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Holy Cow: Tracing How Beef Consumption Was Prevalent In Hinduism And How It Got Outlawed

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The recent debate and violence around cow protection are unmissable. For some, it’s sacred while others consider it no more than a cheap source of protein. When and why did the cow become holy is important to understand something which is missing from the arguments. The history of ‘holy cow’ dates back to the first civilization in the Indian sub-continent – the Indus Valley Civilization. Was the cow always considered holy? Did we never eat cow meat? To understand this we need to walk through Indian History.

Indus Valley Civilization And Cows

A recent study, which was published in December 2020, by the Journal of Archaeological Science and conducted as a part of the Two Rains project of the University of Cambridge and Banaras Hindu University, analyzed the lipid residue in pottery found at the ancient sites of Indus valley civilization. It confirmed the presence of animal products, including cattle and buffalo meat, in ceramic vessels dating back about 4,600 years at seven Indus Valley Civilisation sites in present-day Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

The Indus Valley Civilisation (ruins pictured above) commonly used to slaughter and consume cattle.

The high proportions of cattle bones may suggest a cultural preference for beef consumption across Indus populations, supplemented by the consumption of mutton/lamb,” it reported. Excavations of other Painted Grey Ware sites (Later Vedic Period) clearly revealed that the Indus Valley people ate cattle flesh. At Hastinapur (Meerut, UP), the bones of buffalo, sheep, goat, pig, and elephant have been found. Most of the cattle bone fragments found were either charred or bear definite cut marks suggesting these animals were cooked and eaten.

At Allahpur (Meerut, UP), charred bones along with horns were found.  In Atranjikhera (Etah, UP) 927 fragments of unidentified bone have been found – of these, more than 65% account for the cow, often with cut marks. In Bhagwanpura (Kurukshetra, Haryana) and Ropar (Rajasthan) too large number of bone fragments of cattle, buffalo, sheep, goat, pig, horse, dog, fowl, tortoise, and ‘chital (spotted deer)’ with cut marks and signs of charring has been discovered.

Of all the osteological remains discovered from Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) so far, cattle bones are the most common and leave no doubt that cattle domestication for dietary and non-dietary purposes was essential to the earliest known civilization of the Indian sub-continent.  It is important to note here that Indus valley people were food gatherers & hunters, and did not master the art of agriculture yet.

Vedas And Cows

The IVC was succeeded by the Aryan invasion as per historians.  The early Vedic people were nomadic people with a pastoral economy (brought from Indo Europeans) in which cattle rearing played an important role and agriculture occupied a secondary place. Agriculture in the early Vedic period had not progressed much as knowledge of heavy plowing tools was still a mystery albeit use of stones, bronze, copper, etc except Iron.

Cattle were the most valued possession and the tribal chief was called ‘Gopa’ or ‘Gopati’.  With the advent of Aryans from the northwestern part of the Indian sub-continent, Vedas were introduced as ‘divine texts’. The ‘Rigveda (earliest Veda)’ frequently refers to the cooking of the flesh of the ox for offering to gods, especially Indra.

At one place Indra states, ‘ they cook for me fifteen plus twenty oxen’. He is also said ‘to have eaten the flesh of bulls of one or of a hundred buffaloes, or 300 buffaloes roasted by Agni or a thousand buffaloes’.The second most revered god Agni is described in ‘Rigveda’ as ‘one whose food is the ox and the barren cow’. Pusan, the guardian of the roads, devoid of teeth ate mush.

Several Vedic texts provide detailed descriptions of sacrifices and frequently refer to ritual cattle slaughter. In most public sacrifices like Ashvamedha, Rajasuya, and Vajapeya; the flesh of various types of animals especially that of cow, ox, bull was required. In the ‘Ashvamedha’ ( horse sacrifice), the most important of the Vedic public sacrifices, more than 600 animals including wild boars and birds were killed and its finale was marked by the sacrifice of the 21 sterile cows.

Gosava (cow sacrifice) was an important part of the Rajasuya and Vajapeya sacrifices. The Taittriya Brahmana unambiguously refers to the sacrificial killing of the cow which is ‘ verily food’ ( atho annam vai gauh) and praises Agastya for his sacrifice of a hundred bulls. The Taittriya Samhita tells us about the mode of cutting up the immolated animal and gives instructions on the distribution of its flesh, clearly indicating that the sacrificial victim was meant for human consumption.

The Satapatha Brahmana declares that ‘meat is the best kind of food’. It also tells us that ‘a sterile spotted cow was offered to Maruts’.  One specific rite has been repeatedly mentioned in the texts of the later Vedic period – Arghya or Madhuparka. Arghya refers to the killing of kine to honour guests and the Rigveda talks about Athithinir‘cows fit for guests’. This was so common that the guest came to be called Goghana – killer of the cow.

There are numerous such yajnas in Vedas which clearly show that cow was neither sacred nor unkillable in the Vedic period except for few places which say that only the Brahmana can consume the meat of sacrificial victim (Dakshina).  In fact, one of the most respected sages of Mithila, Yajnavalkya, said that ‘he would continue to eat the flesh of cows and oxen as long as it was tender’. Thus the killing of cattle and eating of meat was fairly common among the Vedic Indians is abundantly clear from the Vedas themselves. Brahmans were not only beef eaters but were also butchers.


Babasaheb Ambedkar held that brahmans shifted to pure vegetarianism later only to maintain superiority over Buddhists.

Rise Of Buddhism

Around the time of Mahajanpadas (600 BCE), ploughing tools became advanced,  with more knowledge of the use of Iron.  This led to the clearing of forests and consequent dispersal of agriculture and thus the emergence of stable agrarian settlements which created a new social and economic milieu in which cattle, otherwise useful for dairy products now became valuable for various agriculture operations.

