Historian D.N. Jha in his controversial book The Myth of the Holy Cow argues that the ‘holiness’ of the cow is a myth, and that beef played an important part in the cuisine of ancient India. Juggernaut spoke to him about what India’s take on the slaughter of cows historically was, and when and why this started to change:
What do ancient Hindu texts have to say about the slaughter of cows and eating of beef?
Ancient Hindu texts from the Rigveda onwards provide plentiful evidence of the ritual killing of cows. The Vedas and subsequent texts like the Dharmasutra mention many occasions, including the sacred thread ceremony, marriages and receptions, on which cows were killed. Yajnavalkya, a respected sage from Mithila, obdurately said that he would continue to eat beef so long as it was tender.
Historically, when did the rejection of killing of cattle start to take place, and why? You’ve written, in particular, about the changing Brahmanical attitude to the practice of cow killing. Is the myth of the holy cow propagated by upper caste Hindus alone?
Textual references to cow killing seem to decline in number from the early centuries AD, when agricultural expansion began to take place on a large scale. This was also the time period during which the practice of making grants of land to Brahmins developed. Brahmins thus started to get increasingly involved in agricultural operations, for which cattle became very important. Brahmins began to propagate that cows should not be killed in the Kaliyuga. According to this prescription, anyone killing a cow would become untouchable. Abstention from cow killing was thus limited to Brahmins who, however, never forgot that they killed cattle in the days of yore.
Can one pinpoint when the cow protection movement started gaining political momentum in modern India? Is this the first time India is witnessing the rise of such a widespread cow protection movement, or have we seen such a climate before?
Although Shivaji has often been viewed as protector of Brahmins and cows, the actual movement for the protection of cows began in the late 19th century with the establishment of a cow protection committee by Dayanand, who was also the founder of the Arya Samaj. This led to Hindu-Muslim communal riots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beef eating has been a very contentious issue between Hindus and Muslims, with the latter being stereotyped as beef eaters. Of late, this stereotyping has become very common due to the growth of Hindutva and we are increasingly seeing cases like the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq over alleged beef consumption.
What kind of impact does the logic of saving cows have on the lives of Dalits, Muslims and other communities that tend to consume beef?
Beef is the cheapest source of protein and cow hide is used for a variety of commercial products. A blanket beef ban would affect Muslims and Dalits adversely, and would also affect industrial production. At present, India is perhaps the biggest exporter of beef.
Anti-beef activists and climate change scientists argue for the removal of beef from one’s diet, albeit for different reasons. But unlike in the West, cows and cattle are free-ranging in India, and they are not raised for beef as such. So there are those who argue culling is necessary since maintaining aged cattle is a drain on a farmer’s economy. Between the scientific, historical and religious arguments, which do we pick?
There has always been a section of society that has argued for a ban on beef consumption, but considering its dietary value for the poor and its economic importance for the country, culling of old and unproductive cows is necessary.