Should beef be banned? From the Myth of Holy Cow

Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Our mother when she dies means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when alive.1

These are the words of Mahatma Gandhi explaining the importance of the cow. His explanation, devoid of religious rigmarole, is quite simple: the cow is important because of its resource value in an agrarian society whose members derive a substantial part of their sustenance from its milk and other dairy products. But Gandhi contradicts himself and says elsewhere, ‘The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. . . . The cow protection ideal set up by Hinduism is essentially different from and transcends the dairy ideal of the West. The latter is based on economic values, the former . . . lays stress on the spiritual aspect, viz., the idea of penance and self sacrifice for the martyred innocence which it embodies. . . .’2 This statement of Gandhi is significantly different from the former, in that it lays stress on his religious commitment to protect the cow.

Most Hindus today are guided by a religious concern for cow protection. Therefore an average Indian, rooted in what appears to him as his traditional Hindu religious heritage, carries the load of the misconception that his ancestors, especially the Vedic Aryans, attached great importance to the cow on account of its inherent sacredness. The ‘sacred’ cow has come to be considered a symbol of community identity of the Hindus whose cultural tradition is often imagined as threatened by Muslims, who are thought of as beef eaters. The sanctity of the cow has, therefore, been announced with the flourish of trumpets and has been wrongly traced back to the Vedas, which are supposedly of divine origin and the fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom. In other words, some sections of Indian society trace the concept of sacred cow to the very period when it was sacrificed and its flesh was eaten.

More importantly, the cow has tended to become a political instrument in the hands of rulers over time. The Mughal emperors Babar, Akbar, Jahangir and Aurangzeb are said to have imposed a restricted ban on cow slaughter to accommodate Jaina or Brahmanical sensibilities and veneration of the cow.5 Similarly Shivaji, sometimes viewed as an incarnation of God who descended on earth for the deliverance of the cow and the brahmana, is said to have proclaimed: ‘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.’4 But the cow became a tool of mass political mobilization when the organized Hindu cow-protection movement, beginning with i hr Sikh Kuka (or Namdhari) sect in the Punjab around 1870 and later strengthened by the foundation of the first (rtirakshini Sabha in 1882 by Dayanananda Sarasvati, made this animal a symbol of the unity of a wide ranging I tropic, challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter and provoked a series of serious communal riots in the 1980s and 1890s. Although attitudes to cow killing had hardened even earlier,5 there was undoubtedly a ‘dramatic intensification’ of the cow protection movement when in I988 the North-Western Provinces High Court decreed (hat a cow was not a sacred object.6 Not surprisingly, cow .slaughter very often became the pretext of Hindu-Muslim riots, especially those in Azamgarh district in the year 1893 when more than a hundred people were killed in different parts of the country. Similarly in 1912-13 violence rocked Ayodhya and a few years later, in 1917, Shahabad witnessed a disastrous communal conflagration.7

The killing of cattle seems to have emerged again and again as a troublesome issue on the Indian political scene even in independent India despite legislation by .several states prohibiting cow slaughter and the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution, which directs (he Indian state to ‘. .. to take steps for … prohibiting the .slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle’. For instance, in 1966, nearly two decades after Independence, almost all communal political parties and organizations joined hands to mastermind a massive demonstration by several hundred thousand people in favour of a national ban on cow slaughter. This culminated in a violent rioting in front of the Indian Parliament and the death of at least eight persons and injury to many more. In April 1979, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, often called the spiritual heir to Mahatma Gandhi, went on a hunger strike to pressurize the central government to prohibit cow slaughter throughout the country and ended it after five days when he succeeded in getting the Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s vague assurance that his government would expedite anti-slaughter legislation. After that the cow ceased to remain much of an issue in the Indian political arena for many years, though the management of cattle resources has been a matter of academic debate among sociologists, anthropologists, economists and different categories of policy framers.8

The veneration of the cow has been converted into a symbol of communal identity of the Hindus and obscurantist and fundamentalist forces obdurately refuse to appreciate that the cow was not always all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Brahmanical and non- Brahmanical traditions— or that its flesh, along with other varieties of meat, was quite often a part of haute cuisine in early India. Although the Shin, Muslims of Dardistan in Pakistan, look on the cow as other Muslims do the pig, avoid direct contact with cows, refuse to drink cow’s milk or use cowdung as fuel and reject beef as food,9 self-styled custodians of non-existent ‘monolithic’ Hinduism assert that the eating of beef was first introduced in India by the followers of Islam who came from outside and are foreigners in this country, little realizing that their Vedic ancestors were also foreigners who ate the flesh of the cow and various other animals. Fanaticism getting precedence over fact, it is not surprising that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and their numerous outfits have a national ban on cow slaughter on their agenda. The Chief Minister of Gujarat (Keshubhai Patel) announced some time ago, as a pre-election gimmick, the setting up of a separate department to preserve cow breeds and manage Hindu temples,10 and recently a Bajrang Dal leader has even threatened to enrol 30 lakh activists in the anti-cow slaughter movement during the Bakrid of 2002.11 So high geared has been the propaganda about abstention from beef eating as a characteristic trait of ‘Hinduism’ that when the RSS tried to claim that Sikhs were Hindus, there was vehement opposition from them and a Sikh youth leader proposed, ‘Why not slaughter a cow and serve beef in a gurudwara langar?’12