This was also the period of rising kingdoms – Haryanka dynasty, Udayin dynasty, Shishunga dynasty, Nanda dynasty. With the practice of agriculture, cattle now became important not only for milk & dairy products but also for agricultural activities. But the Vedic rituals laid emphasis on animal sacrifice, in some cases as many as thousands at once, which was strictly performed by the Brahmanas.

This led to the birth of two new religious philosophies in India – Buddhism & Jainism, both opposed to Vedic rituals and the killing of animals. The Vaishyas found it an opportunity to grow business by supporting Buddhism as no slaughter of cattle meant more agricultural produce thus improving trade and their economic status.  The Kshatriyas also saw this as an opportunity as more agricultural produce would mean more taxes to run their kingdoms.

Kshatriyas reacted also to the supremacy of the Brahmans which got emboldened in the later Vedic period. Buddhism attacked Brahmanism on all sides as no religion had done before.  Buddha’s teaching of non-violence was gaining immense popularity amongst the common people and kings alike and Brahmans had lost all power and prestige at the Royal Court and among the people. Several kings (Ajatshatru, Kalasoka, Asoka, Kanishka) patronized Buddhism and were very influential in its spread.

Buddhism had made so deep an impression on the minds of the masses and had taken such a hold of them that it was impossible for the Brahmans to meet the Buddhist challenge except by reforming their religion and practicing Buddhist creed in its extreme form. The first temples of Shiva, Ram, Krishna, etc which had no place in Brahmanism also came into being only after the followers of Buddha built stupas.

Brahmans now stressed the need for preserving the cattle wealth and assured women and Shudras of admission to heaven – beliefs alien to the Vedas. The only way for the Brahmans to regain their lost esteem was to go one better than the Buddhists; not only give up sacrificial killing but the killing of cattle for all purposes and ultimately moving to vegetarianism.

Baba Saaheb Ambedkar argues in ‘The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Become Untouchables?‘; “If Brahmins had acted from the conviction that animal sacrifice was bad, all that was necessary for them to do was to give up killing animals for sacrifice. It was unnecessary for them to be vegetarians. But the giving up of yajnas and abandonment of the sacrifice of the cow could have had only a limited effect. At the most, it would have put the Brahmans on the same footing as the Buddhists. It could not have given the Brahmans the means of achieving supremacy over the Buddhists which was their ambition. They wanted to oust the Buddhists from the place of honour and respect which they had acquired in the minds of the masses by their opposition to the killing of the cow for sacrificial purposes. The only way to beat the Buddhists was to go a step further and be vegetarian.”

It is noteworthy to mention that Buddhism was against animal sacrifice in general and it had no particular affection for the cow. Several Buddhist texts mention eating meat and Buddha’s last meal was pork meat according as recorded in Mahaparinibbana Sutta.  In a Jataka story, the Boddhisatva himself is said to have eaten beef. The pragmatism of early Buddhism is reflected in Kassapa Buddha’s statement that ‘defilement comes not from eating meat but from sin’ and encapsulated in the doctrine of the Middle Path preached by the Buddha who refused to make vegetarianism compulsory for monks in Buddhist sanghas.

Asoka, the great follower of Buddha, repeatedly appealed to his subjects to treat animals with kindness and care through his edicts. In one of the edicts, Asoka also prohibited the killing of animals for sacrifice but never has he mentioned a ban on eating cattle. On the contrary, Chanakya in Arthashastra accepts meat-eating as quite normal and lays down rules for the management of the slaughterhouses and the maintenance of the purity of meat.

Chanakya does not permit the killing of the calf, bull, or milch cow but this seems to be a minor offence for which he prescribes a nominal fine of 50 panas. In fact, there is nothing in his treatise to show that the cow was sacred and its flesh could not form part of the human diet. He permits the cowherd to sell its flesh or dried flesh after its death.

The religion of the Buddha emphasized the precept of the Middle Path – moderation: neither license nor exaggerated self-mortification, thus ban of meat or cow meat specifically was never a doctrine of Buddhism. Ironically, cow slaughter was made a capital offence (Mahapataka) for the first time by the Gupta kings who were champions of Hinduism which recognized and sanctioned the killing of cow for sacrificial purposes.  This was purely to win the perception battle with Buddhism wherein the Brahmins had to suspend or abrogate a requirement of their Vedic religion to overcome the supremacy of Buddhism.

The idea that cow consumption was started during the Mughal era is a lie brought about by Hindutva forces trying to sow communal divides.

Thus the argument of half-wits, pseudo nationalists, self-styled custodians of Hindutva asserting that eating of beef was first introduced in India by the followers of Islam is as historically flawed as their claim of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Islam came only 1450 years ago while the practice of eating beef in the Indian subcontinent dates back to 4000 BCE. The current war on cow slaughter may be poised to hurt the economic status and trade of the Muslims and Dalits in India, but it was initially a war between the Brahmans and the Buddhists. The only thing common is the oppressor – Brahmans, who want to force their religious beliefs on others only to continue their supremacy.

References –

  1. The Wonder that was India – A L Basham
  2. Ancient India – Ram Sharan Sharma
  3. The Myth of the Holy Cow – D N Jha
  4. Early India: A Concise History – Romila Thapar
  5. The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Become Untouchables? – Baba Saheb Ambedkar
You must be to comment.
  1. Mohnish Shingne

    Good read. The line noted below does not seem to make sense as it equates unrelated cultures.
    Excavations of other Painted Grey Ware sites (Later Vedic Period) clearly revealed that the Indus Valley people ate cattle flesh.

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