Strangely, the followers of the world’s most ancient religion Hinduism are divided into several categories. The dominant amongst them, the ‘vegetarian Hindus’ have turned out to be the self-declared superintendents of the religion. It has always been emphasised by the same superintendents that Hinduism is a ‘non-imposing’ liberal value-system but a unanimous condemnation comes from the same group when the slaughter of the cow comes into discussion.
Recently, the nation witnessed a massive wave of bigotry from some in the masses regarding the slaughter of cows and its consumption. Those behind it claimed that the existence of such activities violates the sentiments of ‘Hindus’. Unfortunately, we have come to an era in which if we decode the meaning of ‘Hindus’ in the 21st century, it is commonly believed that it is a homogenous community and everyone is against the consumption of beef. Of ‘gaumata’, to be precise. The Hindus today, however, refer to the Vedas, Upanishads, Dharmashastras and other Brahmanas while performing religious rituals as recommended and preached by the Brahmins.
However, except for very few people, nobody attempts to understand the full meaning of the sacred texts. The common and disastrous misconception of cow being a ‘mother’ and ancient Indians not consuming beef has not been addressed properly. Even when it is addressed with proper evidence from the Vedas and Shastras, the researchers have been declared as ‘marxists’ or ‘anti-Hindu’. They are labelled as such by some of the self-proclaimed protectors of Hinduism. Ironically, that includes Laxman Joshi Shastri, a well renowned Sanskrit scholar. The works of such scholars were termed ‘anti-Hindu’, as such academic works differ from a certain school of political thought which believes that consumption of beef is only a Muslim phenomenon. Why has their been taboo on the slaughter and consumption of beef in India? Is it due to the ‘holiness’ of the cow or are there economic reasons for it?
‘Yajna’ or sacrifices were significant rituals in the Vedic era. Today, the same sacrifices are restricted to that of birds and goats. But there are references in the scriptures which illustrate that there used to be slaughter of cows in ancient India. Even though many consider it sacred today. One of the trendiest out of all ‘yajnas’ practised, the ‘ashvamedha’, which even appears to be in the Mahabharata, H.H.Wilson points out that several thousands of cows used to be sacrificed during the preparatory period of the ‘yajna’. In a hymn of the Rigveda, it is said that “Indra will eat thy bulls.” In an additional mantra of the Rigveda, Agni is styled as Uksanna and Vasanna, i.e. an ‘eater of bulls and barren cows’. Not only for sacrifices, but the cows were also slaughtered for food as well. This is obvious from one more mantra from the Rigveda. Again, it is suggested in the Rigveda that the cow was cut up with a sword or axe. It is exciting to note in this circumstance that the contemporary Hindu custom of Jhatka, when the head of animal is split by one hit had not yet come into practice. There is enough evidence to believe that people during the Vedic period did consume beef. Even during funerary rites, beef-eating was considered to be indispensable. Fascinatingly, in some Vedic scriptures, the cow is sometimes considered sacred, as indicated by her title ‘aghnya‘ (not to be slain). This occurs sixteen times in the entire Rigveda. But this fact cannot be regarded as evidence that beef-eating was condemned in the Rigvedic period.
One may also question that as ‘yajnas’ were rituals, one can’t say that the consumption of the flesh of cow and other milch animals was a ‘common’ practice among the people in Vedic India. But evidence not only demonstrates that cows were slaughtered for domestic rites but for ordinary purposes that stretched from pregnancy to funeral. As the society was in the process of becoming an agricultural society, several new sacrificial rituals were introduced. The focus was on ‘sulagava’, which means sacrifice of ‘the ox on the spit’, referred to in several Grhyasutras. In this ritual, a spit-ox was killed for the God ‘Rudra’; it’s tail and skin were thrown into fire, and it’s blood was poured out on ‘kusa’ or ‘darbha’ grass for the snakes. The emergence of permanent settlements evolved the idea of ‘vastushastra’, which also recommended the sacrifice of a black-cow or white-goat before establishing a shelter. Even today our television advertisements portray India to be a land which treats its guests as gods.
Mahadev Chakravarti writes that in Smriti literature, Manu, like Vasistlia, sanctions the consumption of the flesh of all domestic animals which have but one row of teeth. Apart from the Vedic texts and scriptures, the archaeological remains and evidence also suggest that consumption of the flesh of cow used to take place. A substantial amount of cow and buffalo bones have been found in many archaeological sites in India. Most of them date back from the 11th to about third century BCE. Almost all the cattle bone fragments are either charred or bear definite cut-marks, which suggest that these animals were slaughtered, cooked and then eaten. Atranjikhera is the archaeological site from where 927 fractured animal bones have been collected, out of which around 67 percent constitute cow bones. Again, some people don’t agree that there was a beef eating culture in ancient India, although agreeing with the point that they were slaughtered. It should be acknowledged that a pastoral society with no idea of farming would not leave the flesh of any slaughtered animal when the primary nutrition of the society came from the meat of animals and birds.
Although several academic works have been carried out by people to justify the ban on cow slaughter and beef consumption in Hinduism, they have not been able to convince the masses as they are manipulative interpretations. However, it creates a small grey area regarding the topic. It is claimed that according to one law book there is a prescription laid down that killing of an ox or any milch cattle just for the sake of having its flesh can lead to penance but truth is also that such a prohibition could’ve been built taking into consideration the economic significance of such animals in a pastoral society. Although in the Rigveda there are references of alternative ways to that of cattle sacrifices, we cannot overlook the very idea of ‘cattle sacrifices’ which appears in many instances.
The recent ban on beef consumption and cow slaughter is more political in nature. However, in earlier times, voices were raised against the popular notion of sacrifice of cows and other milch cattle. They were initially led by Brahmins. It is a very much known fact that cow was an ideally preferred ‘dakshina’ or ‘charity’ for the Brahmin priests. It is also laid down in the Rigveda that the Brahmins had a desire to possess many cows and whoever failed to offer the Brahmins as many cows as they desired had to face dire consequences. In Atharvaveda, a reference can be found where a Brahmin pleads to the king and says, “O king, the Gods did not give that cow to you to eat; O warrior, Do not desire to eat the Brahmin’s cow; she is not to be eaten.” Some historians also take it as a note of warning but also emphasise upon the point that a mere warning of the Brahmin can’t be taken as the true reflection of the early Vedic society as there are hundreds of other texts which also show the Brahmin’s love towards tender cow meat.
Secondly, it must be noted that the term gau which means cow is used several times as a simile or metaphor. It is also believed that eventually these texts turned out to be taken seriously by the masses and the cow was made a sacred animal. Again, the shift in the socio-economic milieu of the Vedic community from a pastoral economy to an agrarian economy might have given the scope to some people to come up with a justification to prohibit cow slaughter and beef consumption. There also exists a Brahmana text which prescribes not to eat meat of any living organism or else the animal would eat the man in his next birth. As threats and warnings are always perceived to be more reactionary, this warning might have prevented the masses from the consumption of beef. Along with this, there was widespread popularity of the Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism which disagreed with the idea of sacrifice and put emphasis on spirituality. Hence, we can conclude that beef consumption and cow slaughter were never prohibited amongst Vedic Hindus. Although in subsequent years, some restrictions were enacted regarding the slaughter of the cow, but the ‘sacredness’ of the animal isn’t emphasised on.