The communalists who have been raising a hullabaloo over the cow in the political arena do not realize that beef eating remained a fairly common practice for a long time in India and that the arguments for its prevalence are based on the evidence drawn from our own scriptures and religious texts. The response of historical scholarship to the communal perception of Indian food culture, therefore, has been sober and scholars have drawn attention to the textual evidence on the subject which, in fact, begins to be available in the oldest Indian religious text Rgueda, supposedly of divine origin. H.H. Wilson, writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, had asserted that ‘the sacrifice of the horse or of the cow, the gomedha or asvamedha, appears to have been common in the earliest periods of the Hindu ritual.’

The view that the practice of cow sacrifice and rating beef prevailed among the Indo-Aryans was, however, put forth most convincingly by Rajendra Lai Mitra in an article which first appeared in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and subsequently formed a chapter of his book The Indo-Aryans published in 1891. In 1894 William  (Crooke, a British civil servant, collected an impressive amount of ethnographic data on popular religious beliefs and practices and devoted an entire chapter to the respect shown to animals including the cow.13 Later, in 1912, he published an informative piece on the sanctity of the cow in India, but he also drew attention to the old practice of eating beef, and its survival in his own times.14 In 1927, L.L. Sundara Ram made a strong case for cow protection for which he sought justification from the scriptures of different religions including Hinduism. While he did not deny that the Vedic people ate beef,15 he blamed the Muslims for cow slaughter.

In the early 1940s P.V. Kane in his monumental five-volume History ofDharmasastra referred to some Vedic and early Dharmasastric passages that speak of cow slaughter and beef eating. H.D. Sankalia drew attention to literary as well as archaeological evidence of eating cattle flesh in ancient India.16 Similarly, Laxman Shastri Joshi, a Sanskritist of unquestionable scholarship, drew attention to the Dharmasastra works that unequivocally support the prevalence of meat eating, including beef eating, in early India.17

Needless to say, the scholarship of all of authorities mentioned above was unimpeachable, and none of them seems to have anything to do with any anti-Hindu ideology. Nor can they be described as Marxists, whom the Sangh Parivar and the saffronized journalists and publicists have charged of distorting history. H.H. Wilson, for example, was the first occupant of the Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford in 1832 and was not as avowedly anti- Indian as many other imperialist scholars. Rajendra Lai Mitra, a product of the Bengal renaissance and a close associate of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotindranath Tagore, made significant contribution to India’s intellectual life, and was described by Max Mueller as the ‘best living Indologist’ of his time and by Rabindranath Tagore as ‘the most beloved child of the muse’.18 William Crooke was a well-known colonial ethnograher who wrote extensively on peasant life and popular religion without any marked prejudice against Hinduism.19 L.L. Sundara Ram, despite his somewhat anti-Muslim feeling, was inspired by humanitarian considerations. Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane was a conservative Maharashtrian brahmana and the only Sanskritist to be honoured with the title of Bharatratna. H.D. Sankalia combined his unrivalled archaeological activity with a profound knowledge of Sanskrit. Besides ^hese scholars several other Indian Sunskritists and Indologists, not to mention a number of western scholars, have repeatedly drawn our attention to the textual evidence of beef and other types of animal Hrsh in early Indian diet. Curious though it may seem, the Sangh Parivar, which carries a heavy burden of Yivilisational illiteracy’, has never turned its guns on them but against historians who have mostly relied on the research of the above-mentioned distinguished scholars. While the contribution of the scholars mentioned above cannot be minimized, the limitation of their work lies in the fact that they have referred to isolated bits of information on beef, concentrating mainly^ on the Vedic texts without treating those as part of a flesh-eating tradition prevalent in India. Thus in the present book textual evidence spread over a long period is surveyed so us to show that even when eating of cow’s flesh was forbidden by brahmanas they retained the memory of the ancient practice. The chapters that follow will familiarize the lay reader with the types of textual evidence bearing on early Indian non-vegetarian dietary culture of which beef rating remained an integral part for a considerable length of time at least in the upper strata of society.


