Never kill a cow in kaliyuga

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh offering a cow food during Govardhan Puja at his residence in Bhopal on October 31. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

The ritual and random killing of cattle for food and sacrifice continued long after the Vedic period, possibly up to the Mauryan period, but by the late 19th century the cow protection movement intensified and the cow was well on its way to being used as a political tool.

THERE has been much hullabaloo over the issue of cow slaughter in the political arena in recent years. But there has been very little realisation of the fact that beef-eating remained a fairly common practice for a long time in ancient India as attested to by scriptures and religious texts, the earliest being the Rgveda. References to cow killing are plentiful in Vedic and many post-Vedic texts and have been examined by several scholars and researchers. But attention has not been paid to the question of the continuity of the practice of cow killing in subsequent times. The present paper, based mainly on early Indian legal texts, seeks to explain the changing Brahmanical attitude to the practice of cow killing and its gradual disappearance in early India.


There is no doubt that the ritual and random killing of cattle for food and sacrifice continued long after the Vedic period, possibly up to the Mauryan period. But rummaging through the sources, one gets the unmistakable impression that references to cattle killing tended to become infrequent with the passage of time. The Brahmanical/Dharmashastra texts of the post-Maurya period are either ambivalent or generally reticent about cattle killing. Like the authors of the Dharmashastras, most of which are pre-Mauryan, Manu, whose law code (200 B.C. to A.D. 200) is the most representative of the legal texts, has much to say on lawful and forbidden food, and like others, he allows the consumption of the flesh of, among others, all domestic animals with teeth in one jaw. He excludes the camel from the list of edible animals, but the cow does not figure either in his list of edible animals or in that of inedible ones. He tells us that eating meat on sacrificial occasions is a divine rule ( daivo vidhih smritah), and one does not do any wrong by eating meat while honouring the gods, the Manes and guests ( madhuparke cha yajne cha piridaivatakarmani). 1 He asserts that animals were created for the sake of sacrifice, that killing ( vadha) on ritual occasions is non-killing ( avadha), and injury as enjoined by the Vedas ( vedavihitahimsa) is non-killing ( ahimsa). 2 While none of these statements unequivocally support beef-eating, Medhatithi (ninth century), a commentator on Manu, interprets one of his statements to say that the eating of cattle flesh was in keeping with Vedic and post-Vedic practice. 3 But this view is not consistent with Manu’s dictum that killing a cow would lead to the loss of caste. 4

Like Manu, another lawgiver, Yajnavalkya (A.D. 100-300), discusses the rules of lawful and forbidden food, but unlike him, he clearly states that a student, teacher, king, close friend and son-in-law should be offered arghya every year and a learned Brahmana ( shrotriya) should be welcomed with a big ox or goat, delicious food and sweet words ( mahokshau va mahajam va shrotriyopkalpayet). 5 Like Manu, he endorses the eating of meat in sacrifice and funerary rites and disapproves of the killing of animals not in accordance with Vedic practice. Yajnavalkya does not manifest ambivalence as Manu does but restricts the occasion of beef consumption to specific occasions. His commentator, Vishvarupa (ninth century), more or less supports the killing of the bull for guest reception 6, although several centuries later another commentator, Laksmidhara (12th century), tells us that it was the duty of the householder to kill a cow for the learned in days of yore. 7 But unlike both Manu and Yajnavalkya, Brihaspati refers to beef-eating by the artisans of Madhyadesha and does not indicate whether it was permissible for sacrifice or food. 8 Thus, unlike the pre-Mauryan normative texts, post-Mauryan law books do not categorically accept or reject the ritual killing of the cow and eating its flesh. They try to cover up the whole issue by approving of all sacrifices having Vedic sanction because, according them, Vedic killing is not killing. This obfuscation indicates a change in Brahmanical thinking, the beginning of the disapproval of cow slaughter and the gradual disappearance of beef from the menu of Brahmanas.

The above Dharmashastric position can be understood against the general background of the transformation of rural society in post-Mauryan centuries, especially from around the middle of the first millennium A.D., which ushered in a phase of unprecedented agrarian expansion and the first-ever codification of agricultural knowledge in early India. The process of agricultural expansion was triggered by the practice of donating land and other agrarian resources to Brahmanas, early epigraphic evidence for which comes from the Satavahana inscriptions of Nasik and Naneghat. 9 In one of them, the queen Naganika is said to have gifted 20,000 cows to Brahmanas on a sacrificial occasion. The gift of cows is also supported by several passages of the Mahabharata, 10 which belongs to the post-Mauryan period, and the Puranas, most of which were composed from around the mid first millennium A.D. onwards; gosahasra (1,000 cows) figures as one of the popular mahadanas (donations) in them. 11 In fact, the Puranic religious ideology gradually replaced sacrifice-centred Vedic religion and buttressed a new mechanism of gift-making with an emphasis on donation of land and other agrarian resources such as cattle. These donations were made mostly to Brahmanas, who emerged as a feudal landowning class and, unlike in the earlier period, became more and more involved in agriculture. This led to the recognition of the pivotal role of animal husbandry and the disapproval of killing of cattle by the Brahmanas. All this is encapsulated in the concept of kali age, or kaliyuga, in which many age-old practices were forbidden.


