Paradox of the Indian Cow:
Attitudes to Beef Eating in Early India
By DN Jha
Renowned historian writes on beef eating in ancient India and associated issues
An average Indian of today 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 the Muslims who are thought of as beefeaters. 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 fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom. In other
words, some sections of Indian society have traced back the concept
of sacred cow to the very period when it was sacrificed and its flesh
importantly, the cow has tended to become a political instrument at
the hand of rulers over time. The Mughal emperors (e.g. Babar, Akbar,
Jahangir and Aurangzeb etc) are said to have imposed a restricted ban
on cow slaughter to accommodate the Jaina or Brahmanical feeling of
respect 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 brahmin, is described as
proclaiming: “We are Hindus and the rightful lords of the realm. It
is not proper for us to witness cow slaughter and the oppression of
the cow became a tool of mass political mobilization when the organized
Hindu cow protection movement, beginning with the Sikh Kuka (or Namdhari)
sect in the Punjab around 1870 and later strengthened by the foundation
of the first Gorakshini Sabha in 1882 by Dayanananda Saraswati, made
this animal a symbol to unite 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
been hardening 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 many
Hindu-Muslim riots, especially those in Azamgarh district in the year
1893 when more than one hundred people were killed in different parts
of the country. Similarly in 1912-1913 violence rocked Ayodhya and a
few years later, in 1917, Shahabad witnessed a disastrous communal conflagration.
The killing of the kine seems to
have emerged again and again as a troublesome issue on the Indian political
scene even in independent India despite legislation by several state
legislatures prohibiting cow slaughter and the Directive Principles
of State Policy in the Indian 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 Indian independence, almost all the Indian communal
political parties and organizations joined hands in masterminding a
massive demonstration by several hundred thousand people in favour of
a national ban on cow slaughter which culminated in a violent rioting
in front of the Indian Parliament resulting in the death of at least
eight persons and injury to many more. In April 1979, Acharya Vinoba
Bhave, often supposed to be a 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. Since
then 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.
veneration of cow has been, however, converted into a symbol of communal
identity of the Hindus and the obscurantist and fundamentalist forces
obdurately refuse to appreciate that the ‘sacred’ cow was not always
all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical
traditions and that its flesh, along with other varieties of meat, was
quite often a part of the 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 as fuel and reject beef as food, the self-styled custodians of non-existent
‘monolithic’ Hinduism assert that the practice of beef eating was first
introduced in India by the followers of Islam who came from outside
and are foreigners in this country, little realising 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 Svayamsevak Sangha (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad,
the Bajrang Dal and their numerous outfits have a national ban on cow
slaughter on their agenda and 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
More recently, a Bajrang Dal leader has threatened to enroll 30 lakh
volunteers to agitate against cow slaughter during the month of Bakrid
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 Sikhs as Hindus, it led to vehement opposition from them and one
of the Sikh youth leaders proposed, ”Why not slaughter a cow and serve
beef in a gurudwara langar?”
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, however, has been sober and scholars have drawn
attention to the textual evidence of beef eating which, in fact, begins
to be available from the oldest Indian religious text Rgveda,
supposedly of divine origin. H.H. Wilson, writing in the first half
of the nineteenth century, had asserted: “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 killing of cattle at sacrifices and eating their flesh
prevailed among the Indo-Aryans was 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 in his two-volume book
and devoted one whole chapter to the respect shown to animals including
Later in 1912, he published an informative piece on the sanctity of
cow in India. But he also drew attention to the old practice of eating
beef and its survival in his own times. 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. However he
did not deny that the Vedic people ate beef, 
though he blamed the Muslims for cow slaughter. Later in the early
forties P. V. Kane in his monumental work History of Dharmasastra
referred to some Vedic and early Dharmasastric passages which speak
of cow killing and beef eating. H.D. Sankalia drew attention to literary
as well as archaeological evidence of eating cattle flesh in ancient
Similarly, Laxman Shastri Joshi, a Sanskritist of unquestionable scholarship,
drew attention to the Dharmasastra works, which unequivocally support
the prevalence of the practice of flesh eating including beef eating
in early India.
