India Dissents, an anthology edited by the poet Ashok Vajpeyi, is a collection of expressions of dissent spanning nearly three millennia. Beginning from writings Nasidiya Sukta, in the Rigveda, the volume examines the tradition of registering doubts and protest against the Indian state and its traditions and practices. It includes writings from: the Tamil poet Sundarar, who rebukes god for ignoring the devout public; the Sikh guru, Nanak, who writes against the divisive religious and caste systems; the Dalit poet Kalavve, who condemns caste oppression and patriarchy; the writer Ismat Chughtai, who mocks the trial against her on the charges of obscenity; the laywer Siddharth Narrain, who chides the Supreme Court for terming the LGBTQ community in India a “miniscule minority”; the writer Robin S Ngangom, who addresses state-sponsored terrorism and the militarisation of states such as Meghalaya, from where he hails; and the activist Soni Sori, who opposes the state action against Maoist rebels and the tribal residents in Chhattisgarh; among several others. The book emphasises that India—both in its ancient and present forms—has always included a robust culture of dissent and critique.
The following excerpt is by DN Jha, the text of which was part of his 2001 book The Myth of the Holy Cow. (When Jha’s book was first published, leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for it to be burned publicly.) In this extract, Jha writes about how various factions of the Hindu right—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in particular—deny or ignore ancient Indian history when they claim that cow-worship is integral to Hinduism.
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.
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…”
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. 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 brahmans.”
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 Punjab around 1870 and later strengthened by the foundation of the first Gorakshini Sabha in 1882 by Dayananda Sarasvati, made this animal a symbol of the unity of a wide ranging people, challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter and provoked a series of serious communal riots in the 1880s and 1890s. Although attitudes to cow killing had hardened even earlier, there was undoubtedly a “dramatic intensification” of the cow protection movement when in 1888 the North-Western Provinces High Court decreed that a cow was not a sacred object.
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 conflagaration. 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 the 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 organisations 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 pressurise 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 farmers. 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 cow dung fuel and reject beef as food, self-styled custodians of nonexistent “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 the 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 [then] 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, 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. 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 Sikh youth leader proposed, “Why not slaughter a cow and serve beef in a gurdwara langar?”
The communalists who have been raising a hullabaloo over the cow in the political arena do not realise 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, Rigveda, supposedly of divine origin. HH 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 eating beef prevailed among the Indo-Aryans was, however, put forth most convincingly by Rajendra Lal 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. 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. In 1927, LL 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, he blamed the Muslims for cow slaughter. In the early 1940s, PV Kane in his monumental five-volume History of Dharamasastra referred to some Vedic and early Dharmasastric passages that speak of cow slaughter and beef eating. HD Sankalia drew attention to literary as well as archaeological evidence of eating cattle flesh in ancient India.
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. Needless to say, the scholarship of all 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 saffronised journalists and publicists have charged of distorting history. HH 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 Lal 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.” William Crooke was a well-known colonial ethnographer who wrote extensively on peasant life and popular religion without any marked prejudice against Hinduism. LL Sundara Ram, despite his somewhat anti-Muslim feeling, was inspired by humanitarian considerations. Mahamahopadhyaya PV Kane was a conservative Maharashtrian Brahmana and the only Sankritist to be honoured with the title of Bharat Ratna. HD Sankalia combined his unrivalled archaeological activity with a profound knowledge of Sanskrit.
Besides these scholars several other Indian Sanskritists 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 flesh in early Indian diet. Curious though it may seem, the Sangh Parivar, which carries a heavy burden of “civilisation illiteracy,” has never turned its guns on them but against historians who have mostly relied on the research of the above-mentioned distinguished scholars.
This is an extract from India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Debate and Argument, edited by Ashok Vajpeyi and published by Speaking Tiger Books.
DN Jha is a leading Indian historian.