The kaliyuga is first described in the Mahabharata and the early Puranas. Its dark aspects begin to find frequent mention in them as also in early medieval land charters, which often give credit to donor kings for restoring dharma and driving away its evil influences. Law books and legal digests begin to modify earlier social norms, including dietary rules. They speak of customs that have to be given up in the kali age ( kalivarjyas), and these include the killing of kine (cattle), 12 a practice that became odious to jurists.

The disapproval of the killing of cattle in the kaliyuga, repeatedly mentioned as a kalivarjya in legal texts, tended to give cows a special status and to exclude beef from the Brahmanical menu. The Vyasasmriti categorically states that a cow killer is untouchable ( antyaja), and even by talking to him one incurs sin; 13 it thus made beef-eating a basis of untouchability from the early medieval period onwards. Parashara, whose law book is believed to be especially applicable to the kaliyuga, speaks in a similar vein. According to him, a Brahmana who eats beef or the food offered by a chandala is required to perform the kricchrachandrayana penance and adds that one who kills a cow and hides his offence goes to the worst hell. 14 The law book of Devala avers that if a Brahmana is forced by the mlecchas, chandalas and the dasyus to kill a cow he is required to perform a penance. 15 The condemnation of cow killing is borne out by numerous passages in other early medieval law books, 16 and the practice, which was forbidden to Brahmanas, came to be increasingly associated with the untouchable castes, whose number proliferated over time. Beef, which was earlier part of Brahmanical haute cuisine, became an important component of the food of the untouchables.


The prohibition of the killing of the cow and its association with the idea of kaliyuga became very strong in the medieval period as can be inferred from the works of many commentators and jurists. Apararka (12th century) cites Puranic and Smriti passages, which clearly prohibit the killing of the cow. 17 On the basis of a verse from the Markandeya Purana, he recommends offering guests a golden vessel in lieu of a cow and states that according to Bhrigu no animal is to be sacrificed in kaliyuga. 18 Devannabhatta (13th century) quotes a passage from Kratu that prohibits the ritual killing of cows in the kali age 19 and supports it with a Puranic authority. 20

Similarly, Hemadri (A.D. 1260-1270) disallows the killing of cows and the offering of meat in shraddha (faith). 21 Like them, many other medieval commentators and Brahmanical writers reject the idea of killing a cow. Madhvacharya (14th century), Madanapala (14th century), Madanaratna (late 15th century), Raghunandan (16th century), Nilakantha (17th century), Mitra Mishra (early 17th century), Kamalakarabhatta (1612) 22 and Mahamahopadhyaya Madana Upadhyaya (20th century) 23 categorically reject the idea of cow slaughter in the kaliyuga. The sentiment against cow killing seems to have been indeed very strong and, not surprisingly, Damodara, the elder brother of Nilakantha, perhaps persuaded the yavanas of Mulasthana (Multan) to give up cow slaughter. 24 All this evidence thus indicates that while the Brahmanical prescriptive texts retained the memory of cattle killing, they advocated the unslayability of the cow throughout the medieval period.

The idea of the killing of the cow being a kalivarjya seems to have become popular among Brahmanas, and a general sentiment against cow slaughter seems to have developed, as a result of which there were occasional tensions between Hindu and Muslim groups: two such clashes in the 17th and 18th centuries are well documented. 25 It may have been in response to this kind of conflict and violence that Akbar (A.D. 1556-1605), under the influence of Jains, especially Harivijaya Suri and Vijaysen Suri, issued firmans on different occasions ordering his officials not to allow the slaughter of animals (including the cow), and Jahangir (A.D. 1605-1627) followed his policy. Obviously, both were trying to control inter-religious tensions. Even the much-talked-about Humayun’s will, which advised Babur not to allow the killing of cows, was possibly a response to the views of Brahmanas. Although the will itself was a later forgery, perhaps of the 18th century, it does indicate the state’s willingness to respect the view that was gaining ground among Brahmanas. There is no doubt that in the medieval period the cow was emerging as an emotive cultural symbol in Brahmanical circles. It became more emotive with the rise of Maratha power in the 17th century under Shivaji (A.D. 1627-1680), often viewed as an incarnation of god who descended to earth for the deliverance of the cow and the Brahmana.