to say that the scholarship of all of the scholars mentioned above was
unimpeachable, and that none of them seems to have anything to do with
any anti- Hindu ideology. 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 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 ethnograher who wrote extensively on peasant
life and popular religion without any marked prejudice against Hinduism. L. L. Sundara Ram,
despite his somewhat anti-Muslim feeling, was inspired by humanitarian
considerations. Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane was a conservative Marathi
brahmin 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 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 eating beef and other types of animal flesh in early India. Curious
though it may seem, the Sangh Parivar, which carries a heavy burden
of “civilisational illiteracy”, has never turned its guns towards them
but against historians who have mostly relied on the researches of the
above-mentioned distinguished scholars.
the contribution of the scholars mentioned above cannot be minimised,
the limitation of their work lies in the fact that they have referred
to isolated bits of information on beef eating concentrating mainly
on the Vedic texts without treating it as part of the flesh eating tradition
prevalent in India. Unlike their works, therefore, the present paper
seeks to draw attention to the Indian textual evidence of cattle killing
and beef eating widely dispersed over time so as to indicate its continuity
for a long time in the Brahmanical society and to suggest that the idea
of cow’s supposed holiness does not tie up with practices current in
The early Aryans, who migrated to India from outside, brought
along with them their earlier cultural traits. Therefore, even after
their migration into the Indian subcontinent, for several centuries,
pastoralism, nomadism and animal sacrifice remained characteristic features
of their life till sedentary field agriculture became the mainstay of
their livelihood. Animal sacrifices were very common, and in the agnadheya,
which was a preparatory rite preceding all public sacrifices, a cow
was required to be killed. In the asvamedha, the
most important of public sacrifices, first mentioned in the Rgveda
and discussed in the Brahmanas, more than 600 animals (including
wild ones like boars) and birds were killed and its finale was marked
by the sacrifice of 21 cows, which, according to the dominant opinion
were sterile ones.
In the gosava, an important component of the public sacrifices
like the rajasuya and vajapeya, a sterile spotted cow
was offered to Maruts and seventeen ‘dwarf heifers under three’ were
done to death in the pancasaradiyasava.
The killing of animals including the cattle figures in several other
yajnas including caturmasya, sautramani and independent
animal sacrifice called pasubandha or nirudhapasubandha.
These and several other major sacrifices involved killing of animals
including the cattle, which constituted the chief form of the wealth
of the early Aryans. They, not surprisingly, prayed for cattle and sacrificed
them to propitiate their gods.
Vedic gods, for whom the various sacrifices were performed, had no fixed
menu of food. Milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats and sheep were offered
to them and these were their usual food, though some of them seem to
have had their special preferences. Indra had a special liking for bulls
(RV, V.29.7ab; VI.17.11b; VIII.12.8ab X.27.2c; X. 28. 3c;X.86.14ab).
Agni was not a tippler like Indra, but was fond of animal food including
the flesh of horses, bulls and cows (RV, VIII. 43.11; X. 91.14ab).
The toothless Pusan, the guardian of the roads, ate mush as a Hobson’s
choice. Soma was the name of a heady drink but, equally importantly,
of a god and killing of animals including cattle for him (RV,
X.91.14ab) was basic to most of the Rgvedic yajnas. The Maruts
and the Asvins were also offered cows. The Vedas mention about 250 animals
out of which at least 50 were deemed fit for sacrifice and by implication
for divine as well as human consumption. The animal food occupied a
place of importance in the Vedic sacrifices and dietetics and the general
preference for the flesh of the cow is undeniable. The Taittiriya
Brahmana (III.9.8) categorically tells us: “Verily the cow is food”
(atho annam vai gauh) and the Satapatha Brahmana (III.1.2.21)
refers to Yajnavalkya’s stubborn insistence on eating the tender (amsala)
flesh of the cow.
to the subsequent Brahmanical texts (e.g. Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras)
the killing of animals and eating of beef was very much de rigeur.
