The Unpalatable Truth About Beef And Hinduism

M.G.S. Narayanan
Historian, academic, Former Chairman of India Council Of Historical Research
Huffington Post Blog

The present controversy around beef eating, accompanied by violent objection and equally aggressive support, is engineered by extremist politicians on both sides reacting to the change of ruling parties at the Centre. They play with exaggerated or distorted reports and make sensational statements. With the pathetic decline of the Congress which has been enjoying power for long in most parts of India, people expect serious changes in government and government-related institutions and policies. The excitement of new power on the one hand and the fear of losing positions on the other have created confusion and uncertainty.

Beef is a sensitive issue which can be exploited by invoking religious sentiments, and profit from exports also could be involved. It is a favourite item of food mainly for Muslims and a few others as well, including Christians and Hindus in different parts of India. Many others, including habitual consumers of non-vegetarian food, find it distasteful either because they are unfamiliar with it or culturally conditioned against it.

India is a vast country with a great variety of castes and creeds. There is no Hindu "religion". Unlike the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam there is no one founder, sacred book and rules of conduct including procedure for conversion and excommunication applicable to Hindu society as a whole. The Varna system is a theoretical concept which is not always implemented fully in practice. For instance, Brahmins are to be teachers and priests and are not expected to own property and power according to the Chaturvarnya theory, but they have been land-owners on a big scale, political councillors, military commanders, money lenders etc. in many periods of history in several parts of the country. Similarly, the tribal ruling chieftains in South India were promoted to the Kshatriya Varna. The Nayars of Kerala are classified as Sudras, but some of them were kings and governors, and a large number of them served in battle as warriors. Varna was different from Jati. While there were only four Varnas, there were hundreds of Jatis with their status and occupations differing from place to place and time to time.

There were no rules prescribing food habits or dressing conventions or marriage and other customs and practices for Hindu society as a whole. There were no codes of conduct or modes of worship for Hindus in general. Our former colonial masters and their scholars, endowed with Eurocentric arrogance and ignorance about India, conceived the Hindu "religion" on the model of the Semitic religions known to them. They labelled all native groups outside the Semitic religious groups as Hindus in the census records. Actually the term Hindu, applied by outsiders to natives of India, was not a religious term, but a geographical term referring to the inhabitants of the Sindhu or Hindu or Indu region.

The Brahmins, who formed a small but influential group in North India and migrated to all parts of the subcontinent in the course of centuries in search of fertile agricultural land, cherished the Vedas, Vedic sacrifices and Vedic tradition. The sacrificial rituals were elaborated in later centuries and recorded in Aranyakas, Brahmanas, Grihya Sutras etc (see, for example, volumes 1 and 2 of Indologist Frits Staal's Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar). They preserved the text of the Vedas as an oral tradition exclusively for themselves, and prohibited the learning of the Vedas by Sudras. This rule must have been implemented in kingdoms where the Brahmins had control over the kings -- to the extent to which the control could be enforced in administration.

The Vedas were considered "apaurusheya" or "of non-human character", thereby suggesting a divine origin. The text consisted of simple songs invoking different deities like Indra, Agni, Varuna, Aditya, Rudra etc. No temples or idol worship are mentioned anywhere in the Vedas, although temples and idol worship, with universal deities like Siva and Vishnu, were in place by the beginning of the Christian era. The people of the Kshatriya and Vaisya Varnas were permitted to share some aspects of Vedic training and rituals. These three were classified as traivarnikas and treated as the upper Varnas, while the fourth Varna of Sudras were slaves destined to serve others. They were prevented from using common wells and roads. There were different groups even among the Sudras. For instance, the Chandalas who ate the flesh of dead cows and dogs lived outside the villages as outcastes.

Some ancient texts inform that the Brahmin sages (rishis) who lived in forest hermitages (asramas) entertained their guests (atithis, or people who came without prior notice, without looking for the proper tithi) by killing calves and offering beef, considered to be a delicious item of food reserved for honoured guests. That is how the term atithi acquired the synonym of goghna, killer of cows (see Ancient India by R S Sharma). Animal slaughter for sacrifice was common during the Vedic age. The sacrificial animal was called pasu, a term that is used to denote the cow in Kerala. In the ancient law books like Manusmriti, the Kshatriyas were permitted to kill animals in hunting and consume their meat. In Valmiki's Ramayana there is a reference to Sita, wife of Rama, the Kshatriya prince of Ayodhya, keeping watch (during their time of exile in the forest) over the meat of animals drying in the sun.

Gautama Buddha, a Kshatriya prince of the Sakya clan, did not propound a new religion, as mentioned in several history books, but tried to reform society in the light of his thoughts and experiences. He asked king Bimbisara to give up animal sacrifice advocated by the Brahmin priests. However, he does not appear to have given up meat eating, for the Buddhist texts suggest that he died as a result of eating tender pig in his old age.

Many of the Brahmin pundits of Kashmir are meat eaters, and the Brahmins of Bengal have a great liking for fish which they call Ganga pushpa. They cook the head of the fish too, and serve it as the most important item for the chief guest in the house.

However, an objection to beef prevailed in many Indian families, probably because the cow was a lovable domestic animal, highly valued by agriculturists and pastoralists who used not only milk and milk products but also the cow's urine and cow dung for their medicinal value. The bullocks were used in carts which formed the most important form of transport in rural India. The common men, women and children cherished the cow and bull close to their heart. Moreover, it was a quiet and inexpensive asset in a land of vast open grasslands and streams. Krishna, the most popular deity in the villages, had the cow and the flute as his favourite symbols. Indra's Kamadhenu was the incarnation of wish fulfilment in Puranic literature. All this created a sentimental aversion for beef eating, which was not shared by the urbanised Muslim warriors of West Asia who invaded India.

To the best of my knowledge, beef was not served in university canteens except Calicut, Aligarh and Delhi. In Vasant Kunj, a part of Delhi where we lived, and in many other parts of the city, Muslims could not get houses for rent or purchase. Those who wanted to eat beef had to get it secretly from the premises of the big mosque in Old Delhi. This was the case in many other cities and towns of India in the last century. Such prejudices got articulated and organised with the sweeping electoral victory of the Hindutva party in the last election. The constitutional safeguards of individual freedom were forgotten by those who got intoxicated with the taste of power at the centre.

However, the traditional wisdom and tolerance of the common people in India, fostered by great rulers like Asoka and Akbar in the past and re-asserted by Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, and demonstrated so powerfully during Emergency, is bound to prevail in the long run against the outbursts of sections of the ruling party. There are already indications in the public statements of the Prime Minister and other leaders that serious efforts have been made, and some steps have already been taken towards damage control.

Again, there are administrative compulsions in a country like India with her great variety and long history of civilised social life. The pressure of public opinion and the operation of democratic principles and, above all, the real Hindu ethos of peaceful coexistence must be counted as positive factors leading to a compromise. The most urgent duty of the leaders of all political parties and public intellectuals appears to be to defuse the tension by avoiding provocative talk and action.

The leaders of all political parties have to undertake the serious responsibility of educating the Muslim and Hindu masses about their true history and cultural heritage through art and literature. This has been neglected for a long time. Women and children in rural India have to be empowered so that they can act as the agents of renaissance. Attention has to be focussed on development without sacrificing the requirements of ecology and nature. Minorities have to be protected at any cost, but they must also be trained to respect the majority. While permitting freedom of faith and worship for all groups, nobody must be allowed to criticise in public another person's religion and culture.


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