I. Harijan, 15 September 1940. It was suggested by Marvin Harris that cow protection ‘was a major political weapon in Gandhi’s campaign against both British and Moslems* (The Cultural Kcology of India’s Sacred Cattle’, Current Anthropology, 7 (1966), p. 58) but that was immediately contested by N.K. B©se who asserted that ‘cow protection was as much a part of Gandhi’s Constructive programme’’ as, say, the removal of untouchability’ (ibid., p. 60).
2. M.K. Gandhi, How to Serve the Cow, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1954, pp. 85-6.

3. L.L. Sundara Ram, Cow Protection in India, The South Indian Humanitarian League, Madras, 1927, pp. 122-3, 179-90.

4. Siva Digvijaya quoted in Sundara Ram, Cow Protection, p. 191.

5. This is evident from the facts that much before the inception of the cow protection movement, Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), who denounced India’s religious divisions and superstitions, wrote a tract in defense of beef eating. It was entitled ‘Hindu Authorities in Favour .of Slaying the Cow and Eating its Flesh’. See RK. Dasgupta, ‘Spirit of India— I’, Statesman, 15 March 2001.

6. Sandria B. Freitag, ‘Contesting in Public: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Communalism’, in David Ludden, ed., Making India Hindu, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996, p. 217.

7. Sandria Freitag, Collective Action and Community: Public Arena and the Emergence of Communalism in North India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990, Chap. 6; Gyan Pandey, ‘Rallying round the Cow’, in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies, vol. II, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983, pp. 60-129.

8. Several scholars have participated in the discussion on the sacred cow complex and the management of cattle in India. An idea of the nature of debate in the late 1960s and 1970s can be had from Marvin Harris, ‘The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle’, Current Anthropology, 7 (1966), pp. 51-66; Alan Heston, ‘An Approach to the Sacred Cow of India’, Current Anthropology, 12 (1971), pp. 191-209; John W. Bennett, ‘Comment on: An Approach to the Sacred Cow of India by Alan Heston’, ibid., p. 197; Corry Azzi, ‘More on India’s Sacred Cattle’, Current Anthropology, 15 (1974), pp. 317-24; V.M. Dandekar, ‘Cow Dung Models’, Economic and Political Weekly, 4 (1969), pp. 1267-9, 1271; idem, ‘India’s Sacred Cattle and Cultural Ecology’, ibid., pp. 1559-67; idem, ‘Sacred Cattle and More Sacred Production Functions’, ibid., 5 (1970), pp. 527, 529-31; K.N. Raj, ‘India’s Sacred Cattle: Theories and Empirical Findings’, ibid., 6 (1971), pp. 717-22; Seminar, no. 93 (May 1967), issue on the cow.

9. Frederic Drew, TheJummoo and Kashmir Territories: A Geographical Account, Edward Stanford, London, 1875, p. 428; J. Biddulph, Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh, Calcutta, 1880, pp. 37, 112-13; Imperial Gazetteer of India, Provincial Series. Kashmir and Jammu, Calcutta, 1909, p. 108. For a discussion and further references see I’ irdrrickJ. Simoons, ‘Questions in the Sacred-Cow Controversy’, Current Anthropology, 20 (1979), p. 468.

10. The Times of India, 28 May 1999, p. 12.

11. Frontline, 13 April 2001, p. 97.

I2. Kiijcsh Ramachandran, ‘A Crisis of Identity’, The Hindustan limes, 7 May 2000.

13. W. Crooke, The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India,, V vols., 4th rpt., Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1978.

14. W. Crooke, ‘The Veneration of the Cow in India’, Folklore, XXIII (1912), pp. 275-306.

15. Sundara Ram, op. cit., p. 8.

16. H.D. Sankalia, ‘(The Cow) In History’, Seminar, 93 (1967).

17 ‘Was the Cow Killed in Ancient India?’ Quest, 75 (1972), pp. 83-7. This is a review article on a book entitled Beef in Ancient India, authored by one Mr. Dalmia and published by Gita Press, Gorakhpur. No date.

18. For details see Rajendralal Mitra: 150th Anniversary Lectures, The A.siatic Society, Calcutta, 1978.

19. For a brief note on the activities of William Crooke see Editor’s Introduction in William Crooke, A Glossary of North Indian Peasant Life, ed. Shahid Amin, rpt., Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989.

The above is an excerpt from D.N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow (New Delhi: Navayana, 2009) 17-25.

Download The Myth of the Holy Cow as pdf


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