The ceremony of guest-reception (known as arghya in the Rgveda
but generally as madhuparka in subsequent texts) consisted not
only of a meal of a mixture of curds and honey but also of the flesh
of a cow or bull. Early lawgivers go to the extent of making flesh food
mandatory in madhuparka --- an injunction more or less dittoed
by several later legal texts (AsGS, I.24.33; KathaGS,
24,20; SankhGS, II.15.2; ParGS, I.3.29). A guest therefore
came to be described by Panini as a goghna (one for whom the
cow is slain). The sacred thread ceremony was not all that sacred; for
it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of the
cowhide (ParGS, II.5.17-20).
slaughter of animals formed an important component of the cult of the
dead in the Vedic texts as well as in later Dharmasastra works. The
thick fat of the cow was used to cover the dead body (RV, X.14-18)
and a bull was burnt along with the corpse to enable the departed to
ride with in the nether world. The funerary rites included feeding of
the brahmins after the prescribed period and quite often the flesh of
the cow/ ox was offered to the dead (AV, XII.2, 48). The textual
prescriptions indicate the degree of satisfaction obtained by the Manes
depending upon the animal offered---- the cow’s flesh could keep them
contented for at least a year! The Vedic and the post-Vedic texts also
often mention the killing of animals including the kine in several other
ritual contexts. The gavamayana, a sessional sacrifice performed
by the brahmins was, for example, marked by animal slaughter culminating
in an extravagant bacchanalian communal festival (mahavrata)
in which cattle were slaughtered. There was, therefore, a relationship
between the sacrifice and sustenance. But this need not necessarily
mean that different meat types were eaten only if offered in a sacrifice.
Thus in the grhamedha, which has been discussed in several Srautasutras,
an unspecified number of cows were slain not in the strict ritual manner
but in the crude and profane manner.
Archaeological evidence also suggests non-ritual killing of cattle.
This is indicative of the fact that beef and other animal flesh formed
part of the dietary habits of the people and that the edible flesh was
not always ritually consecrated, though some scholars have argued to
the contrary. Despite the overwhelming evidence
of cattle killing, several scholars have obdurately held that the Vedic
cow was sacred and inviolable on the basis of the occurrence of the
word aghnya/aghnya in the Atharvaveda and the use
of words for cow as epithet or in simile and metaphor with reference
to entities of highest religious significance. But it has been convincingly
proved that if the Vedic cow was at all inviolable, it was so only when
it belonged to a brahmin who received cows as sacrificial fee (daksina).
But this cannot be taken to be an index of the animal’s inherent sanctity
and inviolability in the Vedic period or even later.
Nor can one make too much of the
doctrine of non-killing (ahimsa) in relation to the cow. Gautama
Buddha and Mahavira emphasized the idea of non-violence, which seems
to have made its first appearance in the Upanisadic thought and literature.
But despite their vehement opposition of the Vedic animal sacrifice,
neither they nor their followers were averse to eating of meat. The
Buddha is known to have eaten beef and pork and the texts amply indicate
that flesh meat very well suited the Buddhist palate. Asoka, whose compassion
for animals is undeniable, allowed certain specified animals to be killed
for his kitchen. In fact, neither Asoka’s list of animals exempted from
slaughter nor the Arthasastra of Kautilya specifically mentions
cow as unslayable. The cattle were killed for food throughout the Mauryan
Buddhism, Jainism also enthusiastically took up cudgels for non-violence.
But meat eating was so common in Vedic and post-Vedic times that even
Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, is said to have eaten the meat of
a cockerel. Perhaps the early Jainas were not strict vegetarians. A
great Jaina logician of the eighth century, Haribhadrasuri, tells us
that the monks did not have objection to eating flesh and fish, which
were given to them by householders, though there is irrefutable textual
evidence to show that meat eating became a strong taboo among the followers
of Jainism. The inflexibility of the Jaina attitude to meat eating is
deeply rooted in the basic tenets of Jaina philosophy, which, at least
in theory, is impartial in its respect for all forms of life without
according any special status to the cow. Thus, although both Buddhism,
and, to a greater extent, Jainism contributed to the growth of ahimsa
doctrine, neither seems to have developed the sacred cow concept independently.
