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Pradox of the Indian cow -1
Posted by Sarabjit Singh Khalsa Send Email to Author on Sunday, 12/16/2001 7:34 PM MST
Paradox of the Indian cow
D.N. Jha

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 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.

The obscurantist and fundamentalist forces have continued to raise a hullabaloo in the political arena, obdurately refusing 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 of early India.

The response of historical scholarship to the communal perception of Indian food culture, however, has been sober and Indian as well as western 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.

Among the scholars mention may be made of Rajendra Lal Mitra, L.L. Sundara Ram, Bharatratna Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane, H.D. Sankalia, Laxman Shastri Joshi, who have referred to the Vedic and some other early texts which unequivocally support the prevalence of the practice of beef-eating in early India.

Neither the scholarship of these scholars can be questioned, nor can they be charged with being anti-Hindu in their attitude. Curious though it may seem, the Sangh parivar has never turned its guns towards them but against historians who have mostly relied on the researches of the above-mentioned distinguished scholars.

The textual evidence clearly indicates that animal sacrifice including the killing of cow was very common in the Vedic period. 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 more than 600 animals (including wild ones like boars) and birds were killed and its finalé was marked by the sacrifice of 21 cows.

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. The Aryans, 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 (RgVeda, 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. 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 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? 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 (eg. Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras), the killing of animals and eating of beef was very much de rigeur. The ceremony of guest-reception (madhuparka) consisted not only of a meal of a mixture of curds and honey but also of the flesh of a cow or bull.
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 made from the cowhide.
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 kine in several other ritual contexts. The gavamayana, was, for example, marked by animal slaughter culminating in an extravagant bacchanalian communal festival (mahavrata) in which cattle were slaughtered.
Similarly in the grhamedha, which has been discussed in several Srautasutras, an unspecified number of cows were slain. The textual evidence is amply supported by archaeological testimony of cattle killing. The Vedic cow, thus, was not inviolable and sacrosanct.

Nor could the doctrine of non-violence, first enunciated in the Upanishads and later popularised by Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, could bestow sacredness on the cow. Both made major departures from Vedic beliefs and practices but neither developed the sacred cow concept independently.
Gautama Buddha is known to have eaten beef and pork and the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, despite his undeniable compassion for animals, does not mention the cow in his list of animals exempted from slaughter. Jainism showed respect for all forms of life without and did not single out the cow. In a late work, Prabandhachintamani (14th century) of the Jaina monk Merutungasuri, a character even questions the sanctity of the cow.
The practice of ritual and random killing of animals including 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 lawful and forbidden food, provides a list of edible animals which includes all those domestic animals having teeth in one jaw only, the only exception being the camel and, significantly, not the cow (V.8).
He even recalls the legendary example of the most virtuous Brahmins of the days of yore who ate ox-meat and dog-meat in times of distress (X.105-9). The text of Manu does not mention beef- eating as a taboo.
Another Dharmashastra text, that of Yajnavalkya (AD 100-300), lays down that a learned Brahmin (shrotriya) should be welcomed with a big ox or goat (I. 109). Perhaps beef-eating in certain sections of society was fairly common, which is why the Smriti of Brihaspati (AD 300-500) tells us that artisans eat cows in Madhyadesha.
The Dharmashastric evidence ties up with what we find in many other ancient Indian texts. The Mahabharata makes a laudatory reference to the king Ranti-deva in whose kitchen 2,000 cows were butchered everyday, their flesh, along with grains, being distributed among the Brahmins (III.208.8-9).
The Ramayana of Valmiki tells us that Sita, while crossing the Yamuna, assures her that she would worship her with 1,000 cows and 100 jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow (2.55. 19-20). The medical works of Charaka (1st-2nd century), Sushruta (3rd-4th century) and Vagbhata unambiguously speak of the therapeutic use of beef.
The practice of killing cows finds mention in several classical Sanskrit texts of great literary merit. In the Gupta period, Kalidasa alludes to the story of Rantideva who killed numerous cows every day in his kitchen. Bhavabhuti (AD 700) refers to two instances of guest reception involving 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 Someshvara shows clear preference for pig flesh over other meat types and does not mention beef at all.
***(To be concluded)
The author is Professor of History, University of Delhi

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