Passionate protector of cattle

The Brahmanical idea of cow protection was first used for mass political mobilisation by the Sikh Kuka (Namdhari) movement, whose leader, Ram Singh (1816-1885), was a passionate protector of cattle. He rallied Hindus and Sikhs against the British, who had allowed the killing of cows in the Punjab. 26 More or less at the same time, in 1882, Dayananda Saraswati founded the first Goraksini Sabha. Unlike the Sikh leader, he made the cow a symbol of unity of a wide range of people against Muslims and challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter, provoking a series of Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1880s and 1890s.

This was accompanied by a dramatic intensification of the cow protection movement following the decree of the North-Western Provinces High Court that the cow was not a sacred object, 27 as is evident from the Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in the late 19th century in different parts of the country. The cow had now emerged fully as a political animal, more or less at the time when Bharat Mata was born. Modern Gau Mata and Bharat Mata are contemporaries: the former has given the growth of communalism a boost and the latter has sought to strengthen the Hindutva brand of nationalism. But that is a different story.

D.N. Jha is a former professor and Chair of the Department of History, University of Delhi.


1. Manusmriti, V.41.

2. Ibid., V. 40

3. Medhatithi on Manusmriti, V.27, 41.

4. Manusmriti, XI.60.

5. Yajnavalkyasmriti, I.109.

6. Vishvavarupa on Yajnavalkyasmriti, I.108.

7. Aiyangar, Rangaswami, K.V. (ed.) (1950): Krityakalpataru of Lakshmidhara, Baroda Oriental Institute, p.190.

8. Madhyadehe karmakarah shilpinashcha gavasinah/Brihaspatismriti, 128b.

9. South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. 1, Bk II, nos. 59, 82.

10. Brown, Norman, W. (1964): “The Sanctity of the Cow in Hinduism”, The Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 16, No. 5-6-7, January 31, p. 249.

11. Nath, V. (2000): “Mahadana: The Dynamics of Gift-economy and the Feudal Milieu”, in D.N. Jha (ed.), The Feudal Order, Manohar: Delhi, pp. 413, 429.

12. The number of practices forbidden in the kaliyuga went on increasing until it rose to more than 50 and came to be consolidated by Damodara in the 17th century in his Kalivarjyavinirnaya. According to the theory of incarnations ( avataras) contained in the Dharmashastras and the Puranas, the kaliyuga, the last of the four yugas (eons) of progressive degeneration of mankind, is believed to come to an end with the appearance of the god Vishnu as Kalki on horseback to uproot the mlecchas (Muslims/Christians/Sikhs, etc.) and restore dharma. It is interesting that Shivaji was lionised as “the first harbinger” of Kalki and as a protector of cows and Brahmanas in some texts whose composition broadly coincides with that of the Kalivarjyavinirnaya. Fortunately, neither Shivaji nor his recent “incarnation”, Bal Thackeray, succeeded in exterminating the mlecchas and “restoring” dharma (Hinduism of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad/Bajrang Dal brand).

13. Vyasasmriti, I.12.

14. Ibid., IX.61-62.

15. Devala, V.17.

16. Atri, V.218, 315; Yama, V.30; Angirasa, V.25-34; Samvartta, V.132-137, 198; Parashara, IX.36-39. The list of references is illustrative and not exhaustive.

17. Kane, P.V. (1973): History of Dharmashastra, Vol. III, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute: Poona, p. 928, fn.1799.

18. Ibid., p. 929.

19. Ibid., p. 928

20. Ibid., p. 929

21. Ibid., p. 929.

22. Ibid., pp. 927-28, 946-47.

23. Palapiyushlata of Madana Upadhyaya, Gaurishyantralaya, Darbhanga, Samvat, 1951.

24. Kane, P.V., op. cit., Vol.1, pt. 2, p. 806.

25. Roy, Asim (2010): “‘Living Together in Difference’: Religious Conflict and Tolerance in Pre-colonial India as History and Discourse”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 33 (1), pp. 45-47.

26. Kalsi, Amrik (1998): “Surindar Singh Narula’s Piu Puttar: A Classic Punjabi Novel”, in Rupert Snell and Ian Raeside (eds), Classics of Modern South Asian Literature, Harrassowitz: Wiesbaden, p. 64.

27. Freitag, Sandria, B. (1996): “Contesting in Public: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Communalism”, in David Ludden (ed.), Making India Hindu, Oxford University Press: Delhi, p. 217.