the Upanisadic, Buddhist and Jaina advocacy of ahimsa, the practice
of ritual and random of killing animals including the cattle continued
in the post-Mauryan centuries. The law book of Manu (200 BC-AD 200),
which is the most representative of the legal texts and has much to
say on the lawful and forbidden food, contains several passages on flesh
eating, which have much in common with earlier and later Brahmanical
juridical works. Like the earlier law books, it mentions the animals
whose flesh could be eaten. Manu’s list includes the porcupine, hedgehog,
iguana, rhinoceros, tortoise and the hare and all those domestic animals
having teeth in one jaw only, the only exception being the camel (V.18);
and, it is significant that the cow is not excluded from the list of
edible animals. Eating meat on sacrificial occasions, Manu tells us,
is a divine rule (daivo vidhih smrtah), but doing so on other
occasions is a demoniac practice (V.31). Accordingly one does not do
any wrong by eating meat while honouring the gods, the Manes and guests
(madhuparka ca yajne ca pitrdaivatakarmani), irrespective of
the way in which the meat was procured (V.32, 41). Manu asserts that
animals were created for the sake of sacrifice, that killing on ritual
occasions is non-killing (V.39) and injury (himsa) as enjoined
by the Veda (vedavihitahimsa) is known to be non-injury (V.44).
In the section dealing with rules for times of distress, Manu recalls
the legendary examples of the most virtuous brahmins of the days of
yore who ate ox-meat and dog-meat to escape death from starvation (X.105-9).
Manu’s latitudinarian attitude is clear from his recognition of
the natural human tendency of eating meat, drinking spirituous liquor
and indulging in sexual intercourse, even if abstention brings great
rewards (V.56). He further breaks loose the constraints when he says:
“the Lord of creatures (Prajapati) created this whole world to be the
sustenance of the vital spirit; both the immovable and the movable (creation
is) the food of the vital spirit. What is destitute of motion is the
food of those endowed with locomotion; (animals) without fangs (are
the food) of those with fangs, those without hands of those who possess
hands, and the timid of the bold. The eater who daily even devours those
destined to be his food, commits no sin; for the creator himself created
both the eaters and those who are to be eaten” (V.28-30). This injunction
removes all restrictions on flesh eating and gives an unlimited freedom
to all desiring to eat animal flesh and since Manu does not mention
beef eating as taboo one can infer that he did not treat cow as sacrosanct.
Manu contradicts his own statements by extolling ahimsa (X.63),
but there is no doubt that he permitted meat eating at least on ritual
occasions (madhuparka, sraddha etc) when the killing of
the cow and other cattle, according to his commentator Medhatithi (9th
century), was in keeping with the Vedic and post- Vedic practice (govyajamamsamaproksitambhaksyed…
madhuparkovyakhyatah tatra govadhovihitah).
(AD 100-300), like Manu, discusses the rules regarding lawful and forbidden
food. Although his treatment of the subject is less detailed, he does
not differ radically from him. Yajnavalkya mentions the specific animals
(deer, sheep, goat, boar, rhinoceros etc) and birds (e.g. partridge)
whose flesh could satisfy the Manes (I.258-61). According to him a student,
teacher, king, close friend and son-in-law should be offered arghya
every year and a priest should be offered madhuparka on all ritual
occasions (I.110). He further enjoins that a learned brahmin (srotriya)
should be welcomed with a big ox or goat (mahoksam va mahajam va
srotriyayopakalpayet) delicious food and sweet words. This indicates
his endorsement of the earlier practice of killing cattle at the reception
of illustrious guests. Yajnavalkya, like Manu, permits eating of meat
when life is in danger, or when it is offered in sacrifices and funerary
rites (i.179). But unconsecrated meat (vrthamamsam, anupakrtamamsani),
according to him, is a taboo (I.167, 171) and any one killing animals
solely for his own food and not in accordance with the Vedic practice
is doomed to go to hell for as many days as the number of hair on the
body of the victim (I.180). Similarly Brhaspati (AD 300-500), like Manu,
recommends abstention from liquor (madya), flesh (mamsa)
and sexual intercourse only if they are not lawfully ordained which implies that whatever was
lawful was permitted. The lawgivers generally accept as lawful all those
sacrifices, which, according to them, have Vedic sanction. The sacrificial
slaughter of animals and domesticated bovines, as we have seen, was
a Vedic practice and therefore may have been fairly common among the
Brahmanical circles during the early Christian centuries and even well
into the later half of the first millennium AD. It would be, however,
unrealistic to assume that the dharmic precept of restricting animal
slaughter to ritual occasions was always taken seriously either by brahmins
for whom the legal injunctions were meant or by other sections
It is not surprising, therefore, that Brhaspati, while discussing the
importance of local customs, says that in Madhyadesa the artisans eat
cows (madhyadese karmakarah silpinasca gavasinah).
