga practices which came to be known as Kalivarjyas, and most of the relevant texts mention cow-killing as forbidden in the Kaliyuga.

Cow-killing and eating of beef came to be increasingly associated with the proliferating untouchable castes. It is, however, interesting that some of the Dharmashastra texts consider these acts as no more than minor behavioural aberrations. Whatever be the Dharmashastric prescription, eating beef by some people cannot be ruled out. As recently as the late 19th century, Swami Vivekananda was alleged to have eaten beef during his stay in America. Similarly, in the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the hypocrisy of orthodox Hindus who do not so much as hesitate or inquire when during illness the doctor prescribes them beef tea. Even today, 72 communities in Kerala not all of them untouchable perhaps prefer beef to the expensive mutton, and the Hindutva forces are persuading them to go easy on it.

In spite of all this, the development of the doctrine of non-violence in the Upanishadic thought, its prominent presence in the Buddhist and Jain world views, and its centrality in the Vaishnava religion, strengthened the idea of non-killing of animals: the cow became specially important and sacrosanct because of its economic value in an agrarian society and because Brahmins received them as dakshina and would not like them to be killed.

Since when did cow slaughter become a political issue in India? Has there been any historical movement around this issue? Could you give us some examples of when the manufactured holiness of the cow began to be used as a tool for political mobilisation?

The cow has tended to become a political instrument in the hands of rulers over time. The Mughal emperors (for example, Babar, Akbar, Jahangir and Aurangzeb) are said to have imposed a restricted ban on cow slaughter to accommodate the Jaina or Brahminical feeling of respect for and veneration of the cow. Similarly Shivaji, sometimes viewed as an incarnation of God who descended on earth for the deliverance of the cow and the Brahmin, 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 slaughter and provoked a series of communal riots in the 1880s and 1890s. Although attitudes to cow-killing had been hardening even earlier, there was an intensification of the cow-protection movement when in 1888 the North-Western Provinces High Court decreed that the cow was not a sacred object. Not surprisingly, cow slaughter very often became the pretext for many Hindu-Muslim riots especially those in Azamgarh district in the year 1893 in which more than 100 people were killed in different parts of the country. Similarly, in 1912-1913 violence rocked Ayodhya, and a few years later, in 1917, Shahabad witnessed a disastrous communal conflagration.

The killing of kine seems to have emerged again and again as a troublesome issue on the Indian political scene even in independent India. In 1966, nearly two decades after Independence, almost all Indian communal political parties and organisations joined hands in organising a massive demonstration by several hundred thousand people in favour of a national ban on cow slaughter, which culminated in a violent rioting in front of India's Parliament House, resulting in the death of at least eight persons and injury to many more. In April 1979, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, often supposed to be the spiritual heir to Mahatma Gandhi, went on a hunger strike to pressure the Central government to prohibit cow slaughter. Obscurantist and fundamentalist forces have converted the cow into a communal identity of Hindus and they refuse to appreciate that the sacred cow was not always all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Brahminical and non-Brahminical traditions and that its flesh, along with other varieties of meat, was quite often a part of the haute cuisine in early India.

Beef-eating is much more an accepted norm in south India than in north India. What could be the reasons for this, since such acceptance and oppositions must have grown historically?

In some parts of south India beef-eating is common, but it is not possible to generalise. Most tribes, Dalits and Muslims in different parts of the country, eat beef and so do the hill communities of north-eastern India. But even here, it is not possible to generalise because most tribes in the erstwhile south Bihar do not eat cow meat.

According to one estimate, 40 per cent of Hindus eat beef even today, even if we leave out the tribal people, Muslims and Christians. Dalits all over India have been eating beef. It is the most economical meat. The Madhya Pradesh government has recently banned not just cow slaughter but also the consumption of beef. Many believe the ban is draconian. What is your view on the Act?

In my view no sane Indian would like to kill his cattle, and if he does he can be punished under the law. Animal rights must be respected, but why a special status only to the cow? And if the Sangh Parivar is serious about stopping cow slaughter, what has it done in the BJP-ruled States for the care of cows which are often found bumbling between the luxurious limos of the privileged and the pushcarts of the poor, causing traffic snarls in metros, and browsing on heaps of garbage, ranging from inedible throw-outs to the stinking carrion.

It is preposterous to ban the slaughter of old, ailing and starving cows and to prohibit the consumption of their flesh, which is poor man's protein. The law to dictate dietary preferences is a gross violation of personal freedom and is certainly draconian. Why not remind the Sangh Parivar that its own ideologue of the Jan Sangh (now the BJP), K.R. Malkani, permitted without equivocation the eating of the flesh of cows dying a natural death.

What could be the implications of a resurgent anti-cow slaughter idiom in India? In most BJP-ruled States, this issue has seen a lot of political mobilisation, with one of the priorities of the respective governments being to bring an anti-cow slaughter Act as soon as they come to power.

The Sangh Parivar has communalised the politics of the country. The resurgent anti-cow slaughter movement will only add fuel to the fire.