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The Myth of the Holy Cow
Posted by Gursikh Singh Khalsa Send Email to Author on Tuesday, 2/05/2002 4:10 AM MST
Get the book!
The Myth of the Holy Cow
Dwijendra Narayah Jha


Interview Of The Week
Holy cow is bull
Says historian D.N. Jha in his new book.
Now the VHP is gunning for him

Jomy Thomas

Though a vegetarian "by habit", Dwijendra Narayan Jha, history professor in Delhi University, sometimes eats beef, "following the dharma sastras". His book Holy Cow--Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions in which he argues that beef was part of ancient Indian cuisine has angered religious groups. A court in Hyderabad has banned it and Vishwa Hindu Parishad's cow protection wing has demanded his arrest. Excerpts from an interview with the professor:

I am like a man in red clothes and surrounded by mad bulls.
I have to find an escape

Jomy: Why did you decide to write this book?
Dwijendra: There is increasing religious fundamentalism and a demand for declaring cow as the national animal. I thought I should write something on the history of the sanctity of the cow: whether it was eaten or not. Scholars have written about beef-eating earlier. I am trying to show the continuity of a tradition. I have also tried to show that beef-eating is pre-Islamic. Fundamentalist forces try to associate abstention from beef with Hinduism. We have evidence of beef-eating in the early phase. In the subsequent phase the dharma sastras talk about the ‘old practice' of beef-eating.

Jomy: Was meat-eating an issue in the Rig Veda period?
Dwijendra: Manu Smriti provides a list of edible animals in which the only exception is the camel.

Jomy: Are you saying that the holiness attached to the cow was invented later?
Dwijendra: It has grown over a period of time. One can't say that at this point of time the animal became sacred. The word sacred may not convey the meaning adequately. Better to use the word inviolability. If it was so holy why don't we have a single temple for the cow? In many temples we find a nandi—the bull. As a historian I don't believe in the sanctity of the cow.

Jomy: What about the dictum that those who eat beef will become pariahs?
Dwijendra: Several dharma sastras state that one who eats the cow will become untouchable. This happened in early medieval period. Brahmins associated beef-eating with the lower strata of society. This indicates that the social structure was undergoing changes. This was a mechanism to accept people into the social hierarchy where you say that if you eat beef you are an untouchable, an outcaste.

All these classifications come from Brahmins. You have to read between the lines to find what Brahmins had in mind. Why did the Brahmins who ate beef a thousand years earlier declare those who eat beef untouchable? They were obsessed with the prohibition of beef-eating because the practice was prevalent. It was their invention, a dharma sastric invention. They wanted to maintain their hegemony. Even there, all Brahmins don't agree. Certain medieval writers defended the old practice.

Jomy: There is an increasing demand for a ban on cow slaughter.
Dwijendra: I am for protection of the cow, but why this privilege only to the cow? Why not the buffalo? It is not my intention to hurt anybody's religious sensibilities. I come from a fairly conservative Brahmin family. But I have to give up all religious considerations when I am writing history.

Jomy: Hindutva forces want to brand this as a part of the larger conspiracy.
Dwijendra: The Hindutva forces themselves are great conspirators. They tell lies, lies and lies. They will tell the same lie so many times so as to make it a truth. Anything that goes against that lie is a conspiracy. A historian does not live in isolation. He is a part of society. I am like a man wearing red clothes and surrounded by mad bulls. I have to find an escape.

Jomy: When you try to establish that the Buddha or Mahavira ate beef, you are hurting sentiments.
Dwijendra: They should read the book and try to produce counter evidence. That is how you react to an academic work. Not by burning it. This means you are trying to control academic research. This is not fair. I was not expecting the VHP to react. Their cadres don't read. The demand to arrest me is fascist. Then they will have to ban many things including the Vedas. Ban P.V. Kane's History of Dharma Sastras. Ban all the dharma sastra texts where there are references to beef-eating.


Banned in Benares

WHEN THE BRITISH COLONIAL ENTERPRISE on the Indian subcontinent received its first major blow in the mid-nineteenth century, it was apparently a substance as innocuous as animal fat that stoked the fires of rebellion. Known variously as the 1857 Mutiny or the first Indian war of independence, the war is generally said to have been set off by the presence of beef and pork fat in the British-issued greased cartridges that Hindu and Muslim soldiers had to bite off before loading into their rifles.