evidence from the epics is quite eloquent. Most of the characters in
the Mahabharata are meat eaters and it makes a laudatory reference
to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered
everyday, their flesh, along with grains, being distributed among the
Similarly the Ramayana of Valmiki makes frequent reference to
the killing of animals including the cow for sacrifice as well as food.
Rama was born after his father Dasaratha performed a big sacrifice involving
the slaughter of a large number of animals declared edible by the Dharmasastras,
which, as we have seen, sanction ritual killing of the kine. Sita, while
crossing the Yamuna, assures her that she would worship her with thousand
cows and a hundred jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow. Her
fondness for deer meat drives her husband crazy enough to kill Marici,
a deer in disguise. Bharadvaja welcomes Rama by slaughtering a fatted
calf in his honour.
non-vegetarian dietary practices find an important place in the early
Indian medical treatises, whose chronology broadly coincides with that
of the law books of Manu and Yajnavalkya, and the two epics. Caraka
(1st-2nd century), Susruta (3rd –4th
century) and Vagbhata (7th century) provide an impressive
list of the variety of fish and flesh and all three of them speak of
the therapeutic uses of beef.
The continuity of the tradition of eating flesh including that of the
cattle is also echoed in early Indian secular literature till late times.
In the Gupta period, Kalidasa alludes to the story of Rantideva who
killed numerous cows every day in his kitchen. More than two centuries later,
Bhavabhuti (AD 700) refers to two instances of guest reception, which
included the killing of a heifer.
In the 10th century Rajasekhara mentions the practice of
killing an ox or a goat in honour of a guest. In the 12th century
Sriharsa mentions a variety of non-vegetarian delicacies served at a
dazzling marriage feast and refers to two interesting instances of cow
killing, though, in the same century Somesvara
shows clear preference for pig flesh over other meat types and does
not mention beef at all.
the above references, albeit limited in number, indicate that the ancient
practice of killing the kine for food continued till about the 12th
century, there is considerable evidence in the commentaries on the kavya
literature and the earlier Dharmasastra texts to show that the Brahmanical
writers retained its memory till very late times. Among the commentators
on the secular literature, Candupandita (late 13th century)
from Gujarat, Narahari
(14th century) from Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, and Mallinatha
(14th-15th century), who is associated with the
king Devaraya II of Vidyanagara (Vijayanagara), clearly indicate that,
in earlier times, the cow was done to death for rituals and hence for
food. As late as the 18th century Ghanasyama, a minister
of a Tanjore ruler, states that the killing of cow in honour of a guest
was the ancient rule.
the authors of Dharmasastra commentaries and religious digests from
the 9th century onwards keep alive the memory of the archaic
practice of beef eating and some of them even go so far as to permit
eating beef in specific circumstances. For example, Medhatithi (9th
century), probably a Kashmirian brahmin, says that a bull or ox was
killed in honour of a ruler or any one deserving to be honoured and
unambiguously allows eating the flesh of cow (govyajamamsam)
on ritual occasions. Several other writers of exegetical works seem
to lend support to this view, though some times indirectly. Visvarupa (9th century), a brahmin
from Malwa and probably a pupil of Sankara, Vijnanesvara (11th century), who may have lived
not far from Kalyana in modern Karnataka, Haradatta
(12th century), also a southerner (daksinatya), Laksmidhara
(12th century), a minister of the Gahadwala king, Hemadri
(late 13th century), a minister of the Yadavas of Devagiri,
Narasimha/ Nrsimha (14th century), possibly
from southern India, and Mitra Misra
(17th century) from Gopacala (Gwalior) support the practice
of killing a cow on occasions like guest-reception and sraddha
in ancient times. As recently as the early 20th century,
Madana Upadhyaya from Mithila refers to the ritual slaughter of milch
cattle in the days of yore.
