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/ History / Myths of Origins /

Paradox of the Indian Cow:
Attitudes to Beef Eating in Early India


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 was eaten.

More 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[1].  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 brahmanas”[2]

But 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.

The 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,[5] 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 temples.[6] More recently, a Bajrang Dal leader has threatened to enroll 30 lakh volunteers to agitate against cow slaughter during the month of Bakrid in 2002.[7] 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?”[8]   

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, 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 the cow[9]. 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.[10] 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, [11] 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 India.[12] 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.[13]

Needless 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”.[14]  William Crooke was a well-known colonial ethnograher who wrote extensively on peasant life and popular religion without any marked prejudice against Hinduism.[15] 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.  

While 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 Indian society.   

                                             II

          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.[16]  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.[17] 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.[18] The killing of animals including the cattle figures in several other yajnas including caturmasya, sautramani and independent animal sacrifice called pasubandha or nirudhapasubandha.[19] 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.

The 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.

According 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).

The 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.[20]  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.[21] 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).[22] 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 period.

Like 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. 

                                     

III

Despite 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).[23]      

Yajnavalkya (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[24] 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 of society.[25]  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).[26]

The 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 brahmins (III.208.8-9)[27]. 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.[28]

The 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[29]. 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.[30] More than two centuries later, Bhavabhuti (AD 700) refers to two instances of guest reception, which included the killing of a heifer[31]. In the 10th century Rajasekhara mentions the practice of killing an ox or a goat in honour of a guest[32]. 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[33], though, in the same century Somesvara shows clear preference for pig flesh over other meat types and does not mention beef at all.

                                      IV

While 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[34] (14th century) from Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, and Mallinatha[35] (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.[36] 

 Similarly 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[37]. Several other writers of exegetical works seem to lend support to this view, though some times indirectly. Visvarupa[38] (9th century), a brahmin from Malwa and probably a pupil of Sankara, Vijnanesvara[39]  (11th century), who may have lived not far from Kalyana in modern Karnataka, Haradatta[40] (12th century), also a southerner (daksinatya), Laksmidhara[41] (12th century), a minister of the Gahadwala king, Hemadri[42] (late 13th century), a minister of the Yadavas of Devagiri, Narasimha/ Nrsimha[43] (14th century), possibly from southern India, and Mitra Misra[44] (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.[45] 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.

                                      V

While 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.[46]

Equally 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.[47] 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.”[48]  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.[49]

                                      VI  

Although 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.[50]

It 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.

Needless 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.[51] 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. 



[1] L.L. Sundara Ram, Cow Protection in India, The South Indian Humanitarian League, George Town, Madras, 1027, pp.122-123, 179-190.

[2]  Siva Digvijaya quoted in Sundara Ram, op. cit. p.191.

[3] Sandria B. Freitag, “Contesting in Public: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Communalism”, in David Ludden, ed., Making India Hindu, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, p.217.

[4] 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.

[5] Frederick J. Simoons, “Questions in the Sacred-Cow Controversy”, Current Anthropology,  20(3), September 1979, p.468.

[6] The Times of India, 28 May 1999, p.12.

[7] Frontline, 13 April 2001.

[8] Rajesh Ramachandran, “A Crisis of Identity”, The Hindustan Times, 7 May 2000.

[9] W. Crooke, The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, 2 Vols, Delhi: 4th reprint, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1978.

[10] W. Crooke, ‘The Veneration of the Cow in India’, Folklore, 13 (1912), pp.275-306.

[11] Sundara Ram, Cow Protection in India, Madras: The South Indian Humanitarian League, 1927, p.8, passim.

[12] H.D. Sankalia, “ (The Cow) In History”, Seminar No. 93, May 1967.

[13]  “Was the Cow Killed in Ancient India?” Quest,  (75), March- April 1972, pp. 83-87.

[16] 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.

[17] Louis Renou, Vedic India, Varanasi, reprint, Indological Book House, 1971 p.109.

[18] R.L. Mitra, Indo-Aryans: Contributions to the Elucidation of Ancient and Medieval History, 2 Vols, Varanasi: reprint, Indological Book House, 1969, p.363.

[19] 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.                                                            

[20]  J. C. Heesterman, op.cit., pp. 190-93, 200-02.

[21]  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.

[22] William Norman Brown, ‘The Sanctity of Cow in Hinduism’, Madras University Journal, 27.2 (1957), pp. 29-49.

[23] Medhatithi on Manu, V.27, 41 see Manava-Dharma-Sastra, ed., V.N. Mandalik, Bombay, 1886, pp.604, 613.

[24] Brhaspatismrti cited in Krtyakalpataru of Laksmidhara, trtiyabhaga, ed., K.V. Rangaswami Aiyangar, Baroda Oriental Institute, Baroda,1950, p.326

[25]  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.

[26] Brhaspatismrti, 128b, Gaekwad Oriental Series, Baroda, 1941.

[27] For further references see S. Sorensen, An Index to the Names in the    Mahabharata, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1963, pp.593-94.

[28] R. L. Mitra, op.cit., vol.I, p. 396.

[29] Caraka Samhita: Sutrasthanam, II.31, XXVII.79: Susruta Samhita: Sarirasthanam, III.25; Astanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthanam, VI.65.

[30] Meghaduta, with the commentary of Mallinatha, ed. and tr., M. R. Kale (ed. & tr.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1979, I.48.

[31] 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.

[32] Balaramayana, of Rajasekhara, Ganagasagar Rai (ed.) Varanasi: Chowkhamba, 1984. I.38a

[33] Naisadhamahakavyam, with the commentary of Mallinatha, Haragovind Shastri (ed.) Varanasi, Chowkhamba, 1981 XVII.173, 197.

[34] Naisadhacarita of Sri Harsa, K.K. Handiqui (tr. with commentaries), Poona, Deccan College, 1965, p.472.

[35] Naisadhamahakavyam, p. 1137.

[36] Meghaduta, Kale’s edn, p.83.

[37] 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.

[38]  Visvarupa on Yajnavalkya, I. 108. See   Yajnavalkyasmrti (with the commentary Balakrida of Visvarupacarya), Mahamahopadhyaya T. Ganapati Sastri (ed.), Delhi: 2nd edn, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1982, p.97.

[39]  Mitaksara on Yajnavalkya, I. 108. See Yajnavalkyasmrti with Vijnanesvara’s Mitaksara, Gangasagar Rai (ed.), Delhi; Chowkhamba Sanskrit Pratisthan, 1998, p.54.

[40]  Haradatta on Gautama, XVII.30.

[41] Krtyakalpataru, Niyatakalakandam, trtiyabhagam, K.V. Rangaswami Aiyangar (ed.), Baroda: Oriental Research Institute, 1950, p.190

[42] P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, III, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1973, p.929.

[43] R. L. Mitra, op.cit., p.384.

[44] Mitra Misra on Yajnavalkya, I. 108.

[45] Palapiyusalata Gourisayantralaya, Darbhanga, Samvat 1951.

[46] Atrismrti, verse 314 in Astadasasmrtyah (with Hindi tr by Sundarlal Tripathi, Khemraj Shrikrishnadas, Venkateshwar Steam Press, Bombay, Saka 1846.

[47] Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekanada and the Universal Gospel, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, Eleventh Impression, August 1988, p.44 fn. 3.

[48] 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 (ibid., p.325).

[49] India Today, 15 April 1993, p.72.

[50] Visnusmrti, LIV.7;  Atrismriti, verse 297, etc.

[51] A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, Delhi, Rupa & Co., 27th Impression, 1996, p.319.