Of course, the uprising had a number of political and economic causes, but the Hindu ban on eating beef has been a flash point in India ever since. Upholding the protected status of the cow became a rallying point for extremist Hindu groups in the late nineteenth century. More than a hundred years later, in a country now ruled by the Hindu right-wing BJP, the politics of beef remains contentious. When the Delhi University historian D.N. Jha recently challenged the prevailing attitudes about cows and beef, he was denounced by the government, and his book on the subject was pulled from the country's shelves.

In August, Jha, a reputable scholar of ancient Indian history, published Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions (Matrix Books), in which he argues that the current iconic status of the cow would have made little sense to the ancestors of present-day Hindus. The widespread assumption that beef eating was foreign to the subcontinent until it was introduced by Muslim invaders in the twelfth century is incorrect, insists Jha; not only were the ancient Hindus of the Vedic Age no strangers to the pleasures of beef, but the now prohibited meat once had an important position in the hierarchy of offerings made to Hindu gods.

Though right-wing commentators often fulminate against what they see as anti-Hinduism in the work of India's generally secular historians, the reaction to Holy Cow has been particularly fierce. The hostility began even before publication, when Jha received threatening phone calls after a chapter was posted on a Web site. During correction of the final proofs, the book's original publisher withdrew from the project, saying, "I will be lynched if I publish that Bhagawan Mahavira ate meat"?a reference to the founder of the vegetarian Jain religion. (Jha says he is not the first historian to have considered the possibility that Jain monks and their founder ate meat in certain extraordinary situations, and he says his work never disputes the fact that Jain texts generally endorse strict vegetarianism.) Hindu priests in Benares have held demonstrations against the book, describing the author as part of "anti-national forces trying to destroy Indian culture and tradition."

Upon the book's publication, groups loyal to the BJP?whose election manifesto routinely promises to ban the slaughter of "cows and cow-progeny" in those states where it is not already illegal?immediately demanded the author's arrest and a ban on the book. Jha has not been arrested, but after a number of religious and animal-rights groups filed petitions, a court in the southern city of Hyderabad ordered the publisher to desist from printing, publishing, and releasing the book anywhere in India until further hearings are held. As a result, says Jha, Holy Cow is "for all intents and purposes banned."

In today's India, sectarian politics has ensured that beef is eaten only by those considered on the fringes of mainstream society. Because it is cheaper than mutton or chicken, beef is often the food of India's poor. Hindus with liberal tendencies eat it, but the fundamentalist right usually attributes the practice to the misguided secularism of communists. Even in states where it can be sold openly, beef is rarely found in markets with a predominantly Hindu clientele.

It wasn't always so, says Jha. Drawing on a wide range of secular and sacred sources dating back to the second millennium b.c., he concludes that the ancient cow was "a combination of paradoxes"?its mouth was considered impure, but cow products (milk, bile, urine) were often used in purification rites. Jha thus contends that the static tradition his accusers cling to is not borne out by rational historical inquiry, which instead reveals that "the image of the cow projected by Indian textual traditions?over the centuries is polymorphic." His chronological study of sacred and secular texts contains abundant references to ritual slaughter of cattle and the consumption of the sacrificial meat, as well as to archaeological evidence of bone fragments ("often with cut marks") and "the therapeutic use of meats." It is only around the middle of the first millennium a.d., Jha says, that Hindu texts began to disapprove of the killing of cows and the consumption of beef.

Jha ascribes these developments to a shift in rural lifestyle from a pastoral mode to a more hierarchical agrarian society. This change, he writes, was accompanied by the "gradual replacement of Vedic sacrifice" by a new religious system in which an "emphasis on the donation of land and other agrarian resources like?cattle?made it necessary for the law givers to forbid the killing of kine." Older dietary habits did not die out, however, and while penances were laid down for eating beef or killing a cow, such acts were usually treated as minor sins, not major infractions.

Though Jha is known for his combative political stance?he does not hesitate to call Hindu ideologues "ignoramuses" in his preface?he acknowledges that the controversy over the history of beef eating is "more than a century old" and that many scholars, including conservative Sanskritists, have understood that beef "formed an important item of food in ancient India." Somewhat bemused by the attention his scholarly tract is getting, he nonetheless laments the tendency of dominant Hindu groups to divide Indian society into pure selves and demonized others. Jha refers to ethnic riots that begin with Hindus throwing pig flesh into mosques and Muslims flinging beef into temples as contemporary examples of such destructive patterns of behavior. He himself is a Brahmin and a vegetarian by habit. "But if a situation so demands," he says, "I eat nonvegetarian food, including beef, without any sense of guilt. To others I appear a bad eater, but I enjoy whatever food I eat."

Siddhartha Deb


Get the book!
The Myth of the Holy Cow
Dwijendra Narayah Jha

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