Thus even when the Dharmasastra commentators view cow killing with disfavour,
they generally admit that it was an ancient practice and that it was
to be avoided in the kali age.
the above evidence is indicative of the continuity of the practice of
beef eating, the lawgivers had already begun to discourage it around
the middle of the first millennium when the Indian society began to
be gradually feudalized leading to major socio-cultural transformation.
This phase of transition, first described in the epic and Puranic passages
as kaliyuga, saw many changes and modification in social norms
and customs. The Brahmanical religious texts now begin to speak of many
earlier practices as forbidden in the kaliyuga – practices which
came to be known as kalivarjyas. While the number of kalivarjyas
swelled up over time, most of the relevant texts mention cow killing
as forbidden in the kali. According to some early medieval lawgivers
a cow killer was an untouchable and one incurred sin even by talking
to him. They increasingly associated cow slaughter and beef eating with
the proliferating number of untouchable castes. It is, however, interesting
that some of them consider these acts as no more than minor behavioural
aberrations like cleaning one’s teeth with one’s fingers and eating
only salt or soil.
interesting is the fact that almost all the prescriptive texts enumerate
cow killing as a minor sin (upapataka) and none of them describe
it as a major offence (mahapataka). Moreover the Smrti texts
provide easy escape routes by laying down expiatory procedures for intentional
as well as inadvertent killing of the cow. This may imply that that
cattle killing may not have been uncommon in society and the atonements
were prescribed merely to discourage eating of cattle flesh. To what
extent the Dharmasastric injunctions were effective, however, remains
a matter of speculation; for the possibility of at least some members
eating beef on the sly cannot be ruled out. As recently as the late
19th century Swami Vivekananda was alleged to have eaten
beef during his stay in America, though he vehemently defended his action. Similarly in early
twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the hypocrisy of the orthodox
Hindus who “do not so much as hesitate or inquire when during illness
the doctor … prescribes them beef tea.” Even today 72
communities in Kerala-- not all of them untouchable perhaps--- prefer
beef to the expensive mutton and the Hindutva forces are persuading
them to go easy on it.
cow killing and beef eating gradually came to be viewed as a sin and
a source of pollution from the early medieval period, the cow and its
products (milk, curds, clarified butter, dung and urine) or their mixture
called pancagavya had been assuming a purificatory role from
much earlier times. The Vedic texts attest to the ritual use of cow’s
milk and milk products, but the term pancagavya occurs for the
first time in the Baudhayana Dharmasutra. The law books of Manu,
Visnu, Vasistha, Yajnavalkya and those of several later lawgivers like
Atri, Devala and Parasara mention the use of the mixture of the five
products of the cow for both purification and expiation. The commentaries
and religious digests, most of which belong to the medieval period,
abound in references to the purificatory role of the pancagavya.
The underlying assumption in all these cases is that the pancagavya
is pure. But several Dharmasastra texts forbid its use by women and
the lower castes. If a sudra drinks pancagavya, we are told,
he goes to hell.
is curious that the prescriptive texts, which repeatedly refer to the
purificatory role of the cow, also provide much evidence of the notion
of pollution and impurity associated with this animal. According to
Manu (V.125) the food smelt by the cow has to be purified. Other early
lawgivers like Visnu (XXIII.38) and Yajnavalkya (I.189) also express
similar views. The latter in fact says that while the mouth of the goat
and horse is pure that of the cow is not. Among the later juridical
texts, those of Angirasa, Parasara, Vyasa and so on, support the idea
of the cow’s mouth being impure. The lawgiver Sankha categorically states
that all limbs of the cow are pure except her mouth. The commentaries
on different Dharmasastra texts reinforce the notion of impurity of
the cow’s mouth. All this runs counter to the ideas about the purificatory
role of the cow.
to say, then, that the image of the cow projected by Indian textual
traditions, especially the Brahmanical- Dharmasastric works, over the
centuries is polymorphic. Its story through the millennia is full of
inconsistencies and has not always been in conformity with dietary practices
prevalent in society. It was killed and yet the killing was not killing.
When it was not slain, mere remembering the old practice of butchery
satisfied the brahmins. Its five products including faeces and urine
have been pure but its mouth has not been so. Yet through these incongruous
attitudes and puzzling paradoxes the Indian cow has struggled its way
to sanctity. But its holiness is elusive. For, there is no cow- goddess,
nor any temple in her honour. Nevertheless the
veneration of this animal has come to be viewed as a characteristic
trait of modern day non-existent monolithic ‘Hinduism’ bandied about
by the Hindutva forces.
 L.L. Sundara Ram, Cow Protection
in India, The South Indian Humanitarian League, George Town, Madras,
1027, pp.122-123, 179-190.
Digvijaya quoted in Sundara Ram, op. cit. p.191.
 Sandria B. Freitag, “Contesting in
Public: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Communalism”, in David
Ludden, ed., Making India Hindu, Delhi: Oxford University Press,
 Idem, Collective Action and Community:
Public Arena and the Emergence of Communalism in North India,
Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990, Chapter 6; Gyan Pandey, ‘Rallying
round the Cow’, in Subaltern Studies, Vol.. II, Ranajit Guha,
(ed.), Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 60- 129.
 Frederick J. Simoons,
“Questions in the Sacred-Cow Controversy”, Current Anthropology,
20(3), September 1979, p.468.
 The Times of India, 28 May 1999, p.12.
 Frontline, 13 April 2001.
 Rajesh Ramachandran, “A Crisis of
Identity”, The Hindustan Times, 7 May 2000.
 W. Crooke, The Popular Religion
and Folklore of Northern India, 2 Vols, Delhi: 4th
reprint, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1978.
 W. Crooke, ‘The Veneration of the
Cow in India’, Folklore, 13 (1912), pp.275-306.
 Sundara Ram, Cow Protection in
India, Madras: The South Indian Humanitarian League, 1927, p.8,
 H.D. Sankalia, “ (The Cow) In History”,
Seminar No. 93, May 1967.
“Was the Cow Killed in Ancient India?” Quest, (75),
March- April 1972, pp. 83-87.
 J.C. Heesterman translates a passage
of the Kathaka Samhita (8.7:90.10) relating to the agnadheya
as: ‘they kill a cow, they play a dice for [shares in] her, they serve
her up to those seated in the assembly hall’: Broken World of Sacrifice,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p.283, note 33.
Louis Renou, Vedic India, Varanasi, reprint, Indological Book
House, 1971 p.109.
 R.L. Mitra, Indo-Aryans: Contributions
to the Elucidation of Ancient and Medieval History, 2 Vols, Varanasi:
reprint, Indological Book House, 1969, p.363.
A.B. Keith, Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads,
Delhi: Indian reprint, Motilal Banarsidass, 1970, p.324; P.V. Kane,
History of Dharmasastra, II, pt.2, Chapter XXXII.
J. C. Heesterman, op.cit., pp. 190-93, 200-02.
For different views see Hanns-Peter Schmidt, ‘Ahimsa and Rebirth’
in Inside The Texts Beyond The Texts: New Approaches to the Study
of the Vedas, M. Witzel (ed.), Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997,
pp. 209-10; Cf. J.C. Heesterman, ‘Vratya and Sacrifice’, Indo-Iranian
Journal, 6 (1962), pp. 1-37.
 William Norman Brown, ‘The Sanctity
of Cow in Hinduism’, Madras University Journal, 27.2 (1957),
 Medhatithi on Manu, V.27,
41 see Manava-Dharma-Sastra, ed., V.N. Mandalik, Bombay, 1886,
 Brhaspatismrti cited in Krtyakalpataru
of Laksmidhara, trtiyabhaga, ed., K.V. Rangaswami Aiyangar, Baroda
Oriental Institute, Baroda,1950, p.326
Contra Francis Zimmermann (The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, p.180ff) asserts that
only consecrated meat was eaten and Hanns Peter Schmidt seems to be
in agreement with him
(‘Ahimsa and Rebirth’, op.cit., p.209). But the evidence
from the Buddhist Jatakas, Kautilya’s Arthasastra, and Asokan
inscriptions etc does not support this view.
 Brhaspatismrti, 128b, Gaekwad
Oriental Series, Baroda, 1941.
For further references see S. Sorensen, An Index to the Names in
the Mahabharata, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1963, pp.593-94.
 R. L. Mitra, op.cit., vol.I, p. 396.
 Caraka Samhita: Sutrasthanam,
II.31, XXVII.79: Susruta Samhita: Sarirasthanam, III.25;
Astanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthanam, VI.65.
 Meghaduta, with the commentary
of Mallinatha, ed. and tr., M. R. Kale (ed. & tr.), Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass, Delhi, 1979, I.48.
Mahaviracarita, Rampratap Tripathi Shastri (ed. with Hindi
tr.), Allahabad: Lok Bharati Prakashan, 1973. III.2. Uttararamacarita,
with notes and the commentary of Ghanasyama, P.V. Kane and C.
N. Joshi (ed. and tr.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962, Act IV.
 Balaramayana, of Rajasekhara,
Ganagasagar Rai (ed.) Varanasi: Chowkhamba, 1984. I.38a
 Naisadhamahakavyam, with the
commentary of Mallinatha, Haragovind Shastri (ed.) Varanasi, Chowkhamba,
1981 XVII.173, 197.
 Naisadhacarita of Sri Harsa,
K.K. Handiqui (tr. with commentaries), Poona, Deccan College, 1965,
 Naisadhamahakavyam, p. 1137.
 Meghaduta, Kale’s edn, p.83.
 Medhatithi on Manu, V.26-7,41.
See Manava-Dharma-Sastra (with the commentaries of Medhatithi,
Sarvajnanarayana, Kulluka, Nandana and Ramacandra), V. N. Mandalika
(ed.), Bombay: Ganpat Krishnaji’s Press, 1886, pp.604, 613.
Visvarupa on Yajnavalkya, I. 108. See Yajnavalkyasmrti
(with the commentary Balakrida of Visvarupacarya), Mahamahopadhyaya
T. Ganapati Sastri (ed.), Delhi: 2nd edn, Munshiram Manoharlal,
Mitaksara on Yajnavalkya, I. 108. See Yajnavalkyasmrti
with Vijnanesvara’s Mitaksara, Gangasagar Rai (ed.), Delhi; Chowkhamba
Sanskrit Pratisthan, 1998, p.54.
Haradatta on Gautama, XVII.30.
 Krtyakalpataru, Niyatakalakandam,
trtiyabhagam, K.V. Rangaswami Aiyangar (ed.), Baroda: Oriental Research
Institute, 1950, p.190
 P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra,
III, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1973, p.929.
 R. L. Mitra, op.cit., p.384.
 Mitra Misra on Yajnavalkya, I. 108.
 Palapiyusalata Gourisayantralaya,
Darbhanga, Samvat 1951.
 Atrismrti, verse 314 in Astadasasmrtyah
(with Hindi tr by Sundarlal Tripathi, Khemraj Shrikrishnadas, Venkateshwar
Steam Press, Bombay, Saka 1846.
 Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekanada
and the Universal Gospel, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, Eleventh
Impression, August 1988, p.44 fn. 3.
 M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography
or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad,
1927, reprint 2000, p.324. Gandhi saw a five-footed “miraculous” cow
at the Kumbha Mela at Allahabad in 1915, the fifth foot being nothing
but “a foot cut off from a live calf and grafted upon the shoulder
of the cow” which attracted the lavish charity of the ignorant Hindu
 India Today, 15 April 1993,
 Visnusmrti, LIV.7; Atrismriti,
verse 297, etc.
 A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was
India, Delhi, Rupa & Co., 27th